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Can anyone stop QB Brandon Doughty and the Western Kentucky offense?
As soon as Doughty was granted a sixth year of eligibility, he became the Conference USA cover boy for 2015. And why not? All he did last year was toss a nation’s-high 49 touchdown passes, while leading the Hilltoppers to an 8-5 mark in their debut in the league. Plus, Doughty will be joined On the Hill next year by 1,542-yard rusher Leon Allen, three of his top four wide receivers and four starting offensive linemen.
How far will Marshall fall now that QB Rakeem Cato has exhausted his eligibility?
You don’t get better by losing a player of Cato’s caliber. Or record-breaking WR Tommy Shuler. Or the handful of seniors who helped the D exceed expectations. But Doc Holliday and his assistants continue to recruit well, which should keep the Herd from slipping into oblivion. It’ll also help having pile-driving RB Devon Johnson as the offensive focal point. The closely watched race to replace Cato could come down to junior Gunnar Holcombe and James Madison transfer Michael Birdsong.
Is Rice the team to beat in the West Division?
Not quite - Louisiana Tech should be nasty - but it'll be in the race. Yeah, the Owls have holes to address, just like everyone else. But David Bailiff has strung together three straight winning seasons at Rice, and the backfield of QB Driphus Jackson and runners Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard will rank among the best in the conference. David and Dillard combined for 1,608 yards and 17 touchdowns in the run-heavy attack, and Jackson evolved into a dangerous dual-threat after just one year on the job.
Can Louisiana Tech flourish with a transfer quarterback for a second straight year?
Skip Holtz caught lightning in a bottle in 2014 with the signing of Iowa transfer Cody Sokol. The coach is going back to the well again, providing a home for underachieving Florida QB Jeff Driskel to try and resurrect a once-promising career. Maybe a change of scenery will help the former five-star recruit, who was derailed in Gainesville by poor execution and injuries. It’ll help the newcomer to be surrounded by most of last season’s skill position contributors, especially RB Kenneth Dixon.
Is Middle Tennessee poised to surprise everyone in the East Division?
Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill is nothing if not steady, winning at least five games in all but one of his nine seasons in Murfreesboro. But after going 6-6, and just missing out on a postseason bid, Middle Tennessee will be reaching much higher in 2015. Many of last season’s top performers, like QB Austin Grammer, LB T.T. Barber and S Kevin Byard, return to provide a foundation for a squad itching to be this year’s surprise in Conference USA.
Will North Texas return to form by again competing for bowl eligibility?
It was an unusually rough season for the Mean Green, which followed up a nine-win campaign in 2013 by going 4-8. The team should be improved, but how much depends on the quarterback situation and the ability to retool the O-line on the fly. North Texas employed three different hurlers last fall, and will add to the mix redshirt freshman Connor Means, grayshirt Caleb Chumley and DaMarcus Smith, one of a number of JUCO transfers bucking for immediate playing time.
Who has the unenviable task of replacing QB Taylor Heinicke at Old Dominion?
Heinicke was Monarchs football for the past few seasons, helping usher in a new era of FBS football in Norfolk. But he’s now at the mercy of NFL scouts, leaving head coach Bobby Wilder to audition successors in the spring. David Washington has the edge in experience. But second-year freshman Shuler Bentley, a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year from South Carolina, has the most upside among the competitors.
Can UTEP build on last year’s success, avoiding its usual slump back below the .500 mark?
It was an important season in El Paso, with the Miners qualifying for their first bowl game in four years. But now it’s incumbent upon the program to keep the momentum going with another winning campaign. RB Aaron Jones will be the face of UTEP, and one of the league’s emerging stars, but he’ll need help from whichever quarterback wins the wide-open battle to replace Jameill Showers.
Is there any hope for the UTSA offense?
There better be, because the Roadrunners can’t function the way they did in 2014, scoring fewer than 21 points eight times. Last year began with so much promise in San Antonio, beating Houston and nearly do the same to Pac-12 South champ Arizona. But then the feeble offense stunted all of the progress that Larry Coker had been making at UTSA. All eyes will be on young quarterbacks Austin Robinson and Blake Bogenschutz.
Will Charlotte be competitive in its first season of FBS football?
Just two seasons after starting football, the 49ers are already making the leap to an FBS conference. The transition doesn’t figure to be pretty for Brad Lambert and his coaching staff. Charlotte is busily building depth and confidence, but finished below .500 against an FCS slate a year ago. Hope can be found in a young roster that includes the returns of two 1,000-yard playmakers, RB Kalif Phillips and WR Austin Duke.
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