After starting last year 1-3, the Owls went on an absolute tear, winning their final ten games by an average score of 46-21, including a 41-17 win over North Texas in the conference title game. The star of the offense returns in FAU all-time leading rusher Devin Singletary, who achieved that honor in just two short years. Singletary racked up an extraordinary 1,920 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground last year. The Owls also add former Alabama RB BJ Emmons who will let Singletary get some rest. The problem comes in the passing game, where the top returning guy in pass attempts is… Devin Singletary, who threw just one pass last season. JuCo star and former Florida State recruit De’Andre Johnson is likely to be the starting QB after missing most of last year with an injury, although dual-threat sensation Chris Robinson, an Oklahoma transfer, certainly has a shot too. The Owls also get back their top pass catcher from last year in Willie Wright, who had 657 yards as a freshman (plus 139 on the ground) and add West Virginia transfer Javon Durante who had 709 yards in two years with the Mountaineers, as well as another JuCo transfer in Nero Nelson.
The defense returns 10 starters, one of the highest marks in the country, from a team that was already 3rd in the conference in opponent ppg. This is one of the most experienced defenses in college football, with six starters expected to be seniors. I expect Florida Atlantic to take a big step forward this season on both sides of the ball. The Owls will get two chances early on in the season to make national waves as they face two ranked teams in the nonconference (@ Oklahoma 9/1 & @ UCF 9/22). As for conference play, the Owls should be in no trouble of losing this race and may be the biggest conference champion favorite in the country.
Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3 (7-1 C-USA)
Doc Holliday is back for year number nine at Marshall after amassing a 61-42 record in his first eight years (including 5-0 in bowls). He will face a big challenge this year, needing to replace both coordinators. Former Nevada and Sam Houston State OC Tim Cramsey gets the promotion to take over play-calling duties for the Thundering Herd, and Holliday promoted from within on the defensive side, deciding on LB coach Adam Fuller. Holliday will also have to replace QB Chase Litton, who is off to the NFL after passing for 3,115 yards last year. The projected starter for the 2018 season is Wagner quarterback Alex Thompson who threw for 2,436 yards in 2016, albeit at the FCS level in what is one of the more interesting grad transfer moves of the season.
It is not an exaggeration to say this defense has top-ten potential as they return nine starters from a unit that ranked 17th nationally in opponent ppg last year (19.9). It was a smart decision to promote from within so the Herd did not have to deal with a scheme change when they are dripping with talent on this side of the ball, and should contend to be one of the top defenses in the conference. With both Florida Atlantic and NC State coming to town, I would expect this defense and the home crowd to pull at least one major upset this year. The Thundering Herd also draw two very winnable games in the non-con with Miami (OH) and Eastern Kentucky, and a bowl game should be the expectation.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-3 C-USA)
The main name I think of when I think of the modern day Blue Raiders is quarterback Brent Stockstill, who has thrown for nearly 9,000 yards as well as 77 touchdowns in his career, but you also think about how it could have been so much more, as Stockstill has only started 17 of a possible 26 games after throwing for over 4,000 yards in his freshman year. If he can stay healthy, look out for him to break some more records in his senior season. The team also dealt with a lot of injuries in the running game, Terelle West missed the first half of the year and finished with just 308 yards, and Brad Anderson missed the last four of the year, ending with 491, leading converted linebacker Tavares Thomas to lead the team with 507 yards and nine touchdowns. With everybody healthy and back, this offense should improve in 2018.
The defense looks to improve as well as the Blue Raiders return most of their starters from a team that allowed just 24.7 ppg last year, making this another contender for one of the top defenses in the conference. The 4-3 speed based defense that Scott Shafer ran last year led to MTSU leading the conference in tackles for loss, and this defense will be attacking minded yet again. Middle Tennessee has three road games against SEC foes this year: Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Kentucky, but the Blue Raiders won @ Syracuse in 2017 and @ Missouri in 2016, so mark me down early as calling an upset in one of those three games. However, with Florida Atlantic in their division and Marshall on the road, a division title this year may be a stretch.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-3 C-USA)
After the Hilltoppers went a combined 23-5 in 2015 and 2016, Purdue poached Jeff Brohm and Western Kentucky brought in Notre Dame coordinator Mike Sanford Jr to try and replace Brohm. Sanford’s first season didn’t go as expected though, and the once class of the C-USA went just 6-7. To make matters worse, Mike White (8,540 yards and 63 touchdowns combined the last two years) is off to the NFL, and in his absence comes Drew Eckles, a senior that threw for a combined 204 yards and two touchdowns the past two years. The strong-armed QB will be throwing to a receiving group that loses three of their top four, but talented junior Lucky Jackson returns after 600 yards and three touchdowns in 2017 and the group does return good depth. Running the ball will be a struggle, as the Hilltoppers lose their top guy from a unit that already was the worst in the nation at 60.8 ypg. D’Andre Ferby (373 yards, three touchdowns last year) is the top returner, but Sanford should look into giving highly touted freshman Josh Samuel some meaningful time. The offense returns just three starters and will heavily rely on underclassmen so I expect some regression.
The defense brings back four out of five from an experienced secondary with S Devon Key (94 tackles as a freshman), S Drell Greene (74 tackles, two interceptions), CB DeAndrew Farris (14 pass breakups), and NB Ta’Corian Darden (71 tackles) all back, this should be one of the best defensive back units in the conference. Julien Lewis is back at DT, and the Hilltoppers get back Evan Syner and Carson Jordan on either side of him after both missed time with an injury last year. The other end spot looks likely to go to sophomore DeAngelo Malone. As for the linebacking core, Masai Whyte is back after starting last year, and next to him will be Ben Holt, who racked up a combined 73 tackles as a backup in 2016 and 17. The defense looks a little stronger, but the schedule looks tough, with three road games in the non-conference, this team will need to run the table at home in conference and win @ Charlotte to make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (4-4 C-USA)
In their five years at the FBS level, Old Dominion has gone an impressive 34-27 under the leadership of head coach Bobby Wilder. Last year’s 5-7 mark wasn’t what everyone was expecting after the Monarchs went 10-3 in 2016, but this has overall been one of the more successful transition programs in the nation. QB Steven Williams was thrown into the fire halfway through last season even though he wasn’t old enough to vote in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, and as you may expect, he struggled, throwing for 1,528 yards, six touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in seven starts. Injuries stifled the running back room last year as expected starter Jeremy Cox went down for the year after rushing for 621 yards and four touchdowns in eight full games. He is back from his injury, as is his backup, Kesean Strong. The receiver group suffered much of the same problems as the Monarchs lost their top tight end and #2 receiver to injury. That receiver, Jonathan Duhart, is back after racking up 736 yards in 2016 with a great 14.6 ypc average. Isaiah Harper is the top returner from last season (462 yards). With added experience and (hopefully) fewer injuries, this offense should improve from a woeful 20.7 ppg last year.
This defense should improve too as they return a lot, including star end Oshane Ximines (NFL potential) who had 8.5 sacks and 44 tackles last year. Another 1st team All-CUSA player returns on the D-Line in DT Miles Fox (57 tackles, 5.5 sacks). The D-Back group, much like the offense, suffered lots of injuries last season and they get back FS Justice Davlia from an injury and CB Joe Joe Headen, who made the freshman All-CUSA team last year, adds a year of experience. This group should improve after being right around the FBS average in opponent passing ypg last year (223.5). Most of the starters on this defense are seniors, and with that leadership, I have the Monarchs making their second ever bowl game.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (3-5 C-USA)
Butch Davis was one of the best first-year coaches in the country last year, scoring the Panthers top recruiting class since…. ever, and bringing them to their most wins since 2011, matching their 8-5 mark from that year. The problem is… he loses a ton. This is going to be one of the least experienced teams in the country, but if anybody can make something out of it, it is Butch Davis. Bowling Green grad transfer James Morgan is likely to start at quarterback and he will throw to a group that returns zero players that had over 315 yards receiving last year. The top returner is Tony Gaiter (314 yards, one touchdown(. They lose their other two starters at receiver and their top tight end, and will transition last year’s backup QB, Maurice Alexander to a WR to try and plug the leak. I’d expect the offense to take a pretty big step back in 2017.
On the defensive side, the Panthers lose all four starters from a defensive back group that was already not great (13th/14 in C-USA). Speedy junior Isaiah Brown will start after racking up just six tackles last year and I have no idea who is starting along side him. At safety they will probably need to start a freshman, either Dorian Hall or Jamal Anderson, along side Rutgers grad transfer Kiy Hester. This unit will definitely regress some, but on the bright side, the defensive line should be dirty. They return two senior DTs in Anthony Johnson (seven sacks) and Milord Juste (4.5 TFL) and add two four-star transfers that are expected to play in Tayland Humphrey and Teair Tart. This unit may improve in the run game and regress a bit in the passing game, but should still be the better half of the team. The Panthers get the top three teams in the division at home meaning most of their winnable games are on the road, and I do not expect a bowl game in year two for Butch.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-5 C-USA)
Given Charlotte’s location in what is quickly becoming a recruiting hotbed, the 49ers have been a team that I’ve been watching very closely since they made the transition to the FBS a few years ago, but head coach Brad Lambert (7-29) just hasn’t been able to put the pieces together and finds himself squarely on the hot seat heading into his fourth year at the FBS level. Lambert has brought in former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer to try and right the ship in what could be his final year. On the offensive side of the ball, Charlotte returns a lot of key pieces including last year’s starting QB, Hasaan Klugh (1,524 yards passing, ten touchdowns, 13 interceptions). Obviously Klugh wasn’t lighting the world on fire with those numbers, but he was dealing with an ankle injury down the stretch and the added year of experience should help. They get their top three rushers back as well in Benny LeMay (732 yards and two touchdowns), Aaron McAllister (458 yards and two touchdowns), as well as Klugh, who added 532 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. With eight starters back and a healthy QB, I see this offense taking a mild step forward this year.
Ten starters are back for new DC Glenn Spencer to play with from what was undoubtedly the better half of last year’s team. The unit to watch for me would be the linebacking core, which returns three upperclassmen starters in Juwan Foggie (74 tackles, 5.5 TFL), Anthony Butler (72 tackles, 4.5 TFL), and Jeff Gemmell (106 tackles, 6.5 TFL). Overall this defense should take a huge step forward. The 49ers have a good chunk of winnable games on their schedule and I expect heavy improvement on their 1-11 record last year, although a bowl would be a stretch.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-6 C-USA)