Which team will win Conference USA in 2015?

On Wednesday and Thursday we started our discussion on Conference USA and it concludes today. TSS Associate Editors Bart Doan and Terry Johnson join staff writer Kevin Causey and special rotating guests in our weekly roundtable discussing all things college football.

On Wednesday we talked about players to watch Conference USA and on Thursday we discussed surprises in the CUSA. Today we look at the big picture in Conference USA as we are joined by Joe Suhoski.

Question: Who do you expect to be the Conference USA champ?

Joe Suhoski

On Twitter @VaBeachRep

Western Kentucky will be able to average 50 points per game next season, if they are not slowed by injuries.  As the saying goes “defense wins championships,” and the Hilltoppers surrendered almost 40 points per game last season.  However, the defense returns their top four-leading tacklers from last season, as well as the two players who led the team in sacks (Gain Rocker and Bryan Shorter, each with 5.5 sacks apiece).

If a more-experienced defense improves to allow even just one touchdown fewer per game next years, that will be more than an enough for an offense that returns a tremendous amount of talent from last year.  Sixth-year quarterback Brandon Doughty led all of FBS in total passing yards (4,830) and passing touchdowns (49) last season.  Joining Doughty is last year’s leading rusher, Leon Allen (1,542 rushing yards, 16 total touchdowns) and four of the team’s five top receivers from last year.  Two of their toughest conference games (Louisiana Tech, Marshall) are at home this year, while their most difficult road game will be early season at Rice.  If they can beat Rice and win at least one against La Tech or Marshall, I expect WKU to end up as Conference USA champs.

Bart Doan:

On Twitter @TheCoachBart

In so much as being in the spectrum of things you don’t really know a whole hell of a lot about at this point in time, this conference is one of the more cut and dry previews to make because of Western Kentucky. The schedule sets up nicely for them, with both of the other assumed strongest teams (Louisiana Tech and Marshall) coming to their joint.

Then you’ve got the whole deal with Brandon Doughty getting a sixth year this off season, which had to cause fellow C-USA coaches a trip to the whiskey aisle when they found out that news. I mean, the guy threw 49 touchdown passes last season and still gets his favorite receiver (Jared Dangerfield) and running back that totaled over 2,000 yards last season (Leon Allen) back alongside him.

They also have three starters on the line back, one with the best name in college football … Forrest Lamp … to protect Doughty. From a C-USA perspective, there’s no doubt they’re the favorite. The real question is whether or not they can get that putrid 2014 defense that finished 121 in scoring defense up to snuff enough to make some legit noise against some of the Power 5 teams the play.

WKU has a shot at some really special things, the C-USA crown being just a part of that. I’m not saying you read it here first, because you probably didn’t, but this is a team that could make some splashings nationally with the talent they have if they can just get a stop or two along the way. Jontavious Morris … a 300 pound tackle transfer from UAB who will play immediately … could be a big key in getting some of those stops. Onward and upward for WKU.

Terry Johnson:

On Twitter @SectionTPJ

Western Kentucky will win the C-USA Championship this fall.

Let’s be honest: the Hilltoppers were the best team in the league at the end of last year. WKU finished the 2014 campaign on a 5-game winning streak, highlighted by a victory over eventual league champion Marshall in the regular season finale.

There’s no reason to think that the momentum from last year won’t carry over into this season. After all, the Hilltoppers return eight starters on offense – including C-USA MVP Brandon Doughty – from an explosive unit that finished in the top 10 nationally in passing yards (2nd), total yards (4th), and points per game (6th). And while the defense struggled at times a year ago, it also returns eight starters from a group that improved over the course of the season, allowing 435.2 yards per game in the final five regular season contests.

Kevin Causey:

On Twitter @CFBZ

Western Kentucky is obviously the pick du jour here in Conference USA. Experience is on their side but what isn’t on their side is a winning tradition. They have a 43-53-1 all-time record against current CUSA opponents and have never made a trip to the CUSA Championship Game. This could be their breakout season but I’m going to side with a team that’s been there before even if they aren’t the sexy pick this season.

The Rice Owls.

The case against Rice is that they only have 10 returning starters. When you don’t have returning starters, you want to have consistency at the head coaching position and Rice has that with David Bailiff. They also have the experience of winning the CUSA Championship in 2013.

They return QB Driphus Jackson and three running backs that all ran for over 500 yards in 2014. The offense will be just fine. The defense has been solid over the last three years so despite losses, I expect they will carry their weight and improve throughout the season.

Another reason to like Rice? The schedule. They get Louisiana Tech and WKU at home and they don’t play Marshall (or Middle Tennessee). Here’s their last four games of the year: at UTEP, vs Southern Miss, at UTSA, vs Charlotte. Not exactly a murderers row. With the best competition in their division throwing out Jeff Driskel as their starting QB, I think it’s fair to say Rice will be the team to beat in the CUSA West and even though they would probably be the underdog in the Championship Game, I expect them to hoist the trophy at the end of the season.