Which teams will surprise in Conference USA in 2015?

Yesterday, we started our discussion on Conference USA and that discussion will continue today and tomorrow. TSS Associate Editors Bart Doan and Terry Johnson join special rotating guests in our weekly roundtable discussing all things college football.

On Wednesday we talked about players to watch in Conference USA. Today we dig deeper into C-USA as we are joined by Derek Redd of the Charleston Daily Mail and Joe Suhoski.

Question: Which team will be the biggest surprise in Conference USA?

Joe Suhoski

On Twitter @VaBeachRep

I’m always looking for a positive surprise. If there’s one Conference USA team that will do better than fans of other schools expect, it is Florida International University. The Panthers finished 4-8 last season, but a closer look is worthwhile. They opened the season with a 14-12 loss at home to Bethune Cookman of the MEAC, though they had a chance at a game-winning field goal at the end. They lost three other games by three points each (UTSA, ODU and North Texas). For 2015, they return their three leading rushers (Anthon Samuel, Alex Gardner and Napolean Maxwell) as well as Alex McGough, who as a true freshman started eleven of twelve games last year. If any team is looking to gain from tough times last season, it is FIU.

Derek Redd

On Twitter: @derekredd

Florida Atlantic — The Owls were an unpleasant surprise in 2014, finishing at 3-9 after navigating a tumultuous 2013 where it battled back to finish 6-6. Yet, of those nine losses, four of them came by three or fewer points. FAU has a shot at turning that around in 2015. Nine starters return on offense, including quarterback Jaquez Johnson. FAU has to replace receiver Lucky Whitehead, but running back Jay Warren should be healthy after dealing with concussion issues during last season. And while the defense lost some key players, coach Charlie Partridge had one of the better recruiting hauls in Conference USA, which should help with that.

Bart Doan:

On Twitter @TheCoachBart

I’m going to go ahead and say the biggest surprise is how much of a national talking point Western Kentucky becomes. I think most people expect the Hilltoppers and their odd, bastardized version of Grimace-like mascot to be in and around the C-USA championship, but I think they could slip into the top 20, maybe hang a surprising skin on the wall if they play just some semblance of defense.

Brandon Doughty getting that medical hardship sixth year is a big deal, and with a schedule that includes weaker Power 5 teams like Vanderbilt and Indiana early on the schedule, they could hand out beat downs and folks will start murmuring. The big one is a mid-season game against what’s expected to be an aerial challenged LSU team that still should be hovering around the top 10 for most of the season unless things get drugged up for them.

I think WKU has a shot there, and with that, a major, national profile win that makes you take notice of a program now … and in the future when other conferences come calling. Weird Grimace should make some noise this season.

Terry Johnson:

On Twitter @SectionTPJ

Charlotte will be the biggest surprise in Conference USA this year.

Let’s be honest: almost every expert will pick the 49ers to finish dead last in the league this fall. After all, Charlotte went 5-6 against an FCS schedule in 2014. With an even tougher slate in front of it this season, it’s only natural to expect the Niners to finish with another losing record.

With that said, don’t count out Charlotte just yet. There’s plenty of star power on defense, including NT Larry Ogunjobi (11.5 TFL, 5 sacks), S Branden Dozier (69 tackles, 11 PBU), and CB Tank Norman (7 PBU). On offense, the 49ers welcome back a veteran o-line (90 career starts) as well as Kalif Phillips (1,436 yards rushing, 20 TD’s) and Austin Duke (79 catches, 1,373 yards, 9 Tds), giving the unit just enough firepower to keep up with the high-octane attacks it will face this fall.

Expect to see Charlotte open the season 2-0 with victories over Georgia State and Presbyterian. These early “W’s” should give the team plenty of confidence going into C-USA play, allowing it to capture a conference win or two before the midpoint of the season.

While that’s not the same as winning a championship, it’s much better than what a lot of programs do in their first full season as an FBS member.