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Herd favored in-C USA and top bowl game

By By Stephen Hawkins
The Associated Press

Marshall coach Doc Holliday likes all that he is hearing about his Thundering Herd in Conference USA.

“People are talking about us the way we want to be talked about,” said Holliday, whose team is the overwhelming C-USA favorite this season. “We have embraced those expectations as players and coaches, but we also understand that along with those expectations come responsibility.”

Especially in the new College Football Playoff. The highest-ranked team from the five mid-major leagues is guaranteed a spot in one of the CFP’s six bowl games with teams from the five power conferences.

“We’ve got a seat at the table if we just take care of business,” Holliday said.

Marshall is led by quarterback Rakeem Cato and defensive lineman James Rouse, the C-USA preseason players of the year.

Cato has 10,176 yards passing in his career, with touchdowns in 32 consecutive games – and he worked this offseason to improve his deep throws. Rouse is one of eight returning starters on a defense that drastically improved last season, when Marshall won 10 games and the C-USA East title but lost at Rice in the league championship game.

“I’m just working hard,” Cato said. “I’m just finding new ways to get myself better and get everybody around me on the same page I’m on.”

Here are 10 other things to watch in Conference USA:

MORE CHANGES: For the third season in a row, Conference USA has a different makeup. There are 13 football teams this season, with the additions of Old Dominion and Western Kentucky after the departures of Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina to the American Athletic Conference. Charlotte will make it 14 teams next season.

SOARING OWLS: Defending C-USA champion Rice has won 15 of its last 19 games since October 2012. It is the Owls’ best stretch since winning 15 of 17 games from November 1952 to October 1954.

GREEN PROTECTION: Four of the five returning offensive starters for North Texas are linemen. The Mean Green are coming off a 9-4 season that included a victory in their first bowl appearance since 2004. On defense, three of the four returning starters are defensive backs.

NEW COACHING TRIO: The league’s three new coaches are all in the East Division. Jeff Brohm replaced Bobby Petrino after his only season at league newcomer WKU; Bill Clark took over at UAB; and Charlie Partridge is new at Florida Atlantic, which won its final four games last season to finish 6-6.

SECOND TIME AROUND: Four C-USA coaches head into their second year after rough starts. Louisiana Tech was 4-8 in the debut of Skip Holtz, with the three league wins coming against the other teams with first-year coaches — UTEP (Sean Kugler), FIU (Ron Turner) and Southern Miss (Todd Monken). Former NFL assistant Kugler was 2-10 in his return to his alma mater 25 years after his playing days in El Paso. FIU’s only win was over Southern Miss, which in its 2013 finale snapped a 23-game losing skid.

ROLLING ROADRUNNERS: UTSA carries a league-best five-game winning streak into this season, when coach Larry Coker’s team has nine returning starters on offense and 10 on defense. Since going 4-6 in the program debut in 2011, the Roadrunners have had consecutive winning seasons (8-4 and 7-5).

BIG-PLAY AVERAGE: UAB senior receiver Jamarcus Nelson has averaged 20 yards per reception, gaining 1,618 yards on 81 catches the past three seasons. Nelson had four 100-yard receiving games last year, when he also scored touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns.

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?: Rick Stockstill is the league’s longest-tenured coach going into his ninth season at Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders, who won their final five regular-season games last season before a bowl loss, are in their 100th season of football.

HAPPY 19th: Going into C-USA’s 19th football season, Southern Miss is the only team remaining from the original six-team lineup in 1996. That was a year after the all-sports league was formed with 11 schools. UAB was also an original conference member, but didn’t start playing C-USA football until 1999. Marshall, Rice and UTEP, all members since 2005, are the only other teams that joined before 2013.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: The C-USA season kicks off with games Friday, Aug. 29. UTSA plays at former C-USA team Houston, and WKU hosts Bowling Green.

Predicted order of finish:

EAST: 1. Marshall; 2. Middle Tennessee; 3. Florida Atlantic; 4. WKU; 5. UAB; 6. Old Dominion; 7. FIU.

WEST: 1. North Texas; 2. Rice; 3. UTSA; 4. Louisiana Tech; 5. Southern Miss; 6. UTEP.

Title game winner: Marshall


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