The MTSU Blue Raiders hopes to compete for a Conference USA Eastern Division title this season. However, they will have to go through Marshall in order to win it. Also, longtime rival Western Kentucky and fellow newcomer Old Dominion join the fold in 2014.
Here is a look at the Eastern Division, in order of the C-USA preseason poll, which came out a few weeks ago.
The Thundering Herd return two of the top players in the league in senior quarterback Rakeem Cato and senior defensive lineman James Rouse. Both players were named Preseason C-USA Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively. Also, Marshall has a favorable non-conference schedule with games against Miami (OH), Rhode Island, Ohio and Akron.
“(Rakeem) Cato is the most competitive player I have ever coached, and I am glad he is on our side,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said.
Marshall hosts MTSU on Oct. 11
It was a tough 2013 season in which the Owls’ head coach, Carl Pelini, left during the middle of the season after allegations of illegal drug use. In steps former Arkansas assistant Charlie Partridge to the head coaching job. Also, the Owls ended the season on a four-game winning streak, but they open 2014 at Nebraska and at Alabama.
“It is a great opportunity to play on a national stage,” Partridge said. “I am excited for these guys. We are focused on getting better each day.”
Senior defensive back D’Joun Smith was named preseason C-USA first team defense. The Blue Raiders host the Owls on Nov. 22
4. WESTERN KENTUCKY
Hated regional rival joins C-USA this season after finishing 2013 at 8-4, but like the Blue Raiders the year before, the Hilltoppers were left out of a bowl while a member of the Sun Belt Conference. The returning players have used getting left out of the bowls as motivation during the offseason.
“It is a feeling I do not wish on any college football player,” WKU junior guard Cam Clemmons said. “It motivates you throughout the offseason.”
New head coach Jeff Brohm is excited about the new challenges its new home presents.
“We are excited about it,” he said. “It is going to be a great challenge for us. We are going to try to earn the respect. It is a great league with great coaches, and we are fired up.”
WKU is on third head coach in three seasons, and it will also have to replace All-American running back Antonio Andrews, who led the nation in all-purpose yards in 2013. The two rivals meet on Sept. 13 at Floyd Stadium.
5. OLD DOMINION
The other newcomer to C-USA this season is the Monarchs. In the program’s short history, ODU has an overall record of 46-14. Last season, ODU went 8-4, but only went 1-4 against fellow FBS teams. However, it returns the top player in the FCS two years ago in senior quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who passed for 4,022 yards and 33 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. The Blue Raiders head to Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 27.
The Blazers welcome new head coach Bill Clark in 2014 after finishing last season 2-10. He was 11-4 at Jacksonville State last season, which included a trip to the FCS playoffs. The team is led by preseason All-C-USA first team senior wide receiver Jamarcus Nelson. MTSU welcomes UAB on Oct. 18.
The Panthers were one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, and the 1-11 record showed. FIU hopes for improvement in all three parts of the team under second-year head coach Ron Turner. The Panthers host the Blue Raiders on Nov. 15.