Before every college football season, there are projections, prognostications and opinions, and inevitably, most are wrong. Whether those inaccuracies come because of bias, injury or something that’s just downright weird, the reason college football is so endearing is the fundamental and romantic concept that anything can happen on a Saturday in the fall — even for our team.
With that in mind, we turn to the computer — the soulless, loveless computer — to guide us into the 2014 college football season. Through a series of algorithms, a pile of analysis and plenty of voodoo, the fine folks at PredictionMachine.com have predicted the future, and for Conference USA, it looks like this:
(Prediction Machine's rounded projected record in parentheses)
Marshall Thundering Herd (9-3)
Human Prediction: I'm not as high on Marshall as others, but I'm not seeing three losses on their much-ballyhooed schedule. Marshall isn't an undeniable juggernaut, ransacking through Conference USA and an easy non-con slate — there's no sign that they're any better than last season's 10-4 campaign — but who is going to beat them? Ohio can't score enough points to keep up with quarterback Rakeem Cato, and neither can Akron. FAU, Rice and Western Kentucky can test them, but the Herd should be favored in every game they play this year, and I don't see anything more than one regular season or conference championship game slip-up on the horizon.
UTSA Roadrunners (8-4)
Human Prediction: Man, there are a lot of recently-promoted FCS teams in the FBS now. And few have acclimated themselves to the next level as quickly as the Roadrunners. Larry Coker has done a phenomenal job, but I'm not seeing year four as another year of progression. Yes, the Roadrunners return a staggering 10 starters on both the offensive and defensive end, but the loss of Eric Soza hurts an offense that was pedestrian, at best, with him last season. The Roadrunners will likely start 0-3 (Houston, Arizona, Oklahoma State), but there's no likely win on the schedule until Oct. 11 (FIU). Can this team bounce back from a slow start for the second-straight season? I'm not betting on it.
Rice Owls (6-6)
Human Prediction: Rice is the homeless man's Stanford. They play disciplined, well-organized football and get the utmost out of the talent that they have in house. They also play everyone — good, bad — close (it's bordering in creepy.) David Bailiff is one of the nation's most underappreciated coaches, and while the loss of the top two tacklers, top running back and starting quarterback is reason for concern, I can't bet against the Owls in the West.
North Texas Mean Green (6-6)
Human Prediction: Last season was supposed to be the breakthrough campaign for Dan McCarney's sleeping giant. A 9-4 record is nothing to scoff at, but it was a disappointment for the Mean Green. In 2014, I see 9-4 as an accomplishment. Quarterback Derek Thompson and playmaking receiver Brelan Chancellor are gone, as well as do-it-all linebacker Zach Orr. There's still talent in Denton, and an advantageous schedule will ensure bowl eligibility, but don't expect that long-awaited breakthrough in 2014.
Human Prediction: The Hilltoppers will have no problems transitioning to Conference USA, as they're back with the majority of their old #FunBelt friends. The loss of running back Antonio Andrews and linebackers Andrew Jackson and Xavius Boyd is a lot to overcome. Another eight-win season might not be in the cards in 2014, but six wins should be attainable, even with the attrition.
Human Prediction: The Raiders will always be in the thick of things as long as Rick Stockstill is in Murfreesboro. Without Logan Kilgore at quarterback, running back Jordan Parker will be asked to be the impact player on offense. Luckily, the Raiders return the strength of their defense, linebacker TT Barber. Expect the Raiders to keep every game they play in 2014 close, but seven wins should be considered the top outcome.
Florida Atlantic Owls (5-7)
Human Prediction: FAU's bizarre season was salvaged with an all-too-predictable four-game season-ending winning streak where the Owls took out the frustration of dealing with Carl Pelini's fiasco on Tulane and bottom-dwelling Southern Miss, New Mexico State and FIU. Charlie Partridge is an elite recruiter, but there are questions about his staff and if they can push FAU to the top of the C-USA. The offense should put up points if the offensive line can find cohesion early, but there is attrition, and a complete staff change, on defense. If the defense doesn't match its 2013 level, a tough schedule could eat the Owls' chances of bowling for the first time since 2008. Five wins could well be on the horizon.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (4-8)
Human Prediction: Last year, the Bulldogs had only seven returning starters — they'll have that many on both offense and defense this season, but that doesn't mean that a turnaround from the four-win 2013 campaign is in the works. The Bulldogs offense looks inept and the defense, while talented, hasn't been able to translate that talent to the field yet. Will Manny Diaz be able to change that? The Bulldogs are the best longshot bet to win West, but it's more likely they'll make some progress and teeter on bowl eligibility in 2014.
Human Prediction: Who would have thought a three-win season would be considered progress? The Eagles should have had a better 2013 season, coming off an 0-12 year — but an atrocious run defense (225 yards against per game) made it easy for the losing streak to reach 23 games before a win over UAB. There is talent in Hattiesburg, and they should win a couple of games in 2014, but unless there's a dramatic run-defense turnaround, there's no chance the Eagles make a bowl.
Old Dominion Monarchs (3-9)
Human Prediction: An 8-4 season in a transitional FBS year can be misinterpreted. The Monarchs only beat one FBS team — Idaho — and played only one quality squad close (Pitt). ODU has the resources and the desire to compete in FBS, and I don't doubt they will in a few years, but quarterback Taylor Heinicke doesn't have the weapons around him to win shootouts, and the defense isn't at an FBS level. Three wins is a spot-on prediction.
UTEP Miners (3-9)
Human Prediction: The offense should improve, with Jameill Showers and top rushers Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffery returning, and the defense doesn't lose too much, but the Miners are no deeper than they were last season and they have a no-favors schedule. They might get out of the cellar, but don't expect any notion of postseason play to be entertained in 2014.
UAB Blazers (3-9)
Human Prediction: Bill Clark is a marvelous coach, but he faces a tall task in cleaning up the toxic situation left by Garrick McGee. The Blazers won't be blown out like in years past, and there's some optimism that the inherited talent that was squandered by McGee will be utilized by the new head man (15 returning starters), but anything more than four wins would be an amazing accomplishment.
FIU Panthers (2-10)
Human Prediction: What a mess. The Panthers will likely start a true freshman quarterback this season, which won't bode well for an offense that averaged fewer than 10 points per game last season. The defense returns seven starters, but there are significant questions for every unit. The Panthers might not get blown out by Bethune-Cookman again this season, but there's not a game on the schedule — including Wagner — that can be penciled in as a win. It'd be shocking if Ron Turner keeps his job.