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CUSA Roundtable: Predictions for the 2016 season

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Conference USA's brightest minds come together and share their thoughts and predictions on the upcoming season.

Who will hoist the Conference USA Championship this year?
Who will hoist the Conference USA Championship this year?
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Which team do you see surprising Conference USA and the rest of the country?

Cyrus Smith: Western Kentucky. With Brandon Doughty graduating many see the Hilltoppers taking a step back. Not I. Jeff Brohm is still there and as long as he's in Bowling Green the offense will still put up gaudy numbers. Leon Allen, D'Andre Ferby, and Anthony Wales are all capable of ending up on All-CUSA First Team at the end of the season.

Whoever wins the quarterback competition (Mike White or Tyler Ferguson) will have the skill talent around them to be successful. Throw in a couple of Louisville transfers on defense (Keith Brown and Nick Dawson-Brents) and WKU could possibly outdo last year's most underrated unit in CUSA. The schedule sets up nicely for WKU as only Alabama is a likely loss. If WKU goes 11-1 the Tops could be playing for a chance to go back-to-back in CUSA and a New Year's Six Bowl.

Alex Nicholas: Middle Tennessee. I can see them going into Vandy, and knocking them off, and I can also see them giving Missouri a hard time in SEC land. Getting Tony Franklin back seemed to energize the Blue Raiders, and an already explosive offense should be as good as advertised.

Jared Kalmus: Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are sneaky talented with the best QB - WR connection in Conference USA (Brent Stockstill to Richie James). Head coach Rick Stockstill pulled off a coup in negotiating rising star offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's return to Murfreesboro from Cal. Franklin took Jared Goff to a new level at Cal and I expect him to do the same with Brent Stockstill at MTSU. It's a tough measure to ask MTSU to win their division due to the strength of WKU and Marshall but two manageable Power 5 games this season (@ Vanderbilt, @ Missouri) gives the Blue Raiders a great opportunity to show their ability on a national stage and cement themselves as a conference favorite in 2017.

Adrian Bermudez: Middle Tennessee. Make me the third person who loves the Blue Raiders. That offense really broke out last season and should only go up. Brent Stockstill is a stud and Tony Franklin is going to really polish the young guy's game. I have a feeling Franklin is going to get some of his 2009 records back. Don't forget about I'Tavius Mathers, either. That's an SEC running back who should pose a real ground threat to compliment the passing attack.

The Hilltoppers have to travel to Murfreesboro this year so I give them the edge over WKU, leaving only a trip to West Virgina standing between them and the East division. I also really think they've got a shot at Mizzou, plus with games against Vanderbilt and Bowling Green they will have several opportunities to make some noise.

James Collier: Charlotte. After starting 2-0 last season, the 49ers never found the winning column the rest of the season. Now, Im not saying the boys in green and white are going to make a push in the East, but a 6-6 season is not out of the question and would certainly be viewed as a total success.

Who is your breakout player?

Cyrus: Chase Litton is probably a year away from truly realizing his potential but after a very good season as a true freshman (23 touchdown, eight interceptions), but I'm all in on the Tampa native to do big things this year. Marshall's season will rests on his shoulder and I think he's ready as the playbook should expand after a year of learning the system and adapting to the speed of the game at the college level. All offseason there has been talk of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson being the next big thing but on September 24 when Louisville visits Huntington, the stage will be set for Litton to declare himself as the next great quarterback to play for Marshall.

Alex: I'll be a homer and say UTEP's slot receiver, and kick returner Terry Juniel. I see him becoming the next Casey Martin, or Trent Taylor. A shifty runner, with good hands who adds legit speed to UTEP's passing game which is much needed.

Jared: I'm going with the homer pick of Jarveon Williams at UTSA. Williams has improved over each season but has been overshadowed by some of the past great running backs in the conference. UTSA's shift to a more pro style offense will give Williams more carries and opportunities to show his game-changing athleticism.

Adrian: I'm going to go out on a limb and say whoever wins UTSA's quarterback battle (Dalton Sturm or Jared Johnson). Johnson's got a pedigree and veteran experience, if his game can translate to this level he's going to be a real stud. Sturm may be the toughest player in the conference as we saw real potential from him last year and if his game is now polished he will make some big things happen.

James: Since my main team of coverage is Marshall, I will tease the readers with two names to keep an eye out for during this season, C.J. Reavis and Chris Jackson. Reavis spent time at Virginia Tech after making a stop at East Mississippi Community College (Last Chance U) before arriving at Marshall. Jackson has been on campus since January and has been high on Doc Holliday's list since arriving. For an 18-year old kid, Jackson has all the intangibles to be one of the best DBs in the conference.

Who are your picks to win CUSA Offensive Player of the Year & Defensive Player of the Year?

Cyrus: Nick Mullens (QB - So. Miss), Trey Hendrickson (DE - FAU)

Alex: Brent Stockstill (QB -€” MTSU), TJ Ricks (LB - ODU)

Jared: Aaron Jones (RB - UTEP), Trey Hendrickson (DE - FAU)

Adrian: Brent Stockstill (QB -€” MTSU), Jaylon Ferguson (DE -€” LA Tech)

James: Nick Mullens (QB - So. Miss), Trey Hendrickson (DE - FAU)

Your sleeper picks to win CUSA East and CUSA West are...

Cyrus: With three teams receiving attention to win the East its so hard to pick a sleeper and like their chances but I'll bite and go with Old Dominion as the injury bug hit them hard last year and with players such as Ray Lawry back on the field they could knock off either MTSU, WKU, or Marshall

As for the West, people are sleeping on UTEP. A healthy Aaron Jones will elevate the offense dramatically and after injuries forced a ton of young players on the field the defense now has depth. They also avoid MTSU, WKU and Marshall and get Southern Miss in the Sun Bowl. Don't sleep.

Alex: In the east I'll say FIU. I like Alex McGough and I think he will improve, but the most telling stretch will be a late four game stretch with LA Tech, MTSU, WKU, and Marshall. Three of those four are at home, and that will dictate their standing late in the season.

In the West, I'll be a homer and say UTEP. The main reason for the selection (besides a Skip Holtz endorsement) is the Miners' easy schedule. Six C-USA wins are attainable if UTEP can win on the road.

Jared: Hard to pick a sleeper in the East with Marshall and WKU so entrenched but I'll take FAU as my pick. The program is headed in the right direction but they're still a season away.

In the West I think folks are really sleeping on UTEP. Aaron Jones is returning and that's a very big deal as he can be the best player in CUSA when healthy. UTEP has also made some serious upgrades at the QB position and with their coaching staff. A young secondary will improve by bounds in 2016. Head on a swivel, y'all.

Adrian: I've got to go with Old Dominion as my East sleeper. Even with last year's injuries I was impressed watching how they moved on the field. Though their offense is suspect with a question mark at quarterback that won't be answered when the season arrives, their defense is fierce. Last year's conference leader in tackles, T.J. Ricks, is going to cause a lot of problems.

As for the West? Well, UTSA of course. I'm betting they're going to run the Texas gauntlet with wins against Rice, North Texas, and UTEP. Frank Wilson has filled just about every hole on the roster with serious transfer talent. Games against Southern Miss, MTSU, and LA Tech pose a real threat to their conference record, but expect the Roadrunners to come knocking doors down.

James: Not sure Marshall is a sleeper but after being picked third, I suppose that provides a case. With Southern Miss and La Tech in a virtual tie for the West, the only logical sleeper in the West would be Rice. David Bailiff has shown he can put his team in the big dance.

Most likely P5 win for the conference?

Cyrus: CUSA will have some opportunities to regain their reputation but I love Southern Miss over Kentucky to open the season as the Wildcats have really underachieved with Mark Stoops.

Alex: Southern Miss over Kentucky. The Wildcats were horrible in stopping the run in 2015, and USM's offense should have their way in SEC country.  Ito Smith is a stud, and I think that could be the difference.

Jared: *googles Kansas' schedule* Dammit. I'll take Vanderbilt at WKU on September 24.

Adrain: I think MTSU will get it done and shock Missouri.

James: Marshall is in the best position of any team in the conference with back-to-back P5 games in as many weeks. Louisville travels to Huntington in a game followed by a trip to Heinz Field and a matchup with Pitt. I think they win at least one of them with a decent chance for both to be wins.

Which coach do you see as most likely to not return in 2016, either due to a firing, retirement, or accepting another job?

Cyrus: Jeff Brohm. He's as good as gone if he wins at least eight games this year. If he delivers another CUSA Championship to Bowling Green I'd be shocked he returns.

Alex: Skip Holtz. If LA Tech meets their expectations again, I could see him being a hot commodity in the 2017 coaching carousel cycle. He's proven his recruiting worth in the C-USA world.

Jared: Ron Turner. Turner will be 63 at the end of this season so I could see some movement there if FIU misses a bowl game. Turner has done a great job of turning around the culture at FIU but his pragmatic style isn't a great cultural fit for Miami. I could see a coaching move that resembles the recent transition at UTSA.

Adrian: Ron Turner. After seeing it first-hand over here in San Antonio, I've got to think it's Ron Turner as well.  At the same time, if Rice has another losing season I could see David Bailiff getting the axe.

James: Jeff Brohm.

Who do you like to win CUSA?

Cyrus: Western Kentucky over Southern Miss for the second straight year.

Alex: Middle Tennessee is going to give C-USA defenses nightmares, and if they can stay healthy after a tough non-conference slate, this team will do some damage in conference play.

Adrian: Middle Tennessee over Southern Miss in one hell of a game.

James: I like Southern Miss vs Marshall in the CUSA Championship with the winner coming from the team that earns the hosting rights so as of now Marshall.