Since 2014 there has been no room for sleepers and dark horses in Conference USA East. Marshall was the preseason favorite to win C-USA East in 2014. They won the division by two games.
In 2015 WKU was the preseason favorite to win C-USA East. The Tops proved the media right and took home the division title. In 2016 Middle Tennessee was surprisingly picked the preseason favorite by C-USA media ahead of WKU who was picked to finish second. The Blue Raiders finished third as the Hilltoppers went back-to-back for another division and conference title.
In this iteration of C-USA if you’re picked to finish near the top of C-USA East that’s where you’ll finish. But unlike year’s past, C-USA East should feature more parity in 2017. The door might be open for a surprise winner.
FAU and FIU will earn a lot of attention as dark horse teams to win the division. Butch Davis will inherit one of the most experienced rosters in the country. Lane Kiffin’s Owls is talented and have underachieved over the years. With Kiffin’s big-name staff, a quick turnaround isn’t out of the question.
Those teams aren’t bad choices but I like going with proven commodities. The best team who has the best opportunity to surprise in C-USA East is Marshall. Many believe Marshall is trending down in a conference that’s rising. I’m sold just yet.
Marshall’s conference schedule is very ideal in 2017 as the Herd will host WKU and Old Dominion, two teams I see finishing near the top of C-USA. Despite last year’s terrible home record where Marshall went 2-4 at home, Joan C. Edwards is still one of the toughest stadiums to leave with a win in this conference. Those contests will go a long way in determining if Marshall can win the division and to get them at home is a bonus.
While the schedule is a nice caveat. The biggest reason why Marshall could have a bounce-back schedule is the impact of newcomers on the team. Marshall lacked explosive playmakers on offense last year. That shouldn’t be the case this year with Miami transfer Brady Tyree and Oklahoma State transfer Obi Obialo at wide receiver. Those two transfers, along with Hyleck Foster and Ryan Yurachek, should give Chase Litton plenty of options to choose from as the offense has the chance to be extremely potent in 2017.
On defense we’ll see another Miami transfer who has the potential to be an all-conference performer in linebacker Juwon Young. Young was a reliable starter for the ‘Canes as he recorded 61 tackles, three TFLs, one forced fumble and an interception during his career there. Next to Young we’ll finally see former Alabama commit Jaquan Yulee take the field. The impact of these two players alone should rise what was a poor defense last season.
Marshall has a talented and experienced roster going into 2017. The biggest question mark is team chemistry. During last year’s disappointing season, the Herd didn’t seem to play with a ton of energy and fire. The lack of heart displayed in the season finale against WKU was disappointing as the 60-6 beat down was very alarming.
If Doc Holliday has addressed concerns of team leadership in the locker room and the newcomers live up to the hype, I think we could see the Marshall of old that dominated C-USA and finish near the top of the standings.