With all this conference realignment going on, it's been difficult to keep up with what teams belong in your conference, let alone their players. But fear not, because Underdog Dynasty is here to guide you through the process of accepting new league foes.
The Hilltoppers have been one of the better teams in the Sun Belt over the last few seasons, competing hard and making a bowl game in 2012. Last year, the Hilltoppers overcame an early, turnover-filled start to the season to finish 8-4. A tough defense and all-singing, all-dancing running back Antonio Andrews led the way, making the Hilltoppers a match for almost anyone. This season, the defense returns just four starters, and Andrews and his 2208 yards from scrimmage are gone too. The Hilltoppers have talent returning, but also have some youth in key places, and they'll be entering their first year in the Conference USA.
For more information, read Bill Connelly's in-depth team preview, but for now, here are five players you really need to know going into the season.
Brandon Doughty, Quarterback
You may remember Doughty from his turnover-filled outing against Tennessee, but after throwing 8 interceptions in a two-game span, the senior only threw 6 over the other 10 games of the season. He showed impressive accuracy for a first-time starter, completing 65.8% of his passes for 2857 yards and 14 TDs, showing good command of the offense. Now with Andrews gone, Doughty will be the face of the offense. With a couple of good receivers back to help him out, and a solid line in front of him, he should be one of the top quarterbacks in the conference by season's end.
Leon Allen, Running Back
In case you haven't been taking notes over the last few seasons, the Hilltoppers have had quite the successful run at running back, with Bobby Rainey and Andrews finishing near the top of the NCAA charts in rushing, and also providing a valuable receiving threat, AND returning kicks and punts. Now, 235-pound Leon Allen takes over the lead rusher role, and he could be ready to assume the mantle of his predecessors. Allen has been Andrews' backup for the last two year, rushing for 674 yards and 7 TDs in that span, and he caught 22 passes last season. He's a battering ram who will wear down opponents and help open up the passing attack. Let's see what he can do as the top guy.
Willie McNeal, Wide Receiver
The Hilltoppers are in good shape at receiver, returning six guys with 22 or more receptions, but expect Brandon Doughty to look first and foremost to McNeal. The senior led the team last season, with 46 catches for 599 yards and 5 TDs, and was the go-to guy when the Hilltoppers needed a big play, including late game-winning TDs against Army and Arkansas State. Spreading the ball around limited his statistics a little, as did the presence of Andrews, but expect Doughty to look for his favorite guy often in 2014.
Cam Thomas, Cornerback
The lone returning starter in the back seven, Thomas has developed into one of the Hilltoppers finest players, helping lock down one side of the field on the nation's 10th ranked pass defense. Last season, the senior made 41 tackles, 1½ for loss, had a sack, and more importantly, broke up 10 passes and intercepted 5. Fine numbers, but bear in mind opponents more often than not opted to pass away from Thomas, but he should be tested more often this season with some high-octane attacks like Bowling Green and Marshall on the schedule. How quick will it take CUSA (and MAC) quarterbacks to learn?
Devante Terrell, Defensive Tackle
With so much change on defense, it will be up to a solid defensive line to lead the fray while the rest of the unit gets up to speed. The run defense had some off days last season, although it was against the tougher teams on the schedule. That could be about to change with the big sophomore ready to take a step forward after a learning year in 2013. At 6'0 and 318 pounds, Terrell is well capable of handling the rigors of a CUSA tackle. Last season, he played in every game, starting eight, and was second on the line with 33 tackles, 2 for loss, with ½ a sack and a forced fumble against Texas State. He will play a big role this season in keeping the young linebackers free from blockers.