We are less than a month from kickoff as teams continue to prepare. Among our area/state schools there are numerous storylines. From year two in Conference USA for Western Kentucky, year three for Middle Tennessee, to the resurgence at Memphis, to another exciting season in the OVC, there is plenty to talk about.
Middle Tennessee is coming off another bowl snub after a 6-6 season. The Blue Raiders have won 22 games, gone 17-7 in conference, but only have one bowl in three seasons. If Middle is to assure a bowl slot, and improve on 6-6, they must improve defensively. Opponents averaged 452 yards and 31.5 points per game a year ago while completing 61.4% of their passes, those numbers only slightly inflated by the one triple-overtime game against WKU.
Eight starters return, and there is talent there. Quality recruits only help. Linebacker T.T. Barber and safety Kevin Byard are standouts on a defense that should indeed improve. Austin Grammer returns at quarterback. He had his moments but needs to cut down on the 12 interceptions thrown in 2014. Coach Rick Stockstill’s son, Brent, will compete throughout fall drills, not as mobile but a more accurate passer. It is a deep group of running backs to help the same at receiver where there are no real standouts, just a number of complimentary pieces.
The schedule will toughen them. Road games at Alabama and Illinois lead into the much-anticipated home game against Vanderbilt. Competing in the C-USA East will be difficult but a bowl game should not elude them this season.
Western Kentucky boasts one of the top offenses in the country and could be the best team in Conference USA this year. Brandon Doughty returns at quarterback after 49 touchdown passes in 2014, a dark horse Heisman candidate. Leon Allen rushed for 1,542 yards for a team, which gained 535 yards and scored 44.4 points per game. Western will score on most anybody but so could whoever is playing them. Opponents topped 40 eight times on the ‘Toppers last year, something that must change.
Nine starters return plus the addition of two from UAB in Jontavious Morris and Shaq Jones. If they can cut the 39.9 points per game they allowed in 2014 even to say 29.9, this is a team that could make waves. Opening at Vanderbilt and later a trip to LSU, gives WKU that opportunity. I see them winning the league. If they could shock the world in Baton Rouge, they could even contend for a Group-of-Six Bowl.
Memphis came from nowhere to win a share of the AAC title and a rare 10-win season. But most remember the brawl at the end of their Miami Beach Bowl win over BYU. They hope to leave a better taste in our mouths this season and the Tigers will contend for the AAC title again. Their top rusher and receiver are gone, but QB Paxton Lynch returns to an offense growing as the season went on. The defense was the strength, and only three starters return, a bit of a rebuild there. Memphis could be 5-0 when Ole Miss visits in October.
Consecutive road tilts with Houston and Temple in November could decide their AAC hopes. Still, another bowl appears certain.
In the OVC, Jacksonville State was the overwhelming choice to repeat as champions, with the Gamecocks receiving 16-of-18 first-place votes. Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, UT-Martin, TSU, SE Missouri, Tennessee Tech, Murray State and Austin Peay rounded out the media poll. Jax State plays at Eastern Illinois on November 7.