What a difference a year makes.
Southern Miss now has a target on its back in Conference USA after it entered the 2015 campaign coming off a 3-9 season. The Golden Eagles finished last season with a 9-5 mark and a C-USA West title.
USM senior quarterback Nick Mullens enters the 2016 campaign as the premier quarterback in C-USA, a role held the last two seasons by two of the more prolific passers in NCAA history – Marshall’s Rakeem Cato in 2014 and Brandon Doughty of Western Kentucky in 2015.
Mullens completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions a year ago, breaking numerous single-season records at USM.
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Cato and Doughty led their teams to C-USA championships in their final seasons, but they also had the advantage of having a head coach who was well established at the school.
USM has the task of looking to building on last year’s turnaround season under a new head coach in Jay Hopson, who was hired after Todd Monken left in late January to become the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
USM does have a favorable C-USA schedule this season with Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee not included and both Marshall and Louisiana Tech coming to Hattiesburg. The path to a C-USA championship, however, will be far from easy.
MTSU and Marshall both appear fully capable of contending for a C-USA title with plenty of talent returning.
Marshall still has some issues to address on offense in the ground game, but promising sophomore Chase Litton returns as the Herd’s starting quarterback. Litton completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 2,605 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2015 as the Herd finished 10-3, including a 16-10 win over UConn in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Middle Tennessee also features a talented sophomore quarterback in Brent Stockstill, who had a huge freshman campaign. He completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 4,005 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Blue Raiders finished 7-6 last year and appear set to improve on that win total.
The Blue Raiders also have a receiving corps led by sophomore Richie James, who had a monster freshman campaign with 108 catches for 1,346 yards and eight scores.
Louisiana Tech loses quarterback Jeff Driskel and record-breaking running back Kenneth Dixon to graduation, but returns its top two receivers (Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson) and much of the offensive line.
WKU will have to learn out to live without Doughty, but Anthony Wales returns as the top rusher and receiver Taywan Taylor is back for his senior year after catching 86 passes for 1,467 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. As long as the Hilltoppers can settle on one of three quarterback options, WKU should again be in the hunt in the C-USA East.
UTEP, FIU, Rice and Old Dominion all finished with five wins a year ago and will look to reach bowl eligibility this season.
After USM was the turnaround story in 2015, UTEP has a shot to take that mantle this year. Following an injury-riddle 2015 season, the Miners return the majority of their key players. Senior running back Aaron Jones, one of the league’s top backs, is back from injury to lead the offense.
Florida Atlantic could also join UTEP as a team on the rise this year with Charlie Partridge entering his third year on the job and a defense led by talented senior defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who had 13.5 sacks last season.
Marshall, USM, FAU and UTEP should be among the better defensive teams in C-USA this season.
Mullens and USM are considered by many to be the class of C-USA this year, but it will be a challenge to get back to December’s title contest.
2015 record: 9-5, 7-1
Coach: Jay Hopson (first year)
Key returnees: QB Nick Mullens, RB Ito Smith, WR D.J. Thompson, C Cameron Toms, LB Elijah Parker, DL Dylan Bradley, S D'Nerius Antoine.
Key losses: RB Jalen Richard, WR Mike Thomas, WR Casey Martin, LT Rashod Hill, DL Andrew Bolton, CB Kalan Reed.
WR D.J. Thompson
WR Allanzae Staggers
WR Marquise Ricard
TE Julian Allen
LT Wil Freeman
LG Brandon Farmer
C Cameron Toms
RG Devin Farrior
RT Ty Pollard
DE Xavier Thigpen
DT Dylan Bradley
DT Draper Riley
DE Darian Yancey
LB Elijah Parker
LB C.J. Perry
CB Cornell Armstrong
CB Trae Collins
S D'Nerius Antoine
S Devonta Foster
Nickel Picasso Nelson
6:30 p.m., 9/3 at Kentucky
6 p.m., 9/10 SAVANNAH STATE
6 p.m., 9/17 TROY
7 p.m., 9/24 at UTEP
6 p.m., 10/1 RICE
11 a.m., 10/8 at UTSA
TBA, 10/15 at LSU
6 p.m., 10/29 MARSHALL
2:30 p.m., 11/5 CHARLOTTE
2:30 p.m., 11/12 at Old Dominion
4:30 p.m., 11/19 at North Texas
TBA, 11/25 LOUISIANA TECH