Marshall's Rakeem Cato

Quarterback Rakeem Cato #12 of the Marshall Thundering rushes upfield against the Florida International University Panthers December 20, 2011 in the Beef 'O' Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Marshall won 20 - 10. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images) (Al Messerschmidt / April 22, 2014)


Several stories to watch in the Conference USA heading into the 2014 college football season.

1. Rough road for Rice to repeat

The Buzz: Rice won 10-games in 2013 for the first time since 2008 and along the way captured its first Conference USA championship. The Owls used the league’s top rushing offense (228 yards per game) to secure its third winning season in eight years under coach David Bailiff. The chances of a repeat could be slim though as this year’s team returns 12 starters, but must deal with the loss of top running back Charles Ross (1,280 yards/15 TDs) and quarterback Taylor McHargue (2,345 yards/17 TDs). While the defense returns six starters, Rice should receive a challenge in the West from the likes of North Texas, which returns 17 starters in 2014. Big picture-wise, expect Marshall to come into the season as the favorite to win the conference championship.

2. Rakeem Cato and Marshall will shine in 2014

The Buzz: While Rice goes through its own growing pains, Marshall – the Conference USA runner-up – is coming off its best season in quite some time. A 10-win season capped off by a victory over Maryland in the Military Bowl. The Thundering Herd featured the top scoring offense (42.1) and total offense (500 yards per game) in Conference USA last season thanks, in part, to quarterback Rakeem Cato, who threw for 3,916 yards and 39 touchdowns. Cato is back in 2014 as is his top target receiver Tommy Shuler, making this team a fun one to watch. With East Carolina’s departure to the American Athletic Conference, little stands in the way as Marshall attempts another shot at the league crown.

3. Conference realignment strikes again

The Buzz: For the second time in as many seasons, Conference USA will go through wholesale changes in the offseason. East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane depart for the American Athletic Conference while Western Kentucky moves from the Sun Belt. Old Dominion also joins the league after transitioning from the FCS to the FBS. The moves will, once again, gives the CUSA a whole new feel in 2014. Western Kentucky is coming off its best season since making its own transition to the FBS in 2007-08. The Hilltoppers won eight games, but found themselves locked out of the bowl discussion. Old Dominion won eight games, but lost four of its five matchups versus FBS opponents in 2013. Charlotte joins the league in 2015 to bring the total number of members to 14.

4. Expect big things from North Texas, MTSU

The Buzz: Conference USA saw six schools land into postseason bowls, two of those – East Carolina and Tulane – will no longer be a part of the league in 2014. North Texas and Middle Tennessee State also qualified and played for the postseason after terrific seasons in 2013. North Texas returns 17 starters from a squad that won nine games – it’s best season since moving up to the FBS. Middle Tennessee State won eight games for the second straight season. Both programs were ranked first and second in Conference USA in turnover margins.  

Matt Murschel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @osmattmurschel.