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College football

2017 Preview:
Conference USA

Predicted order of finish

1 Western Kentucky
2 Old Dominion
3 Middle Tennessee
4 Marshall
5 Fla International
6 Charlotte
7 Fla Atlantic

1 Louisiana Tech
2 Southern Miss
3 Texas-San Antonio
4 Texas-El Paso
5 Rice
6 North Texas
champion W. Kentucky

East Division

#8: Western Kentucky | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Hilltoppers might be more vulnerable than they were last season, especially with coach Jeff Brohm off to Purdue and the departure of five first-team All-Conference USA selections. New coach Mike Sanford is one of the offseason's top hires, and the cupboard is far from bare. Needless to say, WKU isn't going anywhere in 2017. Quarterback Mike White returns to lead a dynamic offense, three starters provide a solid foundation up front, and sophomore Lucky Jackson looks like the next standout receiver in Bowling Green.

#37: Old Dominion | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Monarchs should be solid once again but are unlikely to finish 7-1 in league play, as coach Bobby Wilder's team must find a new quarterback and three starters at linebacker.

#56: Middle Tennessee | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
MTSU is a close second behind the Hilltoppers in the East Division, with the dynamic connection of quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James providing enough firepower to push for the conference title. But Stockstill will be throwing behind an offensive line with three new starters, and running back I'Tavius Mathers departed after a standout 2016 campaign. The Blue Raiders made one of the conference's top coordinator hires with former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer taking over the defensive calls. However, similar to the offense, MTSU has some work to do in rebuilding the defensive line.

#69: Marshall | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
Marshall's offensive line features three new starters and a reliable running game. But will the passing game come about? The defense returns five of the top six tacklers back to potentially help a run D that was woefully inept. Almost all the linebackers return – but Devontre'a Tyler is gone in the middle – and three starters are back in a secondary that has plenty of options to try filling in the gaps. But it’s mostly up to the 300-pound junior tackles – Nyquan Harris and Jason Smith among others – to set the tone up front, while Ryan Bee has to grow into an even more dangerous pass rusher.

#105: Florida International | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
Butch Davis makes his return to the sidelines at FIU. Similar to FAU, the Panthers have potential to surprise in this division. Seniors Alex McGough (QB) and Alex Gardner (RB) lead the way on offense, while nine starters return from a defense that surrendered 34.8 points per game last fall. The linebacker unit - led by Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint - could be one of the best in the conference.

#117: Charlotte | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
Still a young team and still getting its feet wet playing at the top level, the 49ers don't look to figure in the overall picture.

#122: Florida Atlantic | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Lane Kiffin era begins at FAU with a chance to surprise in the East Division. The Owls will lean heavily on running back Devin Singletary, and former Florida State quarterback De'Andre Johnson should be a good fit for Kiffin's offense. The defense gave up 39.8 points per game last fall and has to improve for FAU to challenge for a bowl. That task won't be easy with defensive end Try Hendrickson expiring his eligibility after 2016.

West Division

#35: Louisiana Tech | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Bulldogs averaged 44.3 points per game last season, and despite losing quarterback Ryan Higgins and receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson, this unit may not miss much of a beat. New quarterback J'Mar Smith is a rising star, and the receiving corps should quickly reload behind Tulane transfer Teddy Veal, sophomore Alfred Smith and junior Kam McKnight. The Bulldogs also have one of the league's top running back tandems with Jarred Craft and Boston Scott handling the work on the ground. The defense suffered key losses in the back seven, but the line is arguably the best in Conference USA. Junior Jaylon Ferguson returns to anchor the line and pass rush after recording 14.5 sacks last fall.

#70: Southern Miss | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
Southern Miss has a second-year coach in Jay Hopson, and the Golden Eagles will be looking for more week-to-week consistency after recording a minus-17 turnover margin and three losses by 11 points or less. Replacing standout quarterback Nick Mullens is the top priority for Hopson this offseason. Will former junior college recruit Kwadra Griggs or sophomore Keon Howard claim the starting job? Regardless of which quarterback starts, the Golden Eagles return two of C-USA's top skill players in running back Ito Smith and receiver Allenzae Staggers. But similar to Southern Miss, this team has concerns up front and is replacing a handful of starters in the front seven on defense.

#96: Texas San Antonio | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
UTSA took a step forward under coach Frank Wilson last season and finished 6-7 with a trip to the program's first bowl game. The Roadrunners are recruiting well, so the future outlook for this team is bright under Wilson's direction. For 2017, UTSA returns 13 starters, including one of the league's top defenders in sophomore linebacker Josiah Tauaefa and quarterback Dalton Sturm. The offense needs to throw the ball with more consistency and develop better play from the line. But the pieces are in place on the skill positions and on defense to finish second in the West.

#99: Texas El Paso | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The passing game is still a major question mark, and over on defense the secondary could spell trouble. The running game has potential. Too many holes to plug will make for a long season for the Miners.

#104: Rice | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Rice offense was absent a season ago. The roster didn't lose many starters, but is that good news or more of the same? The Rice defense has a new coordinator, but will be in rebuild mode this season. A long season is in store for the Owls.

#106: North Texas | ROSTER | SCHEDULE
The Mean Green passing game should be better, but it is still not going to be dominant. As long as Jeffery Wilson and the rushing attack can crank out regular production, the offense will work. The defense still has a way to go. The secondary was solid at times, but there is little depth at linebacker, and the pass rush needs to be better.

After being out of action the past two seasons, the Blazers are a question mark. Senior linebacker Shaq Jones is a proven defensive leader for Clark, while the offense features former MTSU quarterback A.J. Erdely. FBS transfers Kalin Heath and Jonathan Haden should team with James Noble and Donnie Lee to form a capable group of running backs. With so many new faces on both sides of the ball starting for the first time at the FBS level, a transition year should be expected for UAB. However, don't be surprised if the Blazers find a way to surprise and steal a couple of wins in league play.

2017 Preseason Ranking

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