Conference USA got an extreme makeover this offseason thanks to teams moving from conference to conference in a quest for stability and cash, not necessarily in that order. There are now 14 teams, and several new faces. Gone are Houston, SMU, UCF and, perish the thought, Memphis. Joining are former Sun Belt teams Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Middle Tennessee State, plus WAC refugees Louisiana Tech and UTSA, the latter of which is in its second year in FBS. However, a lot of potent, prolific offenses still exist in this conference, offering fantasy owners plenty of options.
TOP-FIVE FANTASY STARS
1. Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall
Guess where Marshall finished in passing yards per game in 2012. Odds are you guessed low, because it finished first in the nation. Cato threw for 4,201 yards, 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season. He doesn't add anything on the ground, but when you throw for these kind of numbers, you don't necessarily need to. The Thundering Herd's schedule looks promising heading into the season, so Cato's numbers should be as good, and maybe better this season.
2. Tommy Shuler, WR, Marshall
Well, all those passes from Cato have to go somewhere. Aaron Dobson is gone - he went in the second round to the New England Patriots in the 2013 NFL Draft - but Shuler was actually Marshall's top receiver last season. He caught a whopping 110 passes for 1,138 yards. Yes, he only had six touchdowns, but that's a statistic that fluctuates. A few more trips to the end zone and Shuler could be one of the top receivers in fantasy this season.
3. Justin Hardy, WR, East Carolina
It was a neck-and-neck battle between Shuler and Hardy for the higher ranking. Hardy had more touchdowns, 11, and almost as many yards (1,105) on 88 receptions. East Carolina's schedule is slightly harder this season, and 11 touchdowns might not be replicated, which is why Shuler is just a tinge higher. Don't be disappointed if you end up with Hardy, however. He will be excellent in his own right.
4. Shane Carden, QB, East Carolina
Carden was pretty good throwing the ball in his first season starting for the Pirates, passing for 3,116 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, his fantasy value was buoyed by his eight rushing touchdowns. On the other hand, he only gained 74 yards on 85 carries. Sure, that counts sacks, but you can't call Carden a prolific runner. So don't expect eight rushing touchdowns again, though the passing numbers should be there.
5. Trey Watts, RB, Tulsa
The Golden Hurricane are likely the top team in Conference USA this season, and Watts is their main offensive weapon. Last year, he rushed for 1,108 yards on 186 carries, the only minor issue being a mere three touchdowns. However, last season Alex Singleton ran for a staggering 24 scores, and now he is graduated. Somebody is going to have to score, and Watts tops that list. Plus, he added 343 yards receiving last year, a nice bonus.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
All Dixon did last season was set a freshman record for both total touchdowns (28) and rushing touchdowns (27). He also rushed 200 times for 1,194 yards. However, head coach Sonny Dykes moved on, and the Bulldogs face a tougher challenge in their new conference. Those are reasons for slight trepidation, but you can't see numbers like those from a freshman and not be intrigued.
Antoinne Jimmerson, RB, North Texas
As a freshman, Jimmerson rushed for 544 yards on 108 carries, good for 5.0 yards per carry, and he led the team with five rushing touchdowns. He also caught 12 passes for 205 yards and three scores. It has been a while since North Texas was any good, and the Mean Green have a somewhat difficult non-conference schedule, but a potential bigger role in the offense, combined with some easy games, could boost Jimmerson's numbers. Consider him a deep sleeper for now.
William Dukes, WR, Florida Atlantic
The Owls did not have a prolific passing offense last season; they were middle of the pack even playing in the Sun Belt. However, that didn't keep Dukes down, as he caught 63 passes for 979 yards and four touchdowns. All he needs is a small increase in touchdowns to make a significant impact in fantasy. That's not a bad gamble to take, especially since Dukes is only entering his second full season of college football.
Taylor McHargue, QB, Rice
The Owls managed to make a bowl last season, and they return a most of their key players on both sides of the ball this year. That includes senior starting quarterback McHargue. He wasn't great last season, though 2,209 yards, 12 touchdowns and five picks isn't bad. What makes him interesting is the 667 yards and 11 touchdowns he added to those passing totals. Rice starts the season at Texas A&M, but after that the schedule opens up nicely for McHargue and friends.
Vintavious Cooper, RB, East Carolina
The Pirates are more known for their passing game, but Cooper ran well last season, and he's clearly their top running back. He had 200 carries for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns, with, unsurprisingly, 26 catches for 229 yards and a score. East Carolina isn't going to turn into a run-heavy team, but when it runs, Cooper can do something with those touches.
Eric Soza, QB, UTSA
Last season, Soza put up good numbers despite dealing with an injury that kept him out a while. He threw for 2,085 yards with 20 touchdowns and, notably, a mere three interceptions. He also ran for 364 yards and six scores for good measure. However, Soza did this not just in a weak WAC, but on a team transitioning to the FBS, which meant several FCS opponents. Now, UTSA has a much tougher schedule. It's asking a lot of Soza to repeat those numbers ... probably too much.
Gator Hoskins, TE, Marshall
It's hard to not want to draft a player named "Gator," especially when he's coming off a 10-touchdown season. However, Hoskins caught those touchdowns on a mere 35 receptions for 374 yards. That is an efficiency rate that simply won't happen again. Tight end isn't deep, and Marshall's passing game is potent, but unless Hoskins is a much bigger part of the offensive plan, he has significant bust potential.
Willis Wright, WR, Florida International
Wright is a somewhat similar tale as Hoskins, only he plays a much deeper position. He had 633 yards and five touchdowns on a mere 25 receptions last season. There is no denying that kind of big-play performance, but it also isn't likely to be repeated. FIU was lousy last season in a worse conference, it's had a lot of turmoil this offseason and now it has to deal with moving to C-USA. Wright may have some big plays, but he's a gamble not worth taking.
Jordan Leslie, WR, UTEP
Leslie is coming off a good season with 51 catches for 973 yards and six touchdowns. However, the Miners have a new starting quarterback this season in Texas A&M transfer Jamiell Showers. He may be an upgrade over what they have, but he's also a new quarterback who may not necessarily connect with Leslie in the same way as UTEP's rotating cast of quarterbacks. Leslie still has the same skill, but for as high as you may need to draft him, the cost is a bit too steep.
Brelan Chancellor, WR, North Texas
Chancellor is the top returning receiver for the Mean Green in yards (450) and touchdowns (five). Decent, but unspectacular, numbers, and he did that on only 25 catches. North Texas had trouble on offense last season, particularly passing, and a bigger role for Chancellor, if he gets one, doesn't necessarily mean bigger numbers. Visits to places like Georgia and Ohio only strengthen the case for his bust potential.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Overall position ranking in parenthesis.
East Carolina Pirates
QB Shane Carden (15), RB Vintavious Cooper (43), WR Justin Hardy (11), K Warren Harvey (21)
Florida Atlantic Owls
WR William Dukes (64), TE Nexon Dorvilus (36)
Florida International Panthers
WR Willis Wright (56)
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
RB Kenneth Dixon (37)
Marshall Thundering Herd
QB Rakeem Cato (16), RB Kevin Grooms (74), WR Tommy Shuler (10), TE Gator Hoskins (6), K Justin Haig (12)
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
RB Jordan Parker (40) , WR Kyle Griswould (61)
North Texas Mean Green
WR Brelan Chancellor (59)
WR Jordan Taylor (62), K Chris Boswell (6)
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Tulane Green Wave
WR Ryan Grant (55)
Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
RB Trey Watts (15), RB JaTerian Douglas (62), WR Keyarris Garrett (34)
RB Darrin Reaves (29), TE Kennard Backman (45)
QB Jamiell Showers (31), RB Nathan Jeffery (32), WR Jordan Leslie (13)
QB Eric Soza (28)