Conference USA is an increasingly overlooked conference, and to a degree it's justified. Now 13 teams, you won't find much football pedigree in the current iteration of the conference. It's basically Marshall and a bunch of the lesser teams from Texas and Florida, a glorified Sun Belt. However, Old Dominion joins the conference this year, and it has a high-octane offense. The Monarchs were fifth in passing yards and seventh in points in the FBS last year, though that came as they transitioned from FCS to FBS. Western Kentucky also joins C-USA, which lost East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. Good defense is scarce in this conference, which makes for a lot of scoring. With some research, you could easily find a diamond in the rough in Conference USA to be the sleeper who takes your fantasy team to a league title.
Top-5 Fantasy Stars
1. Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall
Cato's completion percentage dove quite a bit last season, from 69.5 to 59.7 percent, but he still passed for nearly 4,000 yards, increased his touchdowns to 39 and reduced his interceptions to nine. On top of that, he became a dual-threat quarterback, rushing for 294 yards and six touchdowns. Marshall looks like the cream of the crop in Conference USA, and Cato leads the offense. With minor, and perhaps likely, improvement to his completion percentage, he should be in for an even bigger year.
2. Taylor Heinicke, QB, Old Dominion
Old Dominion likes to throw, and last year Heinicke completed 70 percent of his passes while throwing 33 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Most of that production came against FCS teams, but he also had good games on the road against East Carolina and Pittsburgh. ODU's schedule is tougher, but Heinicke has some experience against FBS competition. If he can even equal last year's numbers, and that's possible, it would more than suffice from a fantasy perspective.
3. Tommy Shuler, WR, Marshall
In consecutive years, Shuler has had more than 100 receptions and 1,100 yards. However, last year he also jumped from six touchdowns to 10. Touchdowns can be a bit hard to predict, but Shuler's numbers have been consistent, and Shuler is still working alongside Rakeem Cato. Those two seniors should connect repeatedly, and Shuler could be one of the top fantasy receivers this year.
4. Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
As a freshman, Dixon set records with 27 rushing touchdowns and 28 total touchdowns. Last year, he dealt with injuries, but when he was healthy he was tremendous. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and even improved his receiving numbers. This is really a bet on Dixon staying healthy, and on the Bulldogs looking better on offense overall. A healthy Dixon could be one of the best fantasy running backs this season, and that's a gamble worth taking.
5. Jamarcus Nelson, WR, UAB
A big-play receiver, Nelson averaged more than 20 yards per receptions last season. Despite missing two games with injury he had 42 catches for 846 yards and eight touchdowns. Nevertheless, he made the most out of his first year as a starter, and he should be healthier and more consistent in his senior season. The only concern is who will get Nelson the ball, but that didn't hold him back too much last year.
6. Leon Allen, RB, Western Kentucky
We'll kick in an extra fantasy star to consider. Allen takes over as the starter in prolific running attack that in recent years produced Bobby Rainey and Antonio Andrews, both now in the NFL. As the backup last season, Allen showed he can be a weapon both as a runner and a receiver. And at 6-0, 235, he will be tough at the goal-line. The Hilltoppers are in a tougher conference this year after playing in the Mid-American last season, but Allen has little competition for carries and should get a big workload this season.
Jordan Howard, RB, UAB
As a freshman, Howard showed his potential by rushing 145 times for 881 yards -- 6.1 yards per carry. He only totaled three touchdowns, but that's a number he can easily improve now that he's a starter. Darrin Reaves graduated, leaving Howard to pick up more carries. A few more trips to the end zone, and he could be a truly impactful fantasy player.
Aaron Jones, RB, UTEP
Much like Howard, Jones impressed as a freshman running back. UTEP's offense was basically nothing but Jones, which was problematic when Jones got injured and essentially missed the final four games of the season. Before that, he rushed 155 times for 811 yards and four touchdowns. The Miners aren't likely to be a ton better this year, but Jones should improve, and if he's healthy there is real fantasy value to be had here.
Antonio Vaughan, WR, Old Dominion
If ODU throws the ball as much as last year, somebody is going to have a big season, and it likely will be Vaughan. He is the Monarchs' leading returning receiver, with 60 receptions for 843 yards and nine touchdowns. Considering that production came as the No. 2 receiver, one can expect him to see a bit of improvement this year. The one concern is that most of his best games came against bad completion last season, and he struggled against most of ODU's FBS opponents, but Vaughan is a redshirt senior so he has experience on his side.
Tyre'oune Holmes, WR, Southern Miss
Todd Monken improved Southern Miss' win total exponentially in his first year as head coach, but that's because he took the Golden Eagles from zero wins to one. The offense struggled overall, but it was actually 56th in pass offense, and Monken used to coordinate Oklahoma State's potent offense. As a freshman, Holmes led the team in receptions with 53, but he only managed 410 yards and two touchdowns. However, if he keeps getting touches, and he breaks a few more off for big yards, it could be a breakout year for Holmes in an improving offense.
Jaquez Johnson, QB, FAU
Johnson's didn't throw the ball terribly well, or terribly often, last year. He only tossed 256 passes for 1,866 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. What he did do, however, is lead the Owls in rushing with 172 carries for 767 yards and 10 scores. He's a dual-threat quarterback, and if he can improve his passing he could be a viable fantasy starter. This is especially true given the conference. Johnson is definitely worth a flyer.
Willie Dukes, WR, FAU
Two seasons ago, Dukes had 63 catches for 979 yards. Last year, he saw those numbers drop to 35 receptions and 553 yards, but he saw his touchdown total climb from four to six. He's playing with a quarterback now that is more of a runner than a passer, and you can't expect a player to score touchdowns so often with so few touches. As such, Dukes numbers could drop a bit as his touchdown luck evens out.
Antoinne Jimmerson, RB, North Texas
North Texas didn't have a great offense last year, and it's lost a couple of its better players to graduation as well. Jimmerson likely will take on the role of lead running back, but last year he had several games where he did barely anything, and he only managed 4.2 yards per carry. While the Mean Green work out the kinks, Jimmerson could find himself as part of a stagnating offense, and he hasn't shown enough in his two years in college to trust him to carry an offense by himself.
Steward Butler, RB, Marshall
While Marshall's passing game is well regarded, its running game was also strong last year, ranking 23rd in the FBS. However, once again, we have a team that has lost its top running back, and Essray Taliferro got a whopping 202 carries for the Thundering Herd last year. Butler will step into his place after averaging 8.8 yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns last season. He definitely has potential, but 151 yards and three touchdowns came against Gardner-Webb last season, so he is unproven. He has a lot of risk, especially on a pass happy team.
Willie McNeal, WR, Western Kentucky
McNeal was Western Kentucky's top receiver last year, and the Hilltoppers were 36th in passing offense, which is solid. However, a key figure is gone -- head coach Bobby Petrino. He's back in Louisville, and now WKU is coached by the largely unknown Jeff Brohm. Not only that, the Cardinals' excellent running back Antonio Andrews is gone. This is an offense that should take a big step back in general, McNeal included.
Jordan Parker, RB, MTSU
Parker had a good season last year, despite missing a couple of games with injury. He has averaged 5.1 yards per carry over two seasons and had six touchdowns in 2013. However, MTSU has to replace its quarterback, and Parker's backup Reggie Whatley seems like he could share quite a bit of the load with Parker. Additionally, the Blue Raiders have a couple of tough non-conference games as well. This all seems potentially limiting for Parker's fantasy value.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Overall position ranking in parenthesis.
Florida Atlantic Owls
Jaquez Johnson, QB (34)
Florida International Golden Panthers
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Kenneth Dixon, RB (26)
Marshall Thundering Herd
Rakeem Cato, QB (14), Tommy Shuler, WR (11), Devon Johnson, TE (3), Justin Haig, K (13)
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
North Texas Mean Green
Antoinne Jimmerson, RB (39)
Old Dominion Monarchs
Taylor Heinicke, QB (22)
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Jordan Howard, RB (22), Jamarcus Nelson, WR (21)
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Leon Allen, RB (4)