- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

Conference USA has reason to tout its strength after going 4-1 in bowl games last season including a win over Big Ten member Illinois.

The league went 20-5 against independents and mid-major teams not in Power 5 conferences. That says something about the quality of competition that figures to be another battle this season.

Louisiana Tech is the media’s pick to repeat as West Division champion, with second-year member Western Kentucky the choice to win the East. Defending champion Marshall was the second choice behind WKU and returns many players from the league’s top-rated offense and defense.

Marshall and Louisiana Tech impressed some coaches enough to earn votes in the preseason poll. Nobody in C-USA would be shocked if other league members join them there or in postseason.

“We’ve always been underdogs, and this year is different,” said WKU senior quarterback and reigning league MVP Brandon Doughty, who returns after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility.

“We’re predicted to win the East and try to do something special for the first time. We really have to make sure we’re on our game plan.”

Offense again is C-USA’s strong suit again thanks to the presence of two of the nation’s most prolific units at Marshall and WKU. Besides finishing 1-2 statistically with averages of more than 535 yards per game, those schools staged an epic shootout last fall that WKU won 67-66 in overtime to hand unbeaten and No. 19 Marshall its only loss in a 13-1 season.

The Hilltoppers went on to beat Central Michigan 49-48 in the inaugural Bahamas Bowl and join brethren Louisiana Tech - which topped Illinois 35-18 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl - Rice and Marshall as postseason winners. UTEP was the only loser.

Ironically, WKU’s defense sealed the wild victory after yielding 34 fourth-quarter points by denying a two-point conversion pass on the final play after CMU scored a 75-yard touchdown pass featuring three laterals. Wonderful Terry’s clutch breakup marked a coming of age for a young defense, and WKU coach Jeff Brohm now wants to make sure that unit has matured if his team is to fulfill expectations.

“Even though (C-USA) is a known as an offensive league,” Brohm said, “six of the last eight champions have led the league in total defense. We feel like we are going to be much better on defense.”

The Hilltoppers and others have to be in a league where Marshall and Louisiana Tech proved last season that a combination of offense and defense can win division titles and bowl games.

“We expect to be great but can’t forget what got us there,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “If you don’t get better, you get worse. But you don’t stay the same.”

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Some things to watch in C-USA this season:

COMINGS AND GOINGS: Charlotte joins C-USA after two seasons of existence as an FCS independent. That keeps the league at 13 members until Alabama-Birmingham returns in 2017 following a tumultuous offseason in which the school dropped the program in December, citing finances. School officials voted in June to reinstate the program after UAB supporters pledged $17 million to cover costs for the next five years.

WKU’S DYNAMIC DUO: Hilltoppers QB and league MVP Brandon Doughty threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns last season, while RB Leon Allen added 1,542 rushing with 13 TDs. They’re the first FBS school to have a 4,500-yard passer and 1,500-yard rusher.

‘HERD’ IS THE WORD: Defending champion Marshall had the league’s top defense last season, allowing 357 yards and 21 points per game. The Thundering Herd return five starters including safeties Taj Letman and A.J. Leggett, who each had four interceptions in 2014.

GROUND GAINERS: The conference features four running backs who gained at least 1,200 yards rushing last season: Marshall’s Devon Johnson (1,767); WKU’s Allen (1,542); UTEP’s Aaron Jones (1,321) and Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon (1,299).

OLD FACE, NEW PLACE: Former Florida starting QB Jeff Driskel transferred to Louisiana Tech and takes over for Cody Sokol, who passed for 3,436 yards and 30 TDs last season. “What’s in the past doesn’t matter,” said Driskel, who passed for 3,411 yards and 23 TDs in four years with the Gators. “I’m just looking forward to growing together with a team that’s already closely knit.”

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Predicted order of finish:

East: 1. Western Kentucky; 2. Marshall; 3. Middle Tennessee; 4. Florida Atlantic; 5. FIU; 6. Old Dominion; 7. Charlotte.

West: 1. Louisiana Tech; 2. Rice; 3. UTEP; 4. Southern Miss; 5. North Texas; 6. UTSA.

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