Conference championship picks
Conference USA champ: Western Kentucky
The best quarterback-running back tandem you (probably) haven’t heard of resides in Bowling Green, Ky. Brandon Doughty was granted a sixth-year of eligibility in December after completing 67.5% of his passes for a national-best 4,830 yards with 49 touchdowns last season. Senior Leon Allen ranked third in Conference USA with 1,587 rushing yards. The Hilltoppers also return their two top receivers (Jared Dangerfield and Taywan Taylor) and three starters on the offensive line. Western Kentucky can’t be counted on to consistently stop anyone, but Doughty, Allen and the rest of the offense will provide plenty of breathing room. Simply put: This team is going to score…a lot.
Mid-American Conference champ: Toledo
This pick could be a huge mistake. West division rival Northern Illinois has won the conference three of the past four seasons, and it returns five players who earned all-conference recognition in addition to its starting quarterback (Drew Hare). That said, Toledo has plenty of its own talent coming back on both sides of the ball, including stud running back Kareem Hunt (1,631 rushing yards, 8.0 yards per carry, 16 TDs in 2014) and a formidable front seven headed by veteran tackles Orion Jones and Treyvon Hester. The Rockets also face both the Huskies and their other top competitor in the West, Western Michigan, at home. Toledo only needs to shore up its offensive line, which loses all five starters.
American Athletic Conference champ: Cincinnati
This is Cincinnati’s conference to lose even if its defense doesn’t take steps forward after conceding at least 40 points four times last season and finishing 69th in Football Outsiders S&P + ratings. Well-traveled quarterback Gunner Kiel is back after throwing for 3,254 yards with 31 touchdowns and leading the American in passing efficiency. He’ll have every top receiving threat from 2014 to work with, too. If Kiel can stay healthy, Cincinnati projects as the league’s top offensive team. Plug some holes on the other side of the ball, and the Bearcats reasonably could contend for a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowls.
Mountain West champ: Boise State
If anyone doubted the Broncos’ ability to churn out double-digit-win seasons in the post-Chris Petersen era, last year’s campaign quickly put that notion to rest. Under first-year coach Bryan Harsin, Boise State won 12 games and knocked off Pac-12 South champion Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. Though starting quarterback Grant Hedrick graduated and standout tailback Jay Ajayi is off to the NFL, the Broncos bring back practically everyone else on both sides of the ball. Their defense will feature two all-conference honorees in safety Darian Thompson and end Kamalei Correa, and junior Tanner Vallejo should thrive after switching back to middle linebacker. Boise State is the undisputed class of the Mountain West; the question is whether it can push for an undefeated season and another big-time bowl.
San Diego State
San Jose State
Sun Belt champ: Georgia Southern
Everything was coming up roses for the Eagles in 2014 until the NCAA denied their appeal for postseason eligibility. But the lack of a bowl game didn’t detract from what Georgia Southern accomplished in its first year as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. It pushed NC State in a one-point loss on the road, fell by four points at Georgia Tech and went undefeated in the Sun Belt. With junior running back Matt Breida back to lead a dangerous triple-option attack, the Eagles could shoot for another perfect conference campaign if their secondary holds up. They’ll have chances to prove themselves against Power Five competition, too, with games at West Virginia and Georgia.
New Mexico State
Players to watch
Brandon Doughty, QB, Western Kentucky
Defensive backs across Conference USA let out a collective groan when word dropped that Doughty was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Nobody could slow the quarterback last season, and there’s no reason to think that will change. Expect the Davie, Fla., native to post another ridiculous season stat line after leading the country with 4,830 passing yards and 49 touchdowns in 2014.
Reynolds is the perfect quarterback to pilot Navy’s triple option. He’s a durable, elusive runner who, when the situation calls, can burn defenses by flinging the ball to receivers all over the field. Teams already hate preparing for Navy because of its strange system, and Reynolds adds another layer of complexity. The senior could help the Midshipmen push Houston and Memphis in the American’s West Division.
Elijah McGuire, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette
College football fans know all about one Louisiana running back—LSU’s Leonard Fournette—but it’s time to get acquainted with his smaller, if more elusive, counterpart from the Group of Five school located about an hour away. McGuire was named the Sun Belt player of the year last season after rushing for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns at 7.61 yards per carry and catching 45 passes for 468 yards and two scores.
Nonconference games to watch
Western Kentucky at LSU (Oct. 24)
By this point in the season, LSU could be making a case for a College Football Playoff berth, hopelessly off the pace in the SEC West or anywhere in between. Setting that unpredictability aside, this game could catch the Tigers off-guard if they start looking ahead to their Nov. 7 meeting with Alabama, which is preceded by a bye week.
Michigan State at Western Michigan (Sept. 4)
The Broncos bring back nine starters from an offense that finished second in the MAC in yards per play last season. The problem? Those starters won’t be able to move the ball nearly as easily against a front seven as formidable as Michigan State’s. The Spartans have playoff aspirations, and they won’t want to torpedo their chances in the season opener.
American Athletic Conference
Ole Miss at Memphis (Oct. 17)
The Tigers trailed the Rebels by just four points entering the fourth quarter of a loss in Oxford last September. To pull off the win at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium this season, Memphis will need to overcome the departure of eight defensive starters and coordinator Barry Odom (to Missouri). Ole Miss won’t be able to take advantage, however, unless it finds a reliable quarterback to replace Bo Wallace.
Mountain West Conference
Washington at Boise State (Sept. 4)
Petersen returns to the blue turf to face the program he developed into the nation’s premier mid-major. He appears to be building the Huskies toward something, but they aren’t yet in the same tier as Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12 North and will struggle to win this game. Washington still must settle on a quarterback and loses multiple NFL draft picks from its defense. The matchup with the Huskies is the first of two tests against Power Five opponents for Boise State, which also faces Virginia on Sept. 25.
Sun Belt Conference
Missouri at Arkansas State (Sept. 12)
This game could provide an early indication of whether Missouri is being overrated or underrated as the team SEC media picked to finish third in the East Division. The Red Wolves can put up points by the bucketful, and with senior quarterback Fredi Knighten leading an offense that includes nine returning starters, new Tigers defensive coordinator Barry Odom will have his hands full.