HUNTINGTON - Marshall University's football schedule against Conference-USA opponents includes two programs who appeared in a bowl and another school that deserved that honor only to be snubbed by bowl officials.
The Thundering Herd also enter into the unknown for their league opener and final C-USA game as they face two schools new to the C-USA family - Old Dominion and Western Kentucky.
Time will tell if Marshall can live up to expectations and appear in its second consecutive C-USA championship game and avenge last year's loss in the title game.
At Old Dominion
Time TBA, Oct. 4
Old Dominion has produced the best record by a startup program in college football history after going 46-14 since beginning from the ground up.
"We are much farther along than I thought we would be," Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder said. "We had a philosophy since the start of our program that we call 'Aim high' and that's about recruiting and developing good people. To do that, you have to get them excited and provide a place where they can have fun.
"That's something we've been able to create at Old Dominion."
Old Dominion's style on offense spreads out defenses. Last year, the Monarchs were one of only six teams to have four players with 40 or more catches.
Defensively, Old Dominion experienced growing pains last year with six first-year players on the defensive line.
"These kids learned in some very difficult situations," Wilder said. "They had to learn in difficult hostile situations and that was a challenge, which we knew it would be. We knew we were going to take our lumps, but our goal was to be competitive in those games and develop this young talent.
"We've done that and I feel like we will be much improved this year."
Taylor Heinecke returns at quarterback and is the active leader in the FBS with 10,000 passing yards. For the past three seasons, he has averaged 500 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing.
"And we don't have a running play in our system for him," Wilder said. "Those are the decisions he makes as far as when to keep the ball. As far as his elusiveness, there's that ability to process information."
Time TBA, Oct. 11
Eight wins doesn't guarantee a bowl berth as Middle Tennessee discovered two years ago, and that served as motivation for last year when the Blue Raiders posted yet another eight-win regular season and earned an invitation to the Armed Forces Bowl.
Middle Tennessee will be celebrating 100 years of football this season.
"Getting six wins and becoming bowl eligible is not our goal," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. "Our goal is to get 12 wins then get to a 13th win in the Conference USA championship."
The ground game was the Blue Raiders' strong suit as five different players eclipsed the 100-yard mark in at least one game last season. All five of those running backs return from a team that averaged 199 rushing yards per game.
"The reason we played so many guys is that we really got beat up at the running back position last year, and that's a testament to our offensive line and our coaches," Stockstill said.
The Blue Raiders are seeking a replacement at quarterback following the graduation of three-year starter Logan Kilgore, who was signed as a rookie free agent by the New Orleans Saints. Another NFL prospect, three-year starter Josh Walker at left guard, has also departed after working out with the Indianapolis Colts.
"It doesn't bother me the quarterback situation hadn't been decided after spring," Stockstill said. "Since none of these guys have played, I don't think it is fair to them or to this team to say after 15 days of spring practice this is the guy.
"I just want to take our time just like we would at any other position."
At Florida International6 p.m., Oct. 18
The good news for Florida International, 30 players return that combined for 200 starts. Problem facing coach Ron Turner is that the Panthers finished 1-11.
"We were the youngest team in the country and the least experienced last year," Turner said. "And it showed at times. We're still one of the youngest teams in the country, but we are an experienced team. You can see their confidence and see they understand what it takes.
"We are not going to win on the field until we are winning off the field, and that wasn't getting done . That's why we didn't win last year."
One advantage for Florida International is that five of its first seven games are at home. The Panthers play a total of eight home games.
"We learned perseverance and how to fight," said Florida International starting center Donald Senat. "We learned how hard it was to win. We went into this past offseason dedicated to turn it around. Last year was tough and we're trying to use it as motivation."
Florida Atlantic7 p.m., Oct. 25
Florida Atlantic won its final four games and finished .500 at 6-6 last season. Now the Owls are under new direction with first-year coach Charlie Partridge.
Three of Florida Atlantic's first four games are on the road. The Owls open at Nebraska then travel to Alabama.
"It's a great opportunity for these guys to play on a national stage," Partridge said.
Two of Florida Atlantic's mainstays are linebacker Andrae Kirk and tight end Alex Deleon. In addition to being named the team's Most Valuable Player on defense, Kirk was a second-team selection in Conference USA. Deleon averaged 12 yards per catch a year ago.
The Owls are a balanced team on offense. Last year, they averaged 185 yards rushing and 199 yards passing.
"We've taken steps toward building depth, especially at the defensive line position," Partridge said.
At Southern Miss7 p.m., Nov. 8
At one point last season, 14 of the 22 Southern Miss starters were either freshmen or sophomores. That inexperience translated into a 1-11 season with the lone victory occurring on the final day of the regular season.
"You can't speed up experience," Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said. "Early on in the season, we didn't play as well as we could have, and we got beat up. We lost our stinger, and confidence is a powerful thing.
"In the back half of the season, I felt better about where we were headed and we got more experience back."
Southern Miss put the responsibility of the offense in the hands of a freshman in mid-season with Nick Mullins, who finished with nearly 1,700 yards passing and 13 touchdowns.
Continuity on the offensive line should also help. Last year, the Golden Eagles used 10 different starters up front.
"As Nick kept playing, he kept progressing and making better decisions," Monken said. "The sky is the limit for him. He has the three most important things: intelligence, accuracy and is mentally tough."
RiceTime TBA, Nov. 15
Graduation took a toll on a program which won the Conference USA championship and appeared in the Liberty Bowl. Last year's senior class included 25 players.
"We have a very talented football team," Rice coach David Bailiff said. "We don't have the game reps we had a year ago, but we have talent. We expect big things out of this bunch."
Rice won the league's West Division with a 7-1 record and finished 10-4 overall.
Providing leadership for the Owls will be the likes of defensive back Malcolm Hill, who has started 26 consecutive games. Hill, who arrived on campus his freshman year as a wide receiver, and Bryce Callahan have combined for 16 interceptions during their time at Rice.
Offensively, wide receiver Jordan Taylor has caught a pass in 21 straight games.
"We had more fun with this great group of young men last year," Bailiff said. "But that is behind us. We've taken the rings off and we're looking forward to the 2014 season."
Rice will revert to a throw-back as its starting quarterback with Driphus Jackson, who played extensively two years ago and was a Most Valuable Player in the Armed Forces Bowl before taking a back-up role in 2013.
"It's not like we're running a rookie in there," Bailiff said. "Driphus is a very confident young man and his time is now."
At UAB1 p.m., Nov. 22
After leading Jacksonville State to prominence with an 11-4 record, Bill Clark was named UAB's third head coach in four years this past January.
The Blazers are coming off a 2-10 finish in 2013. Injuries took a toll before the season even opened.
"We just told our guys they will have to put in the extra work," Clark said. "We are new, but they have to catch up quickly."
With 20 letterwinners returning, UAB is still looking for someone to emerge as the starting quarterback.
"In the game of football, the quarterback makes you go," Clark said. "When you surround him with great folks and veterans, it makes his job easier. It's come down to Cody Clements and Jeremiah Briscoe. Right now, Clements is in the lead.
"It's his job to lose, but we want him to keep competing."
Wide receiver Jemarcus Nelson will make the transition easier for whoever starts at quarterback. Last year, Nelson caught 42 passes for 840 yards, and is on the watch list for the Fred Biletnikoff Award.
"I trust what my coach tells me to do and I trust my speed," Nelson said.
Western KentuckyNoon, Nov. 28
Players at Western Kentucky are settling in now that Jeff Brohm returns for his second season as head coach. The Hilltoppers make their debut in Conference USA.
"Our guys wanted the chance to go to a bowl game, but things happen," Brohm said. "Now we're in a great league with tremendous bowl tie-ins, so we know if we have a successful season we get a chance to go to a great bowl."
In order to challenge for a bowl berth, Brohm will have to find a replacement for Antonio Andrews, an All-American who led the nation in all-purpose yardage. Leon Allen might make the graduation loss of Andrews an afterthought.
"We think Leon could be faster and stronger," Brohm said. "He has a lot of talent. He may not have the natural talent or instincts right now, but we feel he has the chance to be very good."
Western Kentucky hopes for a repeat of last year when it averaged 460 yards on offense and allowed opponents just 339 yards per game. The Hilltoppers' defense ranked 14th in the nation and 10th against the pass.
The Hilltoppers' one downfall was a minus-10 turnover margin.
"That's the No. 1 point of emphasis," Brohm said.
It wasn't long ago when Western Kentucky finished 2-22 between 2009-10. But in the past three seasons, the Hilltoppers are 22-15.
"We feel good where we are at," Brohm said. "We know it's going to be a challenge when you step up to a great conference like Conference USA."