Marshall favorites to win Conference USA?

IRVING, Texas – Marshall coach Doc Holliday doesn’t mind people talking about his team being the clear favorite to win Conference USA’s East Division. Or even discussing his team’s chances of doing a lot more than that.

Some projections see the Herd as a legitimate candidate to earn a berth to a top-tier bowl as the highest-ranked team from the "Group of Five" mid-major conferences. Marshall does not play a team from the so-called Power Five conferences, so if the Herd live up to expectations, an undefeated season is a real possibility.

"I’ve always said, I don’t ever want to be the coach at somewhere where expectations aren’t extremely high," Holliday said at C-USA’s recent Media Day.

Marshall topped C-USA’s preseason coaches poll in the East Division with 91 points. Middle Tennessee was next with 73 points and Florida Atlantic third with 60.

With a non-conference slate of Miami (Ohio), Rhode Island, Ohio and Akron, Marshall could be in position to nab a spot in a major bowl if it runs the table in C-USA. The Herd’s coach welcomes such speculation.

 "People are talking about us the way we want to be talked about," Holliday said. "We’ve embraced those expectations as players and coaches, but we also understand along with those expectations come responsibility. If we don’t go to work every day as a team and get better, then we’ve got no chance of reaching the expectations people have set for us."

North Texas picked to win West, but it’s close

C-USA coaches predicted a tight race in the West Division. North Texas led the pack with 66 points, followed closely by Rice with 65 and UTSA with 62.

If UNT is to repeat last year’s success – a 9-4 record and a bowl win – it will have to do it with a remade team.

"We’ve got so many new faces," coach Dan McCarney said. "We have to re-establish our identity."

McCarney said UNT’s nine returning starters is the second-fewest in the country, behind only Utah State with seven returners.

"We’ve got a lot of work to do, more questions than answers right now, but there is a lot of positive momentum," McCarney said.

Marshall’s Cato works to be even better in 2014

One of the big reasons Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato is a Heisman hopeful is his work ethic. Cato was chosen by C-USA coaches as the preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

"He works harder than anybody, on and off the field," said Marshall defensive end James Rouse, who was chosen as the preseason Defensive Player of the Year. "He studies film, he studies the opponent. He looks forward to finding ways to make himself better and to make the team better."

Looking to improve his game for 2014, Cato spent time in the offseason working with former Marshall great and NFL quarterback Chad Pennington.

"I worked on my deep ball a lot," Cato said. "Looking back on film, when I would throw my deep balls I would throw it with a lot of air. This spring I worked on throwing a line drive and not putting a lot of air under the ball."

C-USA defensive backs have been warned.

UTSA no longer the new kids on the block

As the UTSA football program enters its fourth season, the Roadrunners now have a plethora of experienced players. UTSA will have 37 seniors, including 54 returning lettermen.

The list includes nine returning starters on offense, 10 on defense and all five specialists.

"It’s fun this year," coach Larry Coker joked. "Ask me next year."

As a maturing program, the Roadrunners won’t catch many teams by surprise anymore after going 7-5 last season, 6-2 in conference play.

Coker said he will miss the days when expectations were lower for the program.

"I want to still be the up-and-comer," Coker said. "I want the other players to look at us and say, ‘Man, that’s a start-up. That’ll be an easy game’ and surprise a few people."

Owls to open season on hallowed ground

Rice coach David Bailiff vacationed in Italy during the offseason where he saw such awe-inspiring sights as the Sistine Chapel. When he opens the season Aug. 30, he can get a good look at Touchdown Jesus, too.

"We know Notre Dame’s one of the iconic football teams in the history of college football," Bailiff said. "We’re excited to go. What a great job I’ve got – that’s on my bucket list to go to Notre Dame. Rice is paying my way and I’m getting a sideline pass."

Of course, Bailiff plans to do more than sightsee in South Bend. Playing Notre Dame will be a challenge, as will the other tradition-rich program Rice faces in its second game: Texas A&M.

"The team is so excited about going," Bailiff said. " That’s obviously a tough place, A&M will be a tough place. It’s still all about Conference USA. We’ve just got to make sure we’re improving and competing."

Bowl win could be just the start for UNT

Winning the Heart of Dallas Bowl last season was something North Texas had been building towards under McCarney, but it can also be a springboard to further success.

"I believe it can," said McCarney, entering his fourth season in Denton. "There’s just a different feeling around the whole program. It just feels different. The sounds of the program, the support of the program, the feel of the program. People care again, and that’s such a good feeling."

UNT’s players have certainly done their part to remind everyone about the program’s first bowl appearance since 2004.

"It’s not one day that I don’t see one of my teammates wearing their bowl gear," said offensive lineman Cyril Lemon., "T-shirts, sweats, shoes, everything,"

In fact, Lemon was proudly wearing his bowl watch at Media Day.

"We would like a ring," Lemon said. "That’s another thing we can reach for this year."

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire