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Way-too-early predictions for league champs outside 'Big Five'

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  • By Chase Goodbread, Mike Huguenin and Bryan Fischer
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John Raoux/Associated Press
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato is looking to build on a highly productive 2013 season.

As we take a look at the players that will be charged with replacing the 2014 draftees at schools outside of the "Big Five" leagues, here are some early (OK, way-too-early) league-champion predictions from the College Football 24/7 team for the upcoming season:

AAC champion

Chase Goodbread: Cincinnati. UCF coach George O'Leary is the league's best coach, but after a spectacular one-loss season, O'Leary loses too much talent for UCF to repeat as conference champs. Enter Tommy Tuberville's Bearcats, who return gifted talents at both wide receiver (Shaq Washington, Chris Moore, Mekale McKay) and running back (Hosey Williams). LB Nick Temple and DL Silverberry Mouhon, who combined for 26 TFLs a year ago, return to lead the defensive front seven.

Mike Huguenin: UCF. Yes, QB Blake Bortles is gone, as is star TB Storm Johnson and three starting offensive linemen. But coach George O'Leary always has been a defense-first guy, and the Knights should have the best defense in the league, thanks to LB Terrance Plummer and SS Clayton Geathers. The running game should be fine, too, which would be enough for the league title. And keep an eye on league newcomer East Carolina -- the offense should be excellent but the defense is a question.

Bryan Fischer: Houston. UCF, Cincinnati, ECU -- you could go a number of different directions with this pick, but I'll go with a surprise in Houston. They nearly won the league a season ago and return one of the best quarterback-receiver duos outside of the "Power 5" in John O'Korn and Deontay Greenberry. The defense, especially the secondary, will continue to force turnovers and the improvement on offense will bode well for a schedule that includes a home game against UCF.

Conference USA champion

Goodbread: Marshall. Quarterback Rakeem Cato returns for his final season after throwing 39 touchdown passes in 2013 against just nine interceptions. His top target, diminutive Miami native Tommy Shuler, returns hard-pressed to improve on his numbers from last season (106-1,165-10). Also back is leading tackler Evan McKelvey at linebacker. Rice will contend, but the Cato factor should carry Marshall a long way this season.

Huguenin: Marshall. The Thundering Herd lost in the league's title game last season; this season, they should be expected to win it. Rakeem Cato should throw for 4,000 yards and 40 TDs, and WR Tommy Shuler should have another 100-catch season. The defense should be fine, too. The running game is a concern, though.

Fischer: Marshall. Rakeem Cato is the most prolific quarterback most folks haven't heard of and he could top his impressive 39 TD passes from a year ago with Tommy Shuler back. Rice could sneak up on the team, but the Thundering Herd have the talent and scheme to make noise in Conference USA.

MAC champion

Goodbread: Northern Illinois. Star quarterback Jordan Lynch is gone, and there won't be another quite like him. But NIU's talent should be sufficient to take the MAC. Cameron Stingily returns after rushing for 1,100 yards last season, so it's not as though Lynch did everything. Key members of the receiving corps return as well, which should make for an easier transition at quarterback. The entire linebacker corps returns, led by fifth-year senior Jamaal Bass.

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Huguenin: Toledo. The Rockets have 18 returning starters. The offensive line is big and physical, and if a competent quarterback emerges, this team should win the league. The defense should be appreciably better than it was last season, when it faltered late and gave up a bit more than 35 points per game in the final three contests, two of which the Rockets lost.

Fischer: Bowling Green. There are a lot of questions for every team in the league heading into 2014 and the normal craziness that is MACtion always makes for a difficult conference to predict. Head coach Dino Babers inherits a very good team and one that should fit his wide-open offense perfectly. QB Matt Johnson should see his numbers shoot up and there should be enough on defense to survive in the MAC.

Mountain West champion

Goodbread: Utah State. This is a team that went 9-4 last season despite some crucial players to injuries, most notably star quarterback Chuckie Keeton. This fall, Keeton returns with big expectations despite a rebuilt offensive line. Prior to a knee injury that knocked him out for the year after just six games, Keeton had connected on nearly 70 percent of his passes with a TD-INT ratio of 18-2. Boise State will be the popular pick, and USU might have to beat the Broncos on the road in November to win the conference.

Huguenin: San Diego State. The Aztecs have to rebuild their defense, but that's coach Rocky Long's specialty. His 4-2-5 set causes problems for opposing offenses, and if he can find two new safeties, SDSU's defense will be fine. The offense will miss RB Adam Muema, but the Aztecs should have a good passing attack and the line is big and physical.

Fischer: Utah State. Matt Wells is a rising star in the coaching ranks and did a great job last season getting the team to 9-4 while Chuckie Keeton was out recovering from an injury. The quarterback returns healthy in 2014 and should pick up right where he left off with a number of key pieces back. They'll have to top league power Boise State, but they have what it takes heading into the season.

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Sun Belt champion

Goodbread: Louisiana-Lafayette. This is the year for coach Mark Hudspeth, one of college football's brightest minds, to take the step from very good to dominant in Sun Belt play. Quarterback Terrance Broadway returns as a major offensive threat, both running and passing. Tackling machine Justin Anderson is gone at linebacker, but Dominique Tovell could be primed for a big season at defensive end.

Huguenin: Louisiana-Lafayette. At some point, bigger schools will have to notice what coach Mark Hudspeth has done with the Ragin' Cajuns. He has returning starters everywhere and should oversee the best offense in the league and one of the top two defenses. Back-to-back road games against Mississippi and Boise State in mid-September give the Ragin' Cajuns a chance to make some national noise, too.

Fischer: Louisiana-Lafayette. It's still a bit surprising that a bigger program hasn't poached Mark Hudspeth, but that's good news for the Ragin' Cajuns heading into 2014. This team has a key leader in Terrance Broadway at quarterback plus the best depth in the conference. It will be surprising if they don't run away with the league title.

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