NCAA Football Conference USA Football

Rant Sports College Football Rankings: No. 90 Old Dominion Monarchs

taylor heinicke

Charles LeClaire – USA TODAY Sports

The Old Dominion Monarchs have quickly built a half-way decent football program from scratch over the last seven years. Last season, they were in transition from FCS to FBS, officially listed as an Independent, and played just five games against FBS opponents going 1-4. Overall, the Monarchs went 8-4 on the year, going undefeated against their former FCS compatriots.

This year, ODU will make the full transition to the FBS level as a full-fledged member of Conference USA. With a head coach that has over-achieved since reviving the football program, a strong offense with veteran leaders, and a manageable schedule in 2014, the Monarchs have a shot to shock the college football world this fall.

Offense

The Monarchs are led by one of the best senior quarterbacks that nobody has heard of in Taylor Heinicke. As a sophomore, he won the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy, and looked even better in 2013. He finished the season completing 70 percent of his passes as he racked up 4,022 yards and 33 touchdowns against just eight interceptions.

Heinicke will have his biggest stage yet to show what he’s capable of in 2014 and he’ll have some solid weapons to do it with. The team’s top four receivers from 2013 return this fall led by senior Larry Pinkard who caught 68 passes a year ago for 1,020 yards and nine touchdowns. The receiving corps is stacked with big targets and athletic speedsters who will provide plenty of options in the passing game this fall.

The offensive line is the one question mark as they lose three experienced starters off the 2013 roster. If they can find some suitable replacements to quickly gel and protect Heinicke, the Monarchs offense should be very fun to watch.

Defense

The defense was a major letdown for Old Dominion in 2013, often overshadowing the promising offensive production. At the very least, the defense will enjoy a great deal of experience returning in 2014 and see an improvement in their depth this season. But how well that depth translates to success on the field will play a major role in the Monarchs’ success next season.

Six of the team’s top defensive linemen will return in 2014, led by defensive end Terrell Reid. Last season, Reid finished with 25.5 tackles and finished second on the team with three sacks. He will be asked to step up as a leader and create more havoc off the edge in 2014. He’ll have plenty of help, but must rally the unit to be more productive this fall.

Behind them, there’s plenty of returning talent at linebacker and in the secondary. Middle linebacker Richie Staton, who led the team with four sacks in 2013, is back in the middle of the defense. At strong safety, the team’s leading tackler last season, Fellonte Misher, returns to be an enforcer on the back end of the defense. But these producers have to be leaders to get better production out of the other defenders around them.

Schedule

While there are serious questions about the defense of the Monarchs, they will benefit from avoiding any high-powered offensive teams on the schedule in 2014. Their two biggest non-conference games come on the road against the NC State Wolfpack and the Vanderbilt Commodores. Outside of these road trips, the Monarchs don’t face too much stiff competition.

If the defense comes along this season, the offense should make enough of an impact to make Old Dominion a major player in the C-USA title race. When all is said and done, however, the Monarchs may still be a few years of building their program away from getting over the top and bringing home the conference championship. Look for ODU to win six to eight games in 2014 and make a splash in their first full season at the FBS level.

You can follow me on Twitter @ATylerBrett, on Facebook and on Google