USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

12 39 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Don't blame Old Dominion for throwing in the towel. In 1940, the program's final season before embarking on a 68-year absence, the Monarchs played six teams and scored zero points, failing to put the ball into the end zone against the murderer's row of Bergen Junior College, Belmont Abbey and Newport News Apprentice School, among three others.

Not that losing alone led ODU football to shutter its doors. For starters, the Monarchs' conference decided after that 1940 season that two-year institutions – ODU then being one – could no longer play freshmen, cramping the school's roster pool; that, in conjunction with a $10,000 debt, forced the university's hand.

COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)

And so ODU football laid dormant until 2005, when the university voted unanimously to reform its program in 2009. First came the coach: Bobby Wilder came over from Maine in 2007, signed his first class in 2008 and led the Monarchs back onto the field a year later. Then came the refurbishments: ODU rehabbed Foreman Field – built in 1936 – to match the school's forward-looking football future.

Then came the conference alignment: ODU joined the Colonial Athletic Association in 2011 after going 17-5 during two seasons as a Football Championship Subdivision independent. Then came conference realignment: Conference USA came calling in 2013 after months of rumor, gossip and intrigue, giving the Monarchs a seat at the major-college table.

Now comes the hard part. ODU has arrived, for better or worse, and only five years after its revival must deal with the trials and tribulations associated with a step up college football's ladder. Then again, at the program's current rate of growth – from zero to 60 in a breeze – Old Dominion should soon find itself at the top of Conference USA.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

Not applicable.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: A season of ups and downs for the Monarchs, with more of the former than the latter. Bad news first: ODU went 1-4 against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, losing three by 24 or more points. Of this group, none was worse than an 80-20 slaughter at the hands of North Carolina in the finale – though one silver lining from that loss was how it could have motivated the returning team to further ramp up its game during the offseason to match this year's schedule. Now, the good news: Old Dominion showed that it was clearly beyond the FCS, scoring 357 points in defeating all eight of the teams from its former subdivision. In total, let the season stand as a microcosm of the program's place as a whole: the Monarchs are too good for the FCS but not quite ready to hang with major-conference foes from the FBS.

High point: Liberty. The Monarchs pulled out the 21-17 win with a 64-yard punt return and a late touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. ODU also topped an FBS team – in name, at least – with a 59-38 mauling of Idaho on Nov. 9.

Low point: UNC, I guess, for pure ugliness. I still think there can be positives found in defeat. But man, that was ugly.

SPRING FOOTBALL: Conference USA

Tidbit: ODU once played host to Miami (Fla.) during the program's previous incarnation, losing 6-2 to the Hurricanes on Oct. 14, 1932. That's surprising enough in its own right, but how the matchup came about defies logic – because Miami had no intention of playing the Monarchs in the first place. Instead, Miami had intended to send the invitation to William & Mary, then the Monarchs' parent institution. Whether due to a mailroom mix-up, a mistakenly addressed letter or some subterfuge, Miami came to Virginia and played the Monarchs, not the Tribe.

Tidbit (coaching edition): Meet the Monarchs. Wilder is 46-14 during five years with ODU, leading the program to the 2012 CAA title and into at least the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2011 and 2012. Offensive coordinator Brian Scott, another former Maine assistant, has been with Wilder since the program's return in 2007; he's done an outstanding job. Defensive coordinator Rich Nagy enters his second season after coming over from Western Michigan, where he spent the previous three seasons in the same capacity. Elsewhere, Jeff Comissiong coaches the defensive line, Bill Dee works alongside Scott with the offensive line, Ulrick Edmonds coach the linebackers, Zohn Burden the wide receivers, Ron Whitcomb the quarterbacks, Michael Zyskowski the special teams and Kermit Buggs – formerly with Penn State – the secondary.

Tidbit (November edition): The Monarchs' loss to UNC was the program's first defeat in the month of November since Nov. 16, 1940, when it came out on the sad end of a 26-0 decision to Bluefield College.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

FCS quarterbacks in the NFL

1. Kurt Warner, Northern Iowa
2. Steve McNair, Alcorn State
3. Phil Simms, Morehead State
4. Rich Gannon, Delaware
5. Tony Romo, Eastern Illinois

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: Old Dominion's offense is up-tempo after two cups of coffee. Here's the general gist: go. Go, go, go and go, then score, then breathe and go again. It's been the same for several years running, in general principle, but this year's attack has been tweaked somewhat to adjust to the FBS ranks. Due to a high level of experience – and a major player at quarterback, as we'll see – the Monarchs' plan is to approach the line of scrimmage with at least two and as many as three plays ready to roll, depending on the defensive alignment and potential weak spots. Don't worry about these guys: ODU's offense is going to score points in Conference USA right from the start.

Now, the quarterback. Senior Taylor Heinicke (4,022 yards and 33 touchdowns) is already one of the best FCS quarterbacks in recent history; in 2014, he'll take his show to the next subdivision. Heinicke first appeared on the national radar two years ago, when he threw for an NCAA all-division-record 730 yards in a 64-61 win against New Hampshire, and has continued this torrid pace on most Saturdays since, including nine 300-yard performances a season ago. Here's where you see why this programs seems different than most first-year transfers: ODU has a really good quarterback. Having said that, it'd be silly to expect Heinicke to match his FCS-era production against this schedule. What's more likely is a solid turnover ratio, a high completion percentage but fewer big plays downfield, a projected decline the staff hopes to address with a stronger dedication to the run.

Not that they'll turn into Army or Navy, but the Monarchs have spoken about the desire to use more running plays to open quick-hit passing lanes and the potential for play-action. Heinicke does some work with his legs, but the ground game will run largely through sophomore Gerard Johnson (372 yards), senior Cam Boyd (450 yards) and redshirt freshman Malik Moseley, who has impressed on the scout team. ODU also adds a pair of freshmen, Ray Lawry and Vincent Lowe, even if both should find it tough to crack the rotation. I get the impression this backfield will get more of a workout than during the recent past.

The receiver corps is stacked with players well-versed in the offensive system. The rotation won't change a bit: ODU returns seniors Larry Pinkard (68 receptions for 1,020 yards), Blair Roberts (46 for 560) and Antonio Vaughan (60 for 843) and sophomores Melvin Vaughn (19 for 149) and Zach Pascal (41 for 534). The Monarchs will also add in lanky redshirt freshman Keshawn Henderson and former Florida International transfer Nick England while adding in as many as four receivers from February's class, so few Conference USA teams will have as many pass-catching options. There's enough depth to more than survive the quick loss of JUCO transfer Jusse York, an impressive talent who didn't last three months with the program.

Defense: The Monarchs must confront two issues: one, last year's inconsistent performance – against FBS teams in particular – and two, the fact that many new faces must get brought up to speed before August. While ODU sputtered against the better teams on last season's slate, blame can be shared between a general lack of difference-making talent and the program's youngest defensive two-deep since its resurrection. One year later, you can see positives in the increased experience and number of JUCO transfers set for major roles. At the same time, let's consider this: ODU allowed 53.5 points per game against FBS competition in 2013.

It'll be easier to get a read on the defensive line in August, after ODU returns a pair of ends from injury while adding three members of its recruiting class. One addition, JUCO transfer Poncho Barnwell, will challenge senior Preston Smith, junior Andrew Everett and sophomores Terrell Reid, Jude Brenya and Scott Wiggins for the two starting spots at end. In a perfect world, ODU could start Barnwell and Everett – two nice-sized bodies – with Reid and Brenya the top reserves. Depth shouldn't be a problem, at least. Depth might be an issue inside without Dominique Guinn-Bailey, who recently left the program. But the staff is happy with former walk-on Bumni Rotimi, who could provide helpful backup snaps – along with Mallik Gumbs and a healthy Galen Evans – to senior nose guard Chris Smith and sophomore tackle Rashaad Coward. In terms of first-year FBS teams, the Monarchs' line is ahead of the curve.

Old Dominion's second level includes an outside linebacker, a middle linebacker and a hybrid linebacker-safety; of these three spots, at least two – and perhaps all three – will have a new starter in 2014. Yes, there are JUCO transfers in play. One is Reece Schmidt, currently battling at middle linebacker with sophomore Kanyia Anderson, who has impressed after moving from end, and sophomore Richie Staton (72 tackles, 10.5 for loss), who started most of last season. A second JUCO transfer, Martez Simpson, is in the mix with T.J. Ricks for the starting job at outside linebacker. And while senior Andre Simmons (78 tackles) is the odds-on favorite to assume the hybrid role after moving from safety, ODU could use JUCO transfer Kohl Adams-Hurd once he returns from a leg injury.

Sophomore free safety Rob Thompson's steady play during the spring made ODU breathe a little easier about Simmons' move to the second level. Junior strong safety Fellonte Misher (95 tackles) faced a battle for first-team duties during the spring but came out on top, meaning ODU's leading tackler from last fall will return to the starting lineup. Two names to watch in the secondary are true freshmen Justin Noye and Christian Byrum, a pair of three-star recruits; Noye enrolled early, likely earning the backup job to Thompson, while Byrum joins the mix this summer. He'll have to play catchup at cornerback, since ODU seems secure in sophomore Sandy Chapman (30 tackles) and senior Reggie Owens (28 tackles) as the starters.

Special teams: Sophomore kicker Ricky Segers will step in for Jared Brown, the best kicker in school history, and it's hard to see ODU matching its recent production in the kicking game. I think the Monarchs have the skill players to do a fine job on returns, but the overall talent level on this roster could see the coverage teams struggle with the transition.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Offensive line: In general, ODU's offense is well ahead of the typical curve for a first-year FBS program – most struggle from the start, but I doubt the Monarchs suffer through any extended lulls even against the tougher schedule. Individually, however, there are some areas of concern. One is the line, where each individual returning lineman – yes, even the more experienced hands – will have his fair share of down moments against FBS-level defensive linemen. As we've said with other FBS newcomers, the greatest transition for each team comes up front; for teams like ODU, there's simply no way to replicate and prepare for the 260-pound athletes simply not seen on the FCS level. While there are high expectations, the Monarchs' staff – and this fan base – needs to be patient with this front.

It was hard to get a read during the spring: ODU, already down three starters, spent at least part of drills without tackle Connor Mewbourne and center Josh Mann, two projected starters. When the dust clears, look for Mewbourne to bookend the line with sophomore Tyler Fisher, a part-time starter at left guard a season ago. That would leave Mann at center, if healthy, flanked by two of Troy Butler, Tyler Burns, Tyler Compton and JUCO transfer Raul Martinez, with expectations high for the latter. For now, the injuries, lack of proven depth and overall lack of experience are major concerns. But say one thing about this staff: Wilder and Scott have schemed around deficiencies before to impressive results. Just not against this level of competition, to be fair.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Eastern Michigan: This is a game ODU shouldn't just win but dominate, in my opinion. If the Monarchs don't – again, I think they'll win by two scores – it would be a very negative sign for the remainder of the season. ODU will make its Conference USA debut a week later at Rice, one of the league's preseason favorites, and then play host to Marshall and Middle Tennessee State – essentially playing three of the league's four best teams right off the bat. I guess we'll have a pretty good picture of what this year's team will bring to the table after the first Saturday of October.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: Of all the FCS-to-FBS additions of the last five years – and there have been many – Old Dominion is the best prepared to avoid a distressing, often ugly debut and make an immediate impact. Hence the Monarchs' higher ranking, relatively speaking; most FBS neophytes get chewed up and spit out against the higher level of competition, but ODU has the coaching, scheme and proven production to be a solid first-year addition to Conference USA, bypassing the cellar and adding some interest to the East Division race. I don't want to oversell things, but it seems obvious: ODU is in good shape.

The offense has the horses at the skill positions, not to mention the overall blueprint, to score on any team in the conference. Now, it won't be as dynamic; I think Heinicke's numbers dip, the running game sputters and the receiver corps finds things far more difficult against FBS defensive backs. But the points will be there, if somewhat decreased, and the offense as a whole won't be to blame should ODU fall short of expectations. The defense, on the other hand, is improved but still a touch questionable even if the JUCO transfers lend a hand along the front seven. As a whole, the Monarchs look to me like the best first-year team in recent FBS history.

Yeah, it's a bit of a backhanded compliment – because the competition for that title isn't much, for one, and being the best firs-year FBS team still means you trail most of, you know, the FBS. Even a team with ODU's foundation is going to hit some bumps along the road, particularly against the schedule's cream of the crop: North Carolina State, Rice, Marshall, Middle Tennessee State, Western Kentucky and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In general, my theory is ODU occupies some sort of middle ground, where the Monarchs romp through a few terrible teams but get their doors blown off by the slate's best. Make sense? Hey, at least the Monarchs are already somewhere – it's taken other FBS newcomers years to move beyond nowhere. I really think this program can do some special things in Conference USA. The Monarchs will show this at times in 2014.

Dream season: ODU loses to N.C. State, Rice, Marshall and Vanderbilt but wins the rest.

Nightmare season: The Monarchs win only two games, with one coming against Hampton in the opener.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 105? This school's women's soccer team went 3-4-1 last fall in road games.

12 39 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1lhzV79