Conference USA

By on August 8, 2010

EAST

                                                   The Golden Knights return 15 starters and are the most balanced team in the conference. They get the nod over Southern Miss because the Knights get USM at home. This season’s success hinges largely on junior QB Rob Calabrese. Now that he has secured the starting job, look for him to make a name for himself. The Knights’ defense is the best in the conference and will help carry them to the conference title game. An interdivisional game at Houston could determine home field in the conference title game. If they can come out of their nonconference games better than 2-2, big things may happen in Orlando. Look for George O’Leary’s squad to turn in a 9-3 record in 2010.

Marshall Thundering Hurd

This is where things get murky, as every team has question marks, the Thundering Herd take second in the East because they appear to have the least. They return 14 starters from a surprise 7-6 team in 2009.  There may be a learning curve, but new coach Doc Holiday’s up-tempo offense should have the herd humming once they get into conference play. The defense could be vulnerable after top cornerback DeQuan Bembry was dismissed from the team after a July arrest, leaving the Herd woefully thin in the secondary. They will take their lumps with a brutal nonconference schedule that visits Ohio State and then West Virginia at home, but this will just toughen them up for conference play, where they should win six games, making them 8-4 overall.

Only three offensive starters return for a Golden Eagle offense that averaged over 30 ppg in 2009. So asking head coach Larry Fedora’s high octane offense to carry a sometimes underachieving defense may be a stretch. The D does return nine starters and if they can gain some consistency, they should be one of the better units in the conference. They end the season with UCF, Houston, and Tulsa; three tough games that will end their bowl hopes. They may reach six wins, but one of those will be against FBS School Prairie View A&M, which doesn’t count towards their bowl eligibility.

                                                    It looks to be a tough year for the Blazers;  QB Joe Webb has moved on. He led the team in passing and rushing. In 2009 UAB was seventh rushing in the nation. That total is bound to take a hit. That’s 32 total touchdowns and 3,700 totals yards they have to replace with Webb’s departure. The Blazers giving up 32.3 points doesn’t look to improve much this year either. A tough schedule that includes a trip to Tennessee means it’s going to be a long year, so expect them to take a step back from their surprising 2009 5-7 mark, and expect 2-3 wins.

ECU Pirates

 As with most conference USA teams, the Pirates have lots of questions to answer, and most of them begin with the coaching staff. USF hired away Skip Holtz and ECU replaced him with Mike Leach assistant, Ruffin McNeil. McNeil plans on installing Leach’s “air raid” offense at ECU, which could be a good thing. Problem is, Ruffin was a defensive assistant at Texas Tech, and that was always their Achilles heel. Also, having a walk-on Brad Womack as your starting QB, spells trouble. ECU returns only eight starters from last year’s conference championship team, and only two on defense. Holtz did recruit some talent so there is something to work with, but with three ACC schools and an always tough Navy on the schedule, three or four wins seems appropriate for the Pirates.

 Memphis Tigers                                                  The Tigers are in complete rebuilding mode as Memphis Alum Larry Porter replaces Tommy West as head coach. Memphis lost 25 seniors to graduation and some of their most talented players followed West out the door. Coach Porter said the strength of the team will be defense and added, “Eventually our fans will be excited about our offense.” Coach, that ‘eventually’ says all you need to know about Memphis. Points will be incredibly hard to come by and as a result, so will wins. Expect an O-fer in Memphis.

West

 Lucky for Conference USA, it has a West division and the Cougars lead the way as the most talented team in the conference. The Cougars led the nation in offense in 2009, return senior Heisman hopeful QB Case Keenum, and have a legitimate chance of earning an at-large BCS bid if they can run the table. Houston should be favored in every game, so 13-0 is a possibility. Problem is, if the offense hiccups a porous defense, it may cost them a game or two against inferior teams.  If former Philadelphia Eagles assistant Brian Stewart can fix the defense and find some playmakers, it should be a perfect season in Houston, but more than likely 10-2 with a conference title.

SMU Mustangs

June Jones returns for his third year as coach of the Mustangs, with some lofty expectations in mind. It was in his third year at Hawaii that Jones’ run-n-gun offense took flight and after a 1-11 and 8-5 records in his first two years at SMU, the Mustangs have finally tossed aside the death penalty and look to return to their former glory. They return 15 starters including sophomore QB Kyle Padron, who performed admirably as he went from backup to starter in 2009, throwing a meager four interceptions along the way. The defense allowed 27.6 ppg in 2009 and with more experience, that number should only go down. If everything falls into place it could be a special season in downtown Dallas. Another eight win season is likely. If they can upset Houston at home, a spot in the conference title game is not out of the question.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

 The Golden Hurricane return nine starters on offense and 14 overall. Hopefully the offense can mature into an explosive unit that will allow Tulsa to be in the mix to represent the West in the conference championship game. Look for coach Todd Graham’s squad to return to the form they showed in his first two seasons, where they averaged 47 ppg. If everything goes right, nine wins is a strong possibility, but a seven win campaign is more likely to happen.

 The Miners return to a bowl game; all depends on senior QB Trevor Vittaoe. If he can play like he did his first two years, then they are bowl bound, thanks in large part to an easy schedule. If Vittaoe comes back with 2009’s mistake and turnover form;  the Miners are in trouble. The ground game is solid with Senior RB Donald Buckram, Conference USA’s leading rusher, returning.  New defensive coordinator Andre Patterson will scrap that awful 3-3-5 the Miners played under Osia Lewis in favor of a more traditional 4-3. Anything has to get that 34 ppg allowed down to a reasonable level. There are six very winnable games on the schedule, and with strong senior leadership and an improved defense, seven or eight wins is not out of the question. Best guess, 6-6.

Tulane Green Wave

You could flip the Green Wave and the Owls and no one would care. They will spend all year fighting to stay out of the conference USA basement. Four starters return on offense. That might be a good thing, as they averaged an appalling 16 ppg in 2009. Obviously, some talent is needed. Sophomore QB Ryan Griffin took over the starting job with six games left in the 2009 season and put up the best numbers in Tulane history by a freshman QB. The down side to that is Tulane’s leading rusher and receiver now reside in the NFL. Tulane was flat blown-out in seven of their defeats and two of their top four tacklers are gone. Whoever wins the epic matchup with Rice, probably stays out of the basement. The Bob Toledo era in New Orleans is officially over.

Two late victories against equally bad teams saved the Owls from an 0-fer in 2009. The Owls return 18 starters, nine on both sides of the ball, from that 2-10 team. This has some people saying they could compete and even make a bowl! I’ll have what they are having, because 18 players returning from a 2-11 team feels a lot like another 2-11 team. Rice is in need of a serious infusion of talent all over the field. Just how bad is it at Rice? The QB spot is a fight between two sophomores and a freshman. On the bright side, the nation’s leading tackler returns – Junior Travis Bradshaw, a safety, which is not a good thing. I already said two wins, although I have no idea where they will come from.

 Conference championship – Houston over UCF

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