Quantcast 2008 Conference USA Football Preview: 2008 Conference USA (CUSA) Football Preview

2008 Conference USA Football Preview

Conference USA had a stellar 2007 season, culminating in a conference title for George O’Leary and the UCF Knights in the same year that they opened their new on-campus stadium. Overall, C-USA has developed fairly well since the defection of former members Louisville and Cincinnati a few years ago, bearing two 10 win teams last year in UCF and Tulsa; combatants for the second time in three years in the C-USA Championship game.

2008 will be another interesting year for the conference, which welcomes three new head coaches, highlighted by former Hawai’i coach June Jones taking over at Southern Methodist. Furthermore, eight teams return fourteen or more starters, making C-USA a league full of veteran teams. Expect this season to be a fascinating race to play in the conference championship game, especially in the East Division, which appears to be much stronger than the West.



 

2008 CONFERENCE USA FOOTBALL EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH

C-USA EAST: 1) East Carolina 2) Marshall 3) UCF 4) Memphis 5) Southern Miss 6) UAB
C-USA WEST: 1) Houston 2) Tulsa 3) Rice 4) SMU 5) UTEP 6) Tulane


C-USA EAST DIVISION

East Carolina (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

East Carolina posted a solid 8-5 mark in 2007, including a 6-2 C- USA record. The Pirates rebounded well from a 1-3 start to close out the year strong, including a Hawai’i Bowl victory over Boise State. The Pirates were also the only team in the conference to beat 2007 champs Central Florida and 16 starters return from that team to make a run at the conference championship this fall.

East Carolina’s offense was very good last year, led by now departed tailback Chris Johnson, who was a first round pick in the NFL draft in April. The Pirates will have senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney back for his second season as the starter this fall and he should improve his passing ability while continuing to be a threat to run the ball. They are also the only team in the division with a clear cut returning starter at the quarterback position! The offensive line in front of him will be quite good, returning four starters. It wouldn’t be a stretch to consider them one of the C-USA’s top units. The big hole on offense will be at tailback, where Johnson’s 1,400 yards and 17 TDs won’t be easily replaced. Senior Dominique Lindsay and sophomore Jonathan Williams are expected to split the load this fall and should find plenty of space to run behind ECU’s stellar offensive line. Expect ECU to have an improved passing attack, especially with senior Jamar Bryant back at wide receiver, and it should help offset the loss of Johnson at tailback. East Carolina’s offense should be one of the conference’s best this fall.

East Carolina’s 2007 defense could easily be described as bipolar. The Pirates were fairly decent against the run, but their pass defense was abysmal, allowing nearly 300 yards per game through the air! However, ECU brings back a solid group of players, including their entire defensive front. Expect this group to improve against the run and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an improvement in sacks as well. Senior linebacker Pierre Bell missed spring practice but he should be ready to play this fall and will be the leader of a good group. The biggest improvement that this defense can make this fall is if the veteran secondary, which returns three starters, improves from last year’s awful showing. Expect this group to step up to the task and improve against the pass. Assuming that the secondary actually improves, this could be one of the league’s top defenses.

ECU has a moderately difficult conference schedule, drawing Houston and UTEP from the West. The Pirates must also travel to Southern Miss, UCF and UAB in divisional play. Outside of the conference, the Pirates face a brutal slate, opening against Virginia Tech in Charlotte, NC, welcoming West Virginia and traveling to play at NC State and Virginia! In short, ECU has a much more difficult non-conference schedule than most BCS teams and this experience against top competition should serve the Pirates well during conference games. East Carolina is a strong team and has a good offense and a very solid defense. It would be a surprise if the Pirates didn’t finish on top of the C-USA East.

Biggest Games: Aug. 30 th vs. Va. Tech, Sept. 27 th vs. Houston, Nov. 2 nd @ UCF, Nov. 8 th vs. Marshall, Nov. 28 th vs. UTEP

 

Marshall (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

Switching to Conference USA has not been kind to Marshall, who dominated the MAC before the change, winning the conference in 5 out of 6 years and producing NFL stars such as Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. However, the Thundering Herd has not even been bowl eligible the last three years, finishing 3-9 last fall, so this is undoubtedly an audacious pick. However, Marshall returns its most veteran team in years and 17 returning starters should help create a major turnaround this fall.

Marshall’s biggest question on offense entering the year is at the quarterback position, where a wide open race will take place this August. Marshall has three talented QBs to pick from and the winner will have a great supporting cast. Sophomore Darius Marshall returns to take over the running duties full time this fall and he and a strong supporting cast will play behind a solid offensive line which returns three of last year’s starters. At wide receiver, the Thundering Herd returns their top 4 receivers, led by junior TE Cody Slate, who caught 66 passes last fall. Overall, Marshall has all the makings of a solid offense and if they can quickly find consistent QB play they could have a very good year.

One of the biggest reasons Marshall only won three games last year was a porous run defense that allowed nearly 200 yards per game! However, their defensive line was racked by injuries and the team has since switched to a 3-4 scheme, which should enhance linebackers’ their ability to run to the ball. I fully expect Marshall’s experienced front seven, led by senior linebacker Maurice Kitchens (99 tackles and 4 sacks last fall) to improve by leaps and bounds against the run. Furthermore, Marshall returns the secondary intact and senior CJ Spillman is a star and was the team’s top tackler in 2007. I fully expect Marshall’s defense to have a significantly stronger year this fall and could turn out to be one of the conference’s tougher units.

Marshall’s conference schedule is fairly challenging, drawing Houston and Tulsa from the West. However, both of those games, along with UCF, are at home so the Thundering Herd should have a chance at winning a couple of those games. The ending kick to the season is very tough, facing road trips to ECU and Rice and battling UCF and Tulsa. Marshall should be significantly better this year and the plethora of experience returned by the Thundering Herd is a big advantage. Expect a strong defense and running game to carry the team early. If Marshall can find a decent quarterback, they could even challenge ECU for the C-USA East crown. However, a bowl berth and an East runner up finish are much more likely.

Biggest Games: Sept. 27 th @ West Virginia, Oct. 28 th vs. Houston, Nov. 8 th @ ECU, Nov. 15 th vs. UCF, Nov. 29 th vs. Tulsa



Central Florida (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

Central Florida had a great year in 2007, beginning with the opening of their brand-new on campus stadium by pushing perennial heavyweight Texas to the limit. The Knights continued their great 2007 by running through Conference USA and beating Tulsa by three touchdowns in the C-USA title game. Central Florida’s ten wins were the best in school history. The Knights return 14 starters and should again be a contender in Conference USA play.

Central Florida enters 2008 with a lot of questions on offense. Superstar tailback Kevin Smith left early for the NFL after rushing for over 2,500 yards last year! The Knights must also replace their quarterback and three starters on the offensive line. Junior Mike Greco seems to be the first choice to start under center after serving as the back up last fall. The Knights will obviously have a significantly weaker tailback rotation due to the loss of Smith and they will have difficulty running the ball with a rebuilding O-Line. The only good news for the Knights is that 2007’s top three receiving options return and Greco should have some solid receivers to throw to. However, there is no doubt that the Knights will be less productive on offense this fall.

The news is a lot better on defense. The Knights return their entire secondary from last year, a group which had 24 interceptions! Senior safeties Sha’reff Rashad and Jason Venson are the team’s top two returning tacklers and should be impressive again this year. Also returning will be the entire linebacker corps! UCF’s back seven should be the conference’s best unit. The only question for the Knights is on the line of scrimmage, where Leger Douzable’s 7.5 sacks are going to be missed. The Knights will expect another huge year from sophomore Bruce Miller, who had 7 sacks last year as a freshman and is expected to be a leader up front. Central Florida’s plethora of returning starters makes them my second rated defense in the conference.

UCF has a pretty tough conference schedule, facing road games at Tulsa, UTEP, Marshall, and Memphis. The non-conference schedule is also a beast, featuring South Florida, Boston College, and the Miami Hurricanes. UCF certainly is embracing its in state rivals. Central Florida returns an excellent defense but will have some trouble scoring points this fall, at least in the early going. If UCF can find a solid quarterback then the Knights could have a good chance at competing for another conference title. Despite the tough schedule, bowl eligibility should not be a problem for the Knights.

Biggest Games: Sept. 6 th vs. USF, Oct. 11 th @ Miami, Oct. 26 th @ Tulsa, Nov.2 nd vs. ECU, Nov. 15 th @ Marshall

 

Memphis (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

Memphis rebounded well in 2007, improving to 7-6 a year after going 2-10. Though the Tigers lost their bowl game, Memphis won five of the last seven and 15 starters return from last year’s group, which means that 2008 should be a solid year for the Tigers.

Memphis, like most of their divisional rivals, faces a competition to start at the quarterback position. Senior Will Hudgens and sophomore Matt Malouf should compete for the starting job this fall and are expected to split time. At tailback, junior TJ Pitts is the Tigers’ top returning rusher and will look to improve last year’s disappointing rushing attack. With three starters back and a lot of players returning with experience on the O-Line, it seems likely that Pitts and company will indeed take the next step but don’t expect the Tigers to return to the days of former great DeAngelo Williams! The Tigers also return virtually every receiver who made an impact last fall, led by junior Carlos Singleton, who caught 11 touchdowns in 2007 and should be the leader of one of the conference’s top receiving corps. Memphis could take a while to figure out the quarterback rotation, but the Tiger offense should be a solid group by the end of the season.

Memphis’ run defense was horrid in 2007, allowing over 200 yards rushing per game! However, I fully expect the Tigers to improve significantly in that category this fall, as three starters return on the defensive line and all the players behind them are experienced. At linebacker, a year of playing time will help this young group after last year brought a rash of injuries. Look for much better production and hopefully health this fall. The Tigers should also be better in the secondary, where senior safety Brandon Patterson should be a force. Expect a big improvement on all levels from last season and Memphis could finish in the league’s upper half on defense.

Memphis has a pretty tough schedule as the East is the much stronger division and the Tigers have to travel to face both East Carolina and Marshall. However, the Tigers do draw the West’s bottom half in Rice, SMU, and Tulane. Memphis has a pretty tough non-conference schedule, facing Mississippi and Louisville and the Tigers have nearly beaten the Rebels the last few years, losing by less than a TD each time! Memphis has a more talented team than last season, but the results might not improve much from 2007, thanks to a tough division and non-conference slate. If Memphis can get consistent quarterback play early, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them finish higher in the East as they should have a good running game and defense. A return to a bowl and a good conference showing is a reasonable expectation for the Tigers this fall.

Biggest Games: Aug. 30 th @ Ole Miss, Sept. 13 th @ Marshall, Oct. 18 th @ ECU, Nov. 8 th @ SMU, Nov. 22 nd vs. UCF

 

Alabama-Birmingham (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

Alabama-Birmingham struggled heavily last year, crawling to a 2-10 record. For a school that was on the cusp of hiring Jimbo Fischer, now Florida State’s head coach in waiting, such a tough season must have been a bitter pill to swallow. However, things should be a little bit better in Neil Callaway’s second season at the helm and the Blazers return 16 starters this fall.

On offense, UAB must find a quarterback and it seems likely that junior Joseph Webb, who impressed in limited duty last fall, will be the starter. Webb is a multidimensional quarterback who was the team’s second leading rusher and receiver last fall! UAB had a dismal rushing attack last year, but the run game should improve with junior Alabama transfer Aaron Johns in the fold, assuming he qualifies academically this year (he failed to do so last year). The Blazers also return three starters on the offensive line and there are no seniors in this group. Expect a much improved wall along the line of scrimmage but this is still a young unit. Finally, the UAB offense should be solid at wide receiver, returning sophomores Frantrell Forrest and Mario Wright, both of whom played extensively last fall. Also, last year’s leading rusher, junior Rashaud Slaughter, has been moved to wide receiver. Overall, UAB seems to have the pieces in place to be a fairly good offense, but the Blazers won’t start any seniors this fall so a truly dangerous offense could be a year away.

The UAB defense was one of the nation’s worst last year, allowing 257 yards rushing per game, the worst in major college football! However, UAB started a ton of freshman and sophomores last year, so there should be a lot of improvement in 2008. This is especially true on the defensive line, where three freshmen started last year at a position where younger players normally aren’t ready to contribute. Expect an extra year of experience to be a huge factor for a vastly improved run defense. At linebacker, senior Joe Henderson had a solid 2007 and returns to lead a young but much more experienced linebacker corps that should also help in improving the run defense. The secondary is the only part of the team that can be called veteran, as three seniors return to start. Safeties Will Dunbar and Matt Taylor should help anchor an improved pass defense. Overall, UAB’s defense should be vastly improved this fall and should be significantly stronger against the run and pass.

UAB has a tough conference schedule, drawing Houston and Tulsa from the West. The Blazers also finish tough with back to back games against UCF and ECU. The out of conference schedule is also daunting, facing games at Tennessee, South Carolina, and South Belt favorite Florida Atlantic. While UAB should be a much better team this fall, they have only four senior starters and a bowl game would be a big surprise, especially considering the difficulty of their non-conference games. However, watch out for the Blazers in 2009, as they will have a ton of third year starters returning and could be a force in the C-USA East.

Biggest Games: Aug. 30 th vs. Tulsa, Sept. 13 th @ Tennessee, Oct. 18 th vs. Marshall, Nov. 22 nd vs. ECU, Nov. 29 th @ UCF

 

Southern Mississippi (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

Southern Mississippi has long been one of Conference USA’s most consistent performers, posting winning records for fourteen straight years! However, the Golden Eagles are in trouble this fall after making an enormous error by firing long time head coach Jeff Bowers. Apparently, Bowers’ run of continued success wasn’t good enough for the Southern Miss alumni power brokers who forced him to resign before last year’s bowl game. 2008 was already going to be a tough year in Hattiesburg with only 10 starters returning, but combine that with the introduction of a new system and the Golden Eagles should see their streak of winning seasons end this fall.

The USM offense has a couple of big question marks, beginning at the quarterback position where any one of four players could start. Furthermore, the offensive line only returns two starters learning a new system. On the bright side, junior Damion Fletcher returns after running for over 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall and he should again be a force. The wide receivers should also be a good group, led by sophomore Torris MaGee, who had over 600 receiving yards last year. Overall, USM has a lot of questions on offense and if a consistent quarterback does not emerge, it will be a tough season scoring points.

On defense, the news is also grim for the Golden Eagles. The entire defensive line must be replaced and many of the expected replacements are lightly experienced underclassmen. The secondary will also have to replace some big contributors but junior Eddie Hicks returns at safety and should backstop the defense well. The news there is a bit better, as many of the new defensive backs have had a lot of playing time. The defense’s leader will be 2007’s top tackler, junior linebacker Gerald McRath, who will need to match his 2007 total of nearly 140 tackles to keep USM competitive. The Golden Eagles will take another step back on defense this fall and will have to hope that the defensive line can come together quickly if they are to avoid a losing year.

The schedule is also very unfriendly to Southern Mississippi, drawing road trips to UCF, Memphis, UTEP and SMU. The Golden Eagles also must face out of conference matchups with Boise State and Auburn. Overall, Southern Mississippi will take a step back from last year after losing a large contingent of players and removing program-builder Jeff Bowers from the head coaching position. A rash of inexperience on both lines and a wide open quarterback derby could spell trouble for new head coach Larry Fedora. Don’t expect the Golden Eagles to play in the postseason this year.

Biggest Games: Sept. 20 th vs. Marshall, Oct. 11 th vs. Boise State, Oct. 25 th @ Memphis, Nov. 8 th @ UCF, Nov. 15 th vs. ECU



C-USA WEST DIVISION

Houston (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

The Houston Cougars had a solid 2007, finishing 8-5 and tying for the West division title. Unfortunately for the Cougars, Tulsa blew them out at midseason, thus earning the tiebreaker to go to the conference title game. Houston also lost head coach Art Briles to the Baylor Bears and new head coach Kevin Sumlin will look to build upon last year’s success. Houston returns 13 starters from last year’s team.

Houston had a powerful running attack last fall, running up over 220 yards per game. Mobile sophomore quarterback Case Keenum ran for over 400 yards and 9 touchdowns as a freshman and he should see the majority of the snaps again this fall. At tailback, the Cougars are going to have to replace Anthony Aldridge’s 1,600 yards and 14 TDs. Expect sophomore Terrance Ganaway to make up for a lot of that production after playing extensively as a true freshman. The Cougars return three starters to an offensive line which has a lot of talent competing for the two openings. Expect them to be one of the C-USA’s best groups. The only downside right now to Houston’s offense will be at the wide receiver position, where the Cougars’ most experience returning wide receiver is sophomore LJ Castle, who has seven career catches! Senior TE Mark Hafner should see a lot of balls thrown his way this fall after making 40 catches last year. If the Cougars can find some dependable receivers this offense could be very good.

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Houston’s strength this fall will be their defense. The defensive line returns all 3 of last year’s starters in the 3-4 defense and senior DE Phillip Hunt is one of the C-USA’s top players (10.5 sacks last year). The linebackers will be less experienced than last year’s team but Houston is expected to start 4 upperclassmen so there should be less transition pains. Senior Cody Lubojasky is the top returning linebacker and he should anchor a mobile group that could be better than last year’s unit. The secondary should also be a strength as three starters are back from last year’s group, which allowed a 52% completion rate. The Cougars feature two solid senior safeties in Kenneth Fontenette and Ernest Miller and Houston should improve against the pass this fall. Houston has a very strong defense and is my preseason pick to be the top defense in Conference USA.

Houston has a tough conference schedule, drawing road games at ECU and Marshall. However, the Cougars have home games against Tulsa, Tulane, and UTEP so they will have a quality chance to have a great divisional record. The Cougars have only one major non-conference test against Oklahoma State, so the schedule is set up to win a lot of games. Houston’s defense is the conference’s best and the offense has the potential to be very strong. The Houston Cougars are my pick to win the C-USA West and play in the conference title game and a ten win season is a definite possibility.

Biggest Games: Sept. 6 th @ Oklahoma State, Sept. 27 th @ ECU, Oct. 28 th @ Marshall, Nov. 15 th vs. Tulsa, Nov. 22 nd vs. UTEP, Nov. 29 th @ Rice

 

Tulsa (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

Tulsa had a great 2007, winning ten games and the C-USA West and capped off the season with a blowout of Bowling Green in the GMAC bowl. Tulsa had a huge offensive year, racking up 41 points per game! However, the Golden Hurricane defense was the exact opposite, allowing an awful 33 points per game. In short, Tulsa scored and allowed 2 more touchdowns per game versus 2006! Head coach Todd Graham’s crew enters 2008 with 13 returning starters and many pundits are picking them as this year’s BCS busters. However, that is probably too much to ask of this team.

On offense, Tulsa brings back nine starters from their excellent offense! Unfortunately, Tulsa has to find a new quarterback to replace Paul Smith and his 47 TD passes. Senior David Johnson and sophomore JUCO transfer Jacob Bower are the top two candidates, but there is next to no experience at the most important position on the field! But, the good news is that senior tailback Tarrion Adams returns after running for 1,200 yards last fall and he should do even better this fall behind a veteran offensive line returning four starters. Furthermore, Tulsa returns its top six receivers, including THREE who gained 1,000 yards! Senior Brennan Marion averaged nearly 32 yards per catch last year! If Tulsa can find solid production at quarterback, expect this to be the conference’s best offense. It is certainly the most talented.

Tulsa has some serious questions on defense. Last year, they allowed over 33 points per game and only four starters are back. The front six in the 3-3-5 defense returns only two starters from a group which allowed 185 yards rushing per game. On the defensive line, senior DE Moton Hopkins is a solid player and he will be joined by an experienced group of seniors stepping into the vacant spots next to him, so expect decent play from the linemen. However, the linebackers lose all three of last year’s starters, who combined for 328 tackles! Tulsa has to hope that their replacements can step in and play well, but the linebackers are an enormous question. The secondary is a little better off, returning three starters, but they allowed over 260 passing yards per game last season and only recorded 11 picks. Tulsa should see more improvement but this unit is still not very good. Tulsa’s defense was miserable last season and the outlook isn’t much better this year.

The conference schedule is also a difficult proposition for the Golden Hurricane, as they face road trips to Houston, Marshall, and SMU. They even have a dangerous season opener on the road against underrated UAB. On top of that, defending champion UCF is part of their draw as well. The non-conference schedule is much more manageable, featuring a road trip to Arkansas in November. Many pundits pick Tulsa as a potential BCS buster this fall in large part due to their explosive offense and a relatively easy non-conference schedule, but this team has some serious questions. First, the Tulsa offense has to find a quarterback, but it is unlikely that any of their QBs will match last year’s production. Second, the Tulsa defense is simply not very good. In fact, it might be the worst in the conference! Tulsa will win a lot of games this year by simply outscoring the opposition, but if they can’t improve upon last year’s dismal defense, they’re not even in the BCS-busting picture. However, Tulsa should still win 8 or 9 games and is certainly a contender to play in the C-USA title game.

Biggest Games: Aug. 30th @ UAB, Oct. 26th vs. UCF, Nov. 1st @ Arkansas, Nov. 15th @ Houston, Nov. 29th @ Marshall

 

Rice (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

Rice had a tough season in 2007, a year after ending a 45 year bowl draught. The Owls finished 3-9 and lost to 1-AA Nichols State. To make matters worse, Rice routinely played in front of sparse crowds (average attendance: 13,353) in Rice Stadium, one of the country’s 30 largest stadiums at a capacity of 70,000. However, it was head coach David Baliff’s first year at the helm, so things could be looking up. Rice returns 17 starters from last year’s unit and will try to return to bowl eligibility this fall.

On offense, Rice is led by senior quarterback Chase Clement, who threw for 3,300 yards and 29 touchdowns last fall. Clement also was the team’s leading rusher, racking up over 500 yards and 8 TDs on the ground. However, the Owls’ best known player is senior wide receiver Jarrett Dillard, who was an All-American in 2006 and caught 79 passes and 14 TDs last year. Dillard headlines a deep receiving corps which is rife with experience. The offensive line returns three starters from last year and there is plenty of experience to plug into the vacancies. Hopefully, for the Owls’ underachieving running game, that means that Rice’s tailbacks will find room to run this fall. Rice had a good offense in 2007 and they should improve this year. The Owls are one of the conference’s better offenses.

Rice’s biggest culprit in their nine losses last year was the defense, which allowed over 42 points per game! However, the Owls started a lot of young players last year, especially on the defensive line, and should see some big improvements this fall. Sophomore defensive ends Cheta Ozougwu and Scott Solomon played extensively as true freshmen and should improve by leaps and bounds this fall. The linebackers should be better as well, as seniors Brian Raines and Vernon James return and should be much better behind an improved line. The secondary should also be much stronger, as four starters are back. Senior Ja’Corey Shepard struggled with expectations last fall and was actually benched at one point but he is the unit’s most talented player and should have a big senior year. Rice should be in for big improvements on defense this fall.

The Owls have a pretty decent conference draw, avoiding UCF and ECU from the East. Rice also closes the year with four of the last six on the road. The Owls’ non-conference schedule features trips to Texas and Vanderbilt, so the Owls will play some good competition. However, the Owls need to get off to a fast start as their first two games are in conference! Expect Rice to take advantage of their favorable conference slate and improve their record significantly this fall. Rice has a very good returning offense and should have a much better defense as well. I expect the Owls to earn a bowl berth in 2008 and they could be part of the West race all season long.

Biggest Game: Aug. 29 th vs. SMU, Oct. 4 th @ Tulsa, Nov. 1 st @ UTEP, Nov. 22 nd vs. Marshall, Nov. 29 th vs. Houston

 

Southern Methodist (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

Southern Methodist was once one of the country’s best programs, finishing in the top ten for three consecutive years in the early eighties. However, SMU remains the only program to receive the proverbial ‘death penalty’ and the Mustangs have not recovered since. In fact, SMU has had only one winning year since 1984! Tired of being consistent losers, the SMU brass went out and hired June Jones, who turned Hawai’i from a laughingstock to a BCS team. While it is unlikely that Jones can turn a 1-11 team around this year, he did improve Hawai’i by 8 games during his first year at the helm! Jones has embraced the positive aspects of the tradition, including a return to the white helmets of the ‘Pony Express’ glory days. Look for SMU to improve this year, but Jones will have a huge impact on the team’s suddenly bright future.

The Mustangs should be led by junior QB Justin Willis, who led the team in rushing last year while throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 25 TDs. Willis didn’t play in the spring while he was suspended for academic concerns, but he was reinstated by Jones soon thereafter and will probably be the team’s starter. The Mustangs lost a lot of last year’s top pass catchers, but Jones’ system employs a lot of receivers, so expect some younger players to see the field a lot this fall. Junior Emmanuel Sanders was the team’s top receiver in 2007, finishing with 74 catches and 9 TDs. The SMU offensive line returns three starters, but everyone will have to start all over learning Jones’ blocking schemes for his run and gun offense. However, Hawai’i always had pretty good O-Line play, so perhaps Jones can continue that here. The running game will probably be less emphasized than it has been in the past, but senior tailback DeMyron Martin and junior James Mapps should again see the majority of the carries. The Mustang offense might not be a new Pony Express this fall, but they should be a lot better.

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SMU had a horrid year in 2007 on defense after posting fairly decent numbers in the two previous seasons. The Mustangs allowed nearly 500 yards and 40 points per game! June Jones is an offensive coach, so defensive coordinator Tom Mason will be largely responsible for upgrading this unit. Mason’s specialty is linebackers, as he was Fresno State’s LB coach before coming to SMU with Jones and this year’s group is pretty solid. Expect senior Will Bonilla to be solid again this year while playing next to a pair of underclassmen. The defensive line lost a lot of sacks from last year, but there is more depth this season and that bodes well for improving against the run after allowing nearly 200 yards per game on the ground last fall. The secondary also needs to improve a great deal and three starters are back there as well, so improvement is a strong likelihood. Junior safety Bryce Hudman is a solid defender who tied for the team lead in tackles last year. SMU should be better than last year’s terrible unit, but they are still a long way away from being a good defense.

SMU has a fair conference draw, facing USM, Memphis, and UCF from the East. However, four of the first six are on the road so it won’t be easy to get off to a good start. SMU’s non-conference schedule includes traditional rivals Texas Tech and TCU along with a trip to Navy. Southern Methodist should have a significantly better season than last year and their offense should be quite good in the first year of the June Jones era. However, their defense is a long way away from being an average unit and the Mustangs face a tough early schedule. The best case scenario for the Mustangs this year is probably five or six wins. Expect June Jones to turn this program around very quickly though, and SMU should go to their first bowl since the 1985 Aloha Bowl in the next year or two.

Biggest Games: Aug. 29th @ Rice, Sept. 13th @ Texas Tech, Sept. 20th vs. TCU, Oct. 18th vs. Houston, Nov. 8th vs. Memphis

 

UTEP (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

The Miners of Texas-El Paso had a disappointing year in 2007, finishing 4-8. Former Washington State coach Mike Price made a huge splash in his first two seasons, invigorating the community and winning a lot of games, but the last two seasons have been disappointing. This year’s team returns 12 starters from last year’s group and should be much more competitive than the last two years.

UTEP is led by sophomore quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, who threw for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns last year against only 7 picks! Vittatoe should only get better this year but he will have to find some new players to throw the ball to. While his favorite target, junior Jeff Moturi (65 catches, 13 TDs in 2007) is back, the next most experienced player only had 12 catches last year! UTEP should have a good running game this year, featuring senior Terell Jackson running behind a solid O-Line which returns three starters. Last year’s team improved its rushing attack by 90 yards per game from 2006 and expect Price to make it a priority again. UTEP has a solid quarterback and should be a good offense this fall.

The Miners’ defense was very bad last year, allowing over 500 yards and 37 points per game! Luckily, UTEP returns three starters on the defensive line whereas last year they had no one returning. Expect a full year’s experience to help the Miners improve greatly against the run and they should actually record some sacks (only 5 sacks from last year’s starters!) this fall. At linebacker, senior Adam Vincent is the only returning starter and the Miners must replace over 200 tackles worth of production from their departed starters. While the linebacker play will likely improve behind a better D-Line, the players won’t be as individually talented this year. The UTEP secondary was abysmal last season, allowing over 300 yards passing per game! However, three starters return from last year’s group and year of experience will do them some good. Junior cornerback Cornelius Brown should improve after reeling in 4 picks last year. Overall, the UTEP defense should improve against both the pass and run and should allow the Miners to be much more competitive.

UTEP has a tough conference draw, playing ECU, USM, and UCF from the east. On top of that, the Miners have to play favorites Houston and Tulsa on the road and the season’s closing kick features 3 road games in the final four. The Miners’ non-conference schedule is highlighted by a visit to Austin to take on the Longhorns, a game that UTEP probably won’t win. Overall, UTEP’s offense should be solid and their defense should be much improved. However, a tough schedule could prevent them from having a true turnaround year but bowl eligibility is still a possibility for the Miners.

Biggest Games: Sept. 6th @ Texas, Sept. 27th vs. UCF, Oct. 18th @ Tulsa, Nov. 1st vs. Rice, Nov. 15th vs. SMU, Nov. 22nd @ Houston

 

Tulane (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

Tulane had a tough 2007 season in Bob Toledo’s first year, finishing 4-8. Though the Green Wave was competitive through most of the year, it has now been six season since the Green Wave was bowl eligible! Tulane returns 15 starters this fall.

Tulane had a very run-heavy offense last fall, averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground! Unfortunately, most of that production came from Matt Forte (2,217 yards and 23 TDs!), who is now a member of the Chicago Bears. Tulane will turn the run game over to junior Andre Anderson, who only had 14 carries last year. Luckily, Tulane returns four starters on their offensive line and Anderson should find a lot of holes to run through. At quarterback, the Green Wave is expected to split duties between junior Anthony Scelfo and sophomore Kevin Moore. Scelfo is the more mobile of the two but both will see a lot of action. Junior receiver Jeremy Williams returns after leading the team with over 700 yards and 5 TDs last fall. Tulane has some pieces in place to be dangerous, but the Green Wave offense will take a big step back with the loss of Forte.

Tulane’s defense was the biggest culprit in their eight losses a year ago. Though the rush defense was decent, the pass defense allowed nearly 300 yards per game through the air! Overall Tulane did only allow 31 points per game, which is relatively good compared to many teams in the division, but the Green Wave must improve this fall if they want better results in Toledo’s second year. On the defensive line, Tulane loses both of their DTs from last year, who combined for 10 sacks and 100 tackles. Senior DE Reggie Scott needs to have a big year to help offset the losses. At linebacker, all the starters return and they should be a very solid group. The biggest question for the Green Wave will be the secondary, where only two starters return and improvement is a must. There is a big group of young players to fill the open spaces but they are largely inexperienced, so I’m not sure how much improvement Tulane will see. The Green Wave defense should be a little bit better than last year but they are still a below average group.

Tulane’s conference draw is a mixed bag, facing ECU, Memphis, and UAB. Furthermore, the Green Wave’s division slate features road games at Tulsa, Houston, and UTEP. The Green Wave also has a tough non-conference schedule, traveling to face Alabama and LSU. Overall, Tulane should be better on defense but the loss of Matt Forte will make their offense much less dangerous. Tulane might rebound to be a successful team under Bob Toledo, but it probably won’t be this fall.

Biggest Games: Sept. 13th vs. ECU, Oct. 11th @ UTEP, Oct. 25th vs. Rice, Nov. 1st @ LSU, Nov. 15th vs. UAB, Nov. 29th vs. Memphis

 

 

 

The Bottom Line for the Conference USA in 2008

Conference USA is an unbalanced league, with the East being much stronger overall than the West. In the East, ECU is the big favorite to win the division and their experience at quarterback is a major advantage. Marshall and UCF should also be very strong contenders this fall and UAB could be a surprise team. In the West, Tulsa is the pick of many of the pundits, but their defense will hold them back. Watch for Houston’s great defense to help carry the Cougars to a West division crown, but don’t count out Rice, who should be a much better team than a year ago. The C-USA title game should be an exciting event but in the end, East Carolina should emerge victorious as the 2008 Conference USA champions.

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