2009 Conference USA (C-USA) Football Preview

The 2008 season brought about newfound national respect and recognition for Conference USA. The season began with two consecutive shocking upsets by East Carolina over ranked West Virginia and Virginia Tech, which propelled the Pirates all the way up to 14 th in the national rankings and made them the early favorite to bust the BCS. However, the Pirates fell by the wayside soon thereafter, leaving the potential BCS busting to be done by Tulsa, who began the year 8-0. However, Tulsa ran into trouble when they visited Arkansas and finished the regular season 10-2. The two most visible teams in the conference met up in the C-USA Title Game and it was a very exciting game that was won by East Carolina 27-24, with the deciding factor being a six turnover difference in favor of the Pirates! C-USA teams also produced a 4-2 bowl record to cap off a great year.



This season should be more of the same excitement. Seven teams have won the conference title in the last seven years and there are no less than five teams this season with a legitimate chance at emerging victorious at the end of the year. It is also a very veteran league, with seven teams returning 15 or more starters. With so much talent back, C-USA teams could once more be a threat to pull off some big upsets. However, the West appears to be much more top-heavy than the East as Tulsa and Houston appear to be the big favorites to represent the division in the conference title game. Expect a long and drawn out conference race that will likely see each division decided on the regular season’s final day.

EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH

EAST: 1) Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 2) East Carolina Pirates 3) Memphis Tigers 4) Marshall Thundering Herd

5) Alabama-Birmingham Blazers 6) Central Florida Knights

WEST: 1) Houston Cougars 2) Tulsa Golden Hurricanes 3) Texas-El Paso Miners 4) Southern Methodist Mustangs 5) Rice Owls

6) Tulane Green Wave



C-USA EASTERN DIVISION

 

  • Southern Mississippi Eagles (Predicted Conference Record: 7-1)

I was not popular in the Deep South after releasing last year’s preview, in which I picked USM to finish dead last in the East after forcing out longtime head coach Jeff Bowers, who never had a losing season. I looked to be correct in November, as the Golden Eagles began the year 2-6. However, they finished with five consecutive wins, including their bowl game, to finish the year with a solid 7-6 mark. Even more exciting for USM fans is that some of their best players were freshmen last fall and should only be more improved this season. With a whopping 18 starters back from last year’s team, Southern Mississippi looks primed for a great season.

On offense, the only major loss from 2008 is tight end Shawn Nelson, who was a 4th round NFL draft pick. The offense, which averaged 30.5 points per game last year, will once more be led by sophomore quarterback Austin Davis, whose 3,128 yards and 23 touchdowns against only 8 interceptions as a freshman was among the best in the country. Davis’ top target is fellow sophomore DeAndre Brown, who was a 1 st team C-USA choice last season after catching 67 passes for 1117 yards and 12 touchdowns. Unfortunately, Brown sustained a horrific broken leg in the bowl game and is questionable to begin the season after a July setback, so seniors Gerald Baptiste and Freddy Parham will need to step up early in his stead. At tailback, senior Damion Fletcher returns after rushing for 1313 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Fletcher is a two time 1 st team C-USA choice, earning his 2 nd selection last season. Davis should also contribute heavily into the rushing attack after accounting for 508 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2008. Finally, the Golden Eagles have the league’s best offensive line as 5 players who started return, 4 of whom are seniors! After paving the way for nearly 200 yards per game on the ground last season, this group should be once more be one of the best at opening up holes. I also expect them to improve against the pass rush after allowing 29 sacks in 2008. Overall, the Golden Eagles are one of the most dangerous offenses in the entire conference and if Brown’s setback is only a minor issue then this could be a very special unit. Either way, the Golden Eagles will definitely be a much stronger offensive team this season and will give almost any opponent fits.

The Golden Eagle defense is also a strong unit, having allowed only 24 points per game last fall. Up front, all four starters return, led by junior tackle Anthony Gray, whose 6 sacks earned him 2nd team C-USA honors. Sophomore end Cordarro Law also notched 5 sacks last year as a backup and should be a force with more playing time. The only major losses occurred at linebacker, where the team’s two leading tacklers depart. Junior Martez Smith will be relied upon for leadership but there will likely be a step back. The good news is that there is a lot of talent on hand and a few sophomores appear primed for starting roles. The secondary looks fairly strong, led by senior 2nd team C-USA safety Eddie Hicks, who had 64 tackles and 4 interceptions in 2008. The top four return 9 picks from a year ago after allowing opponents to complete just over 58 percent of their passes. I expect this unit to be improved, especially with a stronger pass rush. Overall, I would be very surprised if the Golden Eagles didn’t improve this fall and this should be one of the conference’s better defenses.

The schedule is fairly tough, beginning with a difficult non-conference schedule. USM travels to Louisville and Kansas while hosting Virginia, giving them three tough BCS conference games, though only Kansas is expected to be a power this season. The conference schedule is also daunting as they must travel to Marshall and East Carolina while drawing Tulsa and a trip to Houston out of the West. That’s the West’s top two teams from 2008! While the schedule looks tough, Brett Favre’s alma mater looks to be a much improved team with an explosive offense and a tough defense and this might be the most talented team in the entire league. I am picking the Golden Eagles to win the C-USA East division and I would not be surprised if they finished the season with ten or more wins. In fact, if they can upset Kansas in late September, the Golden Eagles could be a darkhorse BCS buster.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th @ Kansas, Oct. 1st @ UAB, Oct. 17th vs. Memphis, Oct. 31st @ Houston, Nov. 21st vs. Tulsa, Nov. 28th @ ECU

 

 

  • East Carolina Pirates (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

I was on the money with East Carolina last season, correctly picking them to win the conference title. Skip Holtz’s team exceeded almost everyone’s expectations by beating two ranked BCS conference teams in back to back weeks to kick off the season and the Pirates managed a small coup by keeping Holtz in town after he interviewed for a number of major college positions during the offseason. The Pirates return 16 starters from last season’s team and will look to defend their championship this fall.

The offense was given a significant boost this offseason as senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney was granted a 6 th year of eligibility due to injuries at the beginning of his career. Pinkney’s return is huge as he threw for 2,675 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and improved noticeably as the year went on, including a 296 yard outing against Kentucky in their bowl game! Pinkney will also have a solid corps of receivers to throw to, led by junior Dwayne Harris, who caught a team high 58 passes for 654 yards last season. The offensive line looks especially strong as well and all five starters from the bowl game return. The Pirates have had some injury issues the last few years so there is a ton of experience available in the two deep. Led by senior 2nd team C-USA center Sean Allen, the Pirates’ O-Line should be one of the best in the conference. The only concern on offense is at tailback, where leading rusher Norm Whitley was suspended in the spring and his status is still up in the air. Junior Jonathan Williams was the team’s leading rusher with 380 yards, 5 touchdowns and a 5.1 yards per carry average when his season ended early in the year due to a suspension as well so he will be another solid option should Whitley not return. There are a lot of talented backs available to take over and I expect someone to step up and give the Pirates a much improved attack compared to last season’s middling 125 yards per game on the ground. Overall, this is a very experienced and balanced offense which should definitely improve upon 2008’s 23 points per game average.

The defense also looks quite stout entering 2009. The defensive line returns three starters, highlighted by senior end CJ Wilson, whose 70 tackles and 10.5 sacks earned him 1 st team C-USA honors last fall. Expect the Pirates to have a strong pass rush from their front four once more. The linebackers also look good, led by senior middle linebacker Nick Johnson, whose 102 tackles in 2008 was best on the team. Their experienced front seven makes me believe that the Pirates will definitely be improved against the run. In the secondary, senior Van Eskridge was a 1st team C-USA choice last fall after racking up 97 tackles and 4 interceptions. Expect him to be the anchor of a rebuilding secondary which should be fairly strong despite the loss of two starters. 2008’s nickel back, junior Travis Simmons, did have two picks and 30 tackles last year and I expect him to seamlessly step into the open cornerback position. Overall, East Carolina looks to be improved against the run and solid against the pass. After only allowing 21 points per game last fall, it would be very impressive for the Pirates to improve any further but that’s what I’m calling for them to do. Expect the ECU defense to be the best in Conference USA.

The schedule is even more difficult than last season’s gauntlet. This year, the Pirates have to travel to West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia Tech in the non-conference slate and WVU and Tech will be out for revenge. That might be the toughest non-conference list in the country! The conference schedule is also fairly tough as they draw a trip to Tulsa out of the West. The good news is that they have three home division games and the most important game of the season is at home against Southern Mississippi on the season’s final day. After suspension and injury didn’t derail their conference championship push last season, I don’t think a tough non-conference schedule will be a detriment if the Pirates can stay healthier and better behaved this season. Expect ECU to be in the C-USA East race all the way down to the season’s final day and I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if the Pirates won their 2nd consecutive division title.

Biggest Games: Sept. 12th @ WVU, Sept. 19th @ North Carolina, Oct. 3rd @ Marshall, Oct. 27th @ Memphis, Nov. 5th @ Virginia Tech, Nov. 15th @ Tulsa, Nov. 28th vs. USM

 

  • Memphis Tigers (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

Memphis has been one of the C-USA’s most consistent teams since head coach Tommy West took over in 2001. During that time period, the Tigers have gone to five bowls and have had only had one losing conference record in the last six seasons! Last year was another solid outing for Memphis, as a 3-1 finish earned them a berth in the St. Petersburg Bowl. While the Tigers lost badly to South Florida, there was a lot of positive development all season and Memphis could be primed for a big year in 2009.

On offense, senior Arkelon Hall has been expected to be a star since he transferred to Memphis as a top 20 national quarterback recruit. However, last season was his first full year starting and he struggled at times, throwing for 2,275 yards and 12 touchdowns against 7 picks. The athletic Hall also added 200 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground but Memphis only averaged 27 points per game. With his top two receivers, seniors Duke Calhoun (40 catches, 487 yards, 3 TDs) and Carlos Singleton (52 yards, 791 yards, 5 TDs), returning I expect Hall to be much improved in the air. Hall should also benefit from a solid rushing attack, led by senior Curtis Steele. Steele was a 2 nd team C-USA choice last year after rushing for 1,223 yards and 7 touchdowns and was the engine behind Memphis’ impressive 195 yard per game average on the ground. The only concern I have about this year’s team is the offensive line, where only two starters return. However, I like this year’s unit as junior college transfer Brad Paul was solid in the spring at right tackle and left tackle Ronald Leary was a member of the All-Conference Freshman team last fall despite only playing part time. While replacing three starters isn’t an easy task, I expect Memphis to be perfectly fine on the O-Line this year. With a more experienced Hall under center and a veteran tailback, that means that Memphis should easily eclipse last season’s 27 points per game average.

On defense, positive news abounds. Seven starters are back from 2008, where the defense held opponents to 27 points per game. The D-Line is my biggest concern as only senior end Jada Brown returns. However, senior Josh Weaver was the full time starter in 2007 at defensive end before playing outside linebacker last fall and West was very high in the spring on his defensive tackles, including some JUCO recruits. With Weaver back up front, perhaps the drop off won’t be as bad as I originally expected. At linebacker, all three starters return, led by junior Jeremy Longstreet, who made 80 tackles last year. Memphis should be very solid at linebacker this year. The secondary also looks very good as senior safety Alton Starr was the team’s top tackler in 2008, notching 90 stops. The only concern I have about the defensive backs is that they only return two total interceptions from 2008. However, the core of a group which only allowed 54 percent of opposing passes to be completed returns and I think that the Tigers will be very strong against an aerial assault. Overall, if the defensive line is as good as West claims then the Tigers could have one of the conference’s best defenses. At worst, I expect Memphis to definitely improve their scoring average this season.

The schedule is an interesting mix. The non-conference schedule includes two SEC teams, rivals Ole Miss and Tennessee. Memphis hasn’t beaten either team in five seasons, so they will be tough to overcome. In conference play, they draw Houston, Tulsa and Texas-El Paso from the West and all of tehm are expected to be contenders this season. Furthermore, they play division favorites USM and ECU in back to back weeks! I think that Memphis could get off to a solid early start but closing with road trips to Houston and Tulsa is daunting. However, the Tigers have a lot of talent and could make some noise. While I will be surprised if everything falls into place for the Tigers to win the C-USA East, I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if it did happen. However, a tough conference draw makes me believe that 3 rd place is their most likely finish. Expect the Tigers to finish with seven or eight wins this year, good enough to earn their 6 th bowl appearance in the last seven seasons.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th vs. Marshall, Oct. 10th vs. UTEP, Oct. 17th @ USM, Oct. 27th vs. ECU, Nov. 21st @ Houston, Nov. 27th @ Tulsa

 

 

  • Marshall Thundering Herd (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

It was another disappointing season in Huntington as Marshall struggled to a 4-8 record, their fourth consecutive losing season. Head coach Mark Snyder is feeling the heat and I believe that the former star Herd defensive back needs a winning season to hold onto his job. Luckily for him, Marshall returns 16 starters from last season’s team and the Thundering Herd might live up to their name this year.

On offense, eight starters return, led by junior tailback Darius Marshall, who ran for 1095 yards and 5 touchdowns last season, earning him 2 nd team C-USA honors. The appropriately named Marshall will be running behind a solid offensive line that has three starters back from 2008. Both tackles were named to the C-USA freshman team last season and guard Josh Evans earned the same honor during his freshman year. Thus, there is a lot of talent on hand to block for what should be a strong rushing attack. I have some concern about the passing attack as last year’s starter, sophomore Matt Cann, will have to fend off a large number of contenders for his job. Cann did throw for 1,767 yards and 14 touchdowns against 13 interceptions as a freshman so he has the potential to be a solid signal caller if he can earn his way onto the field again. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have an inexperienced receiving corps at his disposal, led by senior tight end Cody Slate, who made 40 catches for 510 yards and 8 touchdowns. Unfortunately no wide receiver had more than 17 catches last fall, leaving the passing game as a huge question mark. Overall, the offense appears to be stronger than the 2008 edition and I expect the Herd to surpass last year’s 20 points per game output in 2009.

The defense also appears to be a bright spot. Snyder made a great hire last fall when he brought in former Cincinnati head coach Rick Minter to run his defense and the Thundering Herd allowed a touchdown less per game! Snyder is also a former defensive coordinator at Ohio State, so there is a lot of coaching acumen focused on stopping the opposition. The 2009 defense looks very good, starting with a veteran defensive line. Senior end Albert McClellan was a 1st team C-USA choice after making 58 tackles and 2.5 sacks and junior end Michael Janac also contributed 46 tackles and 2.5 sacks. I expect the line to anchor a very solid run defense and the pass rush should also be improved. The linebackers also appear to be solid with two senior starters returning. Middle linebacker Mario Harvey had 107 tackles and 4.5 sacks last fall and should anchor a very athletic unit. I think that Marshall’s run defense should be among the C-USA’s best this year. The secondary also improved measurably under Minter last fall, holding opponents to a 58 percent completion rate after allowing 64 percent the year before. The Thundering Herd returns two sophomore starters at cornerback who combined for 127 tackles and two picks in 2008. While I am concerned about the general lack of interceptions, a year of experience should help both measurably. Also, one of the new projected starters at safety is senior Ashton Hall, who made 48 tackles and snagged a pick as a nickel back and backup in 2008 so the new safeties do have a lot of experience. That experience leads me to believe that Marshall’s pass defense should be very solid once more. Overall, this appears to be a very strong defense which should rank among the best in the conference.

The schedule is fairly tenable, beginning with the conference schedule. The Herd’s draw of UTEP, SMU and Tulane from the West is about as good as they could have hoped for and their division schedule features home games against ECU, UAB and USM! The non-conference schedule features two BCS opponents and if Marshall defeats either WVU or Virginia Tech, it will be a big upset. I think that the Thundering Herd should have an improved offense and a very good defense this fall. Furthermore, the schedule is very friendly and I think that Snyder has a great chance at finally producing a winning season at his alma mater. While I don’t think that Marshall is a competitor in the C-USA East, I believe that they should finish the year with at least six wins and go to their first bowl game during Snyder’s tenure.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th @ Memphis, Oct. 3rd vs. ECU, Nov. 1st @ UCF, Nov. 14th vs. USM, Nov. 28th @ UTEP

 

 

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

The Blazers have long been among the bottom tier of teams in the C-USA East and have only earned one bowl berth in their entire history. Last season was the second under head coach Neil Callaway and UAB finished with a 4-8 record, though they did win three conference games. The issue was pretty simple: UAB didn’t have enough defense as they allowed over 31 points per game. With 17 starters back this fall, including the entire offense, UAB might be in position for a step forward.

The offense’s triggerman will be senior Joe Webb, who took every snap last fall. Webb’s numbers weren’t very impressive passing, only accounting for 2,367 yards and 10 touchdowns against 16 picks but he also led the team in rushing with 1,021 yards and 11 touchdowns! The Blazers really need to improve their balance because when a quarterback has 200 carries in a season then he’s just asking to get hurt. To that end, senior Rashaud Slaughter did account for 514 yards and 4 touchdowns last year, so perhaps he can lighten Webb’s load. The O-Line is a solid group and should open plenty of holes this fall with the entire two deep back. Expect a big improvement over last season’s 170 yards per game average if Webb stays healthy. At receiver, junior Frantrell Forrest is the top returnee, having caught 42 passes for 536 yards and 2 touchdowns last fall. However, nine different players accounted for double digit catches in 2008 and there will be a plethora of options for Webb to throw to. Assuming Webb stays healthy once more, I expect him to cut down on his interceptions in his 3rd season as the starter. With the entire offense back, I believe that the Blazers will see a nice increase in their offensive production.

The defense is a bit more concerning as only six starters return. The good news is that four of those starters are on the defensive line. Expect much improved production, especially in the pass rush, and keep an eye on junior end Bryant Turner, who had 4 sacks last season. I expect UAB to have a solid D-Line. The big concern is in the back seven, where only two starters are back. Sophomore safety Chase Daniel was a backup last fall but he is the team’s leading returning tackler (47 in 2008) and is tied for the returning lead in interceptions with senior cornerback Brandon Carlisle, both of whom snagged two picks last season. The biggest departure was undoubtedly cornerback Kevin Sanders, who had 7 picks en route to 1 st team C-USA honors. However, there is a bunch of talent on hand and I’m bullish on UAB fielding a solid pass defense as both cornerback spots and one of the safety spots will be manned by players with a lot of experience from 2008. Linebacker is more of a concern for me as only junior Keon Harris started last fall and he only started 8 games, notching 47 stops. I’m not very confident that the Blazers will have a very good group because there is little experience and a true freshman was atop the depth chart at middle linebacker after spring practice. That said, I think UAB should be improved in the air after allowing over 260 yards per game last fall thanks to an improved pass rush and a solid core of young talent taking over in the secondary. While the Blazers appear to be a stronger unit overall and should improve, they’re still likely to finish in the conference’s bottom half of the defensive rankings.

The Blazers have a good schedule draw from the West, avoiding both Houston and Tulsa. However, they only have two home division games and their first two games of the season will be against conference opposition, so they have to start well. The non-conference schedule is also tough, featuring trips to Texas A&M, SEC West favorite Ole Miss and Sun Belt favorite Troy. While I like the Blazers to be a much better team this fall, I’m not so sure they’ll manage to qualify for a bowl game. In fact, it seems likely that they’ll need a few upsets to better last season’s four win total.

Biggest Games: Sept. 5th vs. Rice, Sept. 12th vs. SMU, Oct. 1st vs. USM, Oct. 24th @ Marshall, Nov. 14th @ UCF, Nov. 28th vs. UCF

 

 

  • Central Florida Knights (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)

UCF has been somewhat enigmatic since George O’Leary took over five seasons ago. The Knights have only had two winning seasons but in both seasons they won the C-USA East! Last season, UCF’s big problem was their offense, which was the nation’s most ineffective at 16.5 points per game. Four times UCF lost games while holding opponents under 20 points! Can Central Florida find an offense this fall?

The good news is that nine starters are back from last year, four of whom started as freshmen in 2009. Based off of the fact that they were the nation’s worst last year, it would be easy to sarcastically assume that there would be improvement because they can’t get any worse! However, I’m my optimism is based more on merit than assumption. UCF is expected to be led by sophomore quarterback Rob Calabrese, who struggled at time last fall as a true frosh. However, former Wake Forest quarterback Brett Hodges was given a waiver for immediate eligibility and could push him for playing time. Whoever emerges from the battle victorious (Calabrese has the edge according to O’Leary) will have a deep set of receivers to throw to, led by junior Brian Watters, who caught 42 passes for 584 yards and 3 touchdowns last year. While virtually the entire two deep returns, there is still a lack of proven productivity behind Watters and someone else needs to step up. Keep an eye on Notre Dame transfer Richard Jackson, who was a top 10 receiver coming out of high school. The running game should also be solid, led by sophomore Brynn Harvey, who racked up 519 yards on the ground to lead the team in 2008. Harvey will be running behind a decent offensive line which returns two starters. However, there were a number of defensive linemen who switched sides during the spring and that is never a good sign. I am concerned about finding a solid unit when there is precious little experience returning. Overall, Central Florida should get improved production at all of the skill positions and their offensive line should at least play up to last year’s standards. With a year of experience under Calabrese’s belt, I would be very surprised if the UCF offense sunk to the same depths as last season. On top of their returning experience, Central Florida also has a new offensive coordinator and improved play calling should help improve their scoring. Despite the improvements, there is still a lot to be proven and Central Florida will be lucky to crack the top half of the conference in scoring this fall.

The defense is once more a much brighter picture. The Knights have a great defensive line with three starters back, led by junior defensive end Bruce Miller, who had 52 tackles and 7 sacks en route to earning a 2 nd team C-USA selection in 2008. The three returning starters combined for 14.5 sacks last year and anchored a group that allowed only 125 yards rushing per game. Expect them to be very good this fall. At linebacker, two starters return including junior Lawrence Young, who had 72 tackles and was a 2 nd team C-USA choice. I expect that UCF’s linebackers will be even more productive this fall behind a stellar line. The Knights fielded the conference’s best rush defense last fall despite spending a ton of time on the field and this season’s group might be even better! Expect O’Leary’s bunch to be downright stingy against the run. The big concern on defense is in the secondary, where junior safety Derek Hallman is the only returning starter. UCF will have to replace two corners that combined for 96 tackles and 8 picks and two safeties that combined for 154 tackles and 4 picks in 2008! That’s a ton of production to lose from just one season and most of those players were multi-year starters. I am very concerned about the secondary for two reasons. My first worry is that most of the projected starters were special teamers last fall and have virtually no game experience. The other big concern is that UCF’s strength against the run means that more teams will try to pick them apart using the pass so they’ll have to be ready to bear a heavy load very quickly. While I’m sure that some players will step up and help field a decent pass defense, the best news for the secondary is that the front four will get a lot of pressure on the quarterback without needing to blitz, which will allow the nickel back to be on the field more often. Central Florida should be killer against the run but I think that questions about their pass defense will make this unit about as effective as their 2008 edition, which allowed 24 points per game.

The conference schedule is actually pretty fair. While the Knights draw Houston out of the West, they also draw Rice and Tulane, both of whom aren’t expected to be very good. The biggest concern would be that their first three conference games are against USM, ECU and Memphis, all in the season’s first five weeks! That doesn’t give them a lot of time to get their secondary in order. That could put them out of the race before most of the rest of the conference really begins play. The non-conference schedule is also tough, featuring a visit from Miami and a trip to Texas. While I think that the Knights will improve their offensive production this fall, I have concerns about the inexperience on offense and huge loss of talent in the secondary on defense. I think that UCF will once more have to win games by playing great defense and that could spell trouble as their secondary will be a liability early. Central Florida has a lot of talent on hand but the combination of a tough early conference run and two very difficult non-conference dates leads me to believe that they won’t win enough games to earn bowl eligibility this fall.

Biggest Games: Sept. 12th @ USM, Sept. 26th @ ECU, Oct. 3rd vs. Memphis, Nov. 1st vs. Marshall, Nov. 21st vs. Tulane, Nov. 28th @ UAB

 

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C-USA WESTERN DIVISION

 

  • Houston Cougars (Predicted Conference Record: 7-1)

I was a big fan of the Cougars entering 2008, picking them as my choice to win the C-USA West. Despite some early struggles, Houston entered their season-ending grudge match against rival Rice with a 6-1 conference record and a shot at hosting the C-USA Title Game on the line. Unfortunately, Rice ruined their dream but 2008 was still a huge success as Houston finished with an 8-5 record, including a bowl win. With some very strong pieces back for head coach Kevin Sumlin in his second season, can the Cougars take that next step and play for the conference title?

The offense is a huge positive for the Cougs as they return eight starters. The most important player on the entire team is junior quarterback Casey Keenum, who threw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns against only 11 picks! Keenum was the 2008 C-USA Offensive Player of the Year and should once again be one of the conference’s most dangerous players. The supporting cast is also very talented in their own right, led by 2008 C-USA Freshman of the Year Bryce Beal, who rushed for 1,247 yards and 13 touchdowns while also contributing 34 catches for 496 yards and 4 scores! Beal keeps defenses honest because he’s a very dangerous player in his own right, giving Keenum a much easier time distributing the ball. It also helps that Keenum’s receivers are an excellent bunch, led by sophomore Tyron Carrier, who caught 80 passes for 1,026 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2008, good enough to earn 1 st team C-USA honors. Keenum completed nearly 400 passes last fall so there is a ton of depth on hand as most of those catches are back. Up front, the offensive line looks strong as well. Sophomore Chris Thompson was named to the All-Conference Freshman team last fall and he is one of three returning starters. Usually when a team averaged more than 40 points per game, it is tough to honestly predict much improvement. However, I believe that the Cougars are even better than last season and I expect nothing less from Keenum than to lead one of the most dangerous offenses in the entire country.

The defense is a much greater concern after only returning four starters from last season. The Cougars struggled against the run, allowing 175 yards per game en route to giving up 31 points per game. The linebackers appear to be the strength of the unit as senior C. J. Cavness and sophomore Marcus McGraw return after starting last fall. McGraw was the team’s leading tackler with 103 in 2008 and was named to the All-Conference Freshman team. The big concerns are the defensive line and the secondary. Up front, the Cougars return ZERO sacks and junior tackle Isaiah Thompson is the only starter back. Needless to say, I’m concerned about their ability to stop the run. The secondary is also full of holes but senior cornerback Brandon Brinkley was excellent in 2008, making 74 tackles and snaring 4 interceptions! The other corner spot should be manned by junior Loyce Means, who also had four picks last year as the nickel back. I think Houston could field a pretty solid pass defense but they are very green. Overall, I think teams will once more try to beat the Cougars on the ground and that will force their defensive line to sink or swim pretty quickly. While I like the back seven and believe that Houston should be solid through the air, this defense won’t be noticeably better than last year’s unit.

The schedule is fairly tough, drawing Southern Mississippi and Memphis from the East. Furthermore, they have to travel to Tulsa, UTEP and UCF, all of which are dangerous games. The non-conference schedule features three BCS conference foes, including a visit from Texas Tech. If Houston wins one of those games, I will be impressed. Overall, the Cougars should be as dangerous as anyone in the country on offense and will likely finish among the national leaders in scoring. However, I have some serious concerns about their run defense and that could spell trouble. That said, I think Houston has a serious advantage on most foes if the game turns into a shootout and I think that Keenum and company can overcome a run defense that might take time to coalesce. The Houston Cougars are my pick to win the C-USA West division thanks to their high powered offense and a ten win season is not outside the realm of possibility.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th vs. Texas Tech, Oct. 3rd @ UTEP, Oct. 24th vs. SMU, Oct. 31st vs. USM, Nov. 7th vs. Tulsa, Nov. 21st vs. Memphis, Nov. 28th vs. Rice

 

 

  • Tulsa Golden Hurricane (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

2008 was perhaps the best season in school history as Tulsa won 11 games and the C-USA West crown. However, a turnover riddled championship game prevented them from winning their second conference title in four years. However, the season ended on a high note as Tulsa blew out a top 15 Ball State team in the bowl game. Head coach Todd Graham’s team was the nation’s most dangerous on offense, scoring an incredible 47 points per game and that air raid assault was the primary reason for their success. With only 5 starters back from that high-flying unit, can Tulsa put reload enough to challenge for their third consecutive season with 10 or more wins?

Tulsa has a big dilemma at quarterback. After losing David Johnson’s 4,000 yards and 46 touchdowns, they now have a three way battle to replace him between a former Texas quarterback, a top 20 national recruit and last season’s back up, who appeared very good in limited time. Either way, there is definitely a ton of talent on hand and someone is going to produce for the Golden Hurricane this fall. The receivers will make whoever wins the QB derby’s life a lot easier as sophomore Damaris Johnson (53 catches, 743 yards, 10 touchdowns) and senior Slick Shelley (39 catches, 627 yards, 8 touchdowns) should be two of the conference’s best. Heck, even fullback Charles Clay had 8 touchdown catches last fall so there is experience oozing from every receiving position on the field. At tailback, junior Jamad Williams is expect to take over after rushing for 523 yards and 3 touchdowns as a backup in 2008. Tulsa was extremely balanced last fall, ringing up 270 yards per game on the ground and 300 through the air, so there will be pressure on Williams to contribute in a major way. The offensive line is the biggest question for me as only two starters return, though sophomore tackle Tyler Holmes was a named to the All-Conference Freshman team. However, I expect the line to be less effective after losing three multi-year starters. Despite all the losses and the inevitable step back that this unit will take in 2009, the Golden Hurricane could score TWO touchdowns less per game and still ring up an average of 33 points! While I don’t expect Tulsa to be the NCAA’s best offense again this fall, this will still be an elite unit.

The defense wasn’t given near the credit it deserved last fall after holding opponents to only 28 points per game. While that’s not great, it is important to remember that Tulsa’s offense doesn’t usually give them much of a rest like a traditional ball control offense would thanks to its explosive nature. So in reality, last year’s defense was pretty solid. This fall’s version brings back 8 starters, including the top three tacklers. The 3-3-5 Tulsa defense is only lacking experience up front, where senior nose tackle Wilson Garrison is the only starter back. Garrison did make 53 tackles and 2.5 sacks last fall, impressive for a position which is more concerned about occupying blockers than making plays. The linebackers will be led by senior Mike Bryan, who had 119 tackles and 4 sacks in 2008. With all three starters back, this could be one of the league’s best sets of linebackers. The secondary also looks very strong and senior safeties James Lockett and Charles Davis combined for 160 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 2 picks last fall. Lockett plays a hybrid position and is equally dangerous rushing the quarterback as he is defending the pass. Overall, if Tulsa can find suitable book ends for Garrison up front then this could be one of the league’s best defenses and that’s a scary thought considering their offensive firepower.

The schedule is going to be tough, beginning with their draw from the East. The Golden Hurricane’s final three conference games are all against the top three East teams! Furthermore, Tulsa only has two division home games, though they do host favorite Houston. Unfortunately, the Houston game is the final match up before the Eastern gauntlet of ECU, USM and Memphis so Tulsa has to face the four other major contenders for the C-USA Title in consecutive weeks to end the year! Finally, the non-conference schedule has two very daunting games as they must travel to national runner up Oklahoma and host Boise State. While I believe that Tulsa’s offense will once more be a juggernaut and their defense is vastly improved, their schedule makes a ten win season seem very unlikely this fall. However, despite the fairly difficult slate I expect Tulsa to be a prime contender in the C-USA West Division race. If Tulsa can manage to win two out of three against the top three teams in the East to close the year, they have a great chance at returning to the title game.

Biggest Games: Oct. 19th @ Oklahoma, Oct. 14th vs. Boise State, Oct. 21st @ UTEP, Nov. 7th vs. Houston, Nov. 15th vs. ECU, Nov. 21st @ USM, Nov. 27th vs. Memphis



  • Texas-El Paso Miners (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

Last season was a disappointing year for the Miners, who lost their last two games of the season to finish out of the bowl picture with a 5-7 record. However, there were some positives to take from the year as UTEP fielded the conference’s 4 th strongest offense and finished with a 4-4 conference record. Head coach Mike Price needs to turn around his team after three consecutive losing seasons or his job could be on thin ice. With 15 starters back, he has a good chance at returning the Miners to the postseason this fall.

The offense was the best part of the team in 2008 and eight starters return after averaging 33 points per game. Junior quarterback Trevor Vittatoe threw for 3,274 yards and 33 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions and should be one of the league’s best signal callers this fall in his 3 rd season starting for the Miners. UTEP’s pass heavy offense also brings back Vittatoe’s top two targets from 2008; Senior Jeff Moturi had 51 catches for 655 yards and 9 touchdowns and junior Kris Adams was extremely explosive accounting for 50 catches, 958 yards and 14 touchdowns! Expect both to be very dangerous once more this fall. The offensive line is also a bright spot as four starters return from last season. I expect UTEP’s line to provide Vittatoe with plenty of time to distribute the football and open up holes in the rare instances that they actually run the ball. UTEP’s offense appears primed to take a step forward this season and should at least match 2008’s excellent production.

The defense was UTEP’s Achilles heel last fall, allowing over 37 points per game, second worst in the entire conference! The Miners allowed opponents to average 200 yards per game on the ground and stunk against the pass as well, allowing a 62.5 percent rate! Seven starters return from that unit but my optimism is limited for improvement. First of all, the Miners’ D-Line returns two starters but neither was a major threat in the pass rush and both were major culprits in their porous run defense. Second, the linebackers only bring back one starter and lose leading tackler Adam Vincent, who was by far the most productive defensive Miner last season. When you factor all of that together, it seems unlikely that UTEP’s run defense is going to be significantly better. Luckily for the Miner faithful, it isn’t all bad news on the defensive side. Senior Da’mon Cromartie-Smith was the team’s 2 nd leading tackler last fall in a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role known as the ‘Miner’ position and he should be a force all over the field. The secondary also returns two starters at cornerback who combined for 5 picks last season, so the pass defense looks like it could improve. However, I still think that the Miners will field a fairly weak defense this fall and I would be surprised if they held opponents to less than 30 points per game. This is a below average defense in Conference USA.

After all of the gloom and doom about their defense, you have to be wondering why I picked the Miners to finish 4-4 in conference play. Well, the major reason is their schedule. UTEP avoids USM and ECU from the East and hosts Tulsa and Houston in division play! That means their 3 division road games are at the expected bottom-dwelling teams in the division, making them significantly more winnable! The only really difficult part of the schedule is the non-conference portion, which finds the Miners hosting Kansas and traveling to Texas. The bottom line is that UTEP should once more be great offensively and poor defensively. While I’ve actually seen people picking the Miners to win the West on the basis of their light schedule, I can’t in good conscience imagine them competing for the division title when they’re unlikely to knock off either Tulsa or Houston. However, the Miners do have a good shot at earning their first bowl berth since 2005 and I think that Texas-El Paso will return to the postseason this year.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd vs. Houston, Oct. 10th @ Memphis, Oct. 21st vs. Tulsa, Nov. 7th @ Tulane, Nov. 14th @ SMU, Nov. 21st @ Rice

 

 

  • Southern Methodist Mustangs (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)

This once great program continued to suffer last season, registering their second consecutive 1-11 record in head coach June Jones’ first season in charge. The only program to ever be hit with the NCAA’s ‘death penalty’, the Mustangs are still struggling to recover twenty years afterwards. However, Jones’ last stop was at Hawai’i, where he turned the Warriors from a perennial laughingstock to a BCS buster in 2007, so the Mustangs might be in their best position to regain their former glory in two decades. Jones inherited a very bad team in 2008 but after a year at the helm he returns 15 starters and should play a big role in determining the C-USA West division race.

The keys to the offense will belong to sophomore quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who was thrown to the fire last season and threw for 2,865 yards and 24 touchdowns against a whopping 23 interceptions. Expect him to cut way back on the turnovers in his second year. Jones’ system is predominantly based upon throwing the ball nearly every play and all four of Mitchell’s starting receivers are back, led by senior Emmanuel Sanders (67 catches, 958 yards, 9 TDs) and junior Aldrick Robinson (59 catches, 1047 yards, 11 TDs). While I don’t expect Mitchell to immediately remind everyone of former Jones pupil Colt Brennan, he will definitely post improved offensive numbers. The offensive line looks better as well with three starters back, though Jones will have to try and balance the offense more after running for an NCAA-low 41 yards per game. His offenses at Hawai’i never registered much lower than double that total! Overall, the Mustangs only put up 21 points per game in 2008 and that number should definitely improve this season. However, a truly dangerous offense appears to still be at least a year away.

The defense was the worst in the conference in 2008, allowing over 38 points per game! The major issue was allowing opponents to gash them to tune of and average of 225 rushing yards! The good news for the Mustangs is that they return five of their top six tacklers. The bad news is that there are still some big holes to be filled. Up front, all three starters in the 3-4 scheme must be replaced and there is very little available experience. In fact, Justin Smart, 2008’s starter at middle linebacker, spent the whole spring at defensive end trying to improve the unit after finishing 2 nd on the team in tackles last fall! He will need to be significantly bigger than his listed 240 pounds to be a major contributor in a three man front. Sophomore end Taylor Thompson has the most returning production actually playing on the line after making 23 tackles in 2008. On the other hand, the linebackers look much stronger with three starters back, led by juniors Pete Fleps and Youri Yenga, who combined for 179 tackles last season. However, they will have trouble avoiding big offensive linemen if their three man front doesn’t occupy lots of blockers. The run defense might be slightly improved but I still expect SMU to struggle on the ground. The secondary is the strongest part of the defense as all four starters are back from 2008. Senior corner Bryan McCann had 3 interceptions and sophomore Chris Banjo notched 61 stops as a true freshman so there are some playmakers for the Mustangs. I believe that the Mustangs will be stronger against the pass compared to last season but if they can’t stop the run then their improvement on defense will be minimal.

The schedule is fairly decent as the Mustangs avoid USM and Memphis from the East and play three divisional home games. Three of the final four games of the season are home games and all are winnable. That’s especially notable as the Mustangs played their hearts out during the second half last year but ran into some of the conference’s best teams. If SMU improves as much during the year as last season then they could easily exceed my expectations. The non-conference schedule is pretty tough as the Mustangs host Navy and travel to Washington State and rival TCU. Overall, I think that Southern Methodist is a much better team on both sides of the ball this year. However, they still have so much catching up to do with the top teams in the conference and are still at least a year away from competing for a bowl game. If the Mustangs win four games this year, it has to be considered a success.

Biggest Games: Sept. 12th @ UAB, Oct. 3rd @ TCU, Oct. 24th @ Houston, Nov. 7th vs. Rice, Nov. 14th vs. UTEP, Nov. 28th vs. Tulane

 

 

  • Rice Owls (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

Last year was the most successful season for Rice football in the past 60 years! That’s not an exaggeration: Rice’s 10-3 record marked their first ten win season since 1949! Their historic season was capped off by a Texas Bowl blowout of Western Michigan in their home town and the Owls’ 7-1 league record was also their best finish since joining Conference USA. However, last season’s achievements need to be put aside as the Owls have a daunting task ahead after losing most of their playmakers on offense. Can Rice’s 13 returning starters keep the Owls among the best in C-USA?

On offense, the Owls lose their top two rushers, top two receivers, three starting offensive linemen and a record breaking quarterback! Chase Clement threw for an incredible 44 touchdowns against only seven interceptions last fall and powered Rice to over 41 points per game! The only major experience on offense that remains after all of that attrition is at receiver, where seniors Torbin Dixon and Corbin Smiter return after combining for 80 catches, 1,085 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2008. That might sound impressive but both of the Owls’ top two receivers last season eclipsed their combined totals by a healthy margin. Rice has so much rebuilding to do that the drop off in production will be precipitous. I would not be surprised if the Owls’ scoring was cut in half this fall and I expect Rice to go from one of the conference’s best offenses to one of its worst.

The defense is significantly more experienced as nine starters are back from last year. However, the 2008 defense allowed over 33 points per game so there will have to be significant improvement if the Owls are going to compete this fall. Up front, three starters are back after combining for 9.5 sacks and 108 tackles in 2008. I expect all three to be much stouter this fall against the run. Both linebackers are back as well in Rice‘s 4-2-5 defense and I think that seniors Robert Calhoun and Terrance Garmon will both provide significantly more production this fall behind a stronger defensive line. Rice allowed over 180 rushing yards per game last season and I think that will improve this fall. The secondary is also very veteran, featuring four returning starters. Senior Andrew Sendejo rang up 94 tackles to lead the team last season and sophomore safety Travis Bradshaw was second with 89 tackles. In fact, the secondary had three of last season’s top four tacklers! While I think that Rice will be improved against the run and very strong against the pass, I don’t think that it will be enough to make them a top defense in C-USA.

With a rebuilding team, Rice has to hope that they got a break from the schedule makers. Unfortunately, they have a brutal non-conference schedule featuring trips to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. They also host Vanderbilt and Navy outside of conference play, giving the Owls one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country. Furthermore, they draw trips to East Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham out of the East and if they don’t win on the road against UAB to start the season, they could easily be looking at a 0-7 start to the year! Rice’s offense loses more talent than any other unit in the entire conference and their defense doesn’t improve nearly enough to make up for it. I simply don’t think that Rice is going to be very good this year and their killer opening schedule gives this season the potential to be disastrous. With everything going against them, I don’t think Rice is going to win more than two games in 2009.

Biggest Games: Sept. 5th @ UAB, Oct. 3rd vs. Tulsa, Oct. 24th vs. UCF, Nov. 7th @ SMU, Nov. 14th vs. Tulane, Nov. 21st vs. UTEP, Nov. 28th @ Houston

 

 

  • Tulane Green Wave (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

Can anyone remember the last time that Tulane had a winning record? Last season’s 2-10 mark was their sixth consecutive losing season and their worst record since 1991. Head coach Bob Toledo enters his third season in charge with 13 starters back and he has to hope that his team can exceed expectations by a significant margin this fall because not even the most fervent Tulane fan believes that a bowl game is in the cards this season.

The offense was among the worst in the country in 2008, scoring less than 17 points per game. Sophomore Joe Kemp and junior Kevin Moore will compete for the quarterback job after splitting duties last fall. Moore played more but also threw a lot more interceptions so the job is very much up for grabs. The top returning receiving target is senior Jeremy Williams, who caught 27 passes last year, 5 of which went for touchdowns, but there are four other returning players who had 20 or more catches last fall so there is some depth. The running game will be powered by senior Andre Anderson, who ran for 864 yards and 7 touchdowns last season. While that’s solid production, it was less than half of what former tailback Matt Forte accounted for in his amazing 2007 season! Anderson will run behind a decent offensive line which brings back three starters. However, they lose their two best O-Linemen, both of whom were 3 year starters! I simply don’t see Tulane having a much better offense than last year as the talent on hand and lack of proven playmakers outside of Anderson leads me to believe that any improvement by the Green Wave will be minimal.

Another major factor in Tulane’s terrible 2008 was a pitiful performance by the defense, which allowed over 34 points per game. However, this is unfortunately par for the course as the Green Wave has allowed over 30 points per game in every season since 2002! The running attack killed Tulane as they allowed opponents to average over 215 yards per game on the ground and three opponents ran for over 300 yards, the lowlight of which was a 489 yard performance by Tulsa in November. The key to fixing their terrible rushing attack begins up front, where three starters return. Senior end Adam Kwentua made 48 tackles last fall and accounted for 1. 5 sacks, making him the strongest performer on the line for the Wave. That’s not a good sign. With three starters back, I have to expect some improvement but this is simply not a very talented unit. The linebackers are actually an even bigger question mark as there will be three new starters this season. Senior Travis Burks appears to be the best of the bunch after making 40 tackles for 2 sacks while snaring 2 interceptions in 2008. However, the new starters don’t give me much hope for a better run defense. The secondary is much more experienced, led by 2008’s leading tackler, senior safety Corey Sonnier. I actually think that the secondary might be decent since there is a fair amount of experience back but with the issues up front they’ll probably get beat over the top because they’ll be forced to play closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. I don’t have much hope for the Green Wave to improve any on defense in 2009.

The schedule is also really tough, as their conference home games are against Tulsa, Houston, UTEP and Marshall. That means that their more winnable games are going to be on the road, where Tulane went 0-6 last year. Furthermore, their non-conference schedule features BYU and ‘rival’ LSU, to whom they’ve lost seventeen consecutive games! The final kick is that the Wave has to finish the year with five of their final six games on the road. Simply put, Tulane has less talent than most of the teams in the league. Their recruiting classes from 2006-2008 only combined to feature TWO 3 star prospects, though their most recent class was much improved. However, that means that their most talented players are freshmen and if they have to play a large number of first year players to fill the numerous holes on both sides of the ball then they’re going to be in for a long season. However, with a weak offense and another porous defense, maybe they need to start thinking about the future now. I don’t have very many good things to say about the Wave and if they beat last season’s mark of two wins I will be surprised.

Biggest Games: Sept. 4th vs. Tulsa, Oct. 10th vs. Marshall, Oct. 31st @ LSU, Nov. 7th vs. UTEP, Nov. 14th @ Rice, Nov. 28th @ SMU

 

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Conference appears to have a few clear cut favorites going into the season. In the East, Southern Mississippi and East Carolina are the big leaders, while Memphis looms as a darkhorse candidate. With the superior depth in the division, all three teams face a tougher road to play for the conference championship. In the end, the most talented team appears to be the Golden Eagles of USM. However, East Carolina has the most favorable draw from the West and they will be neck and neck with USM for the entire season. However, the final day of conference play will be highlighted by USM traveling to ECU to decide the C-USA East. While I’m bucking a trend by picking the road team, I think the Golden Eagles will defeat the Pirates and move on to play for the conference title.

In the West, Houston and Tulsa are clearly the class of the division. With so little depth beyond a slightly improved UTEP team, I expect both to sport very strong conference records this season. However, Houston has a settled quarterback situation and extra motivation after falling just short in the division last year. Furthermore, Tulsa has to play all three of the contenders in the East and Houston’s easier slate gives them the edge which means that I am picking the Cougars to win the C-USA West and host the conference title game.

The championship game between the Houston Cougars and Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles will be a great showcase for the conference’s top two teams. Houston will definitely be able to move the ball with defending C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Chase Keenum in charge but USM’s stout defense will prevent Keenum and company from running up the score. By this point in the season, USM’s superstar receiver DeAndre Brown should be fully healthy and his ability to stretch the field should open up the running game for the conference’s best tailback, Damion Fletcher against Houston’s solid but unspectacular unit. The strength of the USM defense should be enough to allow the Golden Eagles’ strong offense to carry the day en route to the school’s first conference title in six years.

While I expect a hard fought game, my pick to win the 2009 Conference USA Championship is the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles.

 

 

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Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out all fall for his multiple weekly articles discussing everything college football. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell

 

 

 


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