2004 Conference USA Football Preview

So which conference will step up and grab the limelight this year? CoogFans.com says it will be Conference USA, which is poised to have its strongest season ever. C-USA will field some six or seven teams capable of cracking the Top 25, and there will be numerous opportunities for league schools to knock off marquee programs from the so-called power conferences just as several MAC schools did last year and as C-USA programs did themselves in 1999.

Last year, the Mid-American Conference, better known as the MAC, was all the rage in college football. Northern Illinois went into Tuscaloosa, home of the legendary Bear Bryant, and came away with a win. Before that, the Huskies traveled to another school where the Bear hung his hat, Maryland, and beat the Terps as well. The Great Plains were once again home to a thundering Herd when Marshall stampeded to Kansas State and tamed the Wildcats. Bowling Green defeated Big 10 power Purdue on the road and came within one touchdown of knocking off the mighty Buckeyes in Columbus. Miami of Ohio, which finished #10 in the AP poll, crushed both Louisville and Northwestern, and Toledo edged Pittsburgh. All tolled, the MAC had wins over every major conference, the Big 10, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, C-USA, and the MWC, except for the PAC 10, but then a victory over a PAC 10 school would have really made it a miracle season since no MAC team played a team from that league.

So which conference will step up and grab the limelight this year? CoogFans.com says it will be Conference USA, which is poised to have its strongest season ever. C-USA will field some six or seven teams capable of cracking the Top 25, and there will be numerous opportunities for league schools to knock off marquee programs from the so-called power conferences just as several MAC schools did last year and as C-USA programs did themselves in 1999. At least one respected college football analyst thinks that C-USA will be the sixth best league in the country in ‘04. Little wonder considering that most conference schools return a bevy of starters, all but one school returns its starting quarterback, five conference teams played in bowls last year, one, South Florida, won seven games but stayed home, and three were only one game away from being bowl-eligible. So how will the race end up? A photo finish or will one team separate itself from the rest of the pack? About half the league‚s teams have a shot at the title, and the 2004 season could conceivably resemble the Southwest Conference scramble in 1994 when there was a five-way tie for the crown. But only one C-USA team can pull the sword from the stone and play in the Liberty Bowl on New Year‚s Eve. CoogFans.com says there will be a tie for the crown between Memphis and Louisville, but that the Tigers will win the head-to-head matchup, which will be played in Memphis, and represent the conference in the Liberty Bowl. Here, then, is CoogFans.com's preview of C-USA.


TIE

1) Memphis

Head Coach: Tommy West

2003 Record: 9-4 (Defeated North Texas in the New Orleans Bowl)

Returning Starters: 11/5

The Tigers are loaded. They averaged 30 points and 445 yards per game last year on their way to a 9-4 record, which included wins over Ole Miss and Louisville. Scariest of all for conference opponents is the fact that Memphis returns all 11 starters on offense. Danny Wimprine, one of the league's best, saltiest quarterbacks, is back under center, and he'll again be handing the ball of to one of the nation‚s top running backs, D'Angelo Williams, last year's C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. The offensive line that paved the way for Williams‚ 1430 rushing yards and only allowed 12 sacks returns intact. The Tigers‚ receiving corps, led by Tavares Gideon and Darron White, may be the league's best. The defense returns not quite half its starters, but one of them, Albert Means, is so big and so good that he is practically worth two returnees all by himself. Means, all 6-4, 330 pounds of him, is becoming the player everyone thought he would be when his illegal recruitment was such a big story a few years ago. With Means and D'Angelo, Memphis could have both the best offensive and defensive player in C-USA. The Tigers have some linemen, including some outstanding junior college transfers, to aid and abet Means, and their secondary, which allowed a measly completion rate of only 47 percent last year, has almost everyone back and should be among the best in the league. The big question for the Memphis defense, and very possibly for the team, will be the play of the linebackers. Alabama transfer Carlton Baker is a capable performer, but middle linebacker Quinton McCrary must step into the starting role and play well. One big advantage working in the Tigers' favor this year is that they get title contenders Louisville, Southern Miss, and Houston at home, and they do not play TCU. All things considered, Memphis has the talent, the experience, the coaching, and the schedule to win the conference this year.


1) Louisville

Head Coach: Bobby Petrino

2003 Record: 9-4 (Lost to Miami of Ohio in GMAC Bowl)

Returning Starters: 8/8

Louisville ought to be as strong as Memphis; the Cards may even be better. If they were playing the Tigers at PapaJohn‚s Stadium instead of the Liberty Bowl, they'd get the nod in this preview; the two teams are that close. As outstanding as the Memphis backfield is, Louisville's is every bit as good. Quarterback Stefan LeFors earned first-team all-conference honors, and running back Eric Shelton, a Florida State transfer, is about as physically talented as any back not playing in the NFL and very possibly a few that are. Michael Bush, one of the nation's top recruits two years ago, is also on hand to give the Cardinals the most dynamic duo since Batman and Robin. The UL receivers are impressive as well. J.R. Russell was all-conference in Œ03, and Broderick Clark, a part-time starter last season, runs a sub 4.4 forty. The offensive line returns an all-league guard and an all-freshman team tackle. Even so, there could be a slight dropoff here, but for a team that averaged 36 points and 521 yards per game, the emphasis should be on slight more so than dropoff. If Louisville is to win the conference, the Cardinals will have to play better defense. They will. No one will confuse the ‘04 Cards with the ‘84 Bears, but with eight starters back, UL should rank higher than 85th in the nation defensively. Three of four starters return in the defensive line, Robert McCune is one of the league's best linebackers, and three seniors will anchor what should be a solid secondary. Louisville goes on the road to play Memphis and Houston, they get TCU at home, and don't play Southern Miss. Other than an October 14th date at Miami, the rest of the schedule is relatively soft. If they can manage to win two of those three, Memphis, UH, and TCU, they'll have an excellent chance to win or at least share the conference title and climb back into the Top 25.


3) Houston

Head Coach: Art Briles

2003 Record: 7-6 (Lost in overtime to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl)

Returning Starters: 7/7

The Cougars will again be a juggernaut offensively, but this year, fans won't leave their seats for popcorn every time the defense goes out on the field. UH averaged 36 points and 491 yards per game last season, and there's no reason to believe they won't put up similar numbers again this go-around. Freshman phenom Kevin Kolb is now a super soph and back to direct one of the most diversified and potent offenses in the nation. His understudy is Kendal Briles, a speedy, savvy QB who would many Division I schools. Briles could be especially effective when the Cougars are ahead late and wanting to milk the clock with the running game. UH will be as deep and talented at running back as most any team in the land. The starter will be Anthony Evans, who is as solid as stone, both in terms of consistency and his physical makeup. He‚s fast and has great instincts. Jackie Battle, a 250-pound dynamo, will get plenty of carries as will LSU transfer Ryan Gilbert. At wide receiver, the Cougars lose Brandon Middleton, but starters Vincent Marshall, whose late touchdown reception in the Hawaii Bowl electrified the nation, and Leonard Gibson return. Mark Hopkins‚s hands are sealed with super glue, and Donnie Avery and Kenyada Tatum have impressed. Steve Cucci should be as good as any tight end in the league. Stalwarts Phil Hawkins, Roy Swan, and David Douglas are back in the offensive line. Sterling Doty takes over at center. But how far the Cougars go in ‘04 will ultimately depend on the defense, and it should be better. The defensive line, which was a weakness last year, will be a strength. All-league performer Joe Clay leads a group that will be bigger and have much better depth. Clay's opposite number will be Matt Bentley or Kendrick Goss. At tackle, Marquay Love is on the verge of becoming a dominant defensive lineman, and D.J. Johnson was named a first team NJCAA All-American. Kade Lane and Gerard Richard, last year's starters coming out of the spring, will play vital support roles. Lance Everson is possibly the best linebacker to play at UH since Wayne Rogers. He‚ll man one outside LB post. Bryant Brown and Wade Koehl are still battling for the other. In the middle, redshirt freshman Trent Allen has everything going for him except experience. Stanford Routte returns at corner; the other spot is still unsettled. Will Gulley gives the Coogs the big, rangy free safety all defensive coaches love. Dustin Bell is one of the league's best kickers.


4) TCU

Head Coach: Gary Patterson

2003 Record: 11-2 (Lost to Boise State in Ft. Worth Bowl)

Returning Starters: 8/5

In a league filled with outstanding backfields, TCU's won't have to take a backseat to anyone. At quarterback, Brandon Hassell and Tye Gunn, both gifted veterans, return. Hassell, who is quicker, had the edge over the injury-prone Gunn coming out of the spring. The Frogs have a lethal pair at running back in Robert Merrill and Lonta Hobbs, both all-conference candidates. Reggie Harrell is one of the league's best receivers, and Cody McCarty is a capable tight end. TCU‚s offensive line, led by NFL prospect Anthony Alabi, could be the best in C-USA. Only left guard John Glud must be replaced off a unit that paved the way for 440 yards per game in ‘03. Only Louisville and Houston scored more points and racked up more yards than TCU, and the Frogs should be better on offense this year. The potential road hazard is defense, where TCU loses six starters. The defensive line, which last year included first-team all-conference talents Bo Schobel and Chad Pugh, can count only one returning starter, Brandon Johnson, though he is a good one. Ditto linebacker where Martin Patterson is the sole returnee. But there‚s a posse in the secondary ready to chase down any outlaw running backs. Mark Walker is arguably the league‚s best cornerback and Marvin Godbolt plays both the run and pass well at safety. Jeremy Modkins is a steady center fielder. Still, TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas must get the front six (TCU runs a 4-2-5 alignment) to grow up in a hurry if TCU is to contend for the conference championship. The Frogs also lose Nick Browne, one of the nation's best kickers last year. A good barometer of TCU's chances of vying for the Liberty Bowl will be when they go to Lubbock to take on the Red Raiders in mid-September. If they hang tough or even win that game, TCU will be in the thick of the conference race. If they get blown out, they may have trouble making a bowl game (especially given that C-USA won't exactly be looking out for them after they gave the league their two-week notice), and if they do, they may again be consigned to playing in their hometown Fort Worth Bowl.


5) Southern Mississippi

Head Coach: Jeff Bower

2003 Record: 9-4

Returning Starters: 9/4

The Golden Eagles seem to always find a way to get in the thick of the hunt for the championship, and this year will very likely be the same song, ninth verse. But there are potential chinks in USM's armor, and the boys from Hattiesburg will be hard-pressed to get back to the Liberty Bowl. Last year the Eagles had one of the league's more anemic offenses and were shut out in the Liberty Bowl. Southern Miss returns nine offensive starters, but is that a good thing? Quarterback Dustin Almond is reminiscent of quarterbacks of old such as Bob Griese who weren't flashy but got the job done. But those quarterbacks were able to produce because the people to whom they handed off and threw the ball were capable of making big plays. Whether Almond's supporting cast can do that is questionable. Anthony Harris is a solid back, but he can't hit the long ball as well as some of the other top backs in the league. Two of the top three receivers, DaRon Lawrence and Marvin Young, are former walk-ons. The strength of the offense will be the line. Four starters return, including all-conference tackle Jeremy Parquet. The offense, which finished 8th in C-USA last year in both scoring and total offense, will be better, but the Eagles won't pile up points and yards like the Cards, Coogs, Tigers, and Frogs. But so what, right? We‚re talking Southern Miss, and when you‚re talking Southern Miss, you‚re talking great defense. Well . . . . maybe not this year. The Eagles lose seven defensive starters including C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Rod Davis and three others who earned first-team all-conference honors. But USM defenses don't roll over for anyone, and this year will be no exception. Half the defensive line is back, and the Eagles ought to be pretty stout against the run. The biggest returnee is linebacker Michael Boley, who may follow his teammate Davis as the league's best defensive player. But the secondary is a major concern, especially given the pass-happy offenses in this conference. All four starters, including two all-league performers, are gone. The Eagles again play Nebraska and California, both of whom waxed them last year, as well as Alabama, and they have to go to Memphis and Ft. Worth. Southern Miss has been a pretty safe bet to go bowling the past few years. But given the starters they lost and the schedule they play, the Eagles‚ chances of going to a bowl game in 2004 might be closer to even odds.


6) Cincinnati

Head Coach: Mark Dantonio

2003 Record: 5-7

Returning Starters: 9/8

Cincinnati could be a major surprise this season and are my darkhorse. The Bearcats were one win away from being bowl-eligible last year, they beat West Virginia on the road, two of their losses came in overtime, and they lost games to conference heavies Southern Miss, Memphis, and Louisville by a combined total of only 8 points. This year Cincy returns 9 offensive and 8 defensive starters, and none is more important than veteran quarterback Gino Guidugli. In 2002, he broke Greg Cook's record for passing yards in one season at UC, and could break his own mark this year with solid returnees at wide receiver and tight end. Running back Richard Hall would have gone over 1,000 yards if not for an injury. The offensive line counts four starters back in the trenches and should be among the conference's best units. So the Bearcats could very well be among the elite offenses in C-USA, and that's saying a lot given the other offenses in the league. Their defense could be as good. Both defensive ends, Trent Cole and Andre Frazier, earned all-C-USA accolades last year. Mike Wright returns at one tackle, and Michigan State transfer Lonnie Simmons looks impressive at the other. All three linebackers are returning starters, including Jamar Enzor, who led the team in tackles last season. The secondary should be among the league‚s best with both corners and one safety returning from the 2003 group that was first in the conference in pass defense. A new coach, Mark Dantonio, who was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State the past three years, takes over the Cincinnati program. He inherits a warm bed, and will very likely bring a new sense of optimism to the team. Don't be surprised if the Bearcats finish in the first-division.


7) UAB

Head Coach: Watson Brown

2003 Record: 5-7

Returning Starters: 8/10

Like Cincinnati, UAB could easily rise in the standings and should probably be picked higher. It's unlikely that they'll win the league, but they have a legitimate chance to go bowling and figure prominently in the conference race. The fact that CoogFans.com is predicting a team that missed a .500 season by a 3-point loss at Georgia and returns 18 starters to finish 7th in the league is a testament to the strength of C-USA in 2004. The key to Blazer hopes this year is the health of Darrell Hackney, a 235-pound quarterback with mobility and a strong, accurate arm. Is this league loaded with good quarterbacks or is this league loaded with good quarterbacks? Dan Burks is a reliable running back who will get most of the totes. The receivers are especially impressive. Reggie Lindsey, Rodney White, and Nick Coon all run 4.4 or better. At 275 pounds, Cedric Hampton may be the best blocking tight end in the conference. There are questions in the offensive line. The Blazers have good size up front, they average well over 300 pounds per man, but there is little experience. That and the lack of a bonafide breakaway threat in the backfield are the only reasons UAB may not light up the scoreboard as often as some other C-USA teams. But with Hackney, who has tremendous potential, and a sharp offensive mind in Watson Brown, the Blazers will present plenty of problems for C-USA‚s defensive coordinators. Speaking of defense, UAB's will be better. The Blazers were thinner than a razor last year, but this season there is experience and better depth. With three defensive line starters back in the fold, the Blazer front four should be more like the exceptional 2001 group that allowed only 57 rushing yards per game. But the heart of the defense is Zac Woodfin, who will remind fans of his namesake, Zach Thomas. Woodfin is a Butkus Award nominee and arguably one of the three best defensive players in the league along with Albert Means and Michael Boley. UAB's strongest unit, however, may be the secondary. The Blazers ranked 5th in C-USA last year in pass defense, and all four starters are back. If Hackney avoids injury and the offensive line comes around, UAB will be able to play with anyone in this conference.


8) South Florida

Head Coach: Jim Leavitt

2003 Record: 7-4

Returning Starters: 7/6

South Florida's second season in C-USA will be its last and also its worst. The Bulls were on the fortunate side of three overtime games last year, so their 7-4 mark could have just as easily been 4-7; moreover, they lose 7 key defensive starters, and a team with a porous defense in C-USA isn't going to get very far given the conference's prodigious offenses. The good news for USF fans is that their offense may not be too far behind the league‚s best. Ronnie Banks returns at quarterback. He's been inconsistent but should improve in his senior season if he can stay healthy. Head Coach Jim Leavitt has others itching for a shot including heralded recruit Evan Kraky. Another top recruit, junior-college transfer Andre Hall, will likely be the workhorse running back. Brian Fisher is a multi-talented wide receiver, and Allyson Sheffield will again start alongside him. The offensive line should be solid. Derek Sarosi is one of the league's top left tackles, and the other four linemen are all returning starters. While the defense will be hard-pressed to maintain last year‚s efficiency (2nd in C-USA in total defense), it won't be because of a dropoff in the defensive line. Every member of the front four has starting experience, and LeeRoy Selmon is one of the league's best interior defensive linemen. The weakest link is the back seven. There is very little experience at linebacker or defensive back. And to make matters worse, the starting middle linebacker is coming off knee surgery, and his health is a concern. Only one starter, cornerback D'Juan Brown, returns in the secondary. Stefan LeFors, Gino Guidugli, Danny Wimprine, and Darrell Hackney are already licking their chops! South Florida won't be a pushover by any means. They could even figure in the conference race. Chances are, however, they'll figure in as a spoiler rather than a contender.


9) Tulane

Head Coach: Chris Scelfo

2003 Record: 5-7

Returning Starters: 9/9

If J.P. Losman were back at the helm for the Green Wave, they could very well be in the race for the conference championship. But he's not, and there's a huge dropoff from a first-round NFL draft choice to his backup, Nick Cannon, who has thrown a grand total of two passes in his college career. The starter may, however, be Lester Ricard, an LSU transfer, but Ricard redshirted at LSU and sat out last season, so he's no more experienced than Cannon. Another big blow is the loss of back Mewelde Moore, arguably the best all-around back in C-USA history. Junior Jovan Jackson will get the bulk of the carries. But the news isn't all grim. Roydell Williams is one of the top wide receivers in the league, and he's back for his senior campaign. Katy product Bobby Hoover returns at tight end, and the offensive line returns intact. Left tackle Chris McGee of Beaumont is among the top offensive tackles in the conference. Tulane returns 9 defensive starters, but then the Green Wave was last in the conference in total defense last year, so if experience is the best teacher, these players have been learning some awful lessons! Still, there is some room for optimism. Taurean Brown has the size and quickness to become a very fine defensive lineman. Tulane has good size at linebacker, but speed is a liability. The secondary should be the D's finest unit. Safety Tra Boger and cornerback Sean Lucan were 3rd team all-league selections. Chris Scelfo may be on the hot seat in New Orleans. Tulane's a tough job, and it must have been almost impossible to recruit when there was talk of shutting down the program. Scelfo has taken the Green Wave to two bowl games. Even so, his overall record at Tulane is 26-34, and that's not going to get it done at a school that needs to improve its attendance to stay afloat. If they can find a productive QB, Tulane could have a good season and possibly even secure one of the league's five bowl slots.


10) East Carolina

Head Coach: John Thompson

2003 Record: 1-11

Returning Starters: 4/7

The second year in a rebuilding job is often the toughest, and that old saw is likely to hold true for John Thompson and East Carolina. The defense should be better. Thompson is a defensive mastermind and gets back 7 starters on his favorite side of the ball, so the Pirates probably won't give up 36 points a game again this year. But with only one senior on the first-team defense, ECU will still have problems defensively. The real concern, however, is offense. The Pirates only averaged 18 points per game last year, and they lose 7 starters; moreover, the quarterback situation remains unsettled. Desmond Robinson and James Pinkney both played, but both were also pulled for inconsistency. A transfer from Florida, sophomore Patrick Dosh, may be the most talented and will likely be the starter. The Pirates are strong at running back where both Art Brown and Marvin Townes return. The same can't be said of wide receiver. ECU loses standout Leonard Copper and there's little experience on hand. But the biggest problem may be the offensive line, which will have to replace four starters, including two all-conference players. Unfortunately for their fans, the Pirates will do well to avoid the bottom of this offensive-minded league in total offense and, most importantly, points scored. The defense, however, may keep ECU in games, but the defensive line has only one starter back and must be rebuilt. There is talent in the linebacker corps, which is headed by the man in the middle, Chris Moore. The picture is even rosier in the secondary, where all four starters return. Most likely, the last line of defense will be the Pirates‚ best. But Thompson will have to use up a lot of blackboards finding ways to stop some of the nation's most explosive offenses, especially if, as expected, his offense doesn't move the ball well and has trouble keeping his defense off the field. The Pirates only won one game last year. With a rough conference slate and games against West Virginia and North Carolina State, East Carolina will do well to win more than a couple in 2004.


11) Army

Head Coach: Bobby Ross

2003 Record: 0-13

Returning Starters: 10/8

Is anyone surprised that Army is picked last? Actually, the Black Knights have a real chance to move up a notch or two in the standings in ‘04. New coach Bobby Ross has brought hope as does the return of 18 starters. But Army still has a long way to go. Last year the Cadets finished last in C-USA in scoring offense, last in scoring defense, last in total offense, next to last (by 0.4 yards) in total defense, and, of course, last in the conference standings. The first order of business for Bobby Ross, after, of course, trying to instill a winning attitude, is to find a quarterback. There are several contenders, but Zac Dahman''s arm makes him the prohibitive favorite, even though Army plans to run the ball more. Last year's leading rusher, Carlton Jones, leads a quick, deep group of running backs. Army has two veterans at wide receiver in the sure-handed Aaron Alexander and William White, a potential gamebreaker. The offensive line is a bit undersized by Division I-A standards (if you want to call young men whose average weight is over 280 pounds "undersized"), but it returns intact, and could be the team's most improved position. Three of four defensive line starters are back for another campaign. The front four is bigger than the norm at West Point, and they are deeper as well. All three linebackers are experienced and solid. The secondary returns intact and could cause problems for the league's many pass-oriented offenses. Army still doesn't have the talent for a first-division finish, but there's experience, and Bobby Ross is one of the best. With some breaks, they could pull off a couple of victories this year and climb out of the C-USA cellar.


All C-USA Team

OFFENSE

WR Roydell Williams, Tulane
WR Reggie Harrell, TCU
WR J.R. Russell, Louisville
TE Steve Cucci, Houston
OL Anthony Alabi, TCU
OL Jeremy Parquet, USM
OL Kyle Takavitz, Cincinnati
OL Jason Spitz, Louisville
OL Gene Frederic, Memphis
QB Stefan LeFors, Louisville
RB D'Angelo Williams, Memphis
RB Eric Shelton, Louisville
K Dustin Bell, Houston

DEFENSE

DL Albert Means, Memphis
DL Trent Cole, Cincinnati
DL Joe Clay, Houston
DL Eric Scott, Southern Miss
LB Michael Boley, Southern Miss
LB Zac Woodfin, UAB
LB Lance Everson, Houston
DB Daven Holly, Cincinnati
DB Sean Lucas, UAB
DB Tra Boger, UAB
DB Mark Walker, TCU
DB Wes Smith, Memphis
P Ryan Dougherty, East Carolina



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