Parity has filtered down from the NFL to college football, and nowhere is that more evident than in C-USA. Last year, UCF, a team that won nary a game in '04, vanquished the competition in the East Division, and Tulsa, which was picked in the middle of the West Division pack, emerged as the league champion. So predicting what's going to happen in this league is risky business. But that's never stopped us before, so here it is: the 2006 C-USA preview—submitted for your approval.
There's a logjam at the top in the West. Any one of three teams is capable of winning the division. Last year's champ, Tulsa, should be tough again, UTEP, the ‘05 favorite, is loaded, and Houston has a plethora of talent on hand, not to mention the league's best quarterback. SMU is a program on the rise, and will likely knock off an opponent or two it shouldn't, just as it did last year with wins over TCU and UH; but the Ponies aren't yet primed for a serious run at the title. Tulane and Rice have too many obstacles to overcome, though both could be a handful toward the end of the season. Here, then, are our picks for the West Division.
So why UH? Several reasons, in no particular order. One, Houston should have the best quarterback in the league. In a tight race, the best signal caller often makes the difference. Two, the schedule is tailor-made for success. UH plays nine games in Texas and eight within the Houston city limits. There's only one heavyweight on the card, Miami, and the Coogs' other out-of-conference games are against LA-Lafayette, Grambling, and an Oklahoma State team coming off a 4-7 season. And the Cougars' toughest league opponents--Tulsa, UTEP, and UCF--come to Robertson. Three, Houston returns 16 starters, and many were younger players in ‘05, who should make big strides this year. And there's strong senior leadership on hand. Four, the Cougars have an infusion of talent that could put them over the top. Biren Ealy, a transfer from Arizona who was the Wildcats' leading receiver in '03 and a preseason All-Pac-10 choice in '04, could well be the most talented receiver in the conference. James Francis, who started as a true freshman in the Big 12, gives the Cougars the speed guy they need on the corner to juice up the pass rush. And Will Gulley, a potential NFL draftee, returns at safety after sitting out last year with an injury. Five, UH brought in several experienced coaches who are making a difference, none more so than strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson. I know! Every year the team is in better shape than ever. This is the real deal. Bill Yeoman said that if Jackson cut off his leg, he'd be Tom Wilson, the best trainer to work at Houston. Jackson's instilled a mental toughness among the players. Put all those positives together, and UH has the best chance in a crowded field to come out on top. But one area the Cougars must show improvement in is special teams. The kickers and punter return, and UH has a dangerous return man in Vince Marshall, so hopes are high for the kicking game.
Tulsa is a major threat to win it all again. They return most everyone, and are on a roll after their Liberty Bowl victory. Heady quarterback Paul Smith, very much in the mold of USM's departed Dustin Almond, returns, and the Golden Hurricanes have four starters back in the offensive line, including linchpin OT Jeff Parrett. The defense should be one of the league's better units. Some nine starters, including honors candidates such as LB Nelson Coleman and DB Bobby Blackshire, return from a defense that finished second in C-USA. The Hurricanes could very well find themselves back in the Liberty Bowl; however, they're going to have to answer a few questions first, and it's a tough exam. They have to go to Houston, a team that dominated them physically last. Tulsa also loses the heart and soul of their team in Garrett Mills, who was to the Hurricanes about what D'Angelo Williams was to Memphis. Mills caught more passes for more yards than anyone in C-USA, and he was Mr. Reliable in third-down situations. Mills made first-team All-America, a remarkable feat for a tight end at a non-BCS school. Losing him will hurt—a lot. The Hurricanes will also have to replace one of the league's best kickers, as well as a return man who seemingly always managed to give them good field position. Finally, Tulsa finished fourth in the nation last year in turnover margin. That, along with the play of Mills, put them in Memphis more so than their overall talent. Maintaining that +19 turnover margin will be a chore; chances are the Hurricanes will be a little closer to the C-USA average of -3 this go-round. But Tulsa is definitely a threat. If UH doesn't win the division, look for Tulsa to play again in the conference championship game.
Texas-El Paso could be as good, conceivably even better than Houston or Tulsa. They return one of the league's top quarterbacks in Jordan Palmer, one of the finest running backs in Marcus Thomas, and a dandy at wide receiver in Johnny Lee Higgins. They also have a solid nucleus returning in the offensive line, and a large cast of returnees on defense, including some of the best in C-USA such as LB Troy Collavo and DE Alex Obemese. UTEP also has arguably the league's best kicker in Ryan Schneider, and one of the top return men in Higgins. So Miner fans are undoubtedly thinking they have the team to beat, and they may be right. The reservations are these: Jordan Palmer has yet to show consistency at quarterback. He is talented, but a great arm does not a great QB make. Palmer led the league in interceptions last year by a West Texas mile. He should be improved, but who knows? And while UH and Tulsa have favorable schedules, UTEP has to play its two major divisional rivals back-to-back on the road. If they drop those two and realize they're probably out of the conference race before the World Series ends, the Miners may have trouble with motivation the second half of the season. But if they split those two games, they'll be in good shape. If they win them both, watch out! UTEP also goes on the road to play Marshall, which should be one of the two or three best in the East. An early non-conference tilt against Texas Tech is unlikely to help the team's confidence, and road games against decent MWC teams San Diego State and New Mexico could prove problematic. But if the Miners can pick their way through all those heavy stones, they should emerge as the conference champion.
Many C-USA programs have been down over the past decade or two, but few, if any, more so than SMU; however, for the first time in years, there is talk of a bowl on the Hilltop. The Mustangs won their final three games in 2005, and they were 3-1 against the bowl teams they played. If the Ponies could have pulled out their 3-point loss to Marshall, 5-point setback to Baylor, or either of their 7-point defeats against East Carolina or Tulsa, Ft. Worth fans may have been watching SMU rather than UH play Kansas in their city's bowl game. But for SMU to win an additional game or two, they must first find a quarterback. Justin Willis is capable but only a redshirt freshman. His progress will likely determine whether the Ponies will be mired in mediocrity or make their first bowl since 1984. The offensive line looks solid, and DeMyron Martin is one of the league's better running backs. The receiving corps is short on homerun threats but has a bevy of spray hitters. The defense, which will typically be strong on a team coached by Phil Bennett, is formidable up front with quick end Justin Rogers the anchor. But the Mustangs must develop consistency in the secondary. The schedule is reasonably favorable. SMU gets two of the best in the West, Houston and Tulsa, in Dallas, and the non-conference slate is mostly unimposing. True, the Ponies travel to Lubbock for a likely drubbing in the opener against Tech, but then they have North Texas, Sam Houston, and Arkansas State. Next in line is divisional rival Tulane, so SMU could start the year 4-1, which could very possibly propel them to that long-lost Shangri-la: post-season play.
Tulane has a very athletic quarterback in Lester Ricard, an LSU transfer, a big running back with speed in Matt Forde, and Preston Brown was the team's leading receiver in '05. And the Green Wave's front four should be one of the league's best defensive lines. But problems abound elsewhere. Tulane will field a patchwork offensive line that may cause Ricard to spend much of his time avoiding tacklers rather than finding receivers. The back seven on defense are greener than the team's home jerseys. Passing teams are likely to feast on the Tulane secondary. Given the problems the Green Wave (what a tragically ironic mascot) have faced the past year, it's a wonder they're even fielding a team, much less a competitive one. Success will hinge on the development of the offensive line, and how quickly the secondary grows up. Having good skill people will make the line's job a little less difficult, and a strong defensive line will help with the secondary. The Wave gets the nod over Rice because their athletes are comparable, they have a talented veteran at quarterback, they're familiar with head coach Chris Scelfo's system (and it would be a shame to see the guy fired; he's had as tough a slog as any coach in Division I), and the Owls have to come to New Orleans—or Lafayette or Baton Rouge or wherever this year.
If you think SMU's 22-year absence from the bowl scene is rough, cover your eyes. Rice hasn't been bowling since 1961. The Owls have some talent this year, and if they had kept former coach Ken Hatfield and scrapped some of the titans (Texas, Florida State, UCLA) on their non-conference schedule, Rice may have been positioned as well as SMU to make post-season play. The Owls came on strong at the end of last year, which usually augurs well for the following season if a fair number of starters are back—and there are. But Rice, understandably, chose to sack Hatfield, and they decided on Todd Graham, Tulsa's defensive coordinator, as head coach. There's a buzz on South Main; Rice alums see a glimmer of hope for the first time in years. Graham seems to be a take-charge guy, and he's brought in a fine staff. This year's squad may be one of the more physically gifted in some time at Rice, but with so many challenges facing the team, the Owls may find their wings clipped. The schedule, as mentioned, is brutal early, and Rice will be hard-pressed to avoid injuries. And the Owls are breaking in completely new schemes—imagine if a run-n-shoot team switched to the wishbone. Turn that around, and you just about have what Graham is doing at Rice. But Chase Clement performed well at quarterback in the spring, and a new 3-3-5 defensive look puts an emphasis on speed, something that should help the Owls against the wide-open offenses in C-USA. Look for Rice to get on track and become a solid program in the division. Also look for it to happen in 2007 or 2008.
Unlike the West, the East has a clear favorite. UCF won it last year, and there's no compelling reason to think they won't again. But one never knows. No one had them pegged last year as division champs. After UCF, you could almost pick straws to determine second through sixth, certainly fourth through sixth. USM will likely be there, as they always are. But watch out for Marshall this year. When the Herd was first admitted to C-USA, most fans thought they'd slug it out with Southern Miss in the East Division every year. Remember that Marshall was one of the top non-BCS teams in the country for several years. Chances are those two will battle for runner-up in the division. After that, it's a scramble not so much to get to the top but to avoid the bottom. UAB, Memphis, and ECU are all but indistinguishable in terms of talent and prospects.
The onus is on the Golden Knights in the East after surprising everyone and winning the division last year. They return an athletic quarterback in Stephen Moffett, one of the league's most exciting players in running back Kevin Smith, some fine receivers, what should be a cohesive offensive line, and this year, they just might have a defense to pair with that offensive firepower. Nine starters return on defense for the Golden Knights. Three returnees bolster the front four, plenty of experienced linebackers are on hand, and the secondary is a veteran group led by Joe Burnett, one of C-USA's top cornerbacks. The schedule has some bumps along the way. UCF travels to Houston and Marshall, and they have tough non-conference games in the Sunshine State at both the Swamp and at home against rival South Florida. Winning that one would be a coup for C-USA. But they also get Southern Miss in Orlando, and they should have enough talent on hand to overcome a marginally tough schedule. UCF is the biggest school in the conference, and much like Houston and SMU, they are located in a hotbed of talent. If they win the division again or even take home the title, they could supplant USM as the jewel in the East's crown.
2. Southern Miss
USM needs to do some rebuilding. The Golden Eagles lose key players in veteran quarterback Dustin Almond and their two leading tacklers, the Kevis and Trevis Coley tandem. But USM reloads more than rebuilds. The quarterback will likely be the top reserve the last two seasons, Jeremy Young, or Michigan State transfer Stephen Reaves. USM should have the league's best offensive line. Both of their guards, George Batiste and Travis Cooley, were all-conference last year, and LT Chris Clark is a fine pass blocker. The concern is the lack of depth in the trenches. And if the Eagles are to end up in Memphis in late December, they need to find a playmaker or two. As always, USM will be tough defensively, but losing their top two tacklers can't be easily dismissed. The defensive line may also suffer some drop-off, and the secondary must replace John Eubanks and Trevis Coley. Games at UCF and Tulsa will be tough to pull out, and Houston and Marshall will be challenges even in Hattiesburg. The non-conference slate, as usual, is rugged. USM plays at Florida and VPI, and has a home date with NC State. USM will likely be about as good as last year, when they were a minor bowl team but were missing the pieces of the puzzle that would have put them in the Liberty Bowl.
Marshall has possibly the league's top running back in Ahmad Bradshaw, and he's got four starters returning up front to escort him to a 1,000 yard season, which he missed by three yards last year. The Herd's quarterback, junior Bernard Morris, is a fine passer whose throwing should help open some holes for Bradshaw. The two leading receivers return as well. But Marshall didn't even average 20 points a game last year, so while they should be better offensively, it's hard to imagine them as a juggernaut. The defense ought to be improved. Seven starters return, along with Josh Johnson, a top transfer at linebacker, who signed with Georgia out of high school. Marshall could field one of the best defenses in the league. If they do and improve offensively, which shouldn't be a problem given the returnees, Marshall may be the league's dark horse this year. Playing well at West Virginia in their opener, later at Tennessee, and then against Kansas State, a return match from a game they lost by two points last year, will help determine whether Marshall will be shooting for a minor bowl or a championship. But playing those rough non-conference match-ups early could send the Herd off the cliff. If UM is at or just above .500 late in the season, the key contest should be the finale, when the Thundering Herd treks to USM.
If Marshall isn't the league's dark horse, UAB probably is. The Blazers have talent at most every position, but who's going to play quarterback? Darrell Hackney was the league's best last year, and he'll be sorely missed. The probable replacement is senior Chris Williams, the team's best passer, but don't be surprised to see Coach Watson Brown frequently insert sprinter Sam Hunt to see if opposing defenses can stop the running game. Corey White is a power back with speed, and the offensive line returns almost intact. The Blazers will need to develop their receivers, but maybe as much as blockers as pass catchers. This team could be among the most run-oriented in the league. On defense, Larry McSwain, who may be C-USA's best defensive lineman, returns along with all the linebackers, and two veterans in the secondary. Much like USM, UAB has that "Anywhere, Anytime" philosophy, and they'll walk the walk this year with two of their first three games at Oklahoma and Georgia. If they can run those gauntlets and stay relatively healthy, the schedule eases considerably. Of their next seven games, only two are on the road, and they are at SMU and Rice. If UAB can find a quarterback, they could come out of nowhere much as UCF did last year. A strong running game and an opportunistic defense may be the best route to success in C-USA this year given the impressive passing games at most of the schools expected to contend for the crown.
Memphis has been one of C-USA's best programs the past three years, and it's tough to pick them anywhere other than the first division, but the Tigers just lost the best football player in school history. D'Angelo Williams was an extraordinary talent and a great leader. Now if Memphis had some 20 starters returning, they might still be picked to be in the thick of the race, but they don't. The offense counts seven returnees, and only five are back on defense. Last year's starter at quarterback, Patrick Byrne, broke his leg in the season opener. He's healthy again, but the Tigers are excited about Martin Hankins, a transfer from SE Louisiana who tallied big numbers in Hal Mumme's spread offense. Memphis does have good receivers, and the offensive line, which was so inexperienced last year, is now a more veteran group. So Memphis will be a bit like Rice in that fans will see a 180-degree turnaround in how they move the ball. It may take a few games, but the Tigers will probably start putting it together offensively. The defense is another matter. With only five starters back, defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunne will have his work cut out for him. Actually, DB Wesley Smith may be the best defensive player in C-USA, but he's one man. UM has been to three consecutive bowl games, but this year they'll be hard-pressed to win half their games. The Tigers play Ole Miss and Tennessee in the first half of the season, and their final six games are against what may well be the best teams in the conference: Tulsa, Marshall, USM, UCF, Houston, and UTEP.
6. East Carolina
Under Skip Holtz, the Pirates are working assiduously to regain their place as a consistent contender for the C-USA title, but they're still at least a year away. The have possibly the league's best wide receiver in Aundrae Allison, James Pinckney is a fine, dual-threat quarterback, and Chris Johnson is a capable running back. But there are holes in the offensive line, which will likely cause problems in the passing game. Pinckney can scramble, and he'll very likely have to do just that. And ECU has to stop someone to get the ball to their skill people, a tough task with less than half the starters back off a unit that finished 10th in the league last year in scoring defense. The Pirates also have to travel to probably the two toughest destinations in the East Division: Orlando and Hattiesburg. And non-conference games against West Virginia, Virginia, and NC State may take a toll. The Pirates are rebuilding, but Holtz needs more than two years to right the ship.
2006 CoogFans All C-USA Team
QB Kevin Kolb, Houston
RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Marshall
RB Marcus Thomas, UTEP
WR Aundrae Allison, East Carolina
WR Johnny Lee Higgins, UTEP
WR Vincent Marshall, Houston
TE Shawn Nelson, Southern Miss
OL Sir Vincent Rogers, Houston
OL Travis Cooley, Southern Miss
OL Cedric Gagne-Marcoux, UCF
OL George Batiste, Southern Miss
OL Jeff Parrett, Tulsa
K Darren McCaleb, Southern Miss
DL Larry McSwain, UAB
DL Marquay Love, Houston
DL Justin Rogers, SMU
DL Alex Obemese, UTEP
LB Wade Koehl, Houston
LB Nelson Coleman, Tulsa
LB Troy Collavo, UTEP
DB Wesley Smith, Memphis
DB Will Gulley, Houston
DB Bobby Blackshire, Tulsa
DB Joe Burnett, UCF
P Michael Gibson, Memphis
Coach of the Year: Art Briles, Houston
Player of the Year: Kevin Kolb, Houston
Offensive Player of the Year: Ahmad Bradshaw, Marshall
Defensive Player of the Year: Wesley Smith, Memphis
Newcomer of the Year: Biren Ealy, Houston