Conference USA sent five teams to bowl games in 2006-07 and came away with one victory, USM's demolition of Ohio in the GMAC Bowl. The Eagles' success in that game may foreshadow the 2007 conference race. Every team in C-USA has question marks, but Southern Miss may have the fewest. Houston has the biggest, replacing record-setting QB Kevin Kolb, but the Cougars still have as much talent as anyone in the league. UAB and Tulane are good bets for the cellar, but the rest of the conference is a jumble of mediocrity. A rematch of last year's conference championship game is likely.
In the West, Houston may have a defense this year to match their always explosive offense. The play of Kolb's replacement should determine how far they go. Tulsa returns QB Paul Smith and should be solid defensively, and they get UH and SMU at home. UTEP lost a ton of starters, but has some capable replacements, and three of the upper-echelon conference teams must journey to the Land of the Sun. After going to the Aloha Bowl in 1984, SMU's future was as dismal as the novel named for that year; the Mustangs haven't been to a bowl since. But they a legitimate shot at the post-season in '06, though their schedule doesn't do them any favors. Rice will have trouble repeating last year's success, but with WR Jarrett Dillard and QB Chase Clement, they should still be closer to the seven wins they notched in '06 than the one-win season of '05. Tulane is at least a year away. The Green Wave isn't bereft of talent; running back Matt Forte is one of the best-kept secrets in C-USA. But a new quarterback takes over the helm, and Tulane lacks depth at too many positions.
The Cougars may be in the unusual predicament of hoping their offense is as potent as their defense is stout. But even with the loss of Kolb, it's difficult to imagine a team that's been ranked in the top 20 nationally in total offense three out of the last four years not being able to put up points. Electrifying Anthony Alridge returns as an all-purpose runner, while several newcomers should alternate as the every-down back. Long-ball hitter Donnie Avery is back at receiver along with 6-5 Jeron Harvey. Two all-conference players, Jeff Akeroyd and Dustin Dickinson, anchor what should again be a capable offensive line. The starting quarterback will be Blake Joseph, Case Keenum, or Oklahoma State transfer Al Pena. The smart money is on Pena, who had some limited success as a sophomore in the Big 12. Defensively, UH loses nose tackle Marquay Love but still ought to have one of the top defensive lines in the conference. Ell Ash, Phillip Hunt, and Cody Pree are talented, and there's good depth. Trent Allen, Cody Lubojasky, Brendan Pahulu return at linebacker, while Kenneth Fontenette and Ernest Miller will be back in the secondary. Kicker Ben Bell is consistent within 40 yards, but UH needs a punter. From top to bottom, Houston has more talent and depth than the other teams in the West Division, and they are developing a winner's mentality. If a QB comes through, the Cougars should return to the championship game.
Tulsa has become one of the top programs in C-USA after winning 17 games in the last two years. The '06 edition of the Golden Hurricane should continue the winning tradition with new coach Todd Graham. Steady quarterback Paul Smith will again direct the attack, and RB Courtney Tennial, who gained 845 yards last year, will shoot for a thousand. But after those two all-conference possibilities, the cupboard is mostly bare for the Tulsa offense. Four starters in the offensive line and the top two receivers must be replaced. How effective Smith can be without three all-conference offensive linemen protecting him and experienced wide-outs getting open remains to be seen. Ditto the running game without 6-7, 320-pound all-conference right tackle Jeff Parrett to count on. The Hurricane defense should be solid despite losing C-USA's defensive player of the year, LB Nick Bunting. Massive Terrell Nemons anchors the line at nose tackle, and Tulsa still has two able linebackers in Nelson Coleman and Chris Chamberlain; however, a pair of all-conference players, safety Bobby Blackshire and cornerback Nick Graham, are gone from the secondary. So it's doubtful the Hurricane will be pitching any shutouts, but with numerous holes to fill on offense, they must have one of the top defenses in the conference to contend. Don't be shocked if Tulsa struggles this year. They lost three of their last four conference games, and most of their best players are gone. They have a navigable schedule, but Tulsa better avoid injuries and bad breaks, or they may not be as big a factor in the conference race as some are expecting.
The Miners are something of a mystery team this year. They only return four starters on defense, and most of their yards were made by QB Jordan Palmer and wide receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins, both of whom are now in the NFL. So on the surface, UTEP looks like a team that may be sliding back to what they were before Mike Price took over the reins of a program that managed only a single victory in 2003. But there's reason for optimism in El Paso. There are some good athletes along with some former blue chippers who have transferred in. Two come by way of Florida State. Lorne Sam is a dual-threat QB who will spend as much or more time at receiver, and WR Fred Rouse was one of the most highly recruited players in the nation several years ago. Reliable Joe West returns at WR. Marcus Thomas is a talented back, who was hampered last year by an ineffective offensive line. But all five starters return up front, and the Miner line should be solid. Sam, while a dangerous runner, is not much of a threat as a passer. Redshirt freshman Trevor Vittatoe is the front runner. Despite losing a number of starters on the other side of the ball, some of the premier defenders return, including linebacker Jeremy Jones, who was an all-conference selection two years ago and sat out '06 with a knee injury. UTEP may have the best defensive back in the league, maybe in the state, in Quintin Demps. The Miners' defensive line is lacking, but overall, the defense should be improved over last year's, which gave up 31 ppg. The Miners won't stuff anyone, but any defensive improvement will go a long way toward a winning season. Expect UTEP to be in several close ones this year. Since many are at home, they have an outside chance to win the division.
Peruna's been pawing at the gate for 22 years, and based on personnel alone, this season is his best chance to bust out of his stall. Unfortunately, SMU faces a killer schedule with away games at Houston, Southern Miss, Tulsa, and what is likely to be a much improved Memphis team. Justin Willis will again run the Mustangs' spread offense, and durable DeMyron Martin returns at running back. Four starters return in the offensive line, including linchpin Ben Poynter. Leading receiver Emanuel Sanders is on hand along with starter Columbus Givens. So the Mustangs are going to be tough to stop and should improve on their 27 ppg. If they play good defense, they could win the West regardless of the tough schedule. They must rebuild the defensive line, and find more speed in the secondary. But there is talent in the front four, and SMU will have one of the league's best groups of linebackers with seniors Reggie Cherrington, Wilton McCray, and Tony Hawkins. The cornerbacks should be fine, but newcomers take over at both safety spots. SMU may have the best special teams in C-USA. The placekicker and punter return, and the return men are sprinters. If they can handle the grueling schedule, SMU has a chance to play in the championship game, but it's a shame that the Mustangs have Scylla and Charybdis waiting when this is such a key season for the program and the head coach. Phil Bennett has brought respectability back to the Hilltop. SMU is now a decent program, and this should be his best team. But the temperature is rising in his seat. Bennett will likely be fired if SMU doesn't go bowling.
The Owls will be looking for their second bowl in as many years—or their second in 46 years, depending on how you look at it. Rice played smart football last year, but watching some of their games, it seemed as if providence was with them. Their regular season turnover margin was +17. Karma may catch up with the Owls this year. But maybe not. The passing combination of QB Chase Clement and WR Jarrett Dillard is probably the best in C-USA. Clement has developed into a fine passer and leader, and Dillard is arguably the best wide receiver in the country. The Owls lose a thousand yard rusher in Quinton Smith, but with four starters returning, their offensive line should be among the best in the conference. Robby Heos, Austin Wilkinson, and Lute Barber could end up on post-season all-conference teams. So Rice has a chance to better their 27 ppg clip of '06. The question for Rice is defense. Last year Sammy finished at the bottom of C-USA in total defense, and Tulane edged them by one-tenth of a point for most points allowed. Defensive end George Chukwu will help. The 300-pounder was an honorable mention all-conference selection last season. The team's leading tackler, linebacker Brian Raines, is back as are both starting corners, JaCorey Shepherd and Brandon King, though new safeties will have to be broken in. Kirk Fangmeier was consistent within 40 yards. The Owls lost punter Jared Scruggs, but his freshman year was his most productive. Traveling to Texas, USM, Houston, and SMU is probably too much to ask of Rice this year, especially given their defensive woes. Look for a number of high-scoring games, and if the ball bounces their way again, who knows what could happen? But such a charmed season seldom comes around more than once a decade.
Half of the teams in the West Division have new coaches, and Tulane is one of them. Former UCLA head man Bob Toledo takes over with a rebuilding project in New Orleans almost as herculean as FEMA's. Tulane has won six games since the new C-USA was launched in 2005. But Toledo has been around the college game for a long time, and may be a good fit for the Green Wave. RB Matt Forte spearheads the attack. He may be the best all-purpose every-down back in the conference. But three-year starter Lester Ricard must be replaced at quarterback. Scott Elliott and Kevin Moore are the leading contenders. Led by center Michael Parrington, the offensive line has four starters back and should be improved. But Tulane lacks experience at receiver. Even if the Wave picks it up offensively—they gained 335 ypg and 19 points in '06—it won't much matter if they can't cut into the 33 ppg they allowed last year. There could be significant progress defensively. The front four has three experienced hands, including 330-pound DT Frank Morton. The linebacker crew returns intact. Two new cornerbacks could prove problematic, but safety David Skehan is a good one. Stopping the run is the first priority of any good defense, and Tulane ought to do that better than they have the past two years, but they could struggle against good passing teams. The kicking game may be erratic. Kicker Ross Thevenot missed three PATs last year, and the Wave must break in a new punter. Like the Big Easy, Tulane has a long, hard road ahead. Getting Toledo's program in place and showing steady improvement will be the goal this season.
While the West has no clear-cut favorite, the East does in Southern Miss. The Eagles won their division last year and return 14 starters, including all-conference selections in running back Derrick Fletcher, tight end Shawn Nelson, and defensive back Brandon Sumrall. But neither Nostradamus nor the Amazing Kreskin would have much luck picking the rest of the East Division, which looks like a five-car pileup; at least one can make a pretty positive I.D. on the green and gold car on the bottom--UAB. But any of the other four schools could emerge as #2 in the East. UCF returns 17 starters, including all-conference back Kevin Smith, and may be almost as big a surprise as they were two years ago. East Carolina lost two key players in QB James Pinckney and WR Aundrae Allison, but the Pirates beat USM on the road last year, and look strong in the trenches. Memphis is ready to rebound from an uncharacteristic 2-10 season. The Tigers lost several players to injuries last year, but still gave Houston a scare and beat UTEP on the road in their last two games. Marshall took a hit when their all-everything running back, Ahmad Bradshaw, declared for the NFL draft. But MU returns a good number of starters and could be a dark horse. UAB hired a new coach, Neil Callaway, but with only eight starters returning from a 3-9 squad, the Blazers will do well to equal last year's record.
C-USA doesn't have a team this year coming off an excellent season and loaded with all its best players coming back—in other words, a prohibitive favorite. But USM is the closest thing. The Eagles return 14 starters, including eight from a stingy defense. The Eagles will run the ball, run the ball, and run the ball some more, throw a possession pass every now and then, and do what they do best: play defense. The quarterback, Jeremy Young, returns. He's athletic and should only get better. All-conference running back Derrick Fletcher joins Young in the backfield, and Sean Young, the league's top tight end provides another weapon. But even a ground-it-out offense much occasionally go over the top, or defenses could line up in short yardage all the time. USM has no real game breakers at wide receiver, and that could hamper them in tight games. Left tackle Chris Clark is solid, but USM's success on offense will hinge on how well the replacements in the trenches play. A couple of jucos are in the mix, but USM may find inside lanes more jammed without their two first-team all-conference guards. The defense will be good, but if USM wants to nose into the Top 25, they must be able to run the ball effectively. The Eagles have two excellent defensive tackles in fireplug Martavius Prince and LSU transfer Sean Merrill. Robert Henderson is a large, quick end, and Gerald McRath should be one of the top linebackers in C-USA; the other two linebackers return as well. Brandon Sumrall is an impressive rover. The Eagles' major concern defensively is replacing their starting cornerbacks. If they do and the running game is sound, Southern Miss is likely to represent C-USA in the Liberty Bowl.
The Golden Knights return more starters, 17, than any team in the league, and it's not as if they were completely hapless last year. They were 4-8, and three of their losses were by a total of 13 points, including early season setbacks against bowl teams South Florida and Southern Miss that they could have won with a break or two. And they won the division in '05. UCF has the best running back in the league in Kevin Smith, a nifty combination of speed, power, and moves. They lose Steven Moffett at QB, but he was inconsistent, and his replacement, Kyle Israel is a senior with several starts under his belt. The offensive line returns four starters, so stopping Smith is going to be a chore for any defense. If the Knights develop a passing game, they could be very tough to stop. But first-team all conference WR Mike Walker was a third-round draft choice, and George O'Leary must rebuild his receiving corps. Returning starters can be found everywhere on defense, and while no one would have called the Knights the defenders of the faith, they weren't abysmal defensively. So with that many starters back, UCF has a chance to be competent on that side of the ball. The front four has good size and will be tough to run against, and the linebackers should be skilled enough to clean up. Joe Burnett is an outstanding cornerback, and his partners in crime—stealing the ball, that is—all return in the secondary. UCF may be the one team in the East that can challenge Southern Miss, but since they go to Hattiesburg, getting past the Eagles will be a tall order.
East Carolina finished the regular season at 7-5 and beat Southern Miss and North Carolina State on the road. But ECU must overcome the loss of its two best offensive players, QB James Pinkney and WR Aundrae Allison. Rob Kass, a decent passer, should start at quarterback but transfers from Mississippi State and Air Force will challenge. Kass isn't the player Pinkney was, but he could be effective with a good supporting cast. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the skill players are average. Pinckney and Allison were to ECU what Clement and Dillard were to Rice, and there aren't any major talents stepping in. The offensive line, which returns four starters, must play very well for ECU to get back to a bowl, though East Carolina's defense was very instrumental to their success. They finished third in the conference in both total defense and points allowed. And the entire starting defensive line is back to wreak more havoc on C-USA offenses. Defensive end Marcus Hands is a special player, and the Pirates have a couple of run pluggers in Mark Robinson and Khalif Mitchell. Quentin Cotton is one of the league's best linebackers, and he's joined by fellow returning starters Pierre Bell and Fred Wilson. So the Pirates should be do well against the run, but their secondary is severely depleted. Cornerback Travis Williams is the only returnee. ECU will have a new kicker and a new punter. The Pirates' ship is springing some leaks, but other than maybe USM, every other vessel in the East Ocean is as well.
Memphis may be the surprise team in C-USA. Despite a slew of injuries and losses last year, the Tigers were a decent club by the end of the season. This year, most everyone is back and healthy. Senior Martin Hankins returns at quarterback and should be one of the league's top signal callers. Joseph Doss stepped in for D'Angelo Williams last year and almost gained 1,000 yards. Look for him to get there this season. The team's leading receiver in '06, Duke Calhoun, is also back. The offensive line should be better with three returning starters and a transfer from Tennessee. Right tackle Brandon Pierce is the ringleader and a candidate for post-season honors. So Memphis shouldn't have much problem improving on their average of 23 ppg. But defense is where Memphis must get much better—only Rice ranked lower in C-USA in total defense—and it's likely that they will. Heralded Arkansas transfer Freddie Barnett will play defensive tackle and try to wall off the interior like former Tiger transfer, Albert Means, did. Corey Mills and Greg Terrell are solid inside. All three linebackers return and should be one of the strengths of the team. Quinton McCrary could be one of the league's best. Talented Auburn transfer Tony Bell will start at strong safety, and cornerback Rod Smith and safety Brandon Patterson return. Memphis may be the most improved team in C-USA, and the Tigers have a light schedule.
Despite losing Conference USA's leading rusher, Ahmad Bradshaw, Marshall should be a better team in '07—but only marginally better, and the Thundering Herd have a rough slate with games at Miami, Houston, Tulsa, Cincinnati, and UCF, and home contests against West Virginia and Southern Miss. So while the team may be improved, the record, 5-7 last year, may not be. Bradshaw is gone, but senior Bernard Morris will be under center again. He needs to have a good season for MU to have a shot at a bowl since the passing game should be as important as the running game this year. Speedy Chubb Small steps in for Bradshaw. He and WR Emmanuel Spann give Marshall quick-strike potential. The offensive line should be solid. Three starters return led by all-conference center Doug Legursky. Marshall must make strides defensively, and defensive end Albert McClellan, possibly the best defensive lineman in the league, is a good place to start. Byron Tinker is dependable at tackle, but new faces will complete the front four. Marshall's linebackers are much like the defensive line: one or two good ones, especially Josh Johnson, but there are holes to fill and not a lot of depth. The strength of the defense is the secondary where three able starters return. Cal transfer Anthony Binswanger will again handle the kicking duties, though he was inconsistent last year. A new punter takes over. Marshall still has a ways to go to return to the glory days they enjoyed their first years in the MAC. But Mark Snyder inherited a program on the decline and needs more than a couple of years to build it.
Neil Callaway leaves his post as offensive coordinator at Georgia to take over UAB's struggling program from Watson Brown, who led the Blazers for 12 years. Unfortunately for UAB fans, the struggling will likely continue in '07. One would think that the starting lineup of a team that won only three games would be dotted with freshmen and sophomores, yet UAB returns only eight starters. So Callaway has his work cut out for him, and will likely need several years to get UAB to the point where it can contend for a bowl game. What makes the situation even tougher is that the Blazers, while not exactly loaded at any position, are especially lacking in linemen. Only two starting offensive and two defensive linemen return. UAB has a few good men at quarterback, so that will help. Sam Hunt and Joseph Webb have starting experience, and redshirt freshman Anthony Speight will challenge the holdovers. But newcomers will man the skill positions. As mentioned, the defensive line could be a problem. So could linebacker and the secondary. Again, experience is thin and talent thinner. UAB will even have a freshman punter. Callaway has now been a coordinator at Georgia, Alabama, and Houston, so he shouldn't have a problem getting another job if his rebuilding program takes too long or doesn't take. UAB isn't an easy place to win, so like Toledo at Tulane, Blazer fans will have to be patient. Speaking of coordinators, former Houston coach Kim Helton will run the Blazer offense. Chances are UAB will run the ball—a lot.
All Conference Team
QB Chase Clement, Rice
RB Kevin Smith, UCF
RB Derrick Fletcher, USM
WR Jarrett Dillard, Rice
WR Donnie Avery, Houston
TE Shawn Nelson, USM
OL Doug Legursky, Marshall
OL Dustin Dickinson, Houston
OL Robby Heos, Rice
OL Ben Poynter, SMU
OL Jeff Akeroyd, Houston
UB Anthony Alridge, Houston
DL Marcus Hands, East Carolina
DL Martavius Prince, USM
DL Sean Merrill, USM
DL Albert McClellan, Marshall
LB Jeremy Jones, UTEP
LB Gerald McRath, USM
LB Nelson Coleman, Tulsa
DB Quintin Demps, UTEP
DB Kenneth Fontenette, Houston
DB Brandon Sumrall, USM
DB Joe Burnett, UCF
Offensive Player of the Year
Jarrett Dillard, Rice
Defensive Player of the Year
Quintin Demps, UTEP