No league is tougher to prognosticate than Conference USA, arguably the most egalitarian conference in college football. There just aren't six degrees of separation between the member schools. And the league will be as high-flying as it is competitive. There are no sure bets when it comes to picking champions, and the conference may exceed the number of schools, two, that finished in the top 10 nationally in total offense last year. As a matter of fact, eight C-USA schools were ranked #51 or better in total offense in '07. With June Jones and Kevin Sumlin, who hired Texas Tech's offensive coordinator, now in the league, don‘t expect any dropoff in ‘08. In ‘05, UCF went from a winless season to winning the East Division. And last year they were picked in the middle of the East pack only to emerge as the conference champion. The year before, C-USA coaches assumed Rice would hold up the rear of the West Division, yet the Owls came within a game of winning the West. So C-USA is unpredictable, and picking its winner, much less its pecking order, could be considered a fool's errand. We proceed!
East Carolina and UCF look to be the leading contenders. The Pirates, who defeated Boise in the ‘07 Hawaii Bowl, return 17 starters, and have two good, complementary quarterbacks and a host of all-conference caliber defenders. ECU has to travel to Tampa, but the rest of the schedule is tailor-made for a championship run. After losing RB Kevin Smith, a third-round draft choice, UCF will rely more on its defense, which returns nine starters and held Mississippi State to 10 points in the Liberty Bowl. Southern Miss could be down some this year after losing a slew of starters (only four return on defense) and breaking in a new coach and system, but USM always seems to find a way to field a competitive team. Memphis and Marshall have talent on hand, but both schools must settle on a quarterback. UAB, despite returning more starters than any team in the conference, is still a year away. When it's all said and done, the team that finds a productive quarterback may emerge on top. ECU has two good ones with starting experience, so the onus is on the Pirates.
1) EAST CAROLINA
Often the best way to gauge a team's success is to look at how they finished the previous season. ECU won four of their last five, and the final victory was over non-BCS powerhouse Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. The Pirates have two able signal callers. One, Rob Kass, needs to develop more consistency, but he has a tremendous arm and NFL size (maybe NFL defensive end size) at 6-4, 255. Patrick Pinckney, the son of former Pirate player Reggie Pinckney, is more of a dual threat, but he is also a fine passer. Both started games last year. Kass and/or Pinckney's top target should be Jamar Bryant, one of the league's better wideouts. The Pirates look solid up front with three starters returning. However, RB Chris Johnson was a major part of ECU's offense last season--he led the nation in all-purpose yards--and he's now in the NFL. He'll be tough to replace. Defensively, East Carolina has a bevy of massive buccaneers manning the front lines. DT Linvall Joseph, for example, tips the scales at 6-6, 358. DE Marcus Hands has the potential to be a first-day draft choice if he's recovered fully from a shoulder injury. Zack Slate, C.J. Wilson, and Khalif Mitchell round out a defensive line that is the envy of many major BCS programs. Led by Quentin Cotton, two of three linebackers return, and ‘07 starters will man three of four secondary positions. Last year‘s punter and kicker are also on hand. The East may be decided on November 2nd, when the Pirates go on the road to play defending champion UCF. The two teams seem well-matched. But overall UCF has the tougher conference schedule. That and ECU's edge at quarterback make the Pirates the slight favorite over the Golden Knights.
The Knights have played in the championship game two of three years, and they appear primed for another run this season. Coach George's O'Leary's primary task will be to build a consistent offense after losing RB Kevin Smith, QB Kyle Israel, and most of the offensive line. Mike Greco, who threw for just over 300 yards in a backup role, gets the nod at QB, and RB will be by committee until a clear starter emerges. Phillip Smith and Ronnie Weaver should get most of the carries. Last year's leading receiver, Rocky Ross, is back in the saddle, and the Knights have a stallion at left tackle in Patrick Brown, who will be starting for the fourth year. Still, the chink in the Knights' armor in 2008 is likely to be the offense, which could be a real problem in potential shoot-outs against teams such as Tulsa, UTEP, SMU, and others. Defense is UCF's best hope of defending their crown. The Knights surrendered only 10 points in the Liberty Bowl, and 25 to Tulsa, which led the nation in offense and averaged 41 points per game, in the championship game. So in their last two games against good competition, UCF allowed 17.5 points per game. Up front, the Knights lost four seniors from their two-deep, but several lettermen return. However, the strength of the defense will be the linebackers and secondary. All seven starters return. At LB, Chance Henderson is all-conference material in the middle, and Corey Hogue and Derrick Hallman are solid on the outside. The secondary is especially impressive. Joe Burnett is likely the top cornerback in C-USA, and Johnell Neal is no slouch on the other side; both had six interceptions last year. Sha'reef Rashad and Jason Venson are veteran, talented safeties. UCF will break in a new kicker and punter, but Burnett is a homerun threat as a punt returner.
3) SOUTHERN MISS
USM has been one of the league's constants since its inception. The Eagles have not had a losing record since 1993. Even so, Southern Miss parted ways with Jeff Bower, the coach who oversaw that impressive achievement, in favor of former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator, Larry Fedora. Southern Miss only returns four starters on defense, and they have to break in a new quarterback. So there are plenty of question marks. But the offense could still be electrifying. All-conference running back Damion Fletcher returns, and NFL prospect Sean Young is back at tight end. Although the Eagles don't have a lot of talent returning at wide receiver, Gerald Baptiste is competent, and Fedora signed one of the top flankers in the nation in DeAundre Brown, 6-6, 210 blue chipper from Ocean Springs, MS. He chose USM over offers from major SEC programs. Junior college standout Freddie Parham should also help. The offensive line gets three starters back, and a couple of promising jucos are on the way. At quarterback sophomore Martevious Young is a fine athlete, but freshman Austin Davis may be a better fit for the new spread offense. Whoever starts must develop quickly or the Eagles could be in for a long season. USM's reputation for a stingy, hard-hitting defense may take a hit itself this year with few starters back. Impressive defensive linemen Martavius Prince, Sean Merrill, and Robert Chatelain are gone. But all is not lost. Gerald McRath, last year's defensive player of the year in C-USA will again patrol the field, while talented Tukumbo Abanikanda is back on the outside. The secondary looks capable with three starters back. Britt Barefoot, who has a better name for a barefooted kicker/punter than Michael Stonebreaker had for a linebacker, will again trot out to the field sans shoes.
Marshall's entrance into C-USA was considered a coup for the league, but the Thundering Herd have struggled since leaving the MAC. This may be the season they get back to their former winning ways. Only UAB returns more starters than Marshall, which lost their first seven games last season but went on to win three of their last five, including a victory over East Carolina. Like USM and Memphis, Marshall needs to find a quarterback. Five candidates are battling for the job. But the leading rusher, the aptly named Darius Marshall, returns, as does the team's leading receiver, tight end Cody Slate. Another Darius, this one named Passmore, averaged 15 yards per catch last season and is back at wide receiver. And the offensive line appears set with three returnees. So the offense should be one of the better ones in the East if a quarterback takes command. But that's a big "if." Marshall's defense gets a major boost with the return of all-conference defensive end Albert McClellan and also tackle Montel Glasco, both of whom missed last season with injuries. Maurice Kitchens is one of the league's best linebackers, and C.J. Spillman earned all-conference honors at safety last year. Marshall resembles East Carolina in many respects, only ECU looks better at quarterback and is coming off a winning, not losing, season. Still, with 16 starters back and impact players such as McClellan, Slate, and Spillman available, Marshall could see a reversal of fortunes in ‘08. The schedule doesn't help. The Herd draws Houston and Tulsa out of the West, and they have to play East Carolina and Southern Miss on the road. That's an obstacle course, so it's difficult to pick Marshall in the first division. But if USM falters, MU could find itself in bowl contention. They may be the dark horse in the East.
Memphis doesn't get much credit for being one of the better teams in C-USA, but the Tigers have been to a bowl four of the last five years, and could surprise this season. Memphis, Marshall, and USM look to be neck and neck. Memphis, like Marshall, has 16 starters returning. And just like Marshall, Memphis also needs to find a quarterback. At this time, Matt Malouf has the upper hand. If he plays well, Memphis could challenge in the East. Led by Duke Calhoun, the Tigers may have the best wide receivers in the league. Running back, however, is another question. Curtis Steele will likely be the starter, but other backs will get their chance. The offensive line appears capable with left tackle Brandon Pierce the bell cow. So the offensive production will depend largely on the play of the new quarterback and how well the Tigers can replace last year's leading rusher, Joseph Doss. The strength of the team should be the defense. Memphis has a number of defensive linemen with all-conference potential. Massive Freddie Barnett anchors the middle at nose tackle, but the most consistent player up front may be DT Clinton McDonald. Greg Terrell and Steven Turner are also solid. Winston Bowens will be one of the league's top linebackers if he stays healthy. Three of four defensive backs return, so the secondary should be good, as should the defense itself. Coach Tommy West, who may get a pink slip if Memphis doesn't go bowling this year, works a lot with the defense, but he should focus on the offense this season. If a quarterback emerges, Memphis could make their fifth bowl in six years. But if the quarterback play is mediocre, the Tigers will be caged near the cellar.
No one in C-USA returns more starters than UAB, but then again, no one had more losses last season except for SMU. And no C-USA coach has a tougher job than Neil Callaway. His plan is to rebuild the right way, slowly but surely, much as he and his offensive coordinator and former boss, Kim Helton, thought they were doing at Houston in the mid-90s. While Helton did not maintain any success, Houston did win the first C-USA championship in ‘96 when Callaway was the offensive coordinator. The Blazers finished 2-10 last year, and one of their victories was over I-AA Alcorn State. They also dropped their last six contests. UAB has seven starters back on offense, including quarterback Joe Webb, a fine athlete who has also played receiver. Dexter Barnett is the heir apparent at running back. The Blazers do have a fine pair of receivers in Mario Wright and Frantrell Forrest. The offensive line is shaky. Both tackles return, but depth is lacking. And UAB finished #104 nationally in total offense last year. So it's tough to see the Blazers moving up and down the field this season. Now if they had turned in a top 25 ranking in total defense, there may be room for optimism, but the defense ignominiously finished #114. Nine starters return, though one wonders how beneficial that will be given last year‘s poor play. One bright spot is safety Will Dunbar, who rates with UCF's Joe Burnett and Houston's Kenneth Fontenette as one of the league's best defensive backs. But UAB fell into a deep hole a couple of years ago, and it will take more than a year or two to climb out. The good news is that only four starters are seniors, so while the rebuilding at UAB isn't going to happen overnight, it does look as if it may happen eventually.
The perception in the West is that Houston, Tulsa, and UTEP are the first division, and Rice, SMU, and Tulane the next. But Tulane finished third in ‘07, and Rice was only one game out of first place in ‘06. So there's no continental divide, literally or metaphorically, in the West Division. On paper, Houston and Tulsa appear capable of winning the league. UTEP's talent is roughly equal to that of both the Cougars and the Hurricanes, but the Miners play both their rivals on the road. Most everyone assumes June Jones will turn it around at SMU, and he probably will. But it may take more than one season. Bob Toledo took over a moribund Tulane program and appears to be making it a representative one. He'll look to improve on last season's 4-8 mark and he just might. Rice has one of the best quarterback-receiver duos in the nation in Chase Clement and Jarrett Dillard, but the Owls have major issues on defense and in some other areas. Scheduling and injuries will likely play key roles in who wins the West. Houston gets Tulsa and UTEP at home, while UTEP plays both UH and Tulsa on the road, and that could be the difference.
While Houston, Tulsa, and UTEP are a mishmash, the pick here is Houston based on schedule (both Tulsa and UTEP travel to UH), a returning starter at quarterback, and what should be the best defense in the division. QB Case Keenum was C-USA's Freshman of the Year last season after finishing 16th in the nation in passing efficiency, and UH has another fine prospect in junior gunslinger Blake Joseph. The Cougars must find a way to replace the production of stars Anthony Alridge and Donnie Avery. Alridge ranked 12th nationally in rushing and 14th in all-purpose yards. Avery was the first wide receiver selected in the ‘08 NFL draft. Slippery sophomore Andre Kohn looks like a good fit at running back in the new Texas Tech-like offense, and he has a couple of bigger backups who should be productive. Receiver is a concern. Mark Hafner will move from tight end to a big slot, and he and wide out L.J. Castile should be go-to receivers; but the Cougars will need a slot receiver or two to step up as well. The offensive line is bolstered by the return of Sir Vincent Rogers, a bear of an offensive lineman capable of creating large breaches in opponents' front lines. Sebastian Vollmer has prototypical size at the other tackle, and Mike Bloesch and Carl Barnett are also back. Houston hopes to see more progress on defense. Actually, UH finished first in C-USA last year in total defense, but there's plenty of room for improvement. Phillip Hunt may be the league's best defensive lineman, and Ell Ash and Tate Stewart are solid. The Cougars are shorthanded at linebacker and need a newcomer or two to come through. The secondary has as fine a pair of safeties as any C-USA team with Kenneth Fontenotte and Ernest Miller. Both cornerbacks struggled last year, but could be improved with a year under their belts.
Many analysts are picking Tulsa to win the division, and with good cause. The Hurricanes return practically their entire offense, which was first nationally in total offense last season. But Tulsa faces some obstacles in ‘08. They must overcome the loss of the heart and soul of their offense, QB Paul Smith, the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. Additionally, Tulsa‘s defense was woeful last season, finishing #108 nationally, and they lost most of the few talented defenders they did have. The Golden Hurricanes will probably have to hope to win a bunch of shootouts, and one interception or fumble can mean a loss in such games. The front runner to replace Smith at quarterback is David Johnson, but sophomore Clark Harrell and junior college transfer Jacob Bower are making a push. Tarrion Adams rushed for over 1200 yards last season and is back for another go. Tulsa is strong at receiver with Trae Johnson, Dion Tolliver, and Brennan Marion. The offensive line lost stalwart left tackle Walter Boyd, but everyone else returns. So assuming the new quarterback plays reasonably well, Tulsa should again field another high-scoring offense. But given that most every other C-USA program, especially those in the West, will have offenses about as potent as Tulsa‘s, the difference in winning the division and making a lower-tier bowl will probably be the play of the defense. Moton Hopkins is an impressive defensive end and Terrell Nemons an imposing nose tackle. George Clinkscales is the lone returnee from a linebacker corps that had two first-team all-conference selections. Roy Roberts is the bandit in Tulsa's 3-3-5 alignment. Charles Davis is a fine free safety. Tulsa could win it all if a quarterback picks up last year's pace, and the defense improves.
Coach Mike Price may have a team that could win the division in ‘08, but the schedule is a killer. UTEP has to play both Houston, Tulsa, East Carolina, and Southern Miss on the road. Throw in a home date with defending champion UCF, and it's tough to envision UTEP not having at least three conference losses. Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe and wide receiver Jeff Moturi could rival Clement and Dillard at Rice as the league's best pass-catch combo. Vittatoe was very impressive in his freshman season, and could finish as one of C-USA all-time passers. Moturi is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. The Miners must replace running back Marcus Thomas, who rushed for nearly 1200 yards. Kris Adams looks to be the starter, but Price will likely alternate him with one or two others. The left side of the offensive line is battle-tested, but the right flank has two newcomers. But UTEP won't have much trouble offensively. Whether they can stop anyone is the question. They return eight starters and look in better shape on defense than Tulsa. And like Tulsa, they run a 3-3-5. The "miner" position (like a bandit or rover) is manned by Braxton Amy, one of their top defenders this season. A number of linemen are back, so the Miners should be solid enough up front, and despite the loss of all-conference safety Quentin Demps, UTEP has a starter back at every other position in the secondary. And UTEP's kicker, Jose Martinez, was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award last season. If UTEP could switch its home and away games, the Miners would have a much better chance of making waves in the conference. But the conference schedule is brutal; however, the non-conference schedule, excluding a date in Austin, is somewhat facile. So UTEP has a decent chance to make it back to a bowl for the first time since 2005.
The arrival of new coach June Jones has revived Mustang Mania on the Hilltop. But whether Jones can overcome some fairly severe personnel deficiencies in his inaugural season with the Ponies remains to be seen. Chances are that any Jones-coached team will move the ball, and the return of quarterback Justin Willis and wide receiver Emanuel Sanders makes his job that much easier. WR Zach Zimmerman is another offensive returnee. Running back DeMyron Martin is more reminiscent of a Big 10 power back, but Jones will undoubtedly find a way to utilize his talent. SMU must rebuild its offensive line. Finding a left tackle is the priority. Redshirt freshman Kelvin Beachum is the favorite to win the job. And like seemingly everyone else in C-USA, the Ponies have to field at least a representative defense. They can't give up nearly 500 yards a game again and hope to make a bowl. The good news is three of four defensive linemen return; of course, a cynic could just as easily say that's the bad news. But Patrick Handy and Sergee Elizee are solid C-USA defensive linemen. The back seven is a different story, however. Only outside linebacker Will Bonilla and cornerback Bryan McCann started last season. There aren't a truckload of talented junior college defenders coming to the rescue; in fact, there aren't any at all. So look for SMU to be involved in a bunch of 49-45 shootouts against teams such as Rice and UTEP. But against schools like Texas Tech, TCU, Houston, and some others on the schedule, the Mustangs are more likely to find themselves at a shootout with a BB gun against a bazooka.
Anyone know who finished third behind Tulsa and Houston in the West last year? Tulane. And the Green Wave returns 15 starters. Bob Toledo is a fine coach, and it looks as if Tulane will start digging itself out of the ditch this year. They may still be a year away from a bowl game, but with a break or two they could win five or maybe even six games. Quarterback Anthony Scelfo is back, though he still has a ways to go before he ranks with some of the better QBs in the conference. The big loss, of course, is Matt Forte, who rushed for over 2,000 yards last season. Andre Anderson will take over at tailback. He's not in Forte's class, but he has talent, and with four of the starters back in the offensive line that paved the way for Forte, Anderson could have a breakout year. Tulane's starting receivers return as well. The Green Wave wasn't that bad defensively last year, ranking fourth in C-USA in total defense. And with seven starters on hand, they could move up a notch or two. Adam Kwentua and Reggie Scott can collapse the pocket from their defensive end positions. Tulane will, however, need some run stuffers to step up. Leading tackler Evan Lee returns at linebacker along with James Dillard and David Kirkey. And while Tulane had some problems defending the pass, safety David Skehan is one of the league's best. Toledo inherited a situation not unlike Callaway at UAB, so Tulane fans must have patience. Still, while the Green Wave likely won't be able to keep pace with most of the offenses in the West, if they move the ball well enough and improve what was an average defense last year, they have a shot to reach .500.
If not for a blocked extra point, Rice may have won the West Division two years ago, and last season the Owls dropped three games by five points or less. So Rice may not be as far from the first division as some believe. They're picked last, but they have much more potential to move up than UAB does in the East. With the best quarterback-receiver combination in the conference along with six more offensive starters, the Owls shouldn't have much trouble lighting up the scoreboard. Chase Clement, a Unitas Award candidate, finished 6th nationally in total offense last season and may be C-USA's best quarterback. And both of his top receivers from ‘07 are back. The main target is Jarrett Dillard, who was named to the Maxwell Award Watchlist. Dillard was 5th nationally in receptions in ‘06. When he's double teamed, his partner Toren Dixon can make defenses pay. At 6-6, flex end Taylor Wardlow provides another inviting target. Center Austin Wilkinson and guard David Berken anchor the offensive line, though the rising star is sophomore Scott Mitchell, who made C-USA‘s 2007 All-Freshman Team. Justin Hill returns at running back, but the Owls must run the ball better or defenses will tee off on Clements. As is the case with many C-USA teams, the issue for Rice is defense. The Owls gave up a whopping 510 yards per game in ‘07. But there's not a lot of reason to expect major improvement. Rice only returns six defensive starters, and they lose George Chukwu, who was a linchpin at nose tackle. But the picture isn't all bleak. Brian Raines is one of the top linebackers in Conference USA, and three defensive backs return. But Rice must solidy its defensive front. If they don't, Clement and Dillard will be watching a lot of games from the sideline.
CHAMPION: EAST CAROLINA
2008 Coogfans All-C-USA Team
WR Jarrett Dillard, Rice
WR Jeff Moturi, UTEP
TE Cody Slate, Marshall
OL Sir Vincent Rogers, Houston
OL Patrick Brown, UCF
OL Ryan McKee, USM
OL Cameron Raschke, UTEP
OL Doug Palmer, ECU
QB Chase Clement, Rice
RB Damion Fletcher, USM
RB Tarrion Adams, Tulsa
K Jose Martinez, UTEP
DL Phillip Hunt, Houston
DL Albert McClellan, Marshall
DL Clinton McDonald, Memphis
DL Zack Slate, ECU
LB Gerald McRath, USM
LB Maurice Kitchens, Marshall
LB Brian Raines, Rice
DB Joe Burnett, UCF
DB Van Eskridge, ECU
DB Will Dunbar, UAB
DB Kenneth Fontenette, Houston
P Thomas Morstead, SMU