2010 C-USA Football Preview

No one's claiming that C-USA is about to petition Bill Hancock for admittance into the BCS Club, but fans just may see some of the better C-USA teams knock off AQ-conference opponents this year such as Kansas, Kansas State, North Carolina State, UCLA, Mississippi State, and Baylor while having as many as two teams crack the Top 25.

2010 C-USA Football Preview

With Boise leaving the WAC, Conference USA is poised to become the second-best non-AQ conference behind the Mountain West. Now that may sound a little like winning the wooden spoon in an ugly contest, but it's better than being on par with the Sun Belt. C-USA programs still have to get it done on the field, but it says here they will, at least to the degree that the league will be seen as the best of the rest of the non-AQs. There was a time when Conference USA was considered just behind the MWC, but losing TCU, Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida took the steam out of the progress that had been made. Had those schools stayed, C-USA might be the league pushing for AQ status. Instead, the present 12 member schools have struggled to find an identity, not to mention a respectable collective RPI. But there are positive signs.

Houston appears close to establishing itself as a Top 25 program, and is generally considered to be one of the top five candidates to be a BCS-buster this season. Problems with depth sunk the Cougars at the end of last year, but UH was in the Top 25 for most of ‘09, and their recruiting has been better than many middle-of-the-pack BCS schools. East Carolina beat ranked Virginia Tech and West Virginia clubs in ‘08. SMU clearly is on the rise. Most analysts think they'll be bowl-bound for the second-consecutive season, and 18 underclassmen, including a talented young QB, are penciled in as starters. The big-money alums in Dallas didn't bring June Jones to Mockingbird Lane to get to lower-level bowls each season. UCF has been recruiting about as well in the Sunshine State as Houston has been in Texas. The Golden Knights won eight last year, and were conference champions in ‘07. What they've been missing is consistency, but that may be just around the corner. Tulsa was as injury-riddled as any team last season, yet they still gave Boise and Houston scares. Look for the Golden Hurricane to be closer to the team that won 11 in '08 than the one that limped to a 5-7 season in '09. Southern Miss is another C-USA program that has upgraded its recruiting. USM has made serious inroads in the South, and is looking to move up the ladder. Mid-tier programs such as Marshall and UTEP should also be better. The Herd won their bowl game last year and return 14 starters. UTEP was 18th nationally in total offense in '09, and has most all their key players back. The Miners could even go bowling this year.

No one's claiming that C-USA is about to petition Bill Hancock for admittance into the BCS Club, but fans just may see some of the better C-USA teams knock off AQ-conference opponents this year such as Kansas, Kansas State, North Carolina State, UCLA, Mississippi State, and Baylor while having as many as two teams crack the Top 25. That may not mean that ESPN's GameDay will start coming to a C-USA shootout every year, but keep in mind that C-USA has not had one team finish in the Top 25 since the '04 split, and last year, were it not for Houston's wins over OK State, Texas Tech, and MSU, the only conference victory over a BCS school would have been USM's three-point win over a Virginia team that had lost to William and Mary and finished 3-9.

WEST DIVISION

1. HOUSTON
Houston is the heavy favorite to win the conference and the West Division. The Cougars almost pulled out the championship game at East Carolina last year, and while the Pirates lost a boatload of lettermen and starters, the Cougars have almost the entire group back that finished first nationally in total offense, including Heisman Trophy and O‘Brien Award candidate Case Keenum. Receivers James Cleveland, Tyrone Carrier, and Patrick Edwards along with RB Bryce Beall are all playmakers. There's also talent and experience in the offensive line. The infusion of some talented junior-college players, such as DL Matangi Tonga and LB Sammy Brown, along with better depth mean Houston should at least have its Achilles' heel, defense, well-bandaged, if not completely healed. If the Cougars do field a representative defense, well, the sky may not be the limit but a season similar to Boise's or TCU's in ‘09 isn't out of the question.

2. SMU
The Coogs will have to fend off a challenge from SMU, which gets both UH and Tulsa at home, and has the talent to win nine games. The Mustangs are beginning to look more like the double-digit win teams Jones coached at Hawaii than the SMU teams that won a two games in ‘07 and ‘08 combined. To challenge Houston, the Ponies will need someone to step into go-to receiver Emanuel Sanders' shoes, and also find a few good men in the secondary. The top WR is speedy Aldrick Robinson. QB Kyle Padron should flourish in June Jones' system, and the Mustangs have a linchpin left tackle in Kelvin Beachum. The Ponies look stronger on defense than a C-USA team should. If a nose tackle emerges, SMU will be stout up front with Taylor Thompson, Marquis Frazier, Margus Hunt, and linebackers Pete Fleps and Youri Yenga, each one capable of earning all-conference honors. But the last thing a coach wants in the West Division of C-USA is a porous secondary, and the Mustangs have some holes to fill there.

3. TULSA
Tulsa should rebound nicely from a tough '09 campaign. Head coach Todd Graham hired Chad Morris, the offensive guru who groomed Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert, away from Lake Travis High School in an effort to do for the Hurricanes what former high school coach Gus Mahlzan did in ‘08. But Tulsa's first losing season since 2004 was more a result of injuries than anything else. Quarterback Gary Joe Kinne returns as does playmaker WR Damaris Johnson. The offensive line was devastated by injuries last season; this year it looks solid. Chances are Tulsa's offense will get back to ranking among the national leaders. How their defense progresses may be the real question. The Hurricanes' 3-3-5 defense is primarily intended to slow down spread offenses, yet Tulsa was #103 in pass defense. That doesn't augur well given that only four starters return. Playing at both Houston and SMU dims Tulsa's hopes for a West Division crown.

4. UTEP
UTEP appears to again be the kind of team that can knock off a conference leader one week and lose to a league doormat the next. Trevor Vittatoe may be the most physically gifted passer in the conference, but he makes far too many mistakes. Donald Buckram is probably the league's best running back, Kris Adams and Jonny Moore are talented receivers, and the offensive line is large and experienced. But like Tulsa, the issue is defense. Mike Price hired a new defensive coordinator, Andre Patterson, to install a multiple look. Whether the Miners have the personnel to make it work is questionable. There are three new faces across a four-man front that averages 265, and last year's starting corners are gone. Keep in mind that UTEP gave up 34 points per game last season. Still, playing at El Paso is always tough, and with a home schedule of Arkansas-PB, NMSU, Rice, Memphis, Tulane, and SMU, UTEP has a chance to go bowling.

5. RICE
Rice was 1-10 in 2005, and the next year the Owls won seven games and made their first bowl in . . . wait for it . . . 45 years! Could lightning strike again? The Owls return 16 starters from a 2-10 team, and there are also a few exciting transfers in the mix. The most heralded is Michigan-ex Sam McGuffie, he of the legendary leap over a would-be tackler in the renowned YouTube video. Another is QB Taylor Cook from Miami. At 6-7, 240, Cook looks as if he could be a member of the other team that plays near South Main and wears navy. The offensive line returns bell cow Scott Mitchell and should be strong, though the Owls have concerns at receiver. Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu are two of the league's better defensive linemen. Travis Bradshaw, a fine safety, returns to patrol the secondary. The Owls will be improved. Chances are they'll come up a game or two shy of .500, but if things were to break as they did in ‘06, who knows?

6. TULANE
The Green Wave was one of the weakest teams in the FBS last season, and they lost their best players in RB Andre Anderson and WR Jeremy Williams. There's hope for the future, though, thanks to the emergence of QB Ryan Griffin, who will be a sophomore, but Tulane is still at least a year away. The offensive line should be better with four starters back, and steady WR Casey Robottom returns. But players at the other skill positions are inexperienced. The front four isn't exactly fearsome, but Iowa transfer Dezman Moses could help, and how could anyone not love a defensive tackle named Ponce de Leon? Linebacker is a concern, but the Green Wave has some good players in the secondary, especially budding star, Shakiel Smith, just the kind of rangy, fast player coaches like to put in centerfield. Still, winning home games against SE Louisiana, Rice, and Army may determine whether Tulane can match last year's 3-9 record.

EAST DIVISION

1. UCF
UCF finished second in the East last year, one game behind ECU, which only beat them by a field goal. The Knights should be better this year. While the Pirates lose a cadre of defensive stars, UCF returns last year's C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, DE Bruce Davis, along several other key defenders. The Knights have finished first in C-USA the past two years in total defense and are more than capable of hitting the trifecta in '10. But a more prolific offense may be necessary for a trip to the Liberty Bowl, and UCF must replace steady QB Brett Hodges. Rob Calabrese heads into the fall as the heir apparent. Brynn Harvey may be the best back in the East Division, and one of the league's top offensive lines will be blocking for him. Kamar Aiken is a capable wide receiver. The Knights get USM at home, which is a big advantage. The key here is quarterback. Calabrese has a great arm but has been mistake-prone. If he plays well, UCF could win its second conference title in four years.

2. Southern Miss USM's talent-level rates among the best in the conference, but the team lost some key starters and has a number of question marks. Quarterback Austin Davis is back after missing much of last season with a torn foot ligament. His understudy, Martevious Young, returns as well. RB Damion Fletcher has finally used up his eligibility, as has his backfield mate, Tory Harrison. Senior V. J. Floyd is solid but not as flashy as either. DeAndre Brown will look to have the kind of season many thought would be the norm for him. The Eagles, however, must develop a second receiver. Only one starter, center Cameron Zipp, is back in the offensive line. There are capable replacements, but they must jell as a unit. Southern Miss is very athletic defensively and returns nine starters. The front seven looks impressive with fireplug NT Anthony Gray, DE Cordarro Law, and LB Korey Williams on hand. But there are holes in the secondary, which would be magnified in the West, and could cause problems against Houston and Tulsa.

3. MARSHALL
Marshall's herd is of the bovine rather than equine type, but even so, they are the dark horse in the East. Marshall may even be on the path to reclaiming some of the glory they basked in a decade ago. The Herd won a bowl game in ‘09, and return seven starters on each side of the ball. Additionally, new coach Doc Holliday appears to have brought a new, energetic mindset to Huntington. He also brought a top transfer in Clemson QB Willy Korn, who is eligible this year. Last year‘s starter, Brian Anderson, is back as well. RB Darius Marshall is gone, but three capable lettermen return. The receiving corps may be the best in the East with the return of Antavious Wilson, Courtney Edmonson, who was considered the team's top WR before being injured early, and TE Lee Smith. First-team all-conference LB Mario Harvey is on the Nagurski Watchlist, and five other linebackers have considerable experience. The defensive front again looks strong with Michael Janac and Vinny Curry. DeQuan Bembry anchors a talented secondary.

4. EAST CAROLINA
Skip Holtz couldn't have timed his departure from Greenville any better. After winning two consecutive conference championships, East Carolina has fewer starters returning than most any team in major college football. A 180-degree turn in philosophy under new coach Ruffin McNeil--the Pirates are shifting from a conservative mentality to the wide-open "Air Raid" offense formerly run at Texas Tech--is another hurdle to clear. After spring practice, a walk-on was the clubhouse leader at quarterback; however, Boston College transfer Dominique Davis is on the way and could win the job. Both leading rushers are gone, but the Pirates won't be running the ball 40 times a game anymore. Left tackle Willie Smith anchors the offensive line with help from two other returnees. One bright spot is outstanding WR Dwayne Harris, who should flourish in a more open attack. ECU will not be able to count on its defense overcoming a lack of offensive production. The Pirates return only two starters on defense. The front seven must be completely rebuilt, and the loss of all-conference safety Van Eskridge stings.

5. UAB
Both UAB and Memphis will likely struggle this year, and picking which finishes in the basement is a little like choosing between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. The difference-maker may be the schedule. The Blazers get some divisional foes they are capable of beating at home. Memphis, on the other hand, has first-division teams coming to town. The Blazers have huge shoes to fill with the loss of QB Joe Webb, who was responsible for nearly 75% of UAB's offense. David Isabelle is Webb's likely replacement, though Bryan Ellis may be the starter sooner than later. He's a better passer, and UAB has good receivers in Frantrell Forrest, deep threat Nick Adams, and reliable tight end Jeffrey Anderson. The offensive line should be decent, but they won't be blocking for Webb this year. The Blazers were abysmal defensively in ‘09. Eight starters return along with a slew of juco help, so the unit should be better. UAB finished dead last in pass defense. The coaches hope safety Hiram Atwater can help reverse the trend.

6. MEMPHIS
Memphis has as many as 14 starters back, but several of them were reserves who replaced starters later in the season. So new head coach Larry Porter faces quite the rebuilding job. Still, if a quarterback emerges, and there are five contenders, including a Miami transfer, then the offense could be productive. Memphis returns its entire offensive line, including one of the league's best, guard Dominick Riley. Newcomers will man the skill positions, however. Like seemingly every other C-USA team, Memphis has to improve a poor defense. There are capable linemen, such as huge (6-5, 350) nose tackle Dontari Poe, and linebacker is a strength with a veteran group including two of last year's leading tacklers. The same can't be said of the secondary. A good pass rush would help immensely. Still, the schedule is brutal, and Memphis will do well to win four while Porter, known as one of the top recruiters in the nation when he was an assistant at LSU, improves recruiting and begins to rebuild the program.

ALL CONFERENCE USA

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE

WR James Cleveland, Houston
WR Dwayne Harris, ECU
WR DeAndre Brown, Southern Miss
TE Jonny Moore, UTEP
OL Tyler Holmes, Tulsa
OL Jah Reid, UCF
OL Dominick Riley, Memphis
OL Chris Thompson, Houston
OL Cameron Zipp, Southern Miss
QB Case Keenum, Houston
RB Donald Buckram, UTEP
RB Bryce Beall, Houston
K Matt Syzmanski, SMU
KR Tyron Carrier, Houston

FIRST TEAM DEFENSE

DL Bruce Miller, UCF
DL Matangi Tonga, Houston
DL Anthony Gray, Southern Miss
DL Scott Solomon, Rice
LB Mario Harvey, Marshall
LB Korey Williams, Southern Miss
LB Marcus McGraw, Houston
DB Emanuel Davis, East Carolina
DB Josh Robinson, UCF
DB Braxton Amy, UTEP
DB Hiram Atwater, UAB
P Michael Such, Tulsa
PR Damaris Johnson, Tulsa

SECOND TEAM OFFENSE

WR Tyrone Carrier, Houston
WR Damaris Johnson, Tulsa
WR Patrick Edwards, Houston
TE Lee Smith, Marshall
OL Kevin Beachum, SMU
OL Alex Solot, UTEP
OL D. J. Scott, East Carolina
OL Andrew Nieman, Tulane
OL Scott Mitchell, Rice
QB Austin Davis, Southern Miss
RB Brynn Harvey, UCF
RB Charles Clay, Tulsa
K Kevin Patrick, Tulsa
KR Dwayne Harris, East Carolina

SECOND TEAM DEFENSE

DL Taylor Thompson, SMU
DL Cordarro Law, Southern Miss
DL David Hunter, Houston
DL Michael Janac, Marshall
LB Derek Hallman, UCF
LB Lawrence Young, UCF
LB Pete Fleps, SMU
DB Jamal Robinson, Houston
DB DeQuan Bembry, Marshall
DB Chris Banjo, SMU
DB Travis Bradshaw, Rice
P Kyle Martens, Rice
PR Tracy Lampley, Southern Miss


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