TCU is coming off a 10-2 season in which it finished ranked 22nd in the nation after defeating then-No. 21 Colorado State in the AXA Liberty Bowl. The Horned Frogs return 12 starters as they aim to defend their title. A pair of talented sophomores, QB Tye Gunn and RB Lonta Hobbs, headline the offensive returnees, while DE Bo Schobel and S Marvin Godbolt are back to lead a defensive unit that was first in the nation in total defense last season.
Southern Miss, which received two first place votes and 107 total points, was selected second. The Golden Eagles welcome back 14 starters, including eight on a talented defensive unit. The Golden Eagles defense is led by senor linebacker Rod Davis, a Butkus Award candidate who led C-USA with 168 tackles and set a school record with 23.5 tackles for loss. Michael Boley joins him at the linebacking spot, while Etric Pruitt and Greg Brooks lead a strong secondary.
Newcomer South Florida, which posted a 9-2 record last season as an independent, was chosen third in its initial season as a member of Conference USA. The Bulls have not lost a home game in three season, carrying a 19-game home win streak (second-longest in the nation) into the 2003 campaign. A total of 12 starters are back for USF, with RB Clenton Crossley heading the offensive returnees and S J.R. Reed topping the defensive players.
Cincinnati edged Louisville for fourth place. Both schools are looking to extend their strings of consecutive bowl appearances with the Bearcats having appeared in the postseason in three straight years, while U of L has made five bowl trips in a row. Cincinnati features talented junior junior QB Gino Guidugli, who passed for a school record 3,543 yards last season. Louisville opens the Bobby Petrino era with 14 returning starters, including TE Ronnie Ghent and LB Rod Day.
Tulane was chosen sixth, followed by East Carolina. The Green Wave are coming off an 8-5 season that included a victory in the ConAgra Foods Hawaii Bowl. Tulane is led by all-purpose RB Mewelde Moore, who has more rushing and receiving yards over the past two years than any other returning player in the nation. East Carolina begins its first season under new head coach John Thompson and the Pirates feature preseason All-American offensive lineman Brian Rimpf.
Rounding out the poll were UAB, Memphis, Houston and Army, respectively. The Blazers have several talented young skill players, headlined by sophomore QB Darrell Hackney. Memphis has its own talented sophomore on offense in RB DeAngelo Williams. Houston opens the Art Briles era this fall and although the Cougars must replace RB Joffrey Reynolds, they expect to have an exciting, high-powered offense. Army was one of the youngest teams in the nation in 2002 and the Black Knights are looking forward to continued development from those young players in the upcoming campaign.
Conference USA's eighth football season will get underway on Saturday, August 30. The conference champion will receive a bid to the AXA Liberty Bowl on December 31 in Memphis, Tenn. Other guaranteed bowl slots include the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, the ConAgra Foods Hawaii Bowl the Fort Worth Bowl and the New Orleans Bowl.
Poll Results Pts (first place votes) 1. TCU 115 (7) 2. Southern Miss 107 (2) 3. South Florida 85 (1) 4. Cincinnati 82 5. Louisville 78 (1) 6. Tulane 66 7. East Carolina 57 8. UAB 54 9. Memphis 40 10. Houston 30 11. Army 12