Athlon Sports C-USA Predictions

The day Southern Miss linebacker Rod Davis decided to return for his senior season, TCU's chances of repeating as Conference USA champion were in jeopardy. Davis, an All-America candidate, leads a Golden Eagle defense that will be among the nation's best. Junior linebacker Michael Boley adds considerable support, along with another All-America candidate, safety Etric Pruitt.

Projected Finish

1. Southern Miss
2. TCU
3. South Florida
4. Tulane
5. Memphis
6. Cincinnati
7. Louisville
8. UAB
9. East Carolina
10. Houston
11. Army

If new offensive coordinator Rip Scherer can get the Golden Eagle attack rolling in its new two-back set, Southern Miss will be difficult to stop.

Few coaches in Conference USA could have pulled off what TCU's Gary Patterson did a year ago. Faced with a lack of production at quarterback and running back, he turned to a pair of freshmen, Tye Gunn and Lonta Hobbs, and got more than he could have imagined — a conference title. With Hobbs and Gunn each a year older — and with the Horned Frogs welcoming newcomer Robert Merrill, a redshirt freshman running back with better credentials than Hobbs — a second straight trip to the Liberty Bowl is a possibility.

South Florida went a perfect 4–0 against Conference USA teams last year, but it becomes official this fall when the Bulls make their league debut. USF will be without do-everything quarterback Marquel Blackwell, but Jim Leavitt's team has enough talent coming back to contend for one of the league's bowl bids.

Tulane may be the league's darkhorse. The Green Wave has a productive quarterback in J.P. Losman, a dual-threat running back in Mewelde Moore and the league's best receiver in Roydell Williams. If all three play to their abilities, and if Tulane's defense continues to make strides under coordinator Eric Schumann, the Green Wave could be a surprise.

Bowl Talk

Although the league did not renew its affiliation with the Houston Bowl, the conference will replace it with the Fort Worth Bowl, matching teams from the Big 12 and C-USA. The new bowl game, which will be played Dec. 23 at Amon Carter Stadium on TCU's campus, was approved in April by the NCAA football certification committee. C-USA also has affiliations with the Liberty, Mobile, New Orleans and Hawaii bowls. The league champion goes to the Liberty Bowl to face the Mountain West champion.

Transfers of Note

Two of the conference's highest-profile transfers — Louisville's Eric Shelton and Memphis's Derron Parquet — should be key members of their team's backfields his season. Shelton, a former Florida State running back, played high school football in Lexington, Ky., and earned prep All-America honors. He spent the 2001 season at Florida State before transferring. Parquet rushed for more than 2,200 yards as a senior at Rummell High in Louisiana and signed with LSU. He was unhappy and decided to transfer. Parquet, who played sparingly for LSU in 2001, sat out last year under the NCAA transfer guidelines and has two years of eligibility remaining.

Run-stuffer

Conference USA teams have had the nation's No. 1 rushing defense that past two seasons. UAB took the honors in 2001, holding opponents to 57.3 yards per game. Defending league champion TCU followed by allowing 64.8 yards rushing last year.

Back in Memphis

Memphis defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn is returning to the program he left in the early 1990s to begin a journey through the Southeastern Conference. Dunn made stops at Ole Miss, Arkansas and Mississippi State before returning to Memphis earlier this year.

Sticking with Saturday

Louisville, whose games have been played on almost every night of the week during the past two seasons, returns to a more traditional schedule in 2003. The Cardinals will play 11 of their 12 games on Saturdays. The season-opener against Kentucky was originally scheduled for a Saturday but was moved to Sunday, Aug. 31.