Scouting the Conference-USA

VandyMania's Howell Peiser continues with his expert look at the football conferences. Today we will take a look at the Conference-USA.

The future looked bleak for this conference last summer when news emerged that Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida would leave C-USA for the Big East, while Depaul and Marquette would join them for basketball. Then, Army announced it was leaving to become an independent, and TCU decided its future looked brighter playing west of the Mississippi and joined the Mountain West.

So, C-USA reinvented itself. Marshall and Central Florida joined from the MAC, while Tulsa, Rice, SMU, and UTEP came from the WAC. Instead of teetering on the precipice, C-USA emerged as a new strong league. With 12 teams comes divisional play and a championship game to be played at the home field of the top overall team.

C-USA retained five bowl partnerships (Liberty, GMAC, Hawaii, New Orleans, and Ft. Worth). Added to that good news are 50 nationally televised games. C-USA emerges as a healthier, more competitive league in 2005.

The official preseason college football poll picked Southern Mississippi to win the East Division, followed by UAB, Memphis, Marshall, and a tie for last between East Carolina and Central Florida. UTEP was the pick in the West with Houston, Tulane, Tulsa, Rice, and SMU to finish in that order. I guess my ratings use the same criteria as the coaches. I agree with them exactly, with the small exception that I call for East Carolina to be a tiny hair better than Central Florida to start the season and Houston and Tulane to be dead even. Of course, with home field advantage factored in, I pick UAB to beat Southern Miss and gain the title game over the Eagles.

C-USA has no teams getting five home field advantage points, but Marshall and Southern Miss get four. Everyone else gets the minimum of three.

East

1. Southern Mississippi PiRate: 101 HFA: 4

The Golden Eagles have some key players to replace this year, but Coach Jeff Bower has a solid nucleus returning. The defense failed to live up to its annual standards and surrendered 25 points per game in 2004. Look for those numbers to return to the usual 17 to 20 this year. After giving up 376 yards per game a year ago, I look for the stop troops to carve at least 50 yards off that total this season.

The secondary could be tough. Cornerback John Eubanks will make someone's NFL roster in 2006. He is a shutdown corner, as well as one of the top punt and kick returners in all of NCAA Division I-A. Safety Trevis Coley made 104 tackles last year, broke up six passes, and picked off four more. He is strong enough to play at linebacker, and he could see time at the weak-side spot. His twin brother Kevis will start at middle linebacker.

The defensive line will be anchored by end Akeem Lockett. An A student who has already earned his undergraduate degree in computer science, Lockett emerged as the star of the New Orleans Bowl last year with a couple of sacks and two tackles for loss against North Texas.

The offense may not be a juggernaut, but Southern Miss can win games 21-14. Quarterback Dustin Almond is mobile and has a strong arm. Backups Jeremy Young had such a good spring that former part-time QB Damion Carter moved full-time to wide receiver.

The receiving corps looks to be a team strength. Tavarres Williams is a deep ball threat. He combines quickness with great hands. Antwon Courington has size, speed, and strength. He will catch the ball running the crossing routes even knowing he is going to get smacked in the ribcage.

Larry Thomas will lead a running back by committee effort this year. He averaged nearly 7 yards per touch last year but only saw the ball 49 times. The USM running game has not had a real breakaway threat this millennium.

Southern Miss is the preseason favorite in the East, but by the slimmest of margins.

2. Alabama-Birmingham PiRate: 100 HFA: 3

After favorite son Watson Brown was shown the door at his alma mater, he found success everywhere he ventured. He successfully implemented a solid passing game into Oklahoma's triple option offense. He made the Mississippi State offense halfway dangerous for the first time since the late 1970's. Then, he took an infant program at UAB and made them into winners. Last year the Blazers challenged for the C-USA title, winning seven games and advancing to the Hawaii Bowl. This year, UAB should make that two consecutive bowls. They just might be playing for the conference title at the end of the year as well.

The Blazers return the top quarterback in the league in Darrell Hackney. Hackney led C-USA with 3,070 passing yards tossing 26 touchdown passes against only eight interceptions. He is big and strong and must be contained by defensive ends. If he gets to the outside, he can be hard to bring down in the open field.

Every running back who carried the ball 20 times last year returns in 2005. Dan Burks combines the speed of a halfback and the power of a fullback into one nice package. He can get an extra yard up the middle and get to the outside with speed. After rushing for 880 yards last year, he could top 1,000 this year.

Hackney's top two receivers from 2004 departed. The cupboard is not completely bare though. Norris Drinkard and Reggie Lindsey are multi-tooled athletes. Drinkard can play at running back, while Lindsey is the team's punt and kick return specialist. Though neither has the deep threat abilities of former receivers Roddy White and Bradly Chavez, they can catch the ball in a crowd.

The Blazer offensive line should be a strength this year. Led by pro prospect Matt Batusic at center, the UAB interior all weighs 300 pounds or better. Hackney's sack total should drop from last year's high total of 34.

Defensively, UAB was too generous last season giving up nearly 30 points and 412 yards per game. The biggest 2004 weakness was the pass defense. While the deep backs are improved, an entirely new trio of linebackers must be broken in. If UAB fails to challenge for the East title, it will be because opponents take advantage of the inexperience in the second line of defense.

3. Memphis PiRate: 98 HFA: 3

Coach Tommy West's Tigers won eight regular season games for the second time in a row last season. If they are to three-peat, a rebuilt offense will have to find more weapons than returning national number three-ranked runner DeAngelo Williams. Williams rushed for 1,948 yards and 22 scores in 2004, but unless a competent quarterback and offensive line emerges quickly, Williams could be forced to escape tacklers in his backfield several times a game.

Quarterback Danny Wimprine graduated. So did top reserve Bobby Robison. That leaves Patrick Byrne to take over. Byrne has no game experience at quarterback; his only action has been as one of the top kickoff specialists in the South. Add to the fact that four new offensive linemen will be starting, and it looks like Memphis could be scoring several fewer points this year. Maurice Avery and Mario Pratcher could emerge as big playmakers at the wide outs if Byrne gets enough time in the pocket. The biggest Tiger weapon this year could be kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the best in the conference. Last year, Gostkowski connected on 20 of 24 field goal attempts. He has a range of about 50-55 yards.

Defensively, the Tigers are in better shape and should improve on their numbers from last year. Defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn stresses the frequent use of dogs and blitzes, but it can backfire if the secondary cannot cover one-on-one. Wesley Smith earned 1st team All-C-USA accolades at free safety last year. Cornerback Dustin Lopez can be left out on an island and cover a speedy receiver.

Carlton Baker and Tim Goodwell, the top two tacklers lead the linebackers in 2004. Baker could be a late round draft choice next year. Greg Hinds could emerge to make this the best line-backing group in the league.

Up front, there are some question marks. Marcus West earned second team all-conference honors last year and led the Tigers with six sacks. He's the lone returning starter in the trenches.

Memphis scored 36 points per game and gave up 31 last year. Look for those numbers to come down to about 26 to 25. The Tigers still have a good shot at a third straight bowl game.

4. Marshall PiRate: 88 HFA: 4

My how the mighty have fallen! The once top 10 Thundering Herd join C-USA at the wrong time. 16 starters have left including the quarterback, top running back, and top two receivers. Only one of the top nine tacklers return. Marshall also lost its head coach, Bob Pruett just before spring practice started. The new coach is Mark Snyder, who was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State.

The new quarterback is Jimmy Skinner. His prior game experience shows him completing just two of four passes for nine yards.

Skinner's primary duty will be handing the ball to tailback Ahmad Bradshaw. The runner-up Freshman Player of the Year in the MAC in 2004, Bradshaw rushed for 462 yards at a 4.9 average. He is a threat to take a screen pass and go the distance, as he proved against Kent State last year.

The receiving corps barely averaged over 10 yards per catch last year. Even with the loss of its top two receivers, this year's group should do just as well or better. Hiram Moore should emerge as the top wide out.

There is one bright spot on the offensive line. Toby Bullock is 6-04 and 340 pounds. He can play both guard and tackle, but he is expected to settle in at left tackle this year.

Defensively, The Herd loses its entire starting front seven. None of this year's starters would have been picked in the upper half of the MAC, so expect opponents to run the ball down their throats this year.

The secondary has talent, as two members have legitimate NFL aspirations. Cornerback Willie Smith picked off four passes in 2004, including one that he returned the distance in the Ft. Worth Bowl. Safety Curtis Keyes led the team with 108 tackles.

The bottom three teams in the East are virtually tied, but Marshall starts the season a couple points ahead of the other two. Look for a rare losing season in C-USA year one.

5. East Carolina PiRate: 86 HFA: 3

Skip Holtz begins his first season as head coach of a division 1-A team in Carolina. Unfortunately for him, the direction says East instead of South. John Thompson went 3-20 in two years in Greenville, so even though 17 starters return, don't expect the junior Holtz to turn around this program overnight.

ECU surrendered 40 points per game last year. New defensive coordinator Greg Hudson should get better results, partly because the talent is better and partly because ECU will attempt to run the clock down on offense and subtract about 10-15 plays off the total average for each game.

The strength of the stop troops should be the secondary. Travis Williams and Zach Baker not only have the talent to break up passes, they are threats to score points on defense with their exceptional speed. Williams is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the nation as well.

Chris Moore is a powerful middle linebacker. If he is completely over an injury, he should contend for All-Conference honors.

The defensive line remains the weakest link on the stop side, but they should be much better than 2004, when ECU surrendered almost five yards per rush and recorded only 15 sacks.

The offense returns eight starters, but I believe it will take a step backward this season. The Pirates averaged 21 points and 309 yards per game last season. This year, I predict the total yardage may stay about the same, but the average points scored will drop to between 14 and 17. Holtz will be more conservative on offense trying to run the clock and avoid turnovers. With a sub-par offensive line, ECU only rushed for 93 yards per game in 2004, so I look for better numbers on the ground. I don't see another 200+ yard passing year this season. A repeat 2-9 season is possible.

6. Central Florida PiRate: 85 HFA: 3

Head coach George O'Leary must have thought last year was punishment for falsifying his resume a few years back. The Golden Knights went 0-11, losing multiple games in the fourth quarter. The only way to go is up this year, and UCF should get off the schneid before November.

The UCF offensive line will be the most improved line in C-USA. The Knights' running game rushed for only 97 yards per game last year at a 2.8 clip, but if you remove the sacks (using the NFL's rules for stats), UCF averaged 130 yards rushing at a 3.8 clip.

Any failures in the running game this year may come at the fault of the backs. Gone is top rusher Alex Hayes. Dontavius Wilcox has speed and can also come out of the backfield as a fifth receiver.

Quarterback Steven Moffett completed close to 65% of his passes last year with a respectable 4.4% interception rate. He has a deep threat in Maike Walker, a two-way player who started at cornerback last year in addition to his offensive duties.

The defensive line has some bright spots this year. Keith Hologan and Paul Carrington should make it hard for opponents to run the ball their way (note: Carrington recently suffered a head and neck injury in a scrimmage, and it is uncertain at this time when he can come back). Former defensive end Chris Welsh moves to linebacker where his 240-pound frame should be put to better use.

The secondary yielded 60.5% and 217 yards passing last year, and the same results could happen this year. Walker was the top pass thief last year, and he may not play defense this year.

UCF could finish as high as fourth in the East, but they have only four home games. The game with Marshall on September 24 should give them their best shot at a conference win.

West

1. U T E P PiRate: 102 HFA: 3

Coach Mike Price got a second chance last year and made the most of it. He took over a Miners team that had won two games each for three straight years and guided them to eight victories and a berth in the Houston Bowl. Enough talent returns this year to make UTEP the favorite in the balanced West. If the Miners stay healthy and get the lucky bounces, they could be this year's Utah.

Quarterback Jordan Palmer finished 2004 with three consecutive 300-yard passing games. He has all his receiving weapons returning this year. Johnnie Lee Higgins is the principal deep threat. Last year, he caught 34 passes for almost 21 yards per reception and 10 scores. Jayson Boyd led UTEP with 42 receptions. Chris Francies and Chris Marrow give UTEP two more quality receivers. Francies can go deep, while Marrow is more of a possession receiver.

The running game will be improved if UCLA-transfer Tyler Ebell stays healthy and isn't rusty. The former Bruin narrowly missed rushing for 1,000 yards in 2002.

The defense improved by over 13 points per game and gave up 87 fewer total yards per game last year. There should be a drop off in pass defense, but the run defense will be strong. If a talented defensive line can get a decent pass rush on opposing QBs, the secondary may get the job done.

UTEP starts the year as the strongest team in the conference. The schedule is favorable for a big year. This could be the best Miner team since 1967.

2(tie).Houston PiRate: 98 HFA: 3

From the late 1960's through the early 1990's, Houston was a perennial national power. Former Coach Bill Yeoman's split veer offense confounded defenses every week, as it rushed for 300 and passed for 200 yards, even scoring 100 points against Tulsa in 1968. Former Coach Jack Pardee's run and shoot offense broke all kinds of passing records, as Andre Ware won the Heisman Trophy.

Times have changed. Houston has won more games than they lost only twice in the last seven years and doesn‘t know what it feels like to be ranked. Worse, the Cougars have been invited to bowls just twice in the last 17 years. Things could change this season, as Houston should be back above .500.

Third year coach Art Briles has loads of talent returning from a team that went 3-8 last year. Every skill player who contributed in 2004 is back.

Junior quarterback Kevin Kolb was the 2003 C-USA Freshman of the Year. He comes off a year where he led the league in total offense while throwing less than 2% interceptions. He has a quick release and a deft touch.

Anthony Evans leads a stable of tough running backs. He is tough enough to run between the tackles without a lead blocker, and he can get outside quickly when he makes it through the line. He ran for 788 yards last year despite playing on an injured calf.

Vincent Marshall has sprinter's speed at one wide out. He caught 61 passes for 1,040 yards in 2004. Donnie Avery gives Kolb another deep threat.

The offensive line is set up to run to the left. The top two blockers, guard Roy Swan and tackle SirVincent Rogers align on that side. They combine 645 pounds into their double team blocks.

The Cougar defense yielded 32.2 points and 399 total yards per game last year. They are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment this year. On the front line, nose tackle Marquay Love and Kade Lane are better against the run than the pass, but they both could contend for all-league honors.

The line-backing quartet would be one of the strongest in the nation if not for a knee injury to top defender Lance Everson. Wade Koehl has exceptional team speed and gets to the ball.

The star in the secondary is free safety Will Gulley. Last year, he intercepted four passes and broke up five others.

2(tie).Tulane PiRate: 98 HFA: 3

The Green Wave missed out on a winning season by one game last year. They were upset at East Carolina, a game they should have won. Seventh year coach Chris Scelfo has 17 starters returning, and TU has a great shot at getting back to a bowl.

Quarterback Lester Ricard follows in the footsteps of three consecutive NFL draftees. Shaun King, Patrick Ramsey, and J.P. Losman went to the NFL. In 2004, Ricard threw for 1,881 yards and 21 touchdowns. He out dueled Darrell Hackney last year in the big 59-55 victory over UAB. His numbers that day were an unbelievable 36 of 49 for 417 yards and six TDs! Two games later, he completed 18 of 19 for 323 yards and four touchdowns in a big upset over Navy. A couple more Saturdays like that, and Tulane will have its fourth consecutive QB making an NFL roster.

The Greenies had co-starting running backs last year, as Javon Jackson and Matt Forte split the duties and rushed for an identical 624 yards. A stronger offensive line may mean an extra 25 to 50 yards rushing per game in 2005.

Wide outs Preston Brown and Fred Smith have little experience, but they are both quick. True freshman Cary Koch appears to have won the starting H-back spot.

The offensive line is anchored by star tackle Chris McGee. He recorded 20 pancake blocks last season. A set of twins, Joe and Matt Traina bolster a strong front five.

Whether Tulane finishes with a winning record and gains a bowl bid will be determined by defensive improvement. The Green Wave allowed 422 total yards and 33 points per game last year.

The defensive line has quality at the terminals in Antonio Harris and Billy Harrison. MLB Anthony Cannon leads the line backing corps, while Sean Lucas leads the secondary unit. The defense should be better, but it still should yield 375 to 400 yards and 25-30 points per game. Tulane has its best team since 1998.

4. Tulsa PiRate: 95 HFA: 3

The Golden Hurricane have enjoyed just one winning season in the last dozen years. Third year coach Steve Kragthorpe has the talent to guide Tulsa to a winning season if everything falls into place, but in this tough division, it is certainly a long shot.

The strength of the offense is the running game. Uril Parrish returns after running for 1,064 yards at a 5.1 per carry average. He will run slants off tackle with the blocking aid of right tackle Jeff Perrett. Perrett enjoyed two games with double-digit knockdowns in 2004.

Paul Smith and David Johnson are competing for the starting quarterback spot. Smith should begin the season as the starter. He will have a couple of excellent receivers at the other end of his passes. Tight end Garrett Mills snagged 51 aerials for 560 yards last year, leading the Golden Hurricane for the second year in a row. Ashlan Davis is a multi-talented player. He caught 30 passes for 462 yards, but his claim to fame was returning five kickoffs for touchdowns last year!

The Tulsa defense surrendered over 35 points per game last year when you factor out the game against I-AA Southwest Missouri. The defensive line gave up 211 yards per game rushing at a rate of 4.7 yards per rush. Defensive end Brandon Lohr recorded 69 stops.

Lombardi Award nominee Nick Bunting, who made 88 stops last year, leads the linebackers. Bandit defender Kedrick Alexander, who returns to the squad this season after being suspended last year, leads the secondary.

Tulsa will be a long shot contender for a bowl bid this year, and if the defense improves enough, the Golden Hurricane could have a record reversal.

5(tie).Rice PiRate: 93 HFA: 3

The Owls have rushed for 307 and 317 yards per game the last two years, but the impressive results have not produced winning seasons. It has been four years since Ken Hatfield's team went 8-4. 2005 doesn't look like the year Rice will end a bowl drought that goes back to 1961; they should improve slightly on last year's 3-8 record.

Quarterback Joel Armstrong started the final four games of 2004 and is the leading returning rusher after gaining 608 yards on a 5.3 yard per carry average. Passing isn't that much of a concern in this offense, as the multiple option offense ran the ball almost 85% of the time in 2004. Last year Rice completed just 59 passes for the entire season!

The full house backfield relies on the fullback to carry the ball more than the halfbacks. Last year's fullback Ed Bailey, who rushed for over 1,000 yards, departs. The new fullback is Andy Cates, who rushed only three times for 10 yards last year. Joining him in the backfield are Thomas Lott (the son of the former Oklahoma quarterback) and Marcus Rucker. Rucker averaged 7.2 yards per carry last year, but that average was inflated by being on the receiving end of many option pitches, where he received the ball with an open field in front of him.

The offensive line is young, but with this offense, it is easier to prepare. There aren't as many assignments to learn, and most of the plays involve double team blocking on the play side.

Defensively, Rice returns seven starters from a team that gave up 34.3 points per game. The Owls gave up a respectable 365 total yards per game. Leading the stop troops is defensive end John Syptak. Last year, he recorded eight QB sacks and seven tackles for lost yardage.

The line backing crew has one budding star in Adam Herrin. He led the Owls with 74 tackles, including seven behind the line of scrimmage.

The secondary has been the weak spot of this defense for the last five plus years. Since Rice recruits option QBs, they never have an exceptional passer on their scout team. Thus, the Owl secondary doesn't get ample practice opportunities against quality passers. This year should see the Owls play better pass defense in their 4-2-5 alignment. Chad Price is the bandit defender (similar to a strong safety). He led the Owls with five passes broken up last year.

Rice must improve by leaps and bounds in the special teams department. They had the weakest kicking game in the WAC in 2004.

5(tie). S M U PiRate: 93 HFA: 3

The Mustangs have never recovered from the death penalty probation of 20 years ago. Prior to that, they were a national power. They could have been the 12th member of the Big 12 at the expense of Baylor if they had not been caught with all those infractions. SMU has enjoyed just one winning season (and that was 6-5) since they returned to football in the late 1980's. The losing will go on at least another year.

Head coach Phil Bennett enters year number four in Dallas with a three-year record of 6-29. He has the most experienced roster returning with 18 starters and more than 80% of the total lettermen returning.

The offense lost only one co-starter, so the Mustangs should improve upon their 334 total yards and 18.4 points per game in 2004. Quarterbacks Chris Phillips, Tony Eckert, and Jerad Romo shared the job last year due to injuries. Eckert is the best pure passer, while Remo is the best runner, actually leading the Mustangs with 434 yards last season. Phillips combines a little of both, and he opens the season as the starter.

Five players who caught 20 or more passes return to the fold. SMU's offense spreads the ball all around the field with the tight end getting as many opportunities as the wide outs. Bobby Chase and Jay'Mond Cleveland are the team's main deep threats.

The offensive line returns intact with all members of the two-deep back for action. The right side is particularly strong with Brad Kieschnick at guard and Chris Urbanus at tackle.

The Mustang defense surrendered 38.2 points and 467 yards per game. Not having to face Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Boise State and Fresno State this year should lower those numbers before factoring in the added experience.

The SMU front seven returns six starters. This group has talent and should chop off a couple dozen rushing yards allowed this year after giving up a generous 209 (4.9 avg) per game last season. Linebacker Alvin Nnabuife started the season in the secondary and moved up due to injuries. He led SMU with 80 tackles in 2004. D.D. Lee missed 2004 with an elbow injury, but when he was healthy in 2003, he recorded 100 tackles with eight for loss.

The secondary allowed 61.2% of enemy passes to be caught and gave up 258 yards per game. Those numbers should improve this year as fellow cornerbacks are hard-hitting speedsters and one year older.

SMU will be better, but it will be hard to improve too much over their 3-8 record in the tough West this year.

If All Games Were Played September 1st (in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season) (and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA)

Team			Conf.		Overall
East
Alabama-Birm.	         6-2		   8-4 *
Southern Miss.	         6-2		   7-4
Memphis		         4-4		   6-5
Marshall		 1-7		   2-9
Central Florida	         1-7		  1-10
East Carolina	         1-7		  1-10

Team			Conf.		Overall
West
U T E P		         8-0		  12-0 +
Tulane		         6-2		   9-2
Houston		         5-3		   6-5
Tulsa			 4-4		   4-7
Rice			 3-5		   4-7
S M U		 	 3-5		   5-6

* UAB beats Southern Miss. at hoe to gain C-USA title
berth
+ UTEP wins C-USA championship game

VandyMania.com Top Stories