Born In The USA

Southern Miss tops the East division while Houston and Tulsa fight it out in the West

Aug. 8, 2007

By Carolyn Braff

CSTV.com

 



Carolyn Braff

Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for CSTV.com.
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  • CSTV's C-USA Preview | Breaking Down The C-USA Schedule | Predictions


  • In the three years since realignment in Conference USA, the West has reigned supreme, tallying an 11-7 record against East division teams in 2006. With the exception of consistently competitive Southern Miss, star quality at Houston, Tulsa and SMU should ensure that the West will once again own the league. C-USA is not known for its defenses, with half the conference's teams ranking in the nation's bottom 20 in total defense last season, but with defensive mastermind Todd Graham back at Tulsa after spending a year at Rice, expect more stout defensive play this season.

     

    A few stars should emerge offensively this year, including SMU sophomore quarterback Justin Willis, and there is talk of a preliminary Heisman campaign for Rice junior wide receiver Jarett Dillard. Although the level of play in this conference can not matchup with the SEC or Big Ten, the teams are well matched, and in the last two years, C-USA matchups have been the tightest games played by any league in the nation, which means exciting football week after week. Houston at Tulsa Nov. 10 should determine the West Division champion and Tulsa at Rice on Nov. 24 should be a controversy-filled afternoon, with former head coach Graham returning to Houston, where he is not exactly loved, to take on his former team.

     

     

    EAST

     

     

    Southern Miss - 2006: 9-5 Overall, 6-2 C-USA --- Bower Has High Expectations

    Offense

    Quarterback Jeremy Young should thrive this season after being limited by turf toe throughout 2006. The senior still managed to pass for 1,769 yards and 12 touchdowns and ran for 224 yards, good enough for fourth-best rushing yardage on the team. Speedy tight end Shawn Nelson, a preseason all-conference selection, is a good place to start throwing the ball, but the dual-threat QB will need some new receiving targets.

     

    "Receiver, that's probably my major concern," head coach Jeff Bower said. "We're going to have to get some young guys and get ready to play."

     

    Injuries hampered the offense during spring ball, and Bower is still looking for receivers to emerge. All-American running back Damion Fletcher led the Golden Eagles to the nation's 25th-best rushing offense last season, using shifty moves to compensate for his less-than-optimal speed. As a freshman, Fletcher racked up 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns, running the Golden Eagles to the C-USA championship game and a bowl appearance.

     

    "In terms of ability, he's got good feet, balance, good vision, he's a smart football player," Bower said. "He was a pretty mature freshman last year, the way he handled everything. You don't expect that as a coach - you don't count on true freshman to play. I decided not to start him against Florida but had we started him, it wouldn't have fazed him a lick."

     

    Fletcher can expect to start every game this season. Fellow sophomore Tory Harrison compensates in the speed department and prized recruit Antwain Easterling combines speed with size and power. Three interior linemen must be replaced from a unit that allowed only 19 sacks last season, and those linemen must step up quickly to block for a unit that should put up big numbers running the ball.

     

    Defense

    Southern Miss is generally known for its defenses, and the 2007 edition will not disappoint. The Golden Eagles return most of last season's stingy defense, which allowed only 308 yards per game, including three starters on the line and all three linebackers. Sophomore Gerald McRath leads the linebacking corps and proved himself as a relentless blitzer last season.

     

    "He's a really intelligent player," Bower said. "He can play any one of the three linebacker positions."

     

    The corners will be new but all-conference selection Brandon Sumrall and team interception leader LeVance Richmond return to fill out the backfield. Southern Miss' defense ranked 30th overall last season, allowing just 18.6 points per game and 180.3 yards passing.

     

    The Skinny

    Bower has led the Golden Eagles to 13 consecutive winning seasons, nine bowl games in 10 years and three straight postseason wins. With the conference's top run game and a run-capable quarterback, this year should be no different in Hattiesburg. Even with three of their first four games on the road, a more manageable non-conference schedule (Florida and Virginia Tech have been replaced by Tennessee and Arkansas State) should allow the Golden Eagles to get off to a fast start. The Sept. 15 contest at East Carolina will preview the winner of the East, even though Southern Miss should be a lock to top the division yet again.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 8-0 C-USA

     

    East Carolina - 2006: 7-6 Overall, 5-3 C-USA --- Pirates Set To Take Sail

    Offense

    Sophomore Rob Kass will captain the ship this season and will have to follow a tough act, that of James Pinkney, ECU's second all-time passing leader. New offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Fitch must help Kass find his footing early, or else it's going to be a tough year for the Pirates. Wide receiver Aundrae Allison is off to the NFL, so East Carolina is looking for some new faces to complement Kass. Head coach Skip Holtz listed sophomore Jamar Bryant, senior Philip Henry and senior Steven Rodgers as players to watch, plus several juco players the third-year head coach hopes will make an immediate impact.

     

    "You'll see it more by committee now that Aundrae is gone and there's no heir apparent," Holtz says. "But I think our program is much stronger because in year one, we didn't have a committee to go to. Now I think you are going to see a lot more players that are good enough to step up and make some plays, so there will be a lot more guys with 20-30 catches."

     

    The Pirates have their work cut out for them in the backfield, where they came up with just 115.5 yards rushing per game. Senior Chris Johnson and junior Dominique Lindsay will share the workload, after Johnson's production on the ground has been slowed while he develops into a receiver and kickoff return man. With 10 or 11 different choices at lineman and the experience of guards Matt Butler and Josh Coffman, the run game has to get better.

     

    Defense

    North Carolina transfer Khalif Mitchell will push the experienced group already lined up at defensive end, and the linebackers should be the best in Holtz's three seasons. Senior Fred Wilson will take the middle, once again flanked by juniors Quentin Cotton and Pierre Bell. At 224 pounds, Cotton finished second on the team with 68 tackles and used his speed to break into the backfield. He'll be the leader of the linebacking corps. Travis Williams is the only returning player in the secondary, so teams will likely try their luck passing the ball often against ECU early in the season. The front seven will have to pick up the slack while the secondary gets settled.

    The Skinny

    Someone in the conference scheduling department has it out for ECU. The Pirates open the season at Virginia Tech before hosting North Carolina and opening their conference play against reigning East division champion Southern Miss. The Pirates then pack up again to face West Virginia on the road, making for one of the toughest schedules in the conference.

     

    "I think we're going to learn a lot about ourselves on the national level, in terms of where we rank with other teams around the country," Holtz said. "We have a chance to be better than we've been. I don't know if the wins and losses will necessarily show that because of the level that we're playing at. We better have a strong September or it's going to be a long year."

     

    Having had three years to mold the program, Holtz is in his best position to make a run for the conference title. Unfortunately, he'll have to do it in this third game of the season. If ECU can top Southern Miss Sept. 15, the division is theirs for the taking.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 7-1 C-USA

     

    Marshall - 2006: 5-7 Overall, 4-4 C-USA --- Leaders of The Herd

    Offense

    Losing Ahmad Bradshaw is bad news for the Thundering Herd. Juniors Chubb Small, Kelvin Turner and freshman Terrell Edwards will have a tough time picking up the slack for the nation's fifth-leading rusher.

     

    "Ahmad was an awful special running back," said head coach Mark Snyder. "Those kind of guys are hard to replace. We have two freshman tailbacks that we'll give a look to, but it may be running back by committee."

     

    Senior quarterback Bernard Morris has a solid receiving corps to compensate while the running game finds its feet, but he'll have to be more accurate, and certainly throw for more than one touchdown pass against a BCS opponent. Sophomore tight end Cody Slate can be one of the best in the league, hauling in a team-best 43 passes for 684 yards and six touchdowns last season, and former juco star Darius Passmore is expected to give immediate help to the receivers. 

     

    "We have everybody back at wide receiver," Snyder said. "We really did not sign any wide outs because we're so deep there. That should be our strong point."

     

    Redshirt freshman Travius Thompson is one receiver expected to make a splash and take some of the pressure off of Slate. Center Doug Legursky is an all-American candidate at center.

     

    Defense

    Marshall's defense is traditionally strong on the line and weak in the secondary, and this year should follow suit, unless new defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap can do something about the 114th worst secondary in the nation. Conference defensive Player of the Year Albert McClellan and his 11.5 sacks return at defensive end and he is expected to have another standout season.

     

    The secondary returns its top three corners, which may not be such a good thing, considering the unit's failures against the pass. Senior Phillip Gamble and junior C.J. Spillman will be expected to bring some solidity to the backfield defense. The Thundering Herd allowed at least 21 points in every game last season, and will have to reduce that number if Marshall is going to be competitive this year.

     

    The Skinny

    Morris' third season as quarterback will have to be by far his best if the Thundering Herd is to return to a bowl for the first time since 2004. They'll also have to do something about the special teams - hitting five of 13 field goal attempts and allowing three blocked punts isn't going to help the quest for a bowl. Marshall has a tough road slate, opening at Miami before traveling to Tulsa and Houston in conference. Hosting West Virginia won't help the win column, either.

     

    "I'm excited just to see how much progress we've made," Snyder said. "We're going into year three, so it's a chance to evaluate our program and make sure we're headed in the right direction."

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 4-4 C-USA

     

    UCF - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 3-5 C-USA --- O'Leary's Winning Feeling

    Offense

    UCF scored only 20 touchdowns in 50 red zone appearances in 2006, slumping badly after being a preseason favorite to win the conference. It's hard to win games without scoring points, and the Knights (no longer the Golden Knights) found that out the hard way. Senior quarterback Kyle Israel will have to do something about those turnover numbers - the team lost nine fumbles and threw 10 interceptions (and only 14 touchdowns). In his four starts last season, Israel put too much emphasis on creating first downs with his feet, and he'll have to rely more on his arm this season, according to offensive coordinator Tim Salem.

     

    "Kyle has good fieldmanship, good leadership," head coach George O'Leary said. "He gets you out of a bad play with a good play. He'll go into the huddle and they know he's the guy; it's his job to keep, but we will have competition there."

     

    Junior running back Kevin Smith, a two-year starter, will provide some support on offense, especially with four starters back blocking for him on the line. Rocky Ross is the team's veteran receiver, but Javid James will have to be more consistent and redshirt freshman Jevaughn Reams, Brian Watters and Jamar Newsome will all have to show up if Israel is going to have any success throwing the ball.

     

    Defense

    UCF finished 106th in total defense last season, prompting the arrival of former Iowa State assistant John Skladany as defensive coordinator and new coaches at secondary and defensive line. Eight starters return on defense, including the entire secondary, but their pass rush will have to be far better if the defense is going to be successful.

     

    Linebacker Steven Baker is returning from surgery and will need to contribute quickly to this struggling unit, especially with projected starter Jordan Richards most likely out for the season with a shoulder injury.

     

    "The one thing is maturity," O'Leary said of the defense. "Most of them are all back with experience. We made some changes in coaching, since I think sometimes chemistry is so important in terms of attitude and all that."

     

    If that chemistry doesn't click, and the Knights perform the way they did (or didn't) last season, the defense will be UCF's downfall.

     

    The Skinny

    UCF will inaugurate its first on-campus stadium Sept. 15, a 45,000-seat facility that has been a long time in the making.

     

    "I took this job because I think UCF could be a dominant team, and the last piece of the puzzle is the stadium," O'Leary said. "That's the last piece and it's time to move on and start winning."

     

    Winning will most likely have to wait a week, as the Texas Longhorns are coming to town to christen Bright House Networks Stadium. After that, the schedule evens out a bit with home games against Memphis and UL-Lafayette. If Israel can play turnover-free football, Kevin Smith can put up numbers on the ground and those numbers translate into points, UCF can contend for the East title. The Oct. 6 visit to East Carolina will show this team how well they stack up.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 3-5 C-USA

     

    Memphis - 2006: 2-10 Overall, 1-7 C-USA --- Tigers Stay Optimistic

    Offense

    Senior quarterback Martin Hankins ran the spread offense effectively last season, throwing for 2,550 yards and 18 touchdowns. The passing game was the high point of the Tigers' offense last year, ranking 39th in the nation, and should be just as good this year, with Hankins' experience and sophomore receiver Duke Calhoun, who is on the verge of becoming a real playmaker. At 6-foot-4, Calhoun caught 42 passes for a team-high 681 yards and six TDs last season, earning him freshman all-conference honors. Juco transfer Steven Black will give Hawkins another solid target. In the backfield, Joe Doss led the Tigers with 910 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last season, and he'll have to produce again this year, which will be all the harder behind a weak offensive line.

     

    Defense

    The Tigers' defense ranked 100th or worse in every category except passing yardage, where they ranked 96th last season. The front four left much to be desired, allowing more than 30 points and 400 yards per game. End Greg Terrell returns after joining Calhoun on the frosh all-conference team and junior tackle Freddie Barnett is expected to step up immediately. Heath Grant, Quinton McCrary, Greg Jackson and Jake Kasser all return at linebacker, and will be pushed by JUCO transfer Tommy Phelps, but none put up remarkable numbers last season. The defensive backfield has major strides to make, so defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz is working with the safeties while former Tulsa assistant Derek Jones focuses on the cornerbacks.

     

    The Skinny

    With six new assistants on board, the chemistry in Memphis will hopefully change for the better after last year's abomination. Memphis lost all five games that were decided by a touchdown or less, including four games by three points or fewer, so the new coordinators on offense and defense will have to game plan those two-minute situations. After bringing their three-season bowl streak to a grinding halt in 2006, the Tigers are determined to show that last year was a fluke rather than the beginning of a trend. The first two games against Ole Miss and Arkansas State are winnable, and getting off to a good start will be invaluable to this team. If the Tigers can start well and get the kinks out of their new coaching staff early, a .500 season is a possibility.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 3-5 C-USA

     

    UAB - 2006: 3-9 Overall, 2-6 C-USA --- Callaway Blazin' A New Trail

    Offense

    First-year head coach Neil Callaway's nine seasons coordinating offenses in the SEC should prove invaluable for the Blazers, whose 18.8 points per game last season ranked them 93rd in the country. The quarterback position is still up for grabs between senior Sam Hunt and sophomore Joseph Webb, and that's just fine with Callaway.

     

    "I'm excited about the competition at quarterback," Callaway said. "I've got two guys, we'll let them compete going into fall practice and let it work itself out, and how it shakes out."

     

    Freshman tight end Jeffrey Anderson may be the best threat at receiver for the Blazers.

     

    "Coming out of spring ball, I thought we were not very good at receiver," Callaway said. "We've got a lot of improvement to do there."

     

    Sophomore Rashaud Slaughter should get the start at tailback, but he's not going anywhere unless tackle Adam Truitt gets some help at offensive line, a position Callaway says is particularly thin.

     

    Defense

    The linebacking corps has a chance to be good behind B.J. Steed, Joe Henderson and Kris Guyton, but inconsistency and depth are concerns.

     

    "The bright spot on our defensive football team would be the secondary," Callaway said. "We have two corners in Zach Britten and Kevin Sanders that are good football players."

     

    The secondary will need some help from an inexperienced defensive line, which they will hopefully get from juco transfer Antonio Forbes. Just like the offensive line, the D-line is going to be thin and young, and will have to mature quickly if UAB is going to have a chance in its early games.

     

    The Skinny

    Callaway has 13 years of experience assisting head coaches, but 2007 is his first chance to be one, and he's got a lot of work to do. Luckily, he has a plan.

     

    "There's three things we need to make sure we do: play harder than our opponents, play physical and eliminate mistakes. I think if we can do those three things that'll go a long way," Callaway said.

     

    With opening games at Michigan State and Florida State, this team is going to have to gel quickly, or else it's going to be a long season. And there is plenty of gelling to be done.

     

    "We've going to be a very thin football team really at every area," Callaway said. "We'll have a lot of freshman play on this football team."

     

    Realistically, UAB will be lucky if it can match last year's record.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 2-10 Overall, 1-7 C-USA

     

     

     

    WEST

     

     

     

    Tulsa - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 5-3 C-USA --- Hurricane Look To Storm Through West

    Offense

    Last year at Rice, new head coach Todd Graham transitioned the Owls from an option offense to a spread attack with miraculous results, bringing the passing game from 117th in the nation in 2005 to 47th in 2006. With senior Paul Smith heralded as the best under-pressure quarterback in the conference, Graham will have the opportunity to work his offensive magic this season for his former conference rival, where he just happened to be defensive coordinator from 2003-2005. Smith is on track to become the Golden Hurricane's all-time leading passer, and as the conference's best QB under pressure, he should fit well into the new no-huddle spread offense co-masterminded by offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, of former Arkansas fame.

     

    "The whole idea is to go fast," Graham said. "It has to do with our conditioning, our physical-ness, to force defenses to operate under a faster tempo. It's going to be a very exciting brand of football to watch."

     

    Without their top three pass catchers, however, some veterans are going to have to step up and catch those fast-paced passes, but Smith is not worried.

     

    "I think that's what fall camp's all about," Smith said. "We have a couple new guys coming in and it's going to be a time for some of them to prove themselves to the coaches. We've got six or seven guys that can all step up."

     

    Balancing the air attack will be running backs Courtney Tennial, a former Oklahoma transfer, and junior Tarrion Adams, back from injury. With five seniors gone from the offensive line, that front must be shored up before Smith will have time to throw or the run game can take off.

     

    Defense

    Graham recruited much of the starting lineup himself, so he's as familiar with his personnel as possible. Graham wants his defense to match the pace of his offense.

     

    "We're an attacking, fast-paced defense," he said, "and we're going to blitz."

     

    The 3-3-5 scheme emphasizes athletes and playmakers, which should allow the conference's top defense to shine with Graham running the show. Senior linebackers Nelson Coleman and Chris Chamberlain quick and aggressive, and Anthony Germany and Steve Craver are big-play safeties. Up front, Terrel Nemons is a 325-pound nose guard with raw power, and the defense is looking to vastly improve on its sack and turnover numbers.

     

    The Skinny

    Tulsa was conference champion in 2005 and looked poised to repeat the run last season, winning seven of its first eight before dropping three in a row to end the season. With Graham back on the sideline, all signs point to an impressive year for the Golden Hurricane, provided playmakers emerge at wide receiver to execute the spread attack, and the offensive line gels fast enough to give Smith some protection in the minimal-protection schemes. Nov. 10 is a battle of the last two C-USA champions, when Houston comes to town, but aside from a Sept. 21 date with Oklahoma, Tulsa has a cakewalk schedule. As long as Tulsa wins that Houston game, they should have a crack at Southern Miss for the conference title.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 7-1 C-USA

     

    SMU - 2006: 6-6 Overall, 4-4 C-USA --- Mustangs On The Rise?

    Offense

    C-USA freshman of the year Justin Willis is back under center for the Mustangs, and he will lead a unit that should be one of the more effective in the conference. The freshman phenom passed for 2,047 yards and 26 touchdowns, breaking a school record for TD passes in a single season.

     

    "He's multi-dimensional," said head coach Phil Bennett. "He doesn't have a rocket arm but his accuracy is very good. He has a good feel for the game and the ability to make big plays is there. He makes everybody on the team better and we're never out of it with him."

     

    Willis' 158.4 passing efficiency rating was good enough for No. 10 in the nation last season, and with a year of experience, all the pieces are in place for him to have a spectacular season. Standout sophomore receiver Emmanuel Sanders is back after knee surgery, and should be a potent weapon after reeling in 46 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns, a freshman record. Still, SMU's season may depend on its run game. The Mustangs had the eighth-ranked run game in the conference last season, scoring a league-worst seven rushing touchdowns after junior DeMyron Martin went down with a foot injury. Martin is now healthy and should be a workhorse alongside James Mapps and Fred Turner, who give the backfield considerable depth. The offensive line returns five starters, which should be more than enough to create some opportunities for Martin and co.

     

    Defense

    All-conference defensive end Cory Muse is the only returning member of last year's front four, which ranked first in the conference against the run. Expect the defense to be built around him after ranking third in the conference with seven sacks, despite missing two games. Muse is an excellent pass rusher, but he will need help in that department, since he should be double-teamed on nearly every play.

     

    "In this league you've got be able to rush the passer," Bennett said.

     

    So a solution will have to be found up front. All three linebackers return, led by Reggie Carrington, who combined with Tony Hawkins and Wilton McCray to record 25 tackles for a loss, best in the conference. Three defensive backs that started at least three games last season are back, including corners Bryan McCann and Jonathan Lindley, who returned a fumble 80 yards for a touchdown against UTEP. The secondary will have to step up this season, as a touchdown reception by Rice star Jarett Dillard over the head of Lindley was the difference between SMU's bowl-eligible season and a bowl-playing season.

     

    The Skinny

    Since coming off of the NCAA's 1989 Death Penalty, SMU has had only one winning season, but this could be the Mustangs' second. This year also could, and probably should, be the one the Ponies break a 23-year bowless streak and get into the fight for a division title. For a program that finished winless in 2003 and hasn't had a winning season since 1997, the Mustangs have made major strides, but a tough schedule may stand in the way of postseason glory.

     

    The home opener against Texas Tech should be their toughest test of the season, but SMU is stuck with the three hardest C-USA games available - at Southern Miss, at Tulsa and at Houston. Bennett is not fazed, as long as his players continue to improve.

     

    "Our big word right now is extra," Bennett said. "If every position can improve 5 percent, that's like compound interest - your team becomes so much better."

     

    This should be the year SMU makes enough progress to keep playing in January.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 5-3 C-USA

     

    Houston - 2006: 10-4 Overall, 7-1 C-USA --- Can The Cougars Roar In 2007?

    Offense

    Kevin Kolb has reported to camp for the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving the Cougars with a new face under center for the first time in four years. Sophomore Blake Joseph and freshman Case Keenum are the top names to take over signal-calling responsibilities, but head coach Art Briles doesn't expect any single player to replace Kolb's output.

     

    "You can't replace Kevin and we're not trying to replace him," Briles said. "We're trying to replace his production, having other people put up numbers to create that same yardage in different manners. You have to be realistic, a starter is not going to come in and throw for 3,800 yards."

     

    As for the likely starter, Briles doesn't have one.

     

    "That's what we're going to use fall camp for, to try to determine that,"  he said.

     

    Running back Anthony Aldridge should smooth over the transition period while the Cougars get set under center. The senior moved from wide receiver to running back and never looked back, rushing for 959 yards and eight TDs on 95 carries. Houston has plenty of talent at wide receiver, led by Donnie Avery, Jeron Harvey and Chris Gilbert. Returning four starters on offensive line should allow the run game to flourish while the quarterback finds his feet. The nation's seventh-ranked offense may drop a few notches without Kolb, but should still be enough to get Houston to a bowl game, if not a conference title.

     

    Defense

    Houston's defense ranked far behind its offense last season, especially on third down where the Cougars allowed their opponents to convert 47 percent of the time, ranking them 110th in the nation. The team's second year in a 4-2-5 set-up should help take some pressure off of the green offense, as an abundance of defensive backs will be put to good use in the system.

     

    "We're deep right now at DBs, so we might as well play them," said senior Brendan Pahulu, who drops from linebacker to end this season.

     

    "Having that year under our belt really helped us. Now we just go fly to the ball, since we already know what to do."

     

    Junior corner Kenneth Fontenette will anchor the secondary, and the front four has the size and speed to bother almost any offense. Junior defensive end Phillip Hunt should be the team's best defensive player, after leading the team with eight sacks.

     

    The Skinny

    Avoiding Southern Miss this season is a gift to the Cougars, who took their only conference loss at the hands of the Golden Eagles last season. Still, Houston doesn't have the smoothest of non-conference slates, opening at Oregon before facing Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Traveling to Tulsa Nov. 10 will be a key game that may determine the west division champion, and other than that, the Cougars should fly through their conference games at Tulane, UAB and UTEP. If the defense can play well enough early for the offense to find its rhythm, Houston may well repeat as conference champion.

     

    "It's going to be an exciting thing for us to try to attempt to establish some dominance and that's what you try to do," Briles said. "You don't want to be a one-hit wonder."

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 4-4 C-USA

     

    UTEP - 2006: 5-7 Overall, 3-5 C-USA --- Miners Young, Enthusiastic and Hungry

    Offense

    Freshman Trevor Vittatoe and senior Lorne Sam are still slugging it out for the quarterback spot, but head coach Mike Price is enjoying the drama as it unfolds.

     

    "How our quarterback situation is going to work out is exciting," Price said. "It may be kind of a two-headed QB. Lorne will play the whole game either at QB, wide receiver or running back. Trevor is just a freshman, but he's probably got a little better arm than Lorne, so playing around with that will be kind of fun."

     

    Joe West and Fred Rouse will join Sam (if he's not under center) in the receiving lineup, which is mostly inexperienced. The offensive line should be stronger this season, returning 12 players with experience, which should give a lift to running back Marcus Thomas and Oregon transfer Terrell Jackson, who should push Thomas for playing time.

     

    Defense

    Linebacker Jeremy Jones and safety Quintin Demps are the stars of an defense that only returns five players from last season, but should be fairly strong in the back seven. Jones was the conference's top tackler a year ago before breaking his leg, but should be poised to perform his senior year. Demps picked up seven interceptions last year along with five broken up passes. The defensive line is full of question marks, mixing junior James Olalekan, the sole returning lineman with more than five stops, with three juco transfers, four sophomores and three freshmen.

     

    "We're young on defense," Price said. "I like the energy of our team. We will be a team that gets better from beginning to end."

     

    The Skinny

    They'll have to get better in a hurry if the Miners are going to put either of their opening contests into the win column. Hosting New Mexico before traveling to Texas Tech will be big afternoons for the young team, but the Sept. 15 New Mexico State matchup may be the best early-season barometer of how the fresh players are faring.

     

    "Our first three games as far as being competitive and our fans being excited about them are as good as can be," Price said. "There's a big rivalry between NM and us, then we're going up to Texas Tech, then we go to New Mexico state - you just gotta win that game, it's only 25 miles away. Then I'll let you know how we're doing."

     

    In a tough West Division, UTEP's young players will have a hard time facing the maturity they'll find at SMU, Tulsa and Houston. Unless a quarterback emerges early with a ton of talent to rally the team, this will not be the year UTEP returns to a bowl game.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 3-5 C-USA

     

    Rice - 2006: 7-6 Overall, 6-2 C-USA --- Can The Owls Keep Their Momentum?

    Offense

    Rice retains last season's successful offensive scheme, giving the Owls the opportunity to build upon last year's step forward, even under the Owls' new head coach David Bailiff. Quarterback Chase Clement has another year under his belt and has four returning starters on the offensive line to give him time to make his throws. Jarett Dillard, Rice's Heisman hopeful, is the headliner on a growing number of receiving targets for Clement. Dillard finished last season with 91 receptions for 1,247 yards and 21 touchdowns, laying down new single-season receiving records at Rice and in the conference and earning him preseason C-USA Offensive Player of the Year honors. He enters the season with 15 consecutive games with a TD pass and is by far the league's most exciting receiver. Six-foot-six tight end Taylor Wardlow is due for a breakout season, and a trio of sophomore receivers should show considerable improvement after gaining experience as true freshmen. Four largely untested question marks remain at tailback, but with a seasoned offensive line, they should have enough blocking to prove their worth early and often.

     

    Defense

    Bailiff comes to the Owls with a defense-heavy resume as the defensive coordinator for his final two years at TCU, guiding the Horned Frogs to the nation's top defense in 2002. The Owls will run a 4-2-5 similar to the TCU scheme this season.

     

    "It's very multiple," Bailiff said. "It allows you to leverage the run, lets you handle the verticals. It allows players to play fast."

     

    Rice is plagued by a lack of depth up front, mostly losing playmakers to graduation, but the defense can not be much worse than last season, when it ranked 112th in the nation, allowing an average of more than 33 points per game. The top four defensive ends are all inexperienced, which means that at least two incoming freshmen could be in the starting rotation. Linebacker and safety are more set, with Terrance Garmon, Robert Calhoun and all-conference selection Brain Raines set in the middle. Raines is returning after an off-season shoulder surgery, and if he is healthy, he should anchor the linebacking corps after leading the Owls in tackling last season. Safety Andrew Sendejo returns to lead the secondary after earning freshman All-America honors last year.

     

    The Skinny

    Although Bailiff was successful at I-AA Texas State, he'll need to take his game up a step at the BCS level, and expectations are very high in Houston. Todd Graham built the foundation for Rice to continue making moves in the conference, after taking the Owls to their first bowl in 45 years, but the transition period requisite with a new coaching staff will make it tough for the Owls to match last season's magic.

     

    "Winning's tough, but that's going to be the expectation," Bailiff said. "People do what's expected, and we're going to set our standards high."

     

    Back-to-back games against Texas Tech and Texas certainly won't help the overall record, and the defense will have to get considerably better if Rice is going to make the run it made in 2006. Games at Southern Miss, Houston and SMU will stand in the way of Rice's conference title hopes.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 3-9 Overall, 2-6 C-USA

     

    Tulane - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 2-6 C-USA --- Toledo Now Riding The Wave

    Offense

    New head coach Bob Toledo was once an offensive genius. As head coach at UCLA, Toledo led the Bruins to two straight Pac-10 titles in 1997-98 thanks to an offense that averaged more than 40 points per game. His 13 years of experience as an offensive coordinator at UCLA, Texas A&M and Oregon should overshadow his three-season hiatus from coaching and the less-than-stellar show he put on as last season's coordinator at New Mexico. Even with that resume, Toledo has his work cut out for him in New Orleans. The likely signal caller for the Green Wave is Scott Elliott, last year's backup with three career starts to his name. Luckily, Toledo can center his offense on the talents of senior running back Matt Forte.

     

    "Offensively you've gotta start with Matt Forte," Toledo said. "I've had an opportunity to be around some great running backs, and he's about as good as any of them. Big, strong, fast, he can catch the ball, throw the ball, punt the football - I'm going to utilize all those abilities. He's the guy that we're going to build our offense around."

     

    The offensive line needs some serious attention if Forte is going to have any room to run.

     

    Defense

    The Green Wave is unquestionably experienced up front. Senior tackles Frank Morton and Avery Williams combine with defensive end Antonio Harris to create a strong front four. A shaky secondary unit allowed 23 touchdown passes in 2006, but a deep pool of cornerbacks to choose from may help the situation. The linebackers are less certain, with James Dillard and Evan Lee the front runners, and no one else making too many waves.

     

    "We're trying to expose them to a lot of things and then try to find out what they can do best and tailor the things to what they do best," Toledo said.

     

    Hopefully, he'll find some players that are best at playing linebacker.

     

    The Skinny

    Tulane has had only one winning season in the last six years and is struggling to bring in recruits in the post-Katrina years. The talent and depth is simply lacking for Tulane to be a power this season. With a new coaching staff and a weak two-deep, the best Tulane can hope for is a four-win season, and that may be stretching things. The Green Wave opens the year by hosting Mississippi State, a game they won last year on the road.

     

    "I think that first game is important because of the new program," Toledo said. "It's a home game and we need to get off on the right foot. If we can be competitive, I think the people that go to the game, that'll keep them coming back."

     

    Staying competitive with Houston Sept. 15 will be an excellent barometer of how Tulane is doing, but the Sept. 29 matchup with LSU is just cruel.

     

    Regular Season Prediction: 2-10 Overall, 0-8 C-USA


     

     

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