Previewing Conference USA

Aug. 18, 2006

By Adam Caparell



Adam is's football editor and national football writer.
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While prognosticators think they know what to expect from Conference USA this season, Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe would disagree.


"I don't know what to expect this year," Kragthorpe said. "That's the thing about football. Every season is different and every game is different."


But with the return of quarterback Paul Smith, the entire linebacker unit and added depth on both the offensive and defensive lines, there are plenty of reasons for Kragthorpe to expect big things of his team. He just won't admit it publicly.


With nine starters back on defense, Tulsa should have one of the best units in the league. There are some personnel that will be sorely missed like defensive coordinator Todd Graham, TE Garrett Mills and RB Uril Parrish, but it's nothing the Golden Hurricane can't overcome.


Smith, an all-around steady signal caller, will miss Mills, one of his most reliable tight ends last year. But with a favorable non-conference schedule and no UCF on tap, injuries could be the only thing that prevents Tulsa from a second straight C-USA Western Division crown and a league championship.


2006 Tulsa Schedule




Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. But Jordan Palmer may be both.


The UTEP senior will not only be one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, but he's been blessed with the same genes as his brother, Carson.


But with all that skill, talent, and DNA comes pressure squarely focused on Palmer. With eight returnees on offense, including last season's leading receiver in Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jr., Palmer will be expected to produce.


"Last year it was let's try to help take the pressure off of Jordan and spread it around," UTEP coach Mike Price said. "This year I don't care. I think he can handle the pressure. He has to be the guy to do it."


Palmer will have to cut down on the interceptions. He threw 19 last season, averaging three per game in the Miners' three regular season losses.


And the schedule won't be kind with games against Texas Tech and road contests at Houston and Tulsa a span of six days. But with a total of 29 seniors returning, and at least nine starters back on defense, if Palmer has the kind of season he's capable of, UTEP cold very easily find themselves in the C-USA championship game.


2006 UTEP Schedule




Conference USA's Western Division should be a three-team race, especially if Kevin Kolb has the kind of season many are expecting out of him.


Now a senior, the former C-USA Freshman of the Year is coming off an "average" season in his estimation in which he led Houston to a 6-6 record and a bowl game. If Kolb can play more consistently and cut down on the turnovers, there's no reason why the Cougars' offense shouldn't roll with one of his favorite targets back in 2005 All-C-USA First Team receiver Vincent Marshall.


"We've coached a lot of great players and Kevin's right up there," coach Art Briles said. "We're expecting big things."


More speed defensively and seven home games bode well for the Cougars, but Houston's season will rest on the defense. The offense will score points, so if the defense is as improved as expected, an appearance in the C-USA title game is a distinct possibility.


2006 Houston Schedule




After a 5-6 2005, in which they beat three bowl teams, SMU has reason to believe things are headed in the right direction.


The Mustangs will return the front four that finished a respectable 48th in the nation against the run. But defense won't be the question for this team. It's on the other side of the ball.


Coach Phil Bennett has to replace departed Jerad Romo with Justin Willis, who is fully entrenched at the position after a good showing in spring practice. DeMyron Martin, who ran for 854 yards in his freshman campaign, will carry a much greater offensive load in his second season.


Surprisingly, SMU will only play two games outside the state of Texas and should be carrying over the momentum of their three game winning streak that ended last season. The Mustangs upset Houston and UTEP to finish the year and pulling off the feat again - while difficult - is certainly feasible.


2006 SMU Schedule




Tulane had the season from hell last year. After trying to deal with the enormity of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the Green Wave were exhausted both physically and mentally from playing 11 games at 11 different venues.


And things didn't get much better as spring rolled around - practice fields and still yet-to-be repaired facilities caused many players to get their offseason workouts in away from the school.


Now that the majority of their facilities are back in shape, including their weight room, normalcy is slowly beginning to return.


"We're really looking forward to getting started and mending the fences that were broken last year," coach Chris Scelfo said.


That should officially happen come Sept. 30 when Tulane plays its first game back in the Superdome. A repeat of a 2-9 season shouldn't be in the cards if quarterback Lester Richard returns to 2004 form. But don't expect a miraculous return to a bowl game with a defense that needs to fill a number of holes and a brutal schedule. The Green Wave will play Houston, Mississippi State, LSU, UTEP, Auburn and Tulsa on the road.


2006 Tulane Schedule




Todd Graham left Tulsa for what he felt were greener pastures at Rice. The former Golden Hurricane defensive coordinator is now in charge of righting a ship that sailed to a 1-10 season in 2005.


Graham helped Steve Kragthorpe turn around the Tulsa program and now Graham is determined to do it on his own. Nine starters are back on offense and with the installation of a spread attack - which could at times transform into a no-huddle look - there's reason for some optimism.


The Owls have also have a new coordinator in Major Applewhite, who will oversee the development of sophomore Chase Clement, a better fit for the style of play Graham is implementing.


Big question marks on defense will hamper the Owls. A 1-10 season is out of the question because they'll play 12 games this season, but getting win No. 2 isn't a given.


2006 Rice Schedule






Only a year removed from an 0-11 season - "the perfect season" as coach George O'Leary likes to refer to it as - UCF completed one of the more remarkable turnarounds in the history of college football winning C-USA's Eastern Division and earning the school's first bowl berth, seemingly coming out of nowhere to do so.  


After all, they were picked to finish near the bottom of C-USA last year. Now they're the pick to repeat in the Eastern Division. It's time for the encore and O'Leary has been on his players to prove last year was no fluke.


"I told the kids two key words, how and why it occurred," O'Leary said. "I want the kids to answer how it occurred and why it occurred. To that I should not have to say very much."


And he didn't.


With Steve Moffett at quarterback ready for his senior season, an offensive line that returns intact, and reigning C-USA Freshman of the Year Kevin Smith at running back raring to go, the Golden Knights' offense - with a total of nine starters returning - should be one of the best units in the league.


Nine starters are back on defense from an 8-5 team that defied all expectations in their first season in the newly reconfigured conference. Now it's all about consistency.


"Until you do it for two of three years, you're just a guy," O'Leary said, "do it for two or three years and you're special."


2006 UCF Schedule


Southern Miss


Southern Miss hasn't had a losing record in 12 seasons and things aren't about to change under coach Jeff Bower in 2006.


They're coming off of a 7-5 season that ended with another bowl game appearance, but it all came after dealing with the affects of Hurricane Katrina.


"It was a difficult year to say the least," Bower said.


Now Bower will have to deal with the loss of Dustin Almond at quarterback with Jeremy Young stepping in to fill the vacated spot. Just don't expect Young to be able to duplicate the Golden Eagles 33rd ranked passing attack of last season.


"We've got a guy for the first time who is going to start and play," Bower said. "But we feel good about Jeremy Young."


Young will have to develop quickly for the Southern Miss to make a fourth straight bowl appearance with games against Florida, North Carolina State, UCF, Tulsa and Virginia Tech in the season's first seven weeks.


"We're going to get a gauge of where we are real quick," Bower said.


2006 Southern Miss Schedule


East Carolina


A lot of East Carolina's success will be directly linked to how well quarterback James Pinkney plays with experienced receivers returning, including one of the C-USA's best in Aundrae Allison.


But holes in the offensive line could limit the offense's fire power. Only two starters are back for the Pirates so Chris Johnson's production at running back could suffer.


Improving over last years' 5-6 record will be made all the more difficult if East Carolina doesn't drastically improve on their run defense that finished 112th in the nation last season. The Pirates return the bulk of their defensive line, but will welcome all new starters at linebacker.


The schedule isn't overwhelming, but it's not easy. Games against Navy, West Virginia, Tulsa, UCF and North Carolina State are all going to be uphill battles for the Pirates.


2006 East Carolina Schedule




UAB, after a disappointing 5-6 season, will be forced to deal with the loss of senior quarterback Darrell Hackney.


Blazers coach Watson Brown will be changing his offensive concept to a run first, pass second team as he looks to establish a permanent answer at quarterback. It'll be a distinct change for Brown who's used to employing a pass-first attack.


Brown will give Chris Williams, a senior, and Sam Hunt, a junior transfer, 50 percent of the practice reps with the first team offense as training camp progresses. But he won't be afraid to play both guys when the games begin, even Oklahoma in the opener


"Both quarterbacks understand that," Brown said. "They have to gain experience on game day."


While UAB may lack experience at quarterback, it will feature a team made up of 29 seniors and a defense anchored by one of the best in the league: defensive end Larry McSwain. Brown likes what he has on defense; especially at linebacker where he feels he could have one of the top units in the conference.


But early games against the Sooners, Georgia and Mississippi State will very likely put the Blazers in a hole they'll be hard-pressed to climb out of.


2006 UAB Schedule




Under first year head coach Mark Snyder, Marshall suffered its first losing season in over two decades. The 4-7 campaign was highlighted by an unsettled quarterback situation and it could continue into this year as Bernard Morris and Jimmy Skinner fight to start, even though Morris has been named the Herd's No. 1 QB for the time being.  


Ten starters are back on offense for the Herd, the most notable being running back Ahmad Bradshaw. Having just missed a 1,000 yard season in 2005, Bradshaw should eclipse the mark as his touches increase this year.   


Marshall's going to need all the offense it can get. They managed just 18.6 points per game last season. Snyder would love to see more big plays from his team, but taking care of the ball will be of utmost importance for a team that gave it away to opponents far too often last year.


The defense finished a very respectable 33rd in total defense last season and returns the bulk of its lineup. But navigating through their seven road games that includes matchups against West Virginia, Kansas State, Tennessee and Southern Miss won't make year No. 2 for Snyder any easier than the first.


2006 Marshall Schedule




Tommy West may have been granted an extension on his contract after leading Memphis to its third straight bowl game, but with three-time C-USA Offensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Williams gone, it may be a while before he gets that next one.


Williams wrapped up his career as Memphis' leading rusher, the fourth-leading rusher in NCAA history and the all-time leader in 100-yard rushing games with 34 and all-purpose yards in a career.


Williams was a big reason why the Tigers staked themselves out to a 7-5 season, finishing the year as the fifth best rushing team in the nation. But Memphis struggled with their passing attack finishing 111th in the nation. That means the offense was out of balance. It should be a different story this year.


West will look to utilize the passing attack more this year after using a plethora of different quarterbacks last season because of injuries. Division I-AA transfer Martin Hankins could develop into West's permanent starter if Patrick Byrne, Will Hudgens and Billy Barefield can't supplant him.


Joseph Doss, and a cast of several others, will have the unenviable task of trying to replace Williams, but Doss should become the Tigers most reliable and productive runner.


Depth at the skill positions on offense certainly doesn't hurt, but a repeat of last season may be asking for too much with Williams long gone to the NFL.


2006 Memphis Schedule


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