2011 College Football Preview: Breaking Down Conference USA

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2011 College Football Preview: Breaking Down Conference USA

Team Previews

East Division

East Carolina

Head Coach: Ruffin McNeill (2nd season)

Last Year's Result: 6-7 (5-3)

Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense, 2 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: QB Dominique Davis

Defensive Impact Player: CB Emanuel Davis

Synopsis: The issues with the Pirates have been well documented. The defense was awful last season while the offense was championship-caliber. As the league has shown the past number of years, defense is what most likely decides who becomes the Conference USA champion. With an offense led by Davis and Lance Lewis, that unit should be fine, but it comes down to a defense that returns the majority of its starters to decide if it is a legit contender in the East division or not.

Schedule Prediction:

vs. South Carolina (Charlotte) L

vs. Virginia Tech L

vs. UAB W

vs. North Carolina W

@ Houston L

@ Memphis W

@ Navy L

vs. Tulane W

vs. Southern Miss W

@ UTEP W

vs. UCF W

@ Marshall L

Final Record: 7-5 (6-2)

 

Marshall

Head Coach: Doc Holliday (2nd season)

Last Season's Result: 5-7 (4-4)

Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 9 on defense, 2 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: WR Aaron Dobson

Defensive Impact Player: DE Vinny Curry

Synopsis: A dismal start to last year's campaign ended any hope of a bowl game for first-year coach Doc Holliday. Despite that, the Thundering Herd still closed the season strong to take high hopes into 2011. The problem is, Marshall is probably looking at a similar situation with a brutal opening stretch. Its first six opponents all made bowl games a year ago, and with four of those games on the road, Marshall will be lucky to come out with 2 or 3 wins in that stretch. The defense should be solid with nine returning starters, but the real key will be the offense marked with a huge question mark at the quarterback position. The Herd should be a more complete team this year, but its record might not show it at the end of the year.

Schedule Prediction:

@ West Virginia L

vs. Southern Miss L

@ Ohio W

vs. Virginia Tech L

@ Louisville L

@ UCF L

vs. Rice W

@ Houston L

vs. UAB W

@ Tulsa L

@ Memphis W

vs. East Carolina W

Final Record: 5-7 (4-4)

 

Memphis

Head Coach: Larry Porter (2nd season)

Last Season's Result: 1-11 (0-8)

Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense, 2 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: RB Jerrell Rhodes

Defensive Impact Player: DL Frank Trotter 

Synopsis: It was a terrible first year for Larry Porter as he saw his team get manhandled by opposing teams all season long en route to a 1-11 record and a winless 0-8 mark in conference play. A very balanced 15 starters return, but Memphis needs a serious talent upgrade on both sides of the ball. The good news is that Porter is bringing in some highly-rated recruits in his first couple of classes, only it will probably be a few years until they show up on the field. Promising quarterback Ryan Williams left the program in the offseason just as it looked as if the Tigers had found a signal-caller of the future. Having to insert an inexperienced QB for the second straight year wasn't Porter's plan, so expect him to rely heavily on the running game in the early season.

Schedule Prediction:

vs. Mississippi State L

@ Arkansas State W

vs. Austin Peay W

vs. SMU L

@ Middle Tennessee State W

@ Rice L

vs. East Carolina L

@ Tulane L

@ UCF L

vs. UAB L

vs. Marshall L

@ Southern Miss L

Final Record: 3-9 (0-8) 

 

Southern Miss

Head Coach: Larry Fedora (4th season)

Last Season's Result: 8-5 (5-3)

Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense, 2 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: QB Austin Davis

Defensive Impact Player: LB Korey Williams

Synopsis: It has been a number of years since Southern Miss last held up a Conference USA trophy, but its time is bound to come sooner rather than later. The offense will be consistent with the veteran Davis back at quarterback, but the defense holds the key to how far they can go. The good news is the Golden Eagles have a very soft schedule that features 12 winnable regular season games which plays right into their hands. And, in conference, they miss out on stacked West opponents Houston and Tulsa, while also managing to get favorites SMU and UCF in Hattiesburg. Games at UAB and East Carolina won't be easy, but if they can find a way to survive those two, the Golden Eagles could be looking at an East title.

Schedule Prediction:

vs. Louisiana Tech W

@ Marshall W

vs. Southeastern Louisiana W

@ Virginia L

vs. Rice W

@ Navy L

vs. SMU W

@ UTEP W

@ East Carolina L

vs. UCF W

@ UAB W

vs. Memphis W

Final Record: 9-3 (7-1)

 

UAB

Head Coach: Neil Callaway (5th season)

Last Season's Result: 4-8 (3-5)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 8 on defense, 1 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: QB Bryan Ellis

Defensive Impact Player: LB Marvin Burdette

Synopsis: This is an interesting team. It returns the major core of its starters on both sides of the ball and features two of the more underrated players in the league in Ellis and Burdette. The problem is its extremely tough schedule might hold it back from getting to where it wants to be. The Blazers are faced with only five home games compared to seven away contests, and face dates with SEC foes Florida and Mississippi State. Although last year, they did almost manage to knock off the Bulldogs and Tennessee on the road. Nonetheless, a midseason stretch where they face six bowl-caliber teams in seven games will decide whether or not they make it to a bowl game themselves in 2011.

Schedule Prediction:

@ Florida L

vs. Tulane W

@ East Carolina L

@ Troy W

vs. Mississippi State L

@ Tulsa L

vs. UCF L

@ Marshall L

vs. Houston W

@ Memphis W

vs. Southern Miss L

@ Florida Atlantic W

Final Record: 5-7 (3-5)

 

UCF

Head Coach: George O'Leary (8th season)

Last Season's Result: 11-3 (7-1)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 4 on defense, 1 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: QB Jeff Godfrey

Defensive Impact Player: S Kemal Ishmael

Synopsis: Everything came together for the Knights in 2010. One of the nation's best defenses carried the team to its second Conference USA title and an impressive 11-win season that was capped by a victory over the Georgia Bulldogs in the Liberty Bowl. It was a tremendous campaign for true freshman Jeff Godfrey, who took over the reins at the starting quarterback position early in the season. Great things again will be expected out of Godfrey this coming year, but the rebuild of the defense will be the ultimate key to the season. The vast majority of their front-seven has graduated and with their defensive coordinator leaving for Wisconsin, that only adds to their unknowns on that side of the ball. The good news for the Knights is that they have a relatively easy schedule outside of a three-game stretch against Tulsa, Southern Miss and East Carolina, and should once again contend for the East crown.

Schedule Prediction:

vs. Charleston Southern W

vs. Boston College W

@ Florida International W

@ BYU L

vs. Marshall W

@ SMU L

@ UAB W

vs. Memphis W

vs. Tulsa W

@ Southern Miss L

@ East Carolina L

vs. UTEP W

Final Record: 8-4 (5-3)

 

West Division

Houston

Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin (4th season)

Last Year's Result: 5-7

Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense, 2 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: QB Case Keenum

Defensive Impact Player: LB Marcus McGraw

Synopsis: The loss of Case Keenum at the beginning of last year ended the Cougars season before it really got going. Keenum, a Heisman candidate going into 2010, tore his ACL in the UCLA game and it appeared as if his college career was going to be over. However, the NCAA granted Keenum a sixth year of eligibility, giving him another chance to set the all-time NCAA career passing mark. Some people think that one player can't make so much of a difference, but Keenum can. He is an All-American, a team captain and a gamer. He finds ways to win and will have the Cougars back to their winning ways as their leader in 2011.

Schedule Prediction:

vs. UCLA W

@ North Texas W

@ Louisiana Tech W

vs. Georgia State W

@ UTEP W

vs. East Carolina W

vs. Marshall W

vs. Rice W

@ UAB L

@ Tulane W

vs. SMU W

@ Tulsa L 

Final Record: 10-2 (6-2)

 

Rice

Head Coach: David Bailiff (5th season)

Last Year's Result: 4-8 (3-5)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense, 2 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: RB Sam McGuffie

Defensive Impact Player: DE Scott Solomon

Synopsis: Rice closed out last year strong with back-to-back wins giving it some hope for this coming year with 16 returning starters. On offense, quarterback Taylor McHargue and running back Sam McGuffie form a talented tandem in the Owls backfield which should allow Rice to have some substantial offensive success. On defense, they should enjoy the expected return of sack-artist Scott Solomon, who missed all of last year with an injury. Even with the return of Solomon however, the unit will need to improve mightily for them to have a shot at a bowl game. The Owls appear to be on their way back to where they were a few seasons ago, but they still might be a year away from reaching that point.

Schedule Prediction:

@ Texas L

vs. Purdue W

@ Baylor L

@ Southern Miss L

vs. Memphis W

@ Marshall L

vs. Tulsa L

@ Houston L

vs. UTEP W

@ Northwestern L

vs. Tulane W

@ SMU L

Final Record: 4-8 (3-5)

 

SMU

Head Coach: June Jones (4th season)

Last Year's Result: 7-7 (6-2)

Returning Starters: 10 on offense, 8 on defense, 0 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: QB Kyle Padron

Defensive Impact Player: S Chris Banjo

Synopsis: What's not to like about this team? The Mustangs are coming off a C-USA West Division title and return 18 of 22 starters between offense and defense. Padron is one of the better quarterbacks in the league and running back Zach Line is a hard-nosed, downhill running back who punishes defenses. The offense will no doubt be explosive, while the defense promises to be stout as well with the return of Banjo and stud linebacker Taylor Reed among others. The problem for the Mustangs? Their schedule. They face brutal non-conference road games against Texas A&M and TCU, and also have three key conference games in road venues against Southern Miss, Tulsa and Houston. With that schedule, the Mustangs will have a hard time repeating a C-USA Championship game appearance in 2011.

Schedule Prediction:

@ Texas A&M L

vs. UTEP W

vs. Northwestern State W

@ Memphis W

@ TCU L

vs. UCF W

@ Southern Miss L

@ Tulsa L

vs. Tulane W

vs. Navy W

@ Houston L

vs. Rice W

Final Record: 7-5 (5-3)

 

Tulane

Head Coach: Bob Toledo (5th season)

Last Year's Result: 4-8 (2-6)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense, 2 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: RB Orleans Darkwa

Defensive Impact Player: LB Trent Mackey

Synopsis: Bob Toledo enters his fifth year with the Green Wave, hoping to eclipse the four-win mark for the first time during his tenure at Tulane. The Green Wave has struggled over the past number of years, failing to make a bowl game since 2002, while only managing five wins two of those years. Since Hurricane Katrina, it has been a tough go for Tulane athletics recruiting-wise. Toledo has faced a huge challenge with the football team, but he has managed to get a few young offensive players to campus to help turn the program in the right direction. Quarterback Ryan Griffin and Darkwa provide a solid foundation to build upon in New Orleans. The defense is led by Mackey at middle linebacker, but some pieces around him need to step up to make the defense respectable again. Tulane has the rare opportunity to play 13 regular season games this coming season, meaning it will have to win seven games to go to a bowl. However, this program still appears a year or two away from reaching that goal.

Schedule Prediction:

vs. Southeastern Louisiana W

vs. Tulsa L

@ UAB L

@ Duke W

@ Army W

vs. Syracuse L

vs. UTEP W

vs. Memphis W

@ East Carolina L

@ SMU L

vs. Houston L

@ Rice L

@ Hawai'i L

Final Record: 5-8 (2-6)

 

Tulsa

Head Coach: Bill Blankenship (1st season)

Last Year's Result: 10-3 (6-2)

Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 8 on defense, 1 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: QB G.J. Kinne

Defensive Impact Player: LB Curnelius Arnick

Synopsis: Tulsa enters 2011 with high hopes after reeling off an impressive seven-game winning streak to close out last year and making an appearance in the final Top 25 poll. Previous head coach Todd Graham has since moved on to Pittsburgh, but a familiar face takes over the position in former associate head coach Bill Blankenship. Blankenship will most likely keep the same offensive scheme and with dynamic playmakers such as Kinne and Damaris Johnson, there is no reason the offense shouldn't be just as explosive as it was a year ago. However, the defense has to make an improvement if Tulsa wants to win the Western division and pull any non-conference upsets against the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State.

Schedule Prediction:

@ Oklahoma L

@ Tulane W

vs. Oklahoma State L

@ Boise State L

vs. North Texas W

vs. UAB W

@ Rice W

vs. SMU W

@ UCF L

vs. Marshall W

@ UTEP W

vs. Houston L

Final Record: 7-5 (6-2)

 

UTEP

Head Coach: Mike Price (8th season)

Last Year's Result: 6-7 (3-5)

Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 8 on defense, 2 on special teams

Offensive Impact Player: RB Joe Banyard

Defensive Impact Player: LB Jamie Irving

Synopsis: Last year, the Miners managed to make it to a bowl game for the first time in four seasons despite ranking in the bottom half of the country in total offense (78th) and total defense (91st). They got to the six-win plateau by taking advantage of a rather weak schedule and made it to a bowl even with a losing record in C-USA play. This year, the Miners may not be so fortunate. Although they do return the majority of their defense, their offense has to be rebuilt with only three starters returning. Transfer quarterback Nick Lamaison is expected to handle the starting reigns, but it won't be easy replacing the shoes of the previous QB and four-year starter Trevor Vittatoe. The season's success falls on the shoulders of Lamaison, a retooled offensive line and a relatively brand new set of skill players.

Schedule Prediction:

vs. Stony Brook W

@ SMU L

@ New Mexico State W

@ USF L

vs. Houston L

@ Tulane L

vs. Colorado State W

vs. Southern Miss L

@ Rice L

vs. East Carolina L

vs. Tulsa L

@ UCF L

Final Record: 3-9 (0-8)

 

Final C-USA Projected Standings

 

East Division

Southern Miss - 7-1, 9-3

East Carolina - 6-2, 7-5

Central Florida - 5-3, 8-4

Marshall - 4-4, 5-7

UAB - 3-5, 5-7

Memphis - 0-8, 3-9

 

West Division

Houston - 6-2, 10-2

Tulsa - 6-2, 7-5

SMU - 5-3, 7-5

Rice - 3-5, 4-8

Tulane 2-6, 5-8

UTEP - 0-8, 3-9

 

C-USA Championship - Southern Miss over Houston (Hattiesburg)

 

Accolades

Best Quarterback - Case Keenum (UH): Maybe he missed basically all of last season, but he still has a chance to become the NCAA's all-time leading passer. You can't argue with those numbers.

Runner-up: G.J. Kinne (Tulsa)

 

Best Running Back - Zach Line (SMU): The rising junior rushed for a league-high 1,494 yards last season to go along with 10 touchdowns. He should only continue to get better as his career progresses.

Runner-up: Sam McGuffie (Rice)

 

Best Wide Receiver - Patrick Edwards (UH): Edwards enters his senior year looking to put up his third straight 1,000-yard campaign and add to his career total of 23 receiving touchdowns. The 5'9", 175-pounder is nearly impossible to cover one-on-one in the open field.

Runner-up: Lance Lewis (ECU)

 

Best Offensive Lineman - Kelvin Beachum (SMU): The senior has anchored the SMU line for three seasons already, starting 39 straight games at left tackle. Beachum was a first-team All-Conference USA selection in 2010.

Runner-up: Matt McCants (UAB)

 

Best Defensive Lineman - Vinny Curry (MU): Curry broke out big-time a year ago, notching 18 tackles for a loss, including 12 sacks. He ranked fifth in the nation in sacks and should be up there once again this coming season. The defensive end is a legitimate NFL first-round talent.

Runner-up: Darius Nall (UCF)

 

Best Linebacker - Taylor Reed (SMU): The junior was everywhere for the Mustangs in 2010, racking up an impressive 145 tackles on his way to a beast of a campaign. Reed returns as a probable first-team All-Conference USA selection as well as a possible All-American selection at season's end.

Runner-up: Trent Mackey (TU)

 

Best Defensive Back - Kemal Ishmael (UCF): One of the top secondaries in the country is led by Ishmael. The junior notched 93 tackles a year ago at safety to go along with two interceptions, five pass break-ups and two forced fumbles.

Runner-up: Emanuel Davis (ECU)

 

Best Return Specialist - Damaris Johnson (Tulsa): As one of the most explosive players in college football, Damaris Johnson puts a scare into every opposing defense when the ball is in his hands. The senior enters his final year for the Golden Hurricane as the NCAA's career leader in all-purpose yardage.

Runner-up: Quincy McDuffie (UCF)

 

Best Placekicker - Danny Hrapmann (USM): Hrapmann was on point in 2010 as a junior after struggling the first two years of his career. Hrapmann nailed 26 of 31 field goals on the year with a long of 54 yards and was one of the finalists for the Lou Groza Award at year's end.

Runner-up: Michael Barbour (ECU)

 

Best Punter - Kyle Martens (Rice): This senior was near the top of the country in punting, averaging 46 yards a boot in 12 games. Martens had a long of 71 yards and also pinned the opponent inside the 20-yard line a grand total of 22 times.

Runner-up: Ian Campbell (UTEP)

 

Coach On The Rise - June Jones (SMU): The former Hawai'i coach has brought the Mustangs back from the dead. In just three years with the Mustangs, Jones has turned them from the league's worst team to a C-USA West Division Champion.

Runner-up: Kevin Sumlin (UH)

 

Coach On The Hot Seat - Neil Callaway (UAB): Four years into his job at UAB and Callaway has yet to take the Blazers to a bowl game. Callaway boasts only a .313 winning percentage and probably needs to make it to six wins by the end of this year to save his job.

Runner-up: Bob Toledo (TU)

 

True Freshman To Watch - Leilon Willingham (UCF): The 6'2", 240-pound linebacker enters his first year at UCF hoping to make an impact. Physically, he is ready to go, but whether or not the Knights need him with their depth at LB already will determine how quickly he sees the field.

Runner-up: Travon Van (MU)

 

Transfer To Watch - Reggie Bullock (ECU): The JUCO offensive player of the year comes into Greenville after spending last season at Arizona Western Community College. Bullock is expected to take over the starting running back position from the get-go and provide a huge spark out of the backfield for the Pirates.

Runner-up: Nick Lamaison (UTEP)

 

 

5 Games That Will Decide The Conference

SMU @ Tulsa - This midseason matchup between the Mustangs and Golden Hurricane should be a great game. The winner will have the early edge in the West division.

Southern Miss @ East Carolina - Always a hard-hitting affair, the Southern Miss-ECU rivalry is one of the more underrated contests every year in college football. Expect this game to have huge implications on the East division, as it always does.

UCF @ Southern Miss - Last year, Southern Miss went to Orlando just as the Knights entered the Top 25 and knocked them off their pedestal. UCF will be looking for revenge this year in what should be a slugfest in Hattiesburg.

SMU @ Houston - Despite not having Keenum in last year's contest against SMU, the Cougars pummeled the Mustangs in a 45-20 victory in Dallas. This year, with Keenum back and the game in Houston, SMU will have its hands full in another important Western division showdown.

Houston @ Tulsa - These two squads square off in Tulsa in the final week of the regular season in what could be the de facto "C-USA West Championship game." Two of the best quarterbacks in the country in Keeum and Kinne will battle it out in this one.

 

 

Bowl Projections

AutoZone Liberty Bowl - Southern Miss (10-3)

Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl - Tulsa (7-5)

Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl - Houston (10-3)

Beef O'Brady's Bowl - UCF (8-4)

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl - East Carolina (7-5)

TicketCity Bowl - SMU (7-5)

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