Conference Breakdown: Ranking Conference USA

RunTellMattContributor IAugust 15, 2009

NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 21: Quarterback Austin Davis #12 of the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles looks to throw a pass against the Troy Trojans during the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on December 21, 2008 at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Davis was named MVP after defeating the Trojans 30-27 in overtime. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

By RunTellMatt

Every summer I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams. Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about.

In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season, complete with last year’s W-L record and my predictions for each team’s 2009 W-L record.

Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast is dead-on. Or you can disagree, whatever.

In this ninth installment: Conference America

12. UCF Knights | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 1-11

During HC George O’Leary’s first five years with UCF, the Knights have had quite the roller coaster ride alternating winning and losing seasons. This pattern, if continued, would call for the Knights to have a winning season this year, but O’Leary says the streak has to change, and he may get his wish.

The OFF, which returns 9, was just awful last year posting a conference-worst 16.1 points/game with 230 yards of total OFF, also good for dead last. QB Rob Calabrese, who retains his starting job this season, was equally bad last year as a true freshman completing an atrocious 39.2% of his passes with 7 TD’s to 5 INT’s.

The entire WR corps returns intact as do the RB’s, but the backfield will need to produce better than 3 yards/carry if the Knights are going to have any sort of a ground game. The O-line lacks experience, with just 28 combined career starts (tied for 111th nationally), as well as depth, considering 2 former D-linemen have moved to the unit.

Despite all the concerns on OFF, the DEF, returning 6, is actually more of a question mark this season, particularly in the secondary where they lose a combined 186 career starts and 50 career INT’s. This unit has gone from the most experienced in the country last year to what could be the least experienced this year. While they may improve upon last year’s 4-win total, I think the Knights will be hard-pressed to earn another bowl and continue their alternating winning-losing streak.

11. Rice Owls | Last Year: 10-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 2-10

This year’s Owls team reminds me a lot of Ball State’s: coming off a fantastic season, led by a school-record setting QB and several OFF weapons that are all gone and consequently entering a serious rebuilding phase.

The OFF loses nearly all the skill players of note, including their 2 most capable RB’s and most importantly, QB Chase Clement who was ridiculously good last year completing 66.5% of his passes for 4119 yards, 44 TD’s, an incredible 7 INT’s in 490 pass attempts, as well as 693 net rushing yards and 12 more scores. Essentially, he was the Rice OFF and now, sadly, he’s gone.

Also gone (to the NFL) are a pair of 1300+ yard WR’s in James Casey and Jarett Dillard, who ranked 1st and 2nd respectively in the conference for total receiving yards (1329, 1310). There are only a total of 4 returning starters on OFF leaving voids everywhere, including at the O-line where 3 starters exit.

The DEF will be relied on heavily this year as they return 9 starters including all their top tacklers, although overall they weren’t great last year allowing 452 total yards/game.

The schedule does not bode well for a winning season as they start off with 3 straight road games at UAB, TX Tech and OK State.

Despite going 10-3 last year, all of the star power is gone from the OFF and the Owls simply won’t be able to just outscore opponents like they did last year, as evidenced by wins of 42-35, 45-40, 49-44, 38-31 and 56-42. As a matter of fact, I’m calling for Rice to start the season 0-7 and continue their 4-year streak of alternating winning and losing seasons.

10. Tulane Green Wave | Last Year: 2-10 | My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

The seat is warming up for 3rd-year HC Bob Toledo as his team is heading in the wrong direction going just 2-10 last year after a 4-8 season the year prior.

This year’s Green Wave team returns 7 starters on OFF, including the top rushers, 3 of the top 4 WR’s and the 2 top QB’s who saw time last year. Despite returning RB Andre Anderson, who led the conference with 123.4 rush yards/game last year, the Green Wave OFF was only able to muster a measly 16.7 points/game, just barely second from the bottom in the conference (UCF - 16.6 points/game). Anderson was in line for a fantastic season posting 864 yards and 7 scores before suffering a season-ending collar bone injury in the 7th game.

It’s still uncertain who will start at QB, Joe Kemp or Kevin Moore, both of whom were mostly inconsistent last year, but most likely they’ll both see time again, and will work behind a line that loses the top 2 linemen from last year, 4-year starting C Michael Parenton and NFL draft pick LT Troy Kropog.

The DEF returns 6 and loses 3 of their top 4 tacklers, but overall should improve upon last year’s numbers. What Tulane would like to do is be able to rely on their DEF to keep games close, run ball control with their star RB Anderson giving time for the QB’s to develop as better passers.

It remains to be seen if their objective can or will go as planned, but I certainly believe the Green Wave have enough this season to post their best record of the Bob Toledo era.

9. UAB Blazers | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

The Blazers return 18 starters with all 11 on OFF, including QB Joe Webb, who was 1 of only 2 QB’s in the FBS last year to rush for 1000+ yards and throw for 2000+ yards for the season, the other being Colin Kaepernick of Nevada.

Needless to say, the entire WR corps returns as does a good stable of RB’s. The O-line is the 5th most experienced in the FBS with 108 combined career starts.

The biggest question mark for the Blazers this year is on DEF where they return 7. The biggest loss to the DEF is in the secondary as they lose CB Kevin Sanders, who tied for best in the nation with 7 INT’s, and of the top 4 tacklers from last year, 3 are gone, 2 of which were safeties.

The schedule is difficult for the Blazers and includes 7 road games with the toughest games being at Troy, Mississippi and East Carolina. Although they only won 4 games last year, UAB was competitive and had chances in several others.

It’s hard to understand why the media picked UAB to finish 11th of 12 teams in the conference as this is by far the best Blazers team in recent memory. I don’t believe UAB will be underrated for long, though, and I do think they should easily exceed their 4-win total of last year.

8. Memphis Tigers | Last Year: 6-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

Tommy West is currently the longest tenured HC in Conf. USA going into his 9th season with the program. The journey has been an erratic one with drastic swings in the W-L column from year to year, so it’s always tough to get a read on the Tigers. However, this year’s Tiger team looks to be very solid with real potential to surprise.

Despite only returning 5 starters, the OFF gets back nearly all of their skill players, including a pair of good SR WR’s, SR QB Arkelon Hall and SR RB Curtis Steele, who rushed for 1223 yards at 5.6 yards/carry and added 7 scores. The OFF also adds Miami U transfer, SR TE DajLeaon Farr.

The question mark on OFF is at the O-line where they lose 4 starters and return just 28 combined career starts, making Memphis the other team tied for 111th nationally.

The DEF returns 7 and will be aided by an infusion of talented transfers who had to sit out last year.

One problem with the Tigers team of last year is that they factored as many points/game as they allowed (27.2), which might explain why the they were in 7 games decided by a touchdown or less.

The schedule is difficult as they get every team in their conference picked to finish ahead them, in addition to games at Tennessee and home vs. Mississippi to start the season. Even though they have a difficult schedule, Memphis, with all the senior skill players and an improved, more experienced DEF, is my dark horse for the Conf. USA East title.

7. Marshall Thundering Herd | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

Head Coach Mark Snyder, now in his 5th season, has yet to produce a winning record with Marshall and is no doubt on the hot seat. With 16 returning starters, 8 from both side, Snyder has his most experienced team yet and the opportunity to finally earn a bowl appearance.

The QB position is a 4-man race and includes Mark Cann, who started 11 games last season, as well as a couple highly-touted JUCO transfers. The WR corps is uncertain, but in the backfield is 1000+ yard rusher, Darius Marshall, who averaged 4.9 yards/carry last year. The O-line led the conference last season with just 12 sacks allowed, but loses 2 starters.

The DEF front 7 will be a strength of the team with a talented and deep D-line, including SR DE Albert McClellan, and a solid LB unit led by the 2006 Conf. USA DEF POY and leading tackler from last year, SR MLB Mario Harvey. The secondary is fairly young with 3 sophomores starting, but one of which being a potential rising star in CB DeQuan Bembry.

The schedule isn’t too bad as Marshall misses both Houston and Tulsa from the West, but also travels to both VT and WVU. There is several seemingly middle-of-the-pack teams in Conf. USA this year, Marshall being one of them, so it’s difficult to say what the final W-L record may look like at this point, but that also means there’s several games on the schedule that are up in the air. However, I think with stars on every unit on the team to rally around, the Thundering Herd will come together and produce their first winning season since 2004.

6. SMU Mustangs | Last Year: 1-11 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

Don’t let the 1-11 record of last year fool you, the Mustangs are a much better team and may just pull a Minnesota this year (side note: Minny went 1-11 in ‘07 and followed it up in ‘08 with a 7-1 start but finished 7-6). Okay, so the Mustangs, in all likelihood, won’t be going 7-1 to start the season, but they’ll certainly be far more competitive and post a significantly better win total than 1.

HC June Jones, who was wildly successful with mid-level talent at Hawaii, fully committed to rebuilding his Mustangs team when he took over last year by opting for freshmen, as opposed to experienced vets, to run his run-and-shoot OFF. That decision, while resulting in the 1-11 season, will pay off this year as 16 starters return, with 8 being from the OFF who’ll be that much more familiar with his unconventional approach.

The biggest beneficiary of that move may be QB Bo Levi Mitchell, who as a true freshman last year completed 57.6% of his passes for 2865 yards and 24 TD’s, but his 23 INT’s was worst in the nation. The O-line may be partly to blame for the amount of INT’s as the 4 sophomores starting this year were redshirt freshmen last year and may not have provided adequate time.

The DEF gets 6 of the top 7 tacklers back and should do better than the conference-worst 38.2 points/game they allowed last year. The schedule is really not bad and coupled with a vastly improved Mustangs team, I think they’ll reach their first bowl game since 1984.

5. Tulsa Golden Hurricane | Last Year: 11-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

For the first time in school history, Tulsa posted an 11-win season, but failed to capitalize on all of their star power by winning a conference title. The OFF put up a ridiculous 47.2 points/game, best in the conference, but loses all three top performers including, WR Brennan Marion, who totaled 1112 yards with 8 scores, RB Tarrion Adams, who rushed for 1523 yards with 14 scores and, most significantly, QB David Johnson who completed 64.5% of his passes for 4059 yards, 46 TD’s,18 INT’s and 3 rushing TD’s.

The OFF returns just 5 and will start just 2 seniors. There’s a 3-way race for the starting QB spot, but the O-line is a big question mark as the unit brings a combined 45 career starts, good for 98th in the nation, so whomever wins the QB job may not be able to put up the same type of numbers that Johnson did.

The DEF returns 8 and looks to be in much better shape led by SR MLB Mike Bryan, who last season had 119 tackles, 10.5 for a loss.

The schedule is daunting as Tulsa starts the season with 4 out of the first 5 games on the road including at Oklahoma. Tulsa also faces 2 of the other top conference teams on the road, at UTEP and at Southern Miss, as well as home games against Boise St, Houston and East Carolina.

With so much OFF firepower missing and a difficult schedule, I don’t see Tulsa making it three straight years with double digit wins.

4. East Carolina Pirates | Last Year: 9-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 8-4

The Pirates have had a huge target on their backs ever since starting the 2008 season by knocking off both VT and WVU, both of whom were ranked at the time. With 9 players on OFF, 7 on DEF, nearly all the skill players and 5 of their top 6 tacklers returning, the target has grown along with the national attention.

The pirates are loaded with experience all the way down to the SR punter and kicker. The OFF will be led by SR QB Patrick Pinkney, who completed a respectable 61.4% of his passes for 2675 yards with 13 TD’s to just 7 INT’s.

The DEF was fantastic last year allowing a conference-best 21.1 points/game, and it’s only going to be better this year with 7 seniors and 3 juniors adding plenty of experience. The DEF will be led by FS Van Eskridge, who totaled 97 tackles and 7 pass defends, and DE CJ Wilson, who led the conference (tied with Philip Hunt of Houston) in tackles for a loss with 18.5.

The schedule’s difficulty is around medium, but has 4 difficult games including at WVU, at NC, home against VT and home against Southern Miss to finish the season. They do also play Rice and Tulsa, but both those teams lost their star QB’s from last year and as a result won’t be the same.

The final game of the season at home against Southern Miss could potentially decide the Conf. USA East champions. Fortunately for the Pirates, they get home field advantage, and if healthy, have an excellent chance to win that game and the East title.

3. UTEP Miners | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

The Miners’ OFF did a good job of scoring last year putting up 32.9 points/game, but unfortunately the DEF simply gave up more by allowing 37 points/game. This has been the story the last 3 years making for 3 straight losing seasons.

The DEF’s 37 points allowed/game and 469 yards of total OFF allowed/game ranked 2nd from the bottom in the conference just ahead of SMU(38.2, 480). Those stats should be improved this year by the return of 7 starters, as well as S Braxton Amy who was lost for the season last year with an ACL injury.

The year’s OFF returns 8 and will again be led by JR QB Trevor Vittatoe who, as a redshirt freshmen, threw for 3274 yards at a 58.9 completion percentage and 33 scores to just 9 INT’s (also better numbers than Jevan Sneed-see below). Vittatoe will get back his 2 top WR’s in Kris Adams and Jeff Moturi, and will further be helped by an experienced O-line made up of all JR’s and SR’s combining for 86 career starts (25th most in FBS).

UTEP definitely has a favorable schedule with the 3 toughest challenges being in the first 5 games at home vs. KS, at TX and back home vs. Houston, after which I think the Miners could potentially win out.

It could be a rocky start for the Miners, but they’ll still have the opportunity to dominate their conference schedule and win the Conf. USA West.

2. Houston Cougars | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

There is big expectations this year in Houston as the Cougars return nearly all their star skill players of a year ago that combined to produce 40.6 points/game and 563 yards of total OFF.

Two of those stars include Conf. USA OFF POY, Case Keenum, who totaled an eye-popping 5020 yards at a 67.4 completion percentage with 44 scores to just 11 INT’s and 7 rushing TD’s, and the current Conf. USA Freshman of the Year, RB Bryce Beall, who rushed for nearly 1300 yards at an incredible 6.3 yards/carry average with 17 scores, 13 of which on the ground.

Keenum only loses his 2nd leading WR, but returns everyone else, including his top target, Tyron Carrier, who caught for over 1000 yards with 9 scores.

So, all those expectations are certainly justified from an OFF standpoint, but I feel they should be tempered by the reality of just 4 returning starters to the DEF that was just awful last year.

The DEF returns 4 and must replace their entire D-line, including the Conf. USA DEF POY, DE Phillip Hunt who tallied an impressive 14 sacks last year.

Some big advantages in the Cougars’ schedule are that they miss East Carolina, who was picked to win the East by the media, and they also get a home game with Southern Miss, who I picked to not only with the East, but the conference as well.

The biggest reason I think Southern Miss has the edge is that they’re a more balanced team with a much better DEF, and although their stats weren’t as gaudy, the Golden Eagles’ OFF is just as potent. Houston’s OFF will be dominate all year, but will it be enough to compensate for their lack of DEF?

1. Southern Miss Golden Eagles | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

The Golden Eagles enter the season riding a 5 game win streak and with 3 straight home games against Alcorn St (an FCS team), UCF and Virginia, they look to make it at least 8 straight. The first real test will be on the road in the 4th contest against Kansas. Overall, the schedule is very mild as there isn’t any games on the schedule the Golden Eagles cannot win.

The OFF put up 30.6 points/game last year and should easily exceed that figure this year with the return of QB Austin Davis, who as a redshirt freshman, put up fantastic numbers including a 57.5% completion rate, 3128 passing yards, 23 TD’s, 8 INT’s, 508 rush yards and 9 rushing TD’s. Did I mention he was just a redshirt freshman? Better numbers than Jevan Sneed and yet no one outside of Conf. USA has heard of him. Maybe if the conference had a $2 billion contract with ESPN like the SEC, Davis would have been glorified and hyped all summer long as well. Okay, I’m getting off subject, but the CFB world needs to know the facts.

The OFF also welcomes back a 1000+ yard rusher in SR RB Damion Fletcher (1313, 10 TD’s) and a 1000+ yard receiver in DeAndre Brown (1117, 12 TD’s).

The DEF returns 9 and should be just as solid as the OFF, particularly in the secondary and at the D-line, both of which return pretty much intact. The biggest loss on DEF is in the LB unit which loses the team's top 2 tacklers.

With 19 of the 22 starters retuning from both sides, including nearly all the OFF weapons, and a favorable schedule, it’s not unthinkable for the Golden Eagles to put together their first undefeated season ever* (*or at least as far back as I could find). Nonetheless, Southern Miss is my stand-alone favorite to win the West and the Conference USA title.


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