1. Central Florida Golden Knights
0-11 record, outscored by an average of 33-16, outgained by an average of 403-280.
With that in mind, could anyone have predicted that UCF would end up in the Conference USA title game in their inaugural season of CUSA play?
What George O’Leary did here is simply incredible. He took over UCF after a disastrous 2003 season and spent the entire 2004 season cleaning house and restoring an attitude and desire in the players that was lacking. Almost everyone returned last year, and once they beat Marshall in their home opener, everything started to click.
This year’s team could be even better. 17 starters return, and after a disappointing close to the season that saw UCF lose the CUSA title game at home and then lose a heartbreaker in the bowl game, there should be no lack of motivation.
In good shape: Offensive backfield. Senior QB Steven Moffett was one of the players who ran afoul of O’Leary’s ways in 2004. O’Leary, as Phil Steele chronicled, wanted a take-charge guy in the huddle, and Moffett was pretty laid-back. He emerged, however, as one of the best in the league last year, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 22 scores. He needs to improve his completion percentage and do a better job finding open receivers instead of deciding to take off and run. After all, why take off and run yourself when you have Kevin Smith and Jason Peters available to do it for you? Smith got close to 1,200 yards last year as a freshman, while the senior Peters went for nearly 600 as the fullback. Senior Dontavius Wilcox is a very capable backup to Smith.
Needs work: Defensive front seven. It’s not a question of returning talent here. Instead, the problem is that the players starting at linebacker were simply not that good in 2006. UCF’s top three tacklers last year were defensive backs. Those DBs, corners Johnell Neal and Joe Burnett, along with safety Jason Venson, all got significant playing time as freshmen and played pretty well, but they spent too much time trying to mask a lack of speed at linebacker. Senior Ronnell Sandy is a good athlete who was banged up a lot last year. The Knights need him healthy, because his backup is redshirt freshman Alex Thompson, a former quarterback. The outside ‘backers, sophomores Cory Hogue and Jordan Richards, show promise but must be more consistent. The defensive line was equally bad a year ago, and it might be a long way back. Three seniors are projected to start, and O’Leary signed a strong class of linemen, so help is on the way, and it should help to have some veteran players starting this season. But it’s going to be hard not to improve on a defense that allowed almost 180 rush yards per game and only recorded 26 sacks in 13 games.
Overview: Eventually, the defensive problems were too many to overcome for UCF last year. They gave up 93 points and over 1,000 yards in the CUSA title game and bowl game losses. The Knights were actually outgained on the season, which isn’t common for an eight-win team. But the offense is going to be good…perhaps really good. If they can avoid the turnover bug, O’Leary should have another division title contender on his hands. The schedule is favorable, with Southern Mississippi, Pittsburgh, and UAB all visiting Orlando. The toughest conference road game will be a non-divisional game at Houston in late October. I think the Golden Knights will hold off USM and get back to the CUSA title game.
2. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
After seeing a streak of four straight bowl games end in 2001, USM has gotten back on track. They’ve gone to four straight bowl games, including two straight trips to the New Orleans Bowl to whoop up on Sun Belt teams. Jeff Bower has been a model of consistency over his 15 years in Hattiesburg, winning 103 games and taking the Golden Eagles to eight bowls in his tenure.
One constant over the years has been the defense. USM allowed less than 20 points per game for seven straight years before 2004 and 2005, when the averages were 25 and 23 points, respectively. With six starters back on defense and 15 back overall, the expectation is that USM will find their way to a bowl that isn’t against a Sun Belt team.
In good shape: Defensive front seven. USM loses some starters along the line, but returning are senior ends Matthew Chatelain and Shadler Manning. Manning has been up and down a bit in his career, but he emerged as a starter with a huge spring. Junior tackles Ryan Watson and Martavius Prince are undersized, but both should be able to make plays in the middle with their explosiveness. The linebackers are very strong, led by sophomores Gerald McRath and Tokumbo Abanikanda, and while they will miss Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year Kevis Coley in the middle, junior Marcus Raines, the favorite to start in the middle, is a talented player who was a JUCO transfer last year (redshirted in 2005).
Needs work: Secondary. Safety Trevis Coley and cornerback John Eubanks were both All-CUSA last year, and both have departed. The Golden Eagles have some good players returning, but one of them, corner Caleb Hendricks, has had injury problems. Seniors Howard Overby and Jasper Faulk should compete for a starting job, and sophomore Eddie Willingham should see significant time. Junior rover Brandon Sumrall is back, but Coley’s free safety position is still up for grabs entering fall practice. A runner-up here is the quarterback position. USM returns nine starters on offense, but three-year starting QB Dustin Almond is gone, leaving the job for juniors Jeremy Young and Stephen Reaves to fight over. Young is the favorite coming into the fall.
Overview: The offense should be rather strong, no matter who ends up starting under center. USM gets juniors Cody Hull and Larry Thomas, along with sophomore C.J. Barrows, back at running back (translation: the backfield is loaded). Three seniors and a junior return to start on the offensive line, and USM has plenty of pass-catching options. Sophomore TE Shawn Nelson led the team with 35 catches and five scores, including 6 for 121 and two scores in the New Orleans Bowl (Nelson was the game MVP). At WR, senior Anthony Perine and junior Josh Barnes combined for 63 catches and seven more scores last year. There are some holes in the secondary, but Bower has USM loaded and ready for a run at the division title and a berth in the CUSA title game. Barring catastrophic injuries or the inability to find an effective quarterback, the Golden Eagles are practically a shoo-in to get back to a bowl game for a fifth straight season.
3. Marshall Thundering Herd
The Marshall program appears to have survived the transition from longtime coach Bob Pruett to Mark Snyder. Yes, it was Marshall’s first losing season since 1983, but there were strides made as the season wore on, and Marshall looks to be in good position to return to the bowl season after a one-year absence.
It was a tough season for the Herd and for Snyder. He didn’t take over until after spring because Pruett retired late in the offseason, and he only had six starters back from 2004. The quarterback position was in poor shape, a rarity for a school that produced such NFL starters as Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
The outlook is brighter this season, thanks to 15 returning starters and a full offseason program under Snyder. Unfortunately, the non-conference schedule is tougher, and the improvement might not be fully reflected in the Herd’s record.
In good shape: Running back. The Herd’s strongest returning player is starting back Ahmad Bradshaw. He finished just short of 1,000 yards a year ago, despite having a offensive line in front of him that struggled mightily at times. Eight of the Herd’s top ten linemen return, and they have four returning starters from last year’s team. With the expected improvement at quarterback and long the line, Bradshaw should be in for a big season.
Needs work: Quarterback. It’s going to be hard for the production out of the quarterback position to be worse than it was last year. In the second year of Snyder and coordinator Larry Kueck’s system, expectations have grown for Bernie Morris and Jimmy Skinner. At this point, most sources indicate that Morris, a junior, has the inside track on the job. He only hit a shade under 53 percent of his passes in limited duty last year, but showed good athleticism, and his decision-making improved in the spring. For a school that has been so good with quarterbacks, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll continue the free-fall that started last year. But it is an area of huge concern entering fall practice.
Overview: The defense should be much improved this year. Snyder has tackles Juan Underwood and Adrian Davis back, along with senior linebackers Dennis Thornton and Matt Couch. Hopes are high that newcomer Josh Johnson, a former Georgia signee, will make a huge impact at linebacker. Top receivers Hiram Moore and Marcus Fitzgerald return, too. The schedule is a bear, with trips to West Virginia, Kansas State, and Tennessee on the slate in the first four weeks. If Marshall can survive that, they’ll be in good shape for a potential bowl trip. But that might be too much to ask.
4. East Carolina Pirates
When Skip Holtz took over as head coach last year, he knew he had some work to do. The players weren’t big enough or strong enough, and the roster wasn’t deep enough.
As is custom for many college programs, Holtz redshirted 21 of his incoming freshmen, allowing them to acclimate themselves to college life, along with getting bigger and stronger before they played their freshman year. The Pirates struggled mightily at times last year, but improved overall on defense, and they were much more consistent on offense. The result was a 5-6 record that left ECU one win short of bowl eligibility. Holtz can feign disappointment all he wants, but deep down, he has to be pleased with the result. It was a good start to the rebuilding project (as recently as 2001, ECU was a bowl team).
In good shape: Quarterback. After having to straighten out his academics, James Pinkney began to assert himself as the best quarterback on this football team. Pinkney ended up starting all eleven games, and he threw all but three of the passes thrown by ECU quarterbacks last year. He upped his completion percentage to 61 and threw for over 2,700 yards and 14 TDs. He’s a very good athlete who showed a great grasp of the offense last year. He should only be better this year as the talent around him continues to improve.
Needs work: Run defense. The last time ECU was in a bowl game, 2001, was also the last time that the run defense allowed fewer than 200 yards per game. In successive years, they’ve yielded 207, 210, 233, and 218 yards per game on the ground. As you can probably imagine, this is somewhat less than good, and it needs to improve. Now. ECU has some people in place who might play a part in making the run defense respectable, but it won’t be easy to reverse this trend in one seaso. Junior end Marcus Hands is a big boy who can be a factor in the run game, and sophomore tackle Brandon Setzer takes up a lot of space in the middle. He accounted for 6.5 tackles for loss as a freshman.
Overview: The Pirates simply have to get better on defense. The secondary made positive strides last year, and they played a huge role in the scoring defense improving by more than ten points from 2004 to 2005. Now, it’s time for the front seven to be tougher against the run. The Pirates won back-to-back games at the end of the season, even knocking UAB out of bowl eligibility. This is their chance to build on that momentum in Holtz’s second season. The schedule is a bit odd, with five home games following back-to-back road games to start the season. Four of the last five are on the road. It will be difficult for Holtz to get the six wins required to gain bowl eligibility, but ECU should keep getting better, and a return to the bowl picture may come in 2007 or 2008.
5. UAB Blazers
Last year was certainly a disappointment for the Blazers. With senior QB Darrell Hackney back, along with a talented offense, UAB was expected to compete for the East Division title, and they were favored by many pundits to win it. Instead, UAB went into a free-fall on their home field. The Blazers lost to SMU, Southern Miss, and Central Florida at home, then suffered an upset loss at East Carolina in the regular-season finale that cost them a shot at a bowl game. Hackney was solid, but the offense wasn’t as sharp as it was in 2004, and the Blazers were a composite -9 in turnovers in the aforementioned four losses.
Sometimes, a house-cleaning can be a good thing, and UAB has certainly done that in their passing game this year. Gone are Hackney and an astounding six of the top seven pass-catchers from 2005.
In good shape: Offensive line. And considering the other losses, this is definitely a good thing. The Blazers return four starters and a few key reserves, so they should have good front-line talent, along with depth that can overcome a couple injuries. Senior tackles Julius Wilson and Cornelius Rogers are back, along with senior guard Quinton Harris. Redshirt freshman Jake Seitz would start at center, but the coaches have decided to give him one more year to develop by moving junior guard Adam Truitt to center. Senior Alan Leon is going to start at Truitt’s guard position. The Blazers averaged 4.3 rush yards per carry last year while permitting only 15 sacks. Even with an inexperienced quarterback, those stats might both improve this year.
Needs work: Passing game. Who’s going to throw the ball, and who’s going to get open and make the catches? Senior Chris Williams, who has three starts in three years, should start the opener, but it’s a question mark beyond that. Junior Sam Hunt and redshirt freshman Joe Webb don’t have the experience, but both have good size and physical talent and could push for the job if Williams is ineffective. The Blazers are fortunate to have a couple of upperclassmen available at receiver in senior Nick Coon and junior Willie Edwards. Coon has only caught three passes since his freshman year, while Edwards may have earned a chance to start with an impressive spring. Sophomores Steven Brown and Todd Tate might fit in the mix as well.
Overview: Last year might have been UAB’s best shot for a while. The defense should improve this year, led by senior ends Jermaine McElveen and Larry McSwain, along with senior linebackers Orlandus King and Mastaki Smith. But will it improve enough to carry this team when the offense struggles to get off the ground in the early going? Williams will need to be good from the start, because he’s stuck learning how to work with this new group of receivers. His saving grace might be the offensive line and the running game, where four seniors return who have gained 100 yards in a game. Corey White is the best of that group. The schedule includes paycheck games at Oklahoma and Georgia, along with conference road trips to improved SMU and East Division favorites Southern Miss and Central Florida (the latter two come in back-to-back weeks at the end of the regular season). The defense will be good, but I don’t think it’s going to be good enough to carry UAB to the six wins they’ll need to make a bowl game.
6. Memphis Tigers
After an unprecedented run of three straight bowl appearances (two wins), the Tigers might hit a road block in what has been a renaissance of sorts under Tommy West.
The presence of DeAngelo Williams (1,964 yards rushing, 18 TDs) last year made the loss of star quarterback Danny Wimprine a bit less painful for Memphis. Now, West must deal with the graduation of Williams and the loss of starting quarterback Maurice Avery. In some ways, it might make life easier, because there isn’t a clear-cut star for defenses to focus on, and for Memphis coaches to always be trying to get the ball to. But it’s never easy trying to replace production like what Williams gave the Tigers.
In good shape: Offensive line. This is a huge positive for a team with such glaring skill-position losses. The line returns five guys with starting experience, and they should have three seniors and a junior starting when the season opens. Senior center Stephen Schuh started the last seven games last year, and versatile senior guard Blake Butler has also been a tackle and center in college. The one sophomore, tackle Brandon Pearce, was an all-Conference USA freshman last year. There is talent and experience here, and West knows he can lean on his front to make things as easy as possible on the new guys in the backfield.
Needs work: You pick…quarterback/running back. Avery gave it his all last year, but he couldn’t be consistently productive, and he was basically a hand-off machine. That said, he was a good athlete who was dangerous enough to keep defenses from fully keying on Williams. Speaking of Williams, he went for 85 yards against Ole Miss and didn’t play in the Tennessee game, but still managed five 200-yard games and seven games with two or more TDs. Junior Martin Hankins, a SE Louisiana transfer, is the smart bet to take over at quarterback. Fellow junior Joseph Doss has the inside track to start at running back.
Overview: Memphis is in transition. The offense is going to be carried by their line early as the new skill talent develops. Senior WR Ryan Scott should expect to see a lot of double coverage early, as his 37 receptions last year are more than double the second-highest total among Memphis players. The defense should at least hold form from last year, when it allowed around 23 points per game. Junior linebackers Greg Hinds and Heath Grant are both strong, and the Tigers are lucky enough to have senior starters Jamaal Rufus and Brandon McDonald back at the corner spots. The schedule is somewhat difficult, with conference games against West Division stalwarts UTEP, Houston, and Tulsa, along with a season-opening trip to Mississippi. It’s going to be tough for West to keep the bowl streak going, but he should be able to build the foundation for more offensive success in 2007.