1. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
What a difference a coach can make. The Tulsa program was floundering badly in 2002, coming off a 1-10 season, when they replaced Keith Burns with former Buffalo Bills assistant Steve Kragthorpe. Kragthorpe immediately started to turn around the losing attitude that had permeated in Tulsa through Burns’ short tenure. The results? Immediate. Tulsa went bowling in 2003 for the first time in more than a decade, and after a down year in 2004 (the defense faltered a bit and the team posted a -12 turnover ratio), they were back in the bowl picture in 2005, pulling an upset of Fresno State in the Liberty Bowl.
With 16 starters back, the Golden Hurricane look poised for a run at the conference title, provided that they can make more improvement on defense and continue to take outstanding care of the football (only 15 giveaways last year).
In good shape: Quarterback. Paul Smith, in just his first year as a starter, was able to outshine both UTEP’s Jordan Palmer and Houston’s Kevin Kolb. Smith hit over 62 percent of his passes for 2,847 yards and 20 scores to just six picks. Even with his leading receivers, Garrett Mills and Ashlan Davis, both gone, Smith is only going to get better in this offense. Only one of his six interceptions came in Tulsa’s final six games, and he was nearly letter-perfect in wins over UCF in the CUSA title game and Fresno in the bowl, combining to go 31 of 47 for 439 yards and three scores. A big part of Smith’s success this year will be the play of his receivers.
Needs work: Wide receiver/tight end. Tulsa uses their tight ends perhaps more than anyone else these days, and they lost a good one in Mills, who caught 87 passes last year and scored nine times. JUCO Devin Adair was set to take over for Mills, but he died after a short illness in the spring, leaving the program in a state of shock. Sophomore Ted Curtis is probably the best candidate for Mills’ hybrid tight end/H-back role. Davis’ departure isn’t as painful, because Tulsa returns three senior receivers. Ryan Bugg, Idris Moss, and Donnie Johnson will all have a chance to showcase their skills this fall, along with youngsters Jesse Meyer and Kyle Grooms. Smith is a very capable passer, but someone in this group needs to become a reliable target, or the offense will suffer.
Overview: Tulsa is in great shape this year. Nine starters are back on defense, including a top-notch linebacking group of Nick Bunting, Nelson Coleman, and Chris Chamberlain. The three combined for 290 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 13.5 quarterback sacks. With the linebackers behind them, the defensive line should really improve this year, both from a run-stopping and pass-rushing standpoint. The secondary could be Tulsa’s best in years, thanks to senior corners Nick Graham and Julian McGowan. With a relatively manageable non-conference schedule, combined with home dates against their toughest CUSA foes (except Houston), this sets up to be a potential ten-win season for the Golden Hurricane.
2. UTEP Miners
Don’t get me wrong. Mike Price has done great work at UTEP. He quickly turned around a program that was heading in the wrong direction, and the Miners have posted back-to-back 8-4 seasons, which is really nothing to sneeze at.
But it pales in comparison to what might have been. UTEP started 8-2 in 2004 before a loss to Tulsa and then to Colorado kept them from a ten-win campaign. The Miners started 8-1 last year and appeared poised to host the inaugural CUSA title game before two straight losses sent Tulsa through as the West Division winner. In the loss to SMU that closed out their regular season, the Miners committed a ghastly seven turnovers and gave up 440 total yards.
Amazingly, Phil Steele points out that UTEP is now winless in 17 regular season finales since 1988. Yikes!
With that in mind, expectations will be high this year, and a senior-laden team will be expected to deliver from start to finish.
In good shape: Offense. I couldn’t pick out one facet of their game, so I’m picking the whole thing. QB Jordan Palmer was mistake-prone last year, throwing 19 picks, including nine in the last three games, but he was very good for most of the season, as the 3,500 passing yards would indicate. He should have his best year as a senior. Marcus Thomas emerged as a top running back, thanks to four straight 100-yard games to close out the regular season, including a 117-yard, two-touchdown gem in the win over Tulsa. At receiver, UTEP is very strong and also experienced, led by seniors Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chris Marrow. Juniors Joe West and Lorne Sam will also see action. The offensive line has also been successfully revamped by Price. Three starters return, and the two new guys include junior tackle Oniel Cousins, who weighs 300 pounds and runs a 4.8. Yes, you read that correctly. No, it’s not a misprint.
Needs work: Secondary. The Miners are still woefully undersized at cornerback, where they expect to start Nate Draughon (5-10) and Josh Ferguson (5-7) this year. Primary backups Tim McCullough and Fred Patton are 5-11 and 5-9 respectively, so big receivers could see plenty of success against this group. The pass defense allowed 213 yards per game last year and picked off just 14 passes, so they have to get better in the secondary. The rest of the defense looks pretty good on paper.
Overview: The Miners have seniors all over the place. The projected starting lineup includes 15 of them, including the entire defensive front seven (of that group, big things are expected out of DT Zach West and LB Troy Collavo). Price did the right thing this spring. Seeing that his group was having trouble finishing big games at the end of the season, he pulled back a bit and went back to basics. The results won’t be known until November, when UTEP closes out with home games against Rice and Memphis, along with road trips to UAB and Marshall. The talent is certainly there on both sides of the ball. If the team can take care of business early, they’ll be favored in each of these games and could roll into the CUSA title game. However, the big games are back-to-back, and both are on the road (Houston and Tulsa). It’s hard to figure that UTEP will be able to win both, especially with a short week of preparation in between (the Houston game is a Saturday, with Tulsa the following Friday). UTEP is in position to win as many as ten games if things go their way, and a conference title can’t be ruled out because of the wealth of experience this team has returning.
3. Houston Cougars
Things started to turn around for Houston when Art Briles came aboard before the 2003 season. He brought with him an offense that no one has really been able to accurately describe. It’s part spread, part option, truly a multiple offense. And it’s driven defenses crazy. The Cougars went from 27 points per game before Briles arrived to 34 in his first year.
Briles has taken Houston to two bowl games in three years, and he has the offense rolling into 2006, thanks to senior QB Kevin Kolb, who enters his fourth year as a starter. Hopes are high in Houston, as UH tries to build off their Fort Worth Bowl trip and contend for a Conference USA title.
In good shape: Quarterback. Yes, Kolb’s interceptions went from 6 in both his freshman and sophomore years to 15 last year. But he’s still the ignitor of this offense, as he’s been since he arrived on campus. Kolb can run, though he hasn’t done it as much the last couple years, and he is an accurate passer who typically makes good decisions. Kolb already owns the school total offense record, surpassing David Klingler’s mark of 9,327, and he should only add to that in his senior season.
Needs work: Defensive front seven. Rush yards per game allowed in each of Briles’ three seasons as head coach: 209, 192, 177. It’s improved each year, but not enough. The Cougars have to be stronger up front. Last year, they allowed opposing running backs to gain 4.6 yards per carry, and they only produced 17 sacks in their 12 games. UH switched to a 3-4 defense last year, and the growing pains were evident. Sophomore end Cody Pree is back off a freshman all-CUSA season, and senior nose tackle Marquay Love is back to anchor the middle of the run defense. Inside ‘backers Cody Lubojasky and Trent Allen both enter 2006 with the belief that they’ll be much better, and both starting outside linebackers, Wade Koehl and Brendan Pahulu, are back. The improvement should be there, and it will have to be if Houston hopes to contend for a league title.
Overview: The Cougars are a tough team to figure out. The offense should continue to be strong, but they have to take better care of the ball (28 giveaways last year). Kolb has top receivers Vincent Marshall and Donnie Avery back, and the running game should be strong with Jackie Battle serving as the anchor. The schedule is not daunting early, with winnable games at home against Tulane, Grambling, and Oklahoma State, along with a game at Rice, all before a game at Miami. Houston is good enough to win eight or nine games, and the Cougars should challenge Tulsa and UTEP for the conference title.
4. SMU Mustangs
The Mustangs’ program hasn’t been the same since the death penalty came around in 1987 and 1988. After a relatively successful 6-5 season in 1997, the program really went south. They’ve gone 27-57 since then, including 0-12 in 2003.
But Phil Bennett has things pointing in the right direction. The Mustangs won five games in 2005, and while a bowl berth might be out of reach this season, Bennett should have as strong a team as he’s had since arriving in Dallas. The defense is getting better, and the overall level of talent and depth is higher at SMU than it’s been in years.
In good shape:Running back. The Mustangs have a real gem in sophomore DeMyron Martin. Martin was the Conference USA Player of the Week in SMU’s upset win over TCU last year, and he took off from there. He had four 100-yard games on the season, and just missed out on the 1,000-yard mark. He ran for 117 yards in the late-season upset of UTEP. Richuel Massey returns as the primary backup, but Martin is in the spotlight this year. With inexperience at quarterback, they’ll need him to be more consistent and to stay durable for the entire season.
Needs work: Quarterback. This position has been a huge problem for SMU since long before Bennett arrived. Last year, Jerad Romo stabilized things just a bit, throwing for nearly 1,800 yards and nine scores, including a 300-yard game against UAB. Unfortunately for SMU, Romo has moved on, leaving a gaping hole at the position. At this point, it appears that redshirt freshman Justin Willis, an athletic dual-threat quarterback, will take over as the starter. Willis has promise, and luckily for him, he has some experienced receivers to throw to. Third-team All-Conference USA receiver Bobby Chase is back, as is senior Reynaldo Pellerin, who had 30 receptions last year. Seniors Blake Warren and Jay’Mond Cleveland will also see plenty of playing time.
Overview: The Mustangs are in a good spot if they can develop a quarterback. The offensive line should improve (only 3.5 yards per carry last year while allowing 30 sacks, so the line was a bit inconsistent), the running game is strong, and the wide receivers are as good as they’ve been in years at SMU. On defense, six starters return, including senior tackles Brandon Bonds and Adrian Haywood, along with senior safety Joe Sturdivant. The depth on defense is improving, but the Mustangs will still rely on their upperclass starters to stay healthy and play well. The schedule starts with a game at Texas Tech, which will test the athleticism and depth of the defense right out of the chute. The other three non-conference games should be wins for SMU, and if the Mustangs can develop Willis (or someone else) at quarterback, they have an outside shot at seven or eight wins. The real breakthrough, however, might not come until next season.
5. Tulane Green Wave
How do you not root for Tulane to pull it all together and do well this season? The Green Wave went through a hellish season in 2005. The team’s home stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, was heavily damaged in Hurricane Katrina, and the university also had severe damage to many buildings, including the old on-campus football stadium. The team evacuated to Jackson, Mississippi, and eventually to Dallas, before settling in Rustin, Louisiana, the home of Louisiana Tech.
The players spent much of their time early in the season dealing with the loss of personal belongings in buildings that were damaged by the storm, and some had to struggle through while trying to get in contact with missing family members.
On the field, the Wave, playing 11 games in 11 different stadiums, never really got going. They started 2-1, including a convincing win against SMU, but didn’t taste victory again, allowing 37 points per game while losing their last eight.
This year won’t be much easier. Facility issues pushed back spring practice, and the players are still trying to improve their strength and conditioning after a year where football was a complete afterthought for many of them.
In good shape: Quarterback. Lester Ricard may never dazzle Tulane fans like Shaun King and Patrick Ramsey did, but he still has a chance to go out on a high note. The tall senior (6-5) suffered through a tough year like the rest of his teammates did in 2005. His interceptions were up from his sophomore year, despite only starting eight games, and his completion percentage was down (barely above 50). But Ricard is better than that, and we all know it. The personnel around him is good, and Ricard will benefit from a much more stable environment this season.
Needs work: Defensive front seven. The Green Wave struggled up front last year, netting just 20 sacks and allowing the opposition to run roughshod to the tune of nearly 200 yards per game and over 4.5 yards per carry. The secondary actually looks pretty decent, but much of the overall success of the defense will be on the front seven. The line has some veteran players who should be able to help. Junior end Antonio Harris is back after leading the defensive line in tackles last year. He’s joined by junior tackles Alvin Johnson and Avery Williams, along with senior ends Michael Purcell and Billy Harrison. The linebackers are very young, and their progress is key to the improvement of this defense. Sophomores James Dillard and Jordan Ellis will be joined in the starting lineup by either freshman Adam Kwentua or junior Terrence Peterson, who is the most experienced player in the group in terms of seniority.
Overview: Ricard has all the key pieces in place around him and he should improve. The running game should improve, with junior Matt Forte back. Like Ricard, Forte experienced a drop in performance last year, but it can be excused because of all the issues this program faced. Offensive guard Donald Madlock missed all of last year because of a shoulder injury, and his return strengthens the interior of Tulane’s line. Because of the completion of repairs to the Superdome, Tulane doesn’t open there until September 30 against SMU, and the three road games to start off are all tough matchups (Houston, Mississippi State, and LSU). Tulane plays only five home games, and two of them are against East Division favorites Southern Mississippi and Central Florida in back-to-back weeks. Even given the added stability this year, it’s hard to imagine Tulane winning more than three or four games, no matter how badly I’d like to see it happen.
6. Rice Owls
Rice fans (there are Rice fans?) and the school administration need patience. Lots of it, actually. The program is in shambles after the firing of Ken Hatfield, who was replaced by recruiting whiz Todd Graham. Hatfield had the option offense in place here for years, with limited success in terms of wins and losses, but plenty of success running the ball. Where Rice failed over the last few years was on defense. The Owls haven’t given up less than 30 points per game since 2002, and they gave up 40 a game in 2005.
Not only does Graham have to try to rebuild morale, but he also has to rebuild the defense while also changing to the spread offense, which will be coordinated by former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite.
In good shape: Wide receiver. Not only does Graham have a large number of players available here (Blue Ribbon estimates that anywhere from 10 to 12 different guys may be used at receiver), but there are some pretty good athletes. Sophomore Jarett Dillard caught 35 passes last year. To put that in perspective, Rice completed 89 passes all season, so Dillard was quite productive. He should be even better in a passing offense. Former option quarterback Joel Armstrong, former running back Tommy Henderson, and redshirt freshmen Marcus Knox and Chris Douglas should all get chances to produce. Graham also has true freshmen Toren Dixon and Andrew Novak, both of whom could see significant time this year.
Needs work: Quarterback. I already mentioned the defense, which gave up over 40 points per game last year. And it’s pretty clear that the defense needs work. However, Graham is probably going to be forced to start a true freshman at quarterback, which is a dangerous proposition, even in a “mid-major” league like Conference USA. The Owls moved Armstrong to receiver, leaving last year’s backup, Chase Clement, who is a better fit for the spread than Armstrong, but he’s not a very accurate passer. He’ll probably have to hold off true freshman Pierre Beasley in fall practice. Either way, there is a lot of work to do to change the offensive culture at Rice, and Graham knows the road won’t be easy.
Overview: The offensive line has some talent, but also has to deal with the changeover to the spread, and the new blocking schemes could cause some isues early in the season. Defensively, there is certainly some talent on hand, but the depth is horrendous, especially at linebacker. Graham moved running back Marcus Rucker here, and he hopes for big things. Senior Omeke Alikor will be the leader of the defense from his middle linebacker spot. Graham has 17 starters back, but the schematic changes probably will set this program back a year or two. Rice has paycheck games with UCLA, Florida State, and Texas (the Texas game is technically a home game, though it’s being played at Reliant Stadium in Houston), and they’ll probably be lucky to win three games.