CONFERENCE USA EAST
1. Southern Mississippi
2. Central Florida
5. East Carolina
-->TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN CONFERENCE USA EAST
5. How will East Carolina replace their top passer and receiver? James Pinkney threw for over 2,700 yards a year ago, and Aundrae Allison caught 64 of his 232 completions, along with four of Pinkney's 12 touchdowns. Both have moved on, leaving (likely) sophomore Rob Kass as the starting QB this season. Kass hit less than 50 percent of his throws in limited duty last year. Senior Phillip Henry is the top returning receiver, and fellow senior Steven Rogers is a big-play threat for the ECU offense. The running game, dormant for most of last year, needs to be much better this year with Pinkney and Allison gone.
4. Can Memphis recover from a disastrous season? The loss of DeAngelo Williams to the NFL wasn't supposed to hurt this much. Tommy West changed defensive coordinators in the middle of the season last year, and he changed offensive coordinators in the offseason. The Tigers return from a 2-10 season with their starting quarterback, running back, and top wide receivers all back. The offensive line returns both starting tackles, and the defensive front seven is almost intact. The schedule, featuring seven home games, seems to slightly favor a turnaround, and Memphis is a better football team on paper. However, it's hard to assume that a 2-10 team will do much more than sneak into bowl eligibility.
3. Is Marshall talented enough to overcome a potentially murderous schedule? The Herd lost their best offensive player in running back Ahmad Bradshaw, but they return 14 total starters, including almost the entire defensive back seven. The first obstacle I see outside of replacing Bradshaw is the schedule, which opens with a road game at Miami, followed by a home date with West Virginia. Marshall also travels to Cincinnati in non-conference play, and the C-USA West opponents they drew were Tulsa, Rice, and Houston, who were all bowl teams last year. The 5-7 record they posted in 2006 could be an achievement in 2007. Marshall is a classic example of a team that should be better on the field than they were last year, but the record may not reflect that.
2. How much will Central Florida be improved? The Knights open a new on-campus stadium with what could be the most talented team George O'Leary has fielded. Not much went right a year ago as UCF went 4-8, but 17 starters return, including nine defensive players. The secondary looks extremely dangerous, with a combination of good size and speed. O'Leary has a new quarterback (sort of) in senior Kyle Israel. He started the last two games last year and completed 65 percent of his throws. Top rusher Kevin Smith is also back for the Knights. In a bit of a weak division, it's not unreasonable to suggest that the Knights are the best available contender to USM's perch on top.
1. What stops Southern Mississippi from running away with this division? The Golden Eagles are loaded on defense, with their top five tacklers and eight total starters back. Even where starters were lost, at cornerback, the Eagles have impressive size and strength returning. The offensive backfield is intact, with star runner Damion Fletcher back to try to improve on his 1,388 yard season in 2006. Signal-caller Jeremy Young started shaky, but was generally better in the second half of the season. Even when he struggled with his accuracy, Young still took pretty good care of the football. Road trips to Tennessee and Boise State should go a long way toward preparing USM for another Conference USA title run.
CONFERENCE USA WEST
-->TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN CONFERENCE USA WEST
5. Was 2006 a fluke for UTEP? The answer is unclear. On one hand, only Jordan Palmer is gone from a highly-skilled offense, and while Palmer was good last year, there looked at times to be something missing on offense. Where UTEP will be hurt this year is on defense, where seven starters are gone, and the unit was a great disappointment last year. The front seven has to do a better job of generating pressure on opposing offenses, and the secondary will improve as a result. The rest of the division, sans Tulane, looks improved, so it will be tough for the Miners to make much headway, but they should again be able to knock on the door of bowl eligibility.
4. Can SMU make the leap to being a bowl team? Absolutely. 14 starters are back from a team that narrowly missed out on the postseason with a 6-6 record last year, and coach Phil Bennett appears to have the pieces in place to make a run at eight or nine wins. The offense scored over 27 points per game, which is the highest since the famed Death Penalty in the 1980s. Sophomore QB Justin Willis is back, joined in the backfield by junior DeMyron Martin, who was injured last year and only made six starts. If Bennett can find replacements for three defensive line starters who have moved on, SMU has the makings of a surprise contender in the West.
3. Why exactly did Toledo fire Chris Scelfo? I mean, all he did was lead them through the Katrina tragedy (for those who don't know, Tulane had to play all 11 games in 2005 in different venues because of the damage done to the Louisiana Superdome) with class and dignity. Then last year, Scelfo got saddled with a very tough schedule that featured just five home games. They went 3-2 at the refurbished Superdome, but only 1-6 away from home. While the Green Wave were not competitive in three late-season losses, there were signs of impending improvement, especially on defense. Not only did Scelfo do a good job here, but the best Tulane could do for a replacement was retread Bob Toledo. Improvement won't be immediate, but Tulane will show some positive signs this year, and it won't necessarily be anything Toledo does right.
2. How smooth will the coaching transition be for Tulsa and Rice? Todd Graham awkwardly left Rice to head to Tulsa after Steve Kragthorpe left there for Louisville. It's hard to argue with Kragthorpe's decision, but Graham has made some enemies at Rice. The jilted Owls grabbed Texas State coach David Bailiff, who will keep them running a wide-open offense and hope to improve a defense that cut a touchdown off their points per game average last year (40 in 2005 down to 33), but that still has a ton of work to do. Meanwhile, Tulsa hopes to keep their success going under Graham. Kragthorpe won 29 games in four years there. The Golden Hurricane only have four starters back on offense, but two of them are star QB Paul Smith and leading rusher Courtney Tennial.
1. Is Houston still the top dog in the West? The Cougars lose four-year starting quarterback Kevin Kolb and top receiver Vincent Marshall, but there still is talent. The defense, bringing back seven starters, should get better, especially up front, where UH still has to do a better job. Senior running back Anthony Aldridge takes over the top job this year after averaging an eye-popping 10.1 per carry last year, and senior receivers Donnie Avery and Jeron Harvey are back to help out new starting quarterback Blake Joseph. With a strong offensive line and a super running back, Joseph should have little trouble transitioning to his new gig.
CISKIE BLOG PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Damion Fletcher, RB, Southern Mississippi
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Albert McClellan, DE, Marshall
Preseason Coach of the Year: Phil Bennett, SMU
Coach on the Hot Seat: Tommy West, Memphis
Bowl Bound: Southern Mississippi, Houston
Bowl Bubble: SMU, Central Florida, Tulsa, Memphis
Best Non-Conference Game: Oklahoma at Tulsa, September 21
Worst Non-Conference Game: Texas Southern at UTEP, September 22