Welcome to The Ciskie Blog's 2008 College Football Preview. As usual, you can expect a rundown of every Division I-A (or "Football Bowl Subdivision", if you prefer) conference, as well as a brief look at the independents. Some of the information used to compile these previews came from various football preview publications that I took the time to review this summer. I give a full endorsement to Phil Steele's College Football Preview (the national edition, as well as his various regional magazines). I also have looked at Sporting News, Athlon Sports, and Blue Ribbon (via ESPN Insider). Information was also gathered from local newspapers and school websites. Please use the comments section or e-mail for feedback, questions, and any corrections you feel need to be noted.
1. Central Florida
3. East Carolina
5. Southern Mississippi
TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN CONFERENCE USA
June Jones to the Metroplex. There was probably no bigger coaching change in college football than this one. SMU's program has been a joke since the Death Penalty sanctions imposed by the NCAA a little more than 20 years ago. They haven't been to a bowl since 1984, and athletic director Steve Orsini finally had enough. He fired Phil Bennett after a 1-6 start to the 2007 season. Then, at the end of the year, he found a way to get June Jones to join his program from Hawai'i. Jones had probably accomplished all he could with the Warriors, thanks to a shoestring budget he was saddled with. At SMU, he'll make some $2 million per year, he has a relatively new on-campus football stadium, and he has a job in one of the richest recruiting bases in the country. So, yeah, this won't take long. Short-term, the prognosis is good. He's got some speed to work with at the skill positions, and he has a junior QB in Justin Willis who has already started 22 games. Shoring up a defense that allowed over 300 passing yards per game last year is the first priority.
Central Florida gets it done with defense. They're going to have to. The two rocks of the Knights' offense last year were RB Kevin Smith (2,567 yards, 30 total TD) and QB Kyle Israel (2,173 yards, 15 TD). Michael Greco, who transferred from NC State in 2005, seems to have the inside track on replacing Israel. Smith's old job is wide-open, with upwards of six players in line for a shot at it in the fall. Meanwhile, George O'Leary has no such problems on the other side of the ball. The Knights return nine starters on what could be Conference USA's top defense, including their top seven tacklers. Also back are the co-leaders in interceptions from a year ago, CBs Joe Burnett (right) and Johnell Neal. The experienced, talented secondary features four senior starters who have already combined to start an astounding 134 games at UCF. If the Knights can find a way to generate enough pass rush, the secondary will likely put up some great numbers.
Is Mark Snyder in trouble? Longtime head coach Bob Pruett retired in 2004, just as Marshall was up against some NCAA sanctions and a move to a tougher conference (leaving the MAC for Conference USA). A program used to bowl appearances, conference titles, and NFL-caliber talent (Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich, Randy Moss, etc.) wasn't going to take well to rebuilding, but that was in the cards. Snyder is just 12-23 in three seasons, including 3-9 a year ago. However, things are looking up. Marshall returns 17 starters, 33 players on the roster who have started a game, and 41 total letterwinners back. The Herd need to replace a starting QB in Bernard Moore, but the coaches like redshirt freshman Mark Cann, who currently sits atop the depth chart. Improvement will be expected if Marshall is to win games this season, and a big part of that will be a defense that was destroyed last year. The Herd allowed 34 points per game, couldn't stop anyone running or passing the ball. Snyder's job security is in question, and results are needed this year, in all likelihood.
Where did all the runners go? A look at Conference USA shows a startling number of star RBs gone from last year. Marcus Thomas (UTEP), Anthony Aldridge (Houston), Matt Forte (Tulane), Chris Johnson (ECU), Smith (UCF), and Joseph Doss (Memphis) are all gone, and they take 9,686 yards and 104 rushing TDs (118 total) with them. And that's just the 2007 total. Needless to say, there are a ton of teams in Conference USA with top runners to replace, with UCF and Tulane the most hurt, as Smith and Forte each cleared 2,000 yards a year ago. Perhaps this is a nod to Southern Miss (Damion Fletcher) and Tulsa (Tarrion Adams), both of whom return 1,000-yard rushers from last season. Or maybe it's a sign that Conference USA will lean more toward air attacks this season than ever before.
Tulsa reloads. For the first time since 2004, Paul Smith will not be under center (or in the shotgun) for the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa has plenty of talent surrounding the new starter, who will be senior David Johnson. WRs Trae Johnson(right) and Charles Clay combined for 139 catches last year, and while Brennan Marion only caught 39 passes, he averaged a record 31.9 (!) yards per catch. Adams returns in the backfield, and he's a solid receiver. Johnson should be well-protected by a solid offensive line. The schedule is favorable, with only a home date against New Mexico posing any major issues among Tulsa's first five games. With that in mind, Johnson should be well-established before an October 11 game at SMU.
BEST OF THE REST
East Carolina should threaten for the top spot in the East, thanks to a strong defense and improved passing attack. However, replacing a key player like Johnson may be too much to ask for this offense. Believe it or not, Tommy West of Memphis is the longest-tenured head coach in the league. He's been there since 2001. If they can figure out the defensive issues that plagued them throughout the season, Memphis should also be a factor in the East. Southern Miss made the most controversial coaching change, letting Jeff Bower go after 17 seasons. Former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora gets the job, and he'll bring his no-huddle attack with him. Fletcher should benefit greatly in this offense. Neil Calloway fielded a thin football team last year, but the second-year UAB coach did it out of necessity. He flushed the bad apples out of the program, and now has quite the rebuilding project. The numbers indicate that this will be another rough year in Birmingham, but the Blazers will continue to improve gradually. New Houston coach Kevin Sumlin is highly-regarded and probably not long for this job. While he's there, expect the Cougars to continue with their high-flying offense. With Sumlin's background as a recruiter at schools like Oklahoma and Texas A&M, UH's profile on the national scene is likely to rise considerably. Rice was running the wishbone as recently as 2005. Now, the Owls have a passing attack that is top-notch, thanks to QB Chase Clement and WR Jarett Dillard. Expect Rice to return to bowl contention this year after a 3-9 season in David Bailiff's debut. If sophomore QB Trevor Vittatoe can build off a 31-touchdown freshman season, UTEP should improve off their 4-8 record from 2007. Much will also be decided by whether they can find a RB to replace Thomas, who was a huge part of the offense last year. No team in the league has to replace a player as important as Forte. Bob Toledo returns a ton of players from last year's team, but for Tulane to get any better in a tough division, all the skill-position players have to perform better in Forte's absence. That's probably too much to ask.
PRESEASON AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Offensive Player of the Year: Tarrion Adams, RB, Tulsa
Defensive Player of the Year: Joe Burnett, CB, UCF
Coach of the Year: June Jones, SMU
Coach on the Hot Seat: Mark Snyder, Marshall
Best Non-Conference Game: South Florida at Central Florida, September 6
Worst Non-Conference Game: Central Arkansas at Tulsa, September 27