1. Southern Mississippi
2. East Carolina
5. Central Florida
The Fab Four: Top Storylines in Conference USA
Southern Mississippi's no-huddle machine. When USM fired Jeff Bower after 17 loyal and generally productive seasons, many -- including your humble correspondent -- wondered what the hell they were thinking. Larry Fedora brought a wide-open offense to Hattiesburg, which seemed to run a bit in contrast to their talent. No worries, though, because Fedora simply started a freshmen at quarterback (Austin Davis) and wide receiver (DeAndre Brown). Obviously, Brown's gruesome leg injury and his long recovery are huge storylines, but Fedora has a year's worth of recruits now, and this offense is only going to get stronger as Davis gains more experience running it. As a freshman, he threw eight picks in 454 passes, so he's certainly got a strong foundation to build from. With two-time All-Conference USA First Team running back Damion Fletcher beside Davis, the Golden Eagles possess one of the strongest backfields in the league. If Brown is healthy and able to play, the offense is going to be insane. Without him, they should still be able to improve on the 30.6 points per game they averaged in 2006.
Can UTEP play defense? It's the $64,000 question for this year's Miners. In 2005, UTEP made it to the GMAC bowl after an eight-win season in which they allowed around 26 points per game. While the offense has been pretty steady, save for a bit of a lapse in 2006, the defense has been absolutely awful since. They have allowed 37 points per game over the last two seasons, posing a 9-15 record, and until things get better on that side of the ball, Mike Price won't take this program anywhere. Trevor Vittatoe is back to throw to the likes of Kris Adams and Jeff Moturi, and an improved running game should make for a very strong offense again this season. The defense returns seven starters, and if they can find a way to improve their front seven, things are looking up. Allowing opposing rushing attacks to gain five yards per carry won't get you to the top of the league, nor will it get you a postseason bid. New defensive coordinator Rocky Long shouldn't have to do much to field an improved unit from last year.
Year 2 better than Year 1? For SMU and June Jones, it wouldn't take much. The Mustangs were miserable in 2008, but the 1-11 finish wasn't a complete throwaway for Jones, who took a lucrative offer to move to the mainland from Hawai'i. SMU still has some serious problems on defense, but they were able to find the triggerman for Jones' run-and-shoot attack. While Bo Levi Mitchell did throw a nation-leading 23 interceptions, he also took command of a offense tough to execute without experience. Jones will cut Mitchell's interceptions and bad throws down significantly. A full offseason to work with a group of receivers that returns intact from 2008 will help, as will the increased confidence that is undoubtedly coming as Mitchell spends more time in the offense. The Mustangs averaged a non-existent 41 yards per game rushing last year, topped 100 exactly once (against Tulsa), and won't go anywhere until they get better blocking and better running. Put it all together, and Jones can find a way to keep his beleagured defense off the field. That unit allowed at least 200 yards rushing in seven of 12 games, and they got torched for over 250 passing yards six times. Ouch.
Tulsa reloads again. Paul Smith left, but the Golden Hurricane didn't miss a beat. David Johnson stepped in as a senior, tossing for over 4,000 yards and 46 touchdowns. While leading receiver Brennan Marion and Johnson are both gone, as is star back Tarrion Adams, Tulsa expects to be able to field a potent offense again this year. Junior Jacob Bower heads a three-way battle for the starting job under center, but whoever wins the job will be under the gun right away. Tulsa opens with three straight road games and four out of five. While one of those is against beatable Tulane, the others are against New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Rice, and it isn't inconceivable that the Hurricane will start 3-2 or 2-3. The good news? Tulsa has just two road games after that. Bad? Those are against UTEP and Southern Mississippi.
Best of the rest
A loaded West Division looks like a wide-open race, but Houston should be considered a serious favorite. The Cougars have all the pieces for a dominant offense, thanks to quarterback Case Keenum, sophomore running back Bryce Beall, and receivers like L.J. Castile, Tyron Carrier, and Patrick Edwards. The three receivers (two of whom are sophomores) combined for over 150 receptions and more than 2,000 yards in 2008. ... Rice won a school-record ten games last year, but will fall off notably this season. Starting quarterback Chase Clement and top receivers Jarrett Dillard and James Casey (combined 198 catches for over 2,600 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2008) are all gone. While nine starters are back on defense, the Owls will need to allow a lot less than 33 points per game if they are to post another winning season. ... Bob Toledo is just spinning his wheels at Tulane. A 6-18 record over two years highlights virtually no on-field progress. The Green Wave continue to struggle on both sides of the ball, and while there is some nice young talent, Toledo appears to still be a year or two from leading the Green Wave to bowl contention. ... Off a nine-win season, East Carolina is in position for bigger and better things. What should be a season-long battle with USM for the East Division title could come down to a Nov. 28 meeting in Greenville. Roadies to West Virginia, North Carolina, Memphis, and Tulsa will test ECU before that big game. Senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney will look for a big season to close out his career with the Pirates. ... Just 16-31 in four years, Mark Snyder is in a bit of trouble at Marshall. Thundering Herd fans have come to expect more out of this program, which hasn't been to a bowl since 2004. He has to solve his team's quarterback problem before that will happen. The Herd were not good there in 2008, and we'll see if junior Brian Anderson can win the job and play well this season. ... If they can survive the always-tough non-conference schedule and an insane Conference USA schedule rotation, Memphis could be a surprise contender. Expect the Tigers to field one of the better secondaries in the league, led by senior safety Alton Starr and free safety DeRon Furr, an Auburn transfer. Not only does Memphis get Mississippi and Tennessee in non-conference play, but they also have to deal with Houston, Tulsa, and UTEP from the CUSA West Division. ... Central Florida's defense wasn't the problem last year. An offense that averaged 230 total yards and just 16.6 points per game was. Finding some sort of way to score points will be huge for UCF. They lose some talented guys from the defense, including cornerback Joe Burnett, but they do have nine starters back on offense, including all the skill-position talent. ... UAB fans should be treated to a better product this season, even if it doesn't translate to a lot of wins. Neil Callaway is in his third year, and now has a ton of his own talent to work with. Quarterback Joe Webb has to cut down on his mistakes, and it would help if they found more ways to get running back Rashaud Slaughter the ball.
Conference USA Preseason Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Case Keenum, QB, Houston
Defensive Player of the Year: Eddie Hicks, S, Southern Mississippi
Coach of the Year: Mike Price, UTEP
Coach on the Hot Seat: Mark Snyder, Marshall
Best non-conference game: Texas Tech at Houston, September 26
Worst non-conference game: Sam Houston State at Tulsa, September 26