1. Southern Mississippi
2. Central Florida
5. East Carolina
Stories to Watch in Conference USA
Keenum's Heisman Case. Yes, it's a bad play on words, but it was done for the best quarterback you may not have heard of if you're a power conference elitist. Houston quarterback Case Keenum has virtually no business playing college football, but you could argue the unfinished business is what brought him back. The Cougars were thought to be a BCS-buster team before they got blown out at UTEP after upset wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Then they lost to East Carolina in the Conference USA title game, and were blown out by Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, in a game where Keenum threw six of his 15 picks for the season. Keenum is also within reach of a number of records. He is 14 yards away from passing Kevin Kolb for the school's all-time career passing record. He's 4,167 yards away from Timmy Chang's NCAA record, a number easily within reach since Keenum threw for 5,671 in 2009. The sky's the limit for Keenum, who isn't just another college system product. He's a legitimate NFL candidate, and this Houston team is a legitimate Top 25 threat. Keenum has receivers James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier, and Patrick Edwards to throw to, and running backs Bryce Beall and Charles Sims both return. If the Cougars can get their defense to stop people, this team could be in a major bowl this winter.
Ruffin McNeill and Doc Holliday get their shots. It's been a long time coming for two veteran college coaches. McNeill got a taste of being a head coach when Texas Tech named him as the interim replacement for Mike Leach when the latter was suspended before the Red Raiders' bowl game last season. After Leach and his staff were let go, McNeill got the head job at alma mater East Carolina, replacing new South Florida coach Skip Holtz. McNeill has some work to do, as longtime starting quarterback Patrick Pinkney as he installs the wide-open offense he saw become so successful at Texas Tech. Meanwhile, longtime college assistant Holliday got the job at Marshall, replacing the canned Mark Snyder. Marshall has fallen quite a bit under Snyder, going 22-37 after being a perennial bowl team since their ascension to Division I-A. Holliday takes over a team that surged late last season, qualifying for and winning a bowl game to finish 7-6. Now, he has to guide this team through a brutal schedule that includes Ohio State and West Virginia in the first two games. As they try to build depth all along the roster, expect them to rely on senior Brian Anderson to lead the offense. Clemson transfer Willy Korn couldn't win the job, so Holliday moved the senior to safety. The Thundering Herd and Pirates are both in good hands, even if neither is a serious East Division contender this year.
Tulsa's quick rebound? After back-to-back campaigns with double-digit wins, Tulsa slipped to a 5-7 record last year. They lost some insanely close games to teams like Boise State and Houston, but also got blown out at home by East Carolina and finished 1-6 after a 4-1 start. The rebound for Todd Graham should be pretty quick. The Golden Hurricane are likely bowl-bound again this year, thanks to an experienced quarterback and more consistent defense. G.J. Kinne will be better this year, thanks to a ground game that can only get better this year. The 'Cane was led in rushing by Kinne, who didn't even top 400 yards on the season. They have to run the ball better, and they will. Where Tulsa will really get better is in the passing game. Kinne had his moments where he looked every bit the rusty quarterback who had sat out two seasons (redshirt and transfer seasons). He has almost all his receivers back, including Damaris Johnson and Trae Johnson, both of whom have plenty of experience in this offense.
Interesting East Division race. It's hard to tell what to think about the East Division. On one hand, there's Southern Mississippi, long a tough team to knock out of this race, but still looking for their first Conference USA title in the two-division format. In the other corner sits Central Florida, a program marked lately by its inconsistency. The Knights haven't posted back-to-back winning seasons under George O'Leary, alternating between losing and winning records. Last year, UCF went 8-5. USM has the more balanced offense, despite losing running back Damion Fletcher. Look out for redshirt freshman Kendrick Hardy, who could be a big-time player. The Golden Eagles have to decide on a quarterback, as both Austin Davis and Martevious Young have starting experience. Coach Larry Fedora seems inclined to go with Davis, but Young will get a chance to play. He's a better athlete, but not by much, and Davis is a bit more accurate with his throws. At UCF, there are questions in the offensive backfield. O'Leary has said both Rob Calabrese and true freshman Jeffrey Godfrey will play at quarterback this season. Godfrey is probably more talented, but Calabrese has more experience and is looking to rebound after a slow start led to his benching last year. At running back, Brynn Harvey banged up his knee in spring practice and will miss at least a month to start the season. Look for Jonathan Davis to start, and for there to be a dropoff in ability there. Harvey is quite talanted, and UCF will struggle to make due without him while also dealing with a quarterback controversy. UCF's defense is also in need of a rebuild. The two meet in Orlando come November, in a game likely to decide the division's representative in the Conference USA Championship.
Best of the rest
Now without Joe Webb, UAB looks to make another step forward in their rebuilding. Coach Neil Callaway likes sophomore David Isabelle, and while Webb was a great player for the Blazers, it might benefit them to not have him around as the centerpiece of the offense. Look for the ball to get spread around more now. ... Memphis also debuts a new coach, as they hired an African American Larry Porter, who also happens to be the first alum to take the helm of their football program. There's a lot of work here, as the Tigers were 2-10 and are very low on quality depth. ... There's pressure on UTEP coach Mike Price this year. And there should be. The Miners have a talented and experienced quarterback in Trevor Vittatoe, and they have yet to even get to bowl game with him. This is their last chance, and it may be Price's. ... June Jones has worked his magic again. Somehow, despite using a true freshman quarterback for the second half of the season, Jones got SMU to a bowl game, and they routed Nevada in the Hawai'i Bowl. Kyle Padron gets a whole season this time, and big things could be coming to Dallas. ... Rice returns 18 starters this year, and they should be significantly better than last year. The Owls started 0-8 last year, and hope to build off a modest 2-2 record to close the season. Alabama transfer Nick Fanuzzi is likely to start at quarterback. ... Bob Toledo's work has just started at Tulane. Now that he is happier with the competition on the roster, Toledo needs the team to perform better on the field. Just five wins over the last two years don't lead to many expectations.
Preseason Conference USA Superlatives
Best QB: Case Keenum, Houston
Best RB: Donald Buckram, UTEP
Best WR: James Cleveland, Houston
Best offense: Houston
Best defense: Central Florida
Best coach: Kevin Sumlin, Houston
Coach in the most trouble: Bob Toledo, Tulane
Best non-conference matchup: Houston at UCLA, Sept. 18
Worst non-conference matchup: Central Arkansas at Tulsa, Sept. 25