Predicted Order of Finish
1. Southern Mississippi
2. Central Florida
5. East Carolina
Top storylines to watch in Conference USA
Case Keenum's return to a loaded Houston team. Keenum's senior season was cut short last year, so he successfully gained a medical redshirt from the NCAA and is back again. He's already passed Kevin Kolb on Houston's all-time passing yards list, and the NCAA record is within reach if he can make it through this season without any problems. The Cougars need to replace three starters in the secondary, where Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia becomes eligible at safety. But they have plenty of talent elsewhere, especially with senior receivers Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier and senior running back Bryce Beall. Keenum is familiar with this offense, his targets, and he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Don't count him out of the Heisman race if he can stay healthy, and don't count Houston out as a darkhorse BCS contender. With UCLA, East Carolina, and SMU at home, the schedule is incredibly manageable. A Nov. 26 game at Tulsa will likely decide the division title.
Can Tulsa get by Houston in the West? Change came at a bad time for the Golden Hurricane, as Todd Graham's move to Pittsburgh came right before signing day. That shouldn't greatly impact this year's team, as UT returns 18 starters, including ten on offense. The lead dog is quarterback G.J. Kinne, who has flourished since transferring from Texas. Kinne pitched 31 touchdown passes last year, and still found time to lead the team with 561 rushing yards. Tulsa used a committee approach to running the ball last year, with three backs totaling at least 335 yards as the team averaged over 200 yards per game on the ground. Look for sophomore Trey Watts to carry more of that load this season. New coach Bill Blankenship has plenty of experience in the program, but this is his first rodeo as a college head coach. He sure has a lot of players who have played significant snaps in the past, but that's not a guarantee of anything in a division which includes Houston and SMU. Another double-digit win season looks likely, but the non-conference schedule may prevent that in the end.
Southern Miss tries to bust the BCS, too. Houston isn't the only team capable of a big season in 2011. Southern Mississippi has pieces in place on both sides of the ball, along with a pretty favorable schedule. Quarterback Austin Davis is in position to break Brett Favre's USM career passing record early in the season, sophomore Kendrick Hardy could be on the verge of stardom, and wide receivers Kelvin Bolden and Quentin Pierce are all returning from last year's team, which averaged nearly 37 points per game. The defense should be better, thanks to seven returning starters, including the top four tacklers and star linebacker Korey Williams, who plays all over the field. The favorable schedule includes only one real tough non-conference game (at Virginia), along with a bunch of winnable games at home (SMU, Central Florida, Rice). It's not inconceivable that USM could meet Houston in a battle of 12-0 teams for the Conference USA title.
Can UAB get to a bowl? Last year, Alabama-Birmingham showed improvement in many areas, but still took a step back in record, going from 5-7 in 2009 to 4-8. The school decided to keep coach Neil Callaway, who has the lowest salary of CUSA coaches, and possibly the worst facilities to work with. Despite those handicaps, the Blazers could be improved enough to qualify for a bowl this season. It helps that teams like East Carolina, Marshall, and Memphis are still in a bit of transition in the East Division. UAB has to deal with non-division games against Tulsa and Houston, but they get Southern Miss and Central Florida at home, and senior quarterback Bryan Ellis returns to lead the offense. His line is virtually intact in front of him, including senior left tackle Matt McCants. Expect Ellis to be more efficient, and the running game will improve. Callaway's defense gets a jolt with new coordinator Tommy West (former Memphis coach), and it helps that West gets to work with nine returning starters.
The Rest of the Story
After an 11-win season, Central Florida only has ten starters back. Luckily for George O'Leary, one of them is sophomore quarterback Jeff Godfrey, who is only going to get better after a very good freshman campaign. ... Marshall has to replace quarterback Brian Anderson, but I still think they could find a way to a bowl game, assuming they survive an incredibly difficult league schedule that includes non-division games against Tulsa and Houston, both on the road ... A tough non-conference schedule (South Carolina, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Navy) could keep East Carolina from going bowling, but it also doesn't help that a defense that allowed 44 points per game lost four starters off the front seven. Big things will happen with Dominique Davis back to lead the offense, though. ... They won one game last year, and Memphis is not going to be good this year, either. Larry Porter's rebuilding job continues with another season of double-digit losses more than likely here. ... Expect huge numbers out of June Jones' offense in year three at SMU. He finally has the personnel he wants in place at all the key positions. That said, their defense still won't be good enough to overcome Houston and Tulsa, both of whom SMU plays on the road. ... Rice could be a surprise team, but it will take a Herculean effort out of their defense. Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie and sophomore Taylor McHargue are more than capable offensive stars, and the Owls could very well hit 35-40 points per game. The problem is that they're also likely to allow those types of numbers. ... Steady improvement has been the way at Tulane recently, but it's time to make a real move in the right direction. Bob Toledo gets 14 starters back, and one of them is emerging star back Orleans Darkwa. He also gets leading tackler Trent Mackey back on defense, and both units should improve statistically. ... Mike Price only has two starters back on offense at UTEP. All-time leading passer Trevor Vittatoe departs, as does leading receiver Kris Adams. The Miners might have to ride their defense, which gets nine starters back and might take a huge leap forward from the average unit they had a year ago.