Conference USA Football Preview
Offense sells tickets…does it win titles?
By Raphielle Johnson
A familiar theme within Conference
Skip Holtz’s team could very well find itself back in the
AutoZone Liberty Bowl with seventeen starters back in
As for who can challenge ECU within the East Division, look no further than Larry Fedora’s Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Southern Miss got off to a slow start in 2008, losing six of their first eight contests. But the Golden Eagles finished with a flourish, winning their last five games with no single-digit margins until the 30-27 overtime win in the New Orleans Bowl (versus Troy).
RB Damion Fletcher is back for one more run through the conference, and there’s a very good chance that he could once again lead the league in rushing. But the health of WR DeAndre Brown, who suffered a broken leg in the bowl game, will be important. When 100%, Brown gives the Southern Miss a vertical threat that cannot be ignored by opponents.
As for another challenger, Tommy West’s Memphis Tigers may be the team best equipped to push its way into the top two. WR Duke Calhoun has caught at least one pass in each of the thirty-seven games he’s played in, and Carlos Singleton led the Tigers in receiving last season. But the development of RB Curtis Steele helped the Tigers immensely on offense.
The junior college import ran for more that 1,200 yards in
2008, taking some of the pressure off of QB Arkelon Hall. However,
As for the rest of the East, both Mark Snyder (
The Thundering Herd return eight starters each on offense
and defense, including all four defensive linemen and offensive threats Cody
Slate and Darius Marshall. How
Neil Calloway’s UAB Blazers are also looking to make a move within the East Division, and with eighteen starters back (including all eleven on offense) they could do just that. QB Joe Webb shouldered much of the load last season, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark on the ground while throwing for more than 2,600 yards. The burden of being essentially the lone offensive playmaker may have shown itself in his sixteen interceptions to ten touchdown passes. If Rashaud Slaughter and Justin Brooks can step up in the backfield and receivers such as Frantrell Forrest and Mark Ferrell can help in the air UAB could separate from the other teams that finished 3-5 in 2008.
As for the West, offense reigned supreme in 2008 and it’s
expected to be the same in 2009.
There is a negative for
Todd Graham’s Golden Hurricane return six starters on offense (but lose Johnson and RB Tarion Adams), but the biggest loss could be that of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. A trio of receivers with the same last name (Damaris, Trae and Ricky Johnson) will lead a receiving corps that could once again light up scoreboards throughout the conference.
As for David Bailiff’s Owls, they’ll be going through the
unenviable task of replacing one of the most productive combinations in college
history. QB Chase Clement and WR Jarrett Dillard have moved on, leaving large
holes to fill in their wake. Do-it-all offensive (and sometimes defensive)
standout James Casey is also gone, as is RB C.J. Ugokwe, and with just four
starters back on offense the defense may have to do some heavy lifting in the
early going. Early-season games against Texas Tech and
The team that may need to improve for the sake of its head coach is UTEP, which has struggled of late under Mike Price since he hit the ground running upon his arrival is 2004. After two consecutive bowl appearances to start off his tenure, Coach Price has a record of 14-22 over the last three seasons. QB Trevor Vittatoe’s return will go a long way in getting the Miners back into contention for a bowl berth, but truth be told if the defense isn’t up to par (11th in C-USA in total defense last season) it may not matter what the offense puts on the board. The linebackers will need some polish, and two of the team’s top three tacklers from 2008 are gone, but the seven returning starters should help lead the improvement.
SMU and Tulane round out the division, with the hope in
As for the Green Wave, head coach Bob Toledo drew a rough
two games to start the season:
RB Andre Anderson was the most productive member of the Tulane offense in 2008, rushing for more than 800 yards. Eight starters return to an offense that ranked ninth in total offense and tenth in rushing offense, while six starters return on defense. There is room for growth, but just how much Tulane progresses could be stunted by a tough schedule.
Offense sells tickets but defense wins championships. If anyone’s to challenge
Players of the Year:
QB Case Keenum (Houston) and FS Van Eskridge (
How they’ll finish
Southern Miss 2.
4. UCF 4. Rice
5. UAB 5. SMU