Conference USA Football Preview

August 18th, 2009

Offense sells tickets…does it win titles?

By Raphielle Johnson


A familiar theme within Conference USA was the explosive offensive capabilities of many teams. But for all the fireworks that came from the likes of Houston and Tulsa it was the league’s best defensive team that won the title. East Carolina survived a mid-season letdown that followed huge non-conference wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, clinching a title game berth opposite the Golden Hurricane. ECU’s 27-24 win, which included five Pirate interceptions, meant the first conference title of any kind for the program since 1976.


Skip Holtz’s team could very well find itself back in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl with seventeen starters back in Greenville. QB Patrick Pinkney threw for more than 2,600 yards last season, and RB Dominique Lindsay returns after missing all of 2008 due to injury. But the Pirates’ calling card is a tough defense led by safety Van Eskridge and middle linebacker Nick Johnson. The key for the Pirates will be navigating a treacherous non-conference schedule (West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia Tech). Outside of a mid-November trip to Tulsa the Pirates’ toughest conference games will be at home.


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, Memphis will need to find answers in regards to line play, both offensively and defensively, if they want to compete with East Carolina and Southern Miss. Those lines will receive a significant test in the season opener, when the Tigers host Ole Miss in front of a national television audience (ESPN).


As for the rest of the East, both Mark Snyder (Marshall) and George O’Leary (UCF) have very important seasons ahead of them in regards to the state of their programs. Snyder simply hasn’t won enough to appease a fan base used to bowl games and national titles (at the now FCS level). O’Leary’s case is a little less cut and dry, with the program coming under fire from some circles following the death of Erick Plancher a couple of seasons ago. Combine this with the fact that the reigning conference champions going into 2008 finished 4-8 (3-5 C-USA). Ten starters are back on offense for UCF, which will hope that its quarterbacks can complete a higher percentage of their passes in 2009 (42.9%).


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 Marshall makes up for the loss of WR Darius Passmore remains to be seen, but they will need someone to step up on the outside. Coach Snyder brought in Rick Minter, who has experience at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, to run a defense that finished 2008 eighth in Conference USA in total defense.


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. Tulsa, Houston and Rice were the conference’s most explosive offensive teams, and more of the same is to be expected. Houston QB Case Keenum led Conference USA in total offense, averaging more than 400 yards per game. The next two in that category, Chase Clement (Rice) and David Johnson (Tulsa), have both moved on and that fact gives the Cougars the edge in the division race. Running back Bryce Beall also returns for the Cougars, along with three returning starters each at receiver and on the offensive line.


There is a negative for Houston; six starters need to be replaced on a defense that was seventh in Conference USA in both total and scoring defense. If head coach Kevin Sumlin and company can find some answers on that side of the football Houston has a change to pass Tulsa as division champ.


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.


Defensively Tulsa should be in decent shape with MLB Mike Bryan (how was he only an Honorable Mention All-Conference selection?) being one of eight returning starters on the unit. Tulsa actually finished fifth in the conference in total defense, but they struggled against the pass (ninth in pass efficiency defense). The three-game stretch that will go a long way in determining the fate of the Golden Hurricane is in November, with Houston, East Carolina and Southern Miss all in a row. Outside of those three games the conference schedule is manageable for the Golden Hurricane, so some good fortune there could give them another shot at the conference title.


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 Oklahoma State will test a unit that returns eight starters, including leading tackler FS Andrew Sendejo and KAT Travis Bradshaw.


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 Dallas being that the Mustangs can make significant strides in their second season under June Jones. Coach Jones had to go with a true freshman at quarterback in Bo Levi Mitchell, and to say that there were some growing pains in the 1-11 campaign would be an understatement. But to be honest, the lack of playmakers around Mitchell had just as much to do with his struggles as his youth. A season under Mitchell’s belt should help with his progression as a quarterback, as should the return of seven other offensive starters and eight defensive starters.


As for the Green Wave, head coach Bob Toledo drew a rough two games to start the season: Tulsa and BYU. At least both games will be at the Louisiana Superdome…which will probably ensure that droves of Golden Hurricane and Cougar fans make the trip to cheer on their respective teams. Tulane also wasn’t done any favors in the three-game stretch of Houston, Southern Miss and LSU in October.


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.


Storyline: Offense sells tickets but defense wins championships. If anyone’s to challenge defending champion East Carolina they’ll need to play solid defense, not just outscore people.


Players of the Year: QB Case Keenum (Houston) and FS Van Eskridge (East Carolina)


How they’ll finish

            East     1. East Carolina                                    West    1. Houston

                        2. Southern Miss                                              2. Tulsa

                        3. Memphis                                                      3. UTEP

                        4. UCF                                                            4. Rice

                        5. UAB                                                            5. SMU

                        6. Marshall                                                       6. Tulane


Next: Conference USA East and West ultimate schedules