Southern Mississippi upset Houston last year and stopped the Cougars bid for an undefeated season and potential BCA bowl berth. This is a conference known for its playmakers. College record-holder Case Keenum has finally graduated but there are still plenty of quality QB’s in Conference USA. This looks like a wide-open year for the title. Can Southern Miss and Houston get back to the title game?
Conference USA East
1 – UCF – The Knights are ready to avenge a sub-par season in 2011. They had several close losses that could have made a 5-7 season to at least an 8-4 season and a bowl birth. HC O’Leary will have his team prepared as this year he has 16 returning starters back including QB Blake Bortles. The offense dropped off a bit last year as they only avg 27.1-ppg compared to 32.1 in 2010 (and one of those games they scored 62 against FCS Charleston Southern). The defense is rock solid and we expect big things this year from them. This is a team that has an experienced HC and a chip on their shoulder after losing so many close games in 2011. They are our football pick to win the east in 2012.
2 – Southern Mississippi – The Golden Eagles pulled the big upset last year in the CUSA Title game as they beat Houston. It was a great year in Hattiesburg and some talented players are coming back. The offensive line is solid led by C Austin Quattrochi and the QB will be Jr Chris Campbell. Campbell has big shoes to fill as he succeeds Austin Davis who broke a ton of records. Southern Miss only has 10 returning starters back but it is a solid nucleus and they have recruited well. 1st year HC Ellis Johnson orchestrated a great South Carolina defense the last four years and he will bring his attacking –style defense with him. The Golden Eagles have to go to UCF this year and that game could come down to the CUSA-East title.
3 – Marshall – The Thundering Herd are a team on the rise and we don’t think any of the top teams in CUSA should take them lightly. Last year they finished 7-6 and ‘upset’ FIU in the Beef O’ Brady’s Bowl. This year they have 13 starters returning including right on the offensive side of the ball. The offense is led by QB Rakeem Cato, who is only a sophomore. He has a strong arm and great running skills. The offense will improve on their 21.8-ppg avg from 2011 which will make them a dark horse to win the East. HC Doc Holliday has this team going in the right direction and two of their toughest conference games of the year, UCF and Houston, they get in Huntington. We will call for a 3rd place finish this season but things are definitely looking good for the Herd this year.
4 – East Carolina – HC Ruffin McNeill is in his 3rd year with the Pirates and has yet to post a winning season in his first two. He may be on the hot seat this year if they don’t have a winning record because he has his best team this year. 15 returning starters are back but they are breaking in a new QB in Jr Rio Johnson. The offense took a big step back last year only avg 26.3-ppg (-12.5-ppg from 2010). They will need to improve that number in order to be successful. Many are calling for the Pirate to contend for the East title this year but we just don’t see it. They play a difficult non-conference schedule which includes road games at UNC and South Carolina. They have to go to Southern Miss, UCF and get Navy and Houston at home. It is going be a tough season for them to compete for a title and get bowl eligible.
5 – UAB – The Blazers haven’t had a winning season since 2004 and this year they turn to 1st year HC Garrick McGee. McGee was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas and led their high-powered attack to some impressive numbers. He is hoping that his Blazers can improve on a 20.2-ppg avg which was good for 108th nationally. QB Jonathon Perry leads the offense but transfer RB Dontavius Jackson should help. The UAB defense has been poor for years allowing over 30-ppg every year since 2006. McGee wil turn the program around but not this year. Good thing Memphis is in their side division or they would finish last.
6 – Memphis – The Tigers have been atrocious the last three years (2-10, 1-11, 2-10). They do have 14 returning starters back and new HC Justin Fuente has is hands full. Look for for Memphis is to really establish the passing game and try and get things moving downfield. The offense has been dreadful the last two seasons and there will be a learning curve and adjustment period. Fuente will have his team compete but they just don’t have the talent. Looks like another bad year in Memphis.
Conference USA West
1 – Houston – Every must think we are nuts picking Houston to win the West this year after losing record-setting QB Case Keenum. We say, welcome Sophmore David Piland. Piland filled in for Keenum 2 years ago when Keenum got injured and did a nice job. Piland red-shirted last year and is ready to lead an attack that has 5 returning starters including RB Charles Sims. New HC Tony Levine wants to keep the same style of offense but it will be tough to match last year’s 49.3-ppg avg. This team has some good talent coming back on defense with seven starters back. It’s business as usual in Houston as they won’t miss a beat this year with a new HC and new starting QB. Houston is our pick to win the West.
2 – SMU – June Jones run-n-shoot offense has not been as prolific at SMU as it was in Hawaii but he has this team going in the overall right direction. SMU will be breaking in a new QB in Garret Gilbert (transferred from Texas). He will be learning the run-n-shoot literally on the run as he just transferred in. This is a type of offense that Gilbert will excel in as opposed to the one he was in at Texas. SMU has a significantly underrated defense which will include seven starters returning. The defense only allowed 23.1-ppg and 340-ypg total. SMY was ranked dead last in the country in turnover margin (-16) and they were still 8-5. If those numbers get better this is a potential 10-win team. They have an excellent chance at getting to the title game as they do get Houston at home this year. We will still call for a 2nd place finish but it would not surprise us if they were in the CUSA title game.
3 – Tulsa – The Golden Hurricane football have been to 5 bowl games the last 6 years and 2nd year coach Bill Blankenship has another talented team back this year and will get to another bowl. This team has an excellent chance at getting to the CUSA title game with 13 returning starters back. The offense is led by RB Willie Carter and WR Bryan Burnham. They will be breaking in a new QB in Jr Cody Green. The offense very good last year avg 33.01-ppg and we don’t expect and drop-off this season. The defense is solid as well and will improve their numbers from last year as they allowed 27.3-ppg. This is a gritty, tough team but will have to go to Houston and SMU. That is why we are calling for a third-place finish this season.
4 – UTEP – Hard to believe that HC Mike Price is entering his 9th season with the Miners but he is. Price is 45-52 in eight seasons and he is definitely on the hot seat this year. UTEP has not had a winning season in 2004 but do return 13 starters from a 5-7 team that was hit by the turnover bug last year. The schedule is not favorable for the Miners as they make trips to Tulsa, Houston, East Carolina and Southern Miss. They also get UCF at home. Unless there is a miracle in El Paso this year, this team is heading for another sub-.500 record.
5 – Rice – The Owls have had three straight losing seasons after going 10-3 in 2008 and that may have bought HC Dvid Bailiff one more year because of that great 2008 season. The Owls only return 10 starts but QB Taylor McGargue and WR Sam McDuffie return. Both are versatile players and can make plays. The defense was poor last year allowing 33.3-ppg and we don’t see it getting much better. The Owls could not capitalize on their +8 TO Margin and if they can be in the positive this year with their TO Margin they are going to have to take advantage of it. There is just not enough talent for them to compete for a title this year but this team will play hard every time they step on the field.
6 – Tulane – New HC, new systems, and hopefully a new attitude comes to New Orleans this year. HC Curtis Johnson was the WR coach for the Saints and will bring some excitement to the position. This team is still 3 to 4 years away as they have no talent. They do return 14 starters that are hungry to win but it will take some time. We will call for another last place finish this year but the future looks good with Johnson as the HC.
Conference USA Championship Game: UCF over Houston
Bowl Eligible Teams: UCF, Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Houston, SMU, Tulsa