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2011 CFN Conference USA Preview

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jul 27, 2011


No league has more exciting quarterbacks than Conference USA, and no one will have as many wild shootouts. Can it also be one of the most entertaining races? Check out the unit rankings, All-C-USA Team and top 30 players, thoughts on the season, predictions, breakdowns, and more in the 2011 CFN C-USA Preview.


Preview 2011

C-USA Preview


EAST
- 2011 East Carolina Preview | 2011 Marshall Preview 
- 2011 Memphis Preview | 2011 Southern Miss Preview 
- 2011 UAB Preview | 2011 UCF Preview

WEST
- 2011 Houston Preview | 2011 Rice Preview 
- 2011 SMU Preview | 2011 Tulane Preview
- 2011 Tulsa Preview | 2011 UTEP Preview 

- 2011 C-USA Preview | 2011 C-USA Unit Rankings
- 2011 CFN C-USA Schedules & Picks | 2011 C-USA Thoughts
- 2011 CFN All-C-USA Team & Top 30 Players
- 2011 C-USA East Team By Team Looks & Predicted Finish
- 2011 C-USA West Team By Team Looks & Predicted Finish 
- 2011 C-USA Big Questions | 2010 C-USA Preview 
- Suggestions or something we missed? Let us know

By Richard Cirminiello

On Jan. 14, the NCAA granted Case Keenum a sixth year of eligibility—Conference USA gets back one of its headliners, and league coordinators get one more playmaker with which to contain.

The Houston quarterback, a contender for the 2009 Heisman Trophy, gives the league a coveted figure capable of drumming up conversations from coast-to-coast. Healthy again after missing most of 2010 with a torn ACL, he’ll resume his quest to become the NCAA’s all-time leading passer. Hawaii’s Timmy Chang currently holds the mark, but is expected to be bumped to No. 2 at some point in the fall. While Keenum is an attention-grabber, he’s also the sparkplug head coach Kevin Sumlin needs to rebound from last year’s dismal 5-7 showing. The Cougars were never the same after losing their leader, going from a fringe BCS buster contender to a rare bowl-less December.

Houston is one of three favorites to win an exciting Conference USA West race. Not to be forgotten are Tulsa and SMU, which have prolific quarterbacks of their own. The Golden Hurricane went 10-3 behind the dual-threat ability of G.J. Kinne, closing with a season-ending seven-game winning streak that included upsets of Notre Dame in South Bend and Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. Bill Blankenship takes over a squad flush with veteran talent. After playing in their first-ever league title game, the Mustangs are bucking to win one this year. June Jones continues to work his magic on the Hilltop, getting plenty of help from QB Kyle Padron, RB Zach Line, and an opportunistic D. There’s a clear line in the sand after the division’s top three teams, with Rice, UTEP, and Tulane pressing for a rare winning season. The schools’ coaches, David Bailiff, Mike Price, and Bob Toledo, respectively, might need a bowl game to earn a spot on the sidelines in 2012.

Over in the East half of the conference, UCF is set to defend its league championship with an ample supply of talent. The offense is improving around electric QB Jeff Godfrey, and the defense is always among the league’s best. The Knights could be primping for inclusion in the Big East at some point in the near future. Southern Miss is still waiting to break through and win a title for fourth-year head coach Larry Fedora. QB Austin Davis leads a high-scoring offensive attack. East Carolina took a break after winning back-to-back Conference USA crowns under Skip Holtz. Ruffin McNeill needs to revamp his defense and take some pressure off QB Dominique Davis and the offense. UAB has the necessary parts to be this year’s sleeper. Marshall’s search for a capable quarterback shows no end in sight. The rebuilding at Memphis is in the early stages of what promises to be a very long process for Larry Porter and his staff.

Houston is about to make its Case for Conference USA supremacy, but the league is as deep and competitive as it’s been in years. The Cougars are firmly in the hunt, but even the return of a record-holding quarterback won’t be enough to completely shoo away the likes of Tulsa, SMU, UCF, and Southern Miss.

Team That'll Surprise
UAB – The Blazers are welcoming back just enough talent to earn a bowl berth and save the job of head coach Neil Callaway. It’s do-or-die in Birmingham, but fortunately UAB enters 2011 well-prepared for the challenge. The offense will again be led by the underrated backfield tandem of QB Bryan Ellis and RB Pat Shed, which will get plenty of support from the Matt McCants-led line. And while the defense has its weak spots, new coordinator Tommy West inherits 10 starters from 2010. This is a feisty program that came close to knocking off Tennessee and Mississippi State last fall. With a sense of urgency and a little extra seasoning, the Blazers are due to challenge in the East Division.

Team That'll Disappoint
Houston – While everyone will be justifiably fixated on the return of Case Keenum, the record-setting quarterback will be of no help to the Cougar D. When No. 7 was delivering 5,000-yard seasons, it was the play of the defense that prevented Houston from getting over the hump and winning a Conference USA championship. The last time the program yielded less than 300 points in a season was a dozen years ago. The Cougars will continue to have problems stopping the run and plugging the holes in a rebuilt secondary, ultimately preventing them from wearing the conference crown.

Game of the Year … Houston at Tulsa, Nov. 26. If you watch just one Conference USA game all year, this ought to be it. The duel between quarterbacks Case Keenum and G.J. Kinne will be worth the investment of time. The Cougars and Golden Hurricane harbor similarly high-powered attacks that get up and down the field in an instant. This shapes up as one of those wild 47-44 affairs that produces 950 yards of total offense and doesn’t get decided until the final minutes. Although SMU will have a say as well, the winner of the track meet at Chapman Stadium will take a giant step toward winning the West Division.

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. QB Jeff Godfrey, Soph. UCF
2. RB Zach Line, Jr. SMU
3. LB Sammy Brown, Sr. Houston
4. S Marci Nelson, Soph. Tulsa
5. RB Orleans Darkwa, Soph. Tulane

Coach on the Hot Seat
Bob Toledo, Tulane – Toledo might want to start a tab because he’s become a regular in this space. Yeah, he’s facing more obstacles than the typical coach, but after going 13-35 over four seasons, excuses are falling on deaf ears. At a minimum, the former UCLA head man might have a leg to stand on if he put out an entertaining offense that helped move the turnstiles. However, that hasn’t been the case. The Green Wave remains an afterthought in Louisiana, struggling to justify staying at the FBS level. Anything less than a bowl game will entice the administration to seek out an injection of fresh energy from a younger staff. UAB’s Neil Callaway, UTEP’s Mike Price, and Rice’s David Bailiff have questionable job security as well.

5 Non-Conference Games Conference USA had better take very, very seriously
1. UCF at Florida International, Sept. 17
2. Louisiana Tech at Southern Miss, Sept. 3
3. Marshall at Ohio, Sept. 17
4. Tulane at Army, Oct. 1
5. UAB at Florida Atlantic, Nov. 26

Bold Prediction … Conference USA will claim no fewer than three victims from BCS conferences this fall. The league that had produced a Liberty Bowl upset of Georgia last December will continue to play well versus tougher competition. Its members are on a cumulative uptick, getting improved play from the likes of UCF, SMU, Tulsa, East Carolina, Houston, and Southern Miss. There’ll be a handful of opportunities for the conference to make waves, meaning Mississippi State, Purdue, Baylor, West Virginia, Louisville, Virginia Tech, UCLA, Texas A&M, Virginia, and Boston College will need to be on high alert. Conference USA lost just one coach during the offseason, Tulsa’s Todd Graham to Pitt, a level of consistency that’ll resonate on the field.

5 Best Pro Prospects
1. DE Vinny Curry, Sr. Marshall
2. CB Emmanuel Davis, Sr. East Carolina
3. WR Damaris Johnson, Sr. Tulsa
4. WR Lance Lewis, Sr. East Carolina
5. QB Case Keenum, Sr. Houston

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. DE Troy Davis for Bruce Miller, UCF
2. LB Devin Arrington for Mario Harvey, Marshall
3. WR Michael Bowman for Dwayne Harris, East Carolina
4. WR Keenan Holman for Aldrick Robinson, SMU
5. WR Donavon Kemp for Kris Adams, UTEP

EAST
- 2011 East Carolina Preview | 2011 Marshall Preview 
- 2011 Memphis Preview | 2011 Southern Miss Preview 
- 2011 UAB Preview | 2011 UCF Preview

WEST
- 2011 Houston Preview | 2011 Rice Preview 
- 2011 SMU Preview | 2011 Tulane Preview
- 2011 Tulsa Preview | 2011 UTEP Preview 

- 2011 C-USA Preview | 2011 C-USA Unit Rankings
- 2011 CFN C-USA Schedules & Picks | 2011 C-USA Thoughts
- 2011 CFN All-C-USA Team & Top 30 Players
- 2011 C-USA East Team By Team Looks & Predicted Finish
- 2011 C-USA West Team By Team Looks & Predicted Finish 
- 2011 C-USA Big Questions | 2010 C-USA Preview 
- Suggestions or something we missed? Let us know