By Richard Cirminiello
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As one of the weaker members on the college football food chain, Conference USA was forced into a reactive mode during the realignment mania that gripped the sport the last two years. And all things considered, the league hasn’t done such a bad job of remaining afloat.
The bad news at corporate headquarters in Irving, Tex is that four former members, Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF, begin play in the American Athletic Conference this fall. With the quartet go a handful of rivalries and some robust TV markets. A year from now, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa will follow suit by heading east. The good news, though, is that Conference USA has maintained viability by poaching programs from leagues more vulnerable than itself.
Conference USA will operate with two divisions of seven teams apiece in 2013, thanks to the additions of Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and Florida International in the East, and Louisiana Tech, North Texas and UTSA in the West. Filling the voids in 2014 left by East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa will be Charlotte, Old Dominion and Western Kentucky.
As Conference USA integrates schools from the Sun Belt and WAC, it’s the old guard that will still hold the upper hand in both divisions. Out of the East, Marshall and East Carolina possess the firepower with quarterbacks Rakeem Cato and Shane Carden, respectively, to soar into a winner-take-all regular-season finale on Nov. 29 in Huntington. Out West, defending champ Tulsa is still the team to beat, though Rice has many of the markings of a team that can surprise. The Golden Hurricane hosts the Owls in a pivotal Oct. 5 game at Chapman Stadium.
Among the half-dozen newcomers to the league, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech have the best chances of ending their debuts with some Conference USA hardware. The Blue Raiders are littered with returning starters, including steady QB Logan Kilgore and up-and-coming S Kevin Byard. The Bulldogs were a high-flying circus act in 2012, averaging a nation’s-best 51.5 points a game. However, QB Colby Cameron has graduated, and head coach Sonny Dykes got promoted to Cal.
Dykes successor Skip Holtz is one of four new coaches in the league, joining Florida International’s Ron Turner, UTEP’s Sean Kugler and Southern Miss’ Todd Monken.
Conference USA has lost some of its national relevance with the departures of Houston, SMU and UCF, bigger market teams that made some national waves in recent years. Still, the league is going to survive as an amalgam of imports from smaller conferences and holdovers left without a date to the realignment prom. Already a disparate and incongruous collection of teams covering multiple time zones, Conference USA won’t truly settle down until 2014, when the lame ducks have officially flown the coop and the new invitees have assimilated into their new home.
In the meantime, the ever-changing Conference USA will feature two constants, plenty of high-scoring games and competitive divisions that require every ounce of the regular season to decide a victor.
Team That'll Surprise
Rice – Looking for a sleeper to represent Conference USA in the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl? Take a long gander at the Owls. Seventh-year head coach David Bailiff leaned on a lot of youth in 2012, yet still milked seven wins and an Armed Forces Bowl victory out of his team. Now that the roster is a year older, and flush with returning starters, Rice houses the experienced personnel to compete with Tulsa in the West Division and anyone from over in the Eastern half of the league. If the Owls perform better in the red zone, both offensively and defensively, a 10-win season cannot be ruled out.
Team That'll Disappoint
Tulsa – No, the Golden Hurricanes isn’t dropping into Conference USA irrelevancy. Yes, the program is still good enough to win a second straight league title. But, this team still has some rebuilding to do that could take a little off its fastball in 2013. The skill players are fine. The core players are not. Tulsa graduated 18 key seniors a year ago, including three all-star offensive linemen and the entire front wall on defense. While the Hurricane always seems to find a way on D, replacing eight starters on that side of the ball won’t happen without plenty of heavy lifting. Tulsa will win a lot of games this fall, thanks in part to a soft schedule. However, this is not the same team it was a year ago.
Game of the Year … East Carolina at Marshall, Nov. 29. There’s a very good chance that this regular-season finale at Joan C. Edwards Stadium will decide who faces the West Division champ a week later for the Conference USA title. The Herd and the Pirates both love to air it out, and have played in some thrillers over the years. Last November’s meeting in Greenville required two overtimes and featured 17 touchdowns before East Carolina pulled away, 65-59, in what could be a precursor of things to come in 2013. The latest chapter shapes up as an exciting matchup between two of the league's better passers, Marshall's Rakeem Cato and ECU's Shane Carden. As long as the weather cooperates, the battle in Huntington could go down as one of the league's most entertaining games of the season.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. QB Rakeem Cato, Jr. Marshall
2. RB Trey Watts, Sr. Tulsa
3. SS Kevin Byard, Soph. Middle Tennessee
4. PK Chris Boswell, Sr. Rice
5. DT Khyri Thornton, Sr. Southern Miss
Coach on the Hot Seat
Doc Holliday, Marshall – Three seasons into his first head coaching job, Holliday has been a disappointment, compiling a record of just 17-20. Last year’s squad led the nation in passing, yet finished below .500 because the defense yielded more than 43 points a game. Hey, Holliday can recruit, his forte, and he has clearly upgraded the overall talent level in Huntington. However, the time has come for those players to start producing with greater consistency on the field. If the Thundering Herd fails to rise toward the top of a bloated, diluted Conference USA in 2013, Holliday might have a difficult time avoiding the axe in December.
5 Non-Conference Games Conference USA had better take very, very seriously
1. Old Dominion at East Carolina, Aug. 31
2. Tulsa at Bowling Green, Aug. 29
3. New Mexico at UTEP, Sept. 7
4. Texas State at Southern Miss, Aug. 31
5. Bethune-Cookman at Florida International, Sept. 14
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. WR Ryan Grant, Sr. Tulane
2. DT Justin Ellis, Sr. Louisiana Tech
3. FS Demarco Nelson, Sr. Tulsa
4. CB Phillip Gaines, Sr. Rice
5. TE Gator Hoskins, Sr. Marshall
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. QB Scotty Young for Colby Cameron, Louisiana Tech
2. DE Octavius Thomas for Jamie Collins, Southern Miss
3. WR D.J. Banks for Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech
4. WR Davonte Allen for Aaron Dobson, Marshall
5. LB Mitchell Osborne for DeAundre Brown, Tulsa
- East Carolina QB Shane Carden will conjure up images of a young Brett Favre throughout 2013, throwing for 35 touchdown passes, while brashly leading the Pirates to their first Conference USA championship in four years.
- Tulsa RB Trey Watts will finally begin getting the widespread recognition that’s eluded him the last three years. The former walk-on has done it all for the Golden Hurricane, overcoming humble beginnings to become a major threat as a runner, receiver and return man.
- Rice will be the league’s biggest surprise, even hanging with Texas A&M past halftime of the opener at Kyle Field. The Owls boast an impressive number of returning veterans from a team that finished last season on a five-game winning streak.
- After getting jobbed out of the postseason as an 8-4 team in 2012, Middle Tennessee will control its own destiny as a member of a league with five bowl tie-ins. The Blue Raiders are home to one of Conference USA’s underrated backfields, comprised of senior QB Logan Kilgore and budding sophomore RB Jordan Parker.
- Marshall will score at least 50 points four times this season. And the Herd will come up short in half of those games.
- QB Jameill Showers will be an instant superstar at UTEP. Showers is the former Texas A&M Aggie, with the rifle arm, who would have been an SEC starter in 2012 had it not been for the emergence of Johnny Manziel.
- RB Darrin Reaves of UAB will wrap up the Conference USA rushing title on Nov. 30, and then announce a few days later that he’s foregoing his final year of eligibility as a Blazer.
- Southern Miss will use four different quarterbacks. None will play very well. New head coach Todd Monken needs a capable triggerman for his offense, but he doesn’t have that guy on his current roster.
- The Louisiana Tech backfield will be potent … even without record-breaking QB Colby Cameron. Precocious RB Kenneth Dixon returns, as might rehabbing shooting star Tevin King. Oh, and Cameron’s successor, Scotty Young, is a hard-throwing former four-star recruit of Texas Tech.
- With a full season of action, North Texas WR Brelan Chancellor will challenge for Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year. Before breaking his collarbone last October, he was a tough-to-contain multi-dimensional playmaker.
- Florida Atlantic will take a noticeable step forward in Carl Pelini’s second season in charge. The Owls have a nice core of talent, with JUCO transfer QB Melvin German III ready to team up with the gifted trio of RB Jonathan Wallace, WR William Dukes and TE Nexon Dorvilus.
- Cairo Santos will miss a field goal attempt. The Tulane placekicker—and reigning Lou Groza Award winner—went 21-of-21 in 2012, last missing at the end of the 2011 campaign.
- Florida International CB Richard Leonard is set to bloom into one of the nation’s top young defensive backs from a smaller school. He has the dynamic playmaking qualities that’ll help carry him into the NFL once his Panthers’ career is over.
- UTSA will beat someone it’s not supposed to this fall. Head coach Larry Coker—yup, that Larry Coker—has the Roadrunners pointing north, led by sparkplug senior QB Eric Soza.