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Conference USA Preview 2006 - Unit Rankings

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Aug 9, 2006


CollegeFootballNews.com 2006 C-USA Preview Unit Rankings

Offenses
1. UTEP
It'll be another year of bombing away after finishing ninth in the nation in passing offense while averaging 32 points per game. Jordan Palmer is back for his fourth year as the starting quarterback with the talent, experience and arm to have another big season, but he has to cut down on his interceptions. The receiving corps should be better than ever with Johnnie Lee Higgins the veteran leading a relatively inexperienced but very promising group. RB Marcus Thomas has the potential to be an all-star behind an average line that won't be a liability.
2. Southern Miss
3. East Carolina
4. Tulsa
5. Houston
6. UCF
7. Marshall
8. Memphis
9. UAB
10. Tulane
11. SMU
12. Rice

Quarterbacks
1. Houston
Kevin Kolb could be the signature star in Conference USA this year as long as he cuts down on his interceptions. He has a tremendous receiving corps that should help him finish his career with eye-popping stats, and there's no questioning his leadership of the offense and the team. The concern is at backup where there's no experience between redshirt freshmen Clint Walraven and Blake Joseph. One of them has to see quality action this year to be ready for 2007.
2. UTEP
3. Tulsa
4. Tulane
5. UCF
6. East Carolina
7. Marshall
8. Memphis
9. Southern Miss
10. UAB
11. SMU
12. Rice


Running Backs
1. UCF
This has the potential to be the league's best backfield if all the parts stay healthy and complement each other well. Kevin Smith is the young star with the home run hitting ability and talent to carry the offense by himself, but he doesn't have to with big, fast Jason Peters and reliable Dontavius Wilcox to handle around 15 carries a game. Shane Smith is a good looking young fullback, while Neal Bittong will be the pounding run blocker.
2. Marshall
3. East Carolina
4. Memphis
5. UAB
6. Tulsa
7. SMU
8. UTEP
9. Southern Miss
10. Rice
11. Tulane
12. Houston


Receivers
1. East Carolina
The expected return of Aundrae Allison from a knee injury, along with most of last year's top targets, should help make the ECU passing game shine. There are plenty of deep threats to go around in the four-wide formats, and several options to play around with. Allison is the key needing to take the heat off of everyone else. Now that the veterans know what they're doing in the Skip Holtz offense, they should be able to exploit one-on-one coverage a bit more.
2. Houston
3. Southern Miss
4. UTEP
5. Memphis
6. Marshall
7. Tulane
8. SMU
9. UCF
10. Tulsa
11. UAB
12. Rice

Offensive Lines
1. Southern Miss
The line allowed a mere 12 sacks last season, but it didn't get enough of a push for the running game that averaged only 111 yards per game. Four starters return including three all-star candidates in tackle Chris Clark and guards Travis Cooley and George Batista, and they all need to stay healthy. There's almost no developed depth and, at the moment, a huge drop-off from the first team to the second.
2. Memphis
3. UAB
4. Tulsa
5. Marshall
6. UTEP
7. UCF
8. East Carolina
9. Houston
10. SMU
11. Tulane
12. Rice


Defenses
1. Tulsa
The linebacking corps is terrific with six great options and an all-star cast among the front three led by Nick Bunting on the strongside and Nelson Coleman in the middle. The secondary could be even better thanks to the return of big hitting safety Kedrick Alexander along with All-Conference USA safety Bobby Blackshire and corner Nick Graham. There's plenty of room to tinker in the 3-3-5 alignment with enough size up front to play a true 4-3 against the run and enough speed and size among the backup linebackers to add another speed rushing end to the mix. 

2. Southern Miss
3. Houston
4. UTEP
5. East Carolina
6. Marshall
7. UAB
8. UCF
9. SMU
10. Memphis
11. Tulane
12. Rice

Defensive Lines
1. Southern Miss
Southern Miss always finds ways to plug the holes, literally, but the line, led by new defensive line coach Bill Wilt, might be a work in progress for a few games after losing tackles Tom Johnson and Terrance Ford along with end Akeem Lockett. There's not a whole lot of size on the inside relying on the quickness of Ryan Watson, Martavius Prince, and Man Nyang to make plays. The lack of a proven pass rusher on the outside means Ken Griffith has to stay healthy and Matthew Chatelain has to step up his play after moving to the Bandit position.
2. UTEP
3. SMU
4. Marshall
5. UAB
6. East Carolina
7. Tulsa
8. UCF
9. Houston
10. Memphis
11. Tulane
12. Rice

Linebackers
1. Tulsa
It'll be a total shock if this isn't Conference USA's best linebacking corps by a long shot. You could make a preseason first-team all-star list from Nick Bunting, Nelson Coleman and Chris Chamberlain and you wouldn't be nuts. Bunting is a Butkus Award candidate on the strongside, while Coleman could be even better in the middle. To make things more interesting, the talented backups aren't just bigger than the starters, they're a lot bigger. The coaching staff has an abundance of riches to work with needing to find spots somewhere for George Clinkscale and Alain Karatepeyan; each could play defensive end if needed.
2. Southern Miss
3. Houston
4. Marshall
5. UTEP
6. East Carolina
7. UAB
8. Memphis
9. SMU
10. UCF
11. Tulane
12. Rice


Defensive Backs
1. Tulsa
The pass defense finished 17th in the nation allowing 183 yards per game and 11th in pass efficiency defense, but to be fair, part of the reason was because teams spent so much time running the ball. Even so, Tulsa picked off 22 passes and got a great season out of its back five. Now things should be even better with the return of safety Kedrick Alexander after being out of the mix for the last two seasons along with all-stars Bobby Blackshire and corner Nick Graham. There's depth, speed, and plenty of great tacklers.
2. UCF
3. East Carolina
4. Houston
5. Southern Miss
6. UTEP
7. UAB
8. Marshall
9. Memphis
10. SMU
11. Rice
12. Tulane

Special Teams
1. UTEP
This could be the best group of special teams in Conference USA if Johnnie Lee Higgins can do a bit more on kickoff returns. The senior averaged 22.4 yards per try, but the team averaged a mere 19 yards per return. Higgins was a solid punt returner averaging 9.4 yards per kick. The coverage units were fantastic, and should be again. Both kickers return led by all-star-to-be Reagan Schneider, who's one of the nation's best long-distance field goal kickers. Punter Ryan Hotchkiss doesn't boom it, but he's effective.
2. East Carolina
3. UCF
4. Tulsa
5. Southern Miss
6. Tulane
7. Marshall
8. SMU
9. Houston
10. UAB
11. Memphis
12. Rice