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Conference USA Preview 2006

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Aug 9, 2006


Preview 2006 CollegeFootballNews.com C-USA Preview

Predicted Conference USA Championship
Southern Miss over UTEP

Conference Outlook

Is this going to be the most wide-open conference race in all of college football? Tulsa and UCF played in last year’s championship game, but they’re hardly a lock to win their respective divisions with Southern Miss, UTEP and Houston each appearing to be more stable than last season. If UCF can go from worst to almost first, and Tulsa can come out of nowhere, then it shouldn’t be a shock if a rising program like East Carolina or Marshall pulls off the East title. SMU is on the verge of respectability and Memphis should be a factor from start to finish. The overall level of play should be raised with plenty of offensive stars, and unlike past years, a little more defense from teams like UTEP, Houston and UCF. Basically, expect a whole bunch of fun. 

3 Things to Watch Out For
1. The West will be the far weaker of the two divisions thanks to Tulane and Rice. SMU, despite being better, would likely finish last in the East. Even so …

2. … the West will have loads of firepower thanks to all the veteran quarterbacks. UTEP’s Jordan Palmer, Houston’s Kevin Kolb, Tulsa’s Paul Smith and Tulane’s Lester Ricard will put up points in bunches.

3. Memphis will obviously miss RB DeAngelo Williams, but Joseph Doss is a quick back who’ll put up huge yards while Jamarcus Gaither and T.J. Pitts will each have some big days.

Game of the Year
Oct. 21 UTEP at Houston.
The Cougars and Miners each have tremendous firepower led by their great quarterbacks. Houston’s Kevin Kolb and UTEP’s Jordan Palmer will battle it out for the upper hand in the West Division race.

East Division

T1. Southern Miss
Predicted record: 7-5  Conf. record: 6-2
Best Player:
OG George Batiste, Sr.
Offense - USM was all pass and no run last season, and while the team appears to want more of a balance, it hasn't happened despite several efforts over the last few years. However, the personnel is in place to produce much more on the ground with mobile quarterback Jeremy Young taking over for the solid Dustin Almond. Helping the cause will be the veteran rushing punch of Larry Thomas and Cody Hull running behind a talented offensive line with four starters returning. The receiving corps has the potential to be among the best in Conference USA with six good targets along with tight end, and last year's leading receiver, Shawn Nelson. The problems will kick in if there are any injuries up front and/or if Young struggles with his accuracy.
Defense - The Southern Miss D is coming off a strange season when it led Conference USA in sacks and scoring defense, but gave up a ton of yards and struggled way too much stopping decent passing teams. You know what you're going to get this year; lots of aggressive plays, lots of turnovers, and lots of big performances. The secondary is deep and experienced, and now it needs a few players to become all-star caliber performers. Despite the loss of all-everything star Kevis Coley, the linebacking corps has the potential to be special with six great players in a solid rotation. The line will be the concern early on until three new starters get their feet wet and more depth develops.

This season will be a success if …
Southern Miss wins the Conference USA title. This is one of the few league programs that can honestly shoot for the big prize each and every year. Another New Orleans Bowl appearance will be a major disappointment.

T1. East Carolina
Predicted record: 6-6  Conf. record: 6-2
Best Player:
WR Aundrae Allison, Sr.
Offense - The Skip Holtz/Steve Shankweiler offense was surprisingly consistent and effective last year with a dangerous passing game that kept the chains moving. With seven returning starters including most of the top skill players, there's hope for things to really shine. However, three starters on the line need to be replaced, and the top wide receiver (Aundrae Allison) and running back (Chris Johnson) are coming off big injuries. Quarterback James Pinkney should be in for a huge year with the weapons around him to put up big numbers.
Defense - The defense improved by leaps and bounds shaving off more than ten points and 50 yards per game off the average, but there still wasn't any production against the run finishing 113th in the nation against the run. Thee JUCO transfer will push for the starting linebacker jobs, while the front four should have enough experience and size to be better. The secondary will be a strength with the return of safety Jamar Flournoy and the emergence of corner Kasey Ross.

This season will be a success if …
ECU finishes with a winning year and goes to a bowl. If it's going to happen, there needs to be a hot start and a few upsets over the second half of the year. Pirate fans are still trying to erase memories of the last post-season appearance, the 64-61 loss to Marshall in the GMAC Bowl.

3. UCF
Predicted record: 6-6  Conf. record: 5-3
Best Player:
RB Kevin Smith, Soph.
Offense - UCF made a night-and-day improvement from the year before helped immensely by the play of QB Steven Moffett and the arrival of star back Kevin Smith. Everything is in place for a huge season with all five starters returning to the line, a deep and talented backfield, and a good group of quarterbacks led by Moffett, the team's leader. The only concerns are pass protection and finding a reliable number two receiver to take the pressure off Mike Walker.
Defense - UCF underwent an overhaul of talent last year basically throwing out all the veterans and starting from scratch in the back seven with freshmen. The D didn't stop anyone, but the move unearthed some potential superstars in the secondary led by corner Joe Burnett and safety Jason Venson setting the foundation for a potential fantastic defense either this year or next. There should be a big step up in overall production as long as there aren't the same mistakes made last year. The front four has to figure out how to generate a pass rush without Paul Carrington to rely on anymore.

This season will be a success if …
UCF gets back to a bowl game. Yeah, it'll be title or bust with the way last season went, but the schedule is too tough to demand or expect a second straight East championship. Another eight win season would better than the team would be fantastic.

T4. Memphis
Predicted record: 6-6  Conf. record: 4-4
Best Player: FS Wesley Smith, Sr.
Offense - It's hard to lose a back like DeAngelo Williams and be better, but that might be exactly what happens to Memphis thanks to the return of quarterbacks Patrick Byrne and Will Hudgens from broken legs and the emergence of JUCO transfer Martin Hankins as the probable starter. Maurice Avery filled in admirably last year, but he didn't bomb away and he wasn't able to utilize all the tall, fast receiver targets like the current quarterbacks can. All five starters return to an outstanding offensive line that'll pave the way for a big season from new starting RB Joseph Doss. There are several talented backs ready to work into the rotation to replace Williams' production.
Defense - The D had is moments last year doing a great job against mediocre offenses but struggling mightily with good passing games and high-octane attacks. Pass defense has been the problem for the last few years, but there's hope for an improvement with five returning starters led by All-American Wesley Smith. The linebacking corps loses its top two tacklers, but gets a big boost with the return of Quinton McCrary on the outside. The three man line should be able to get to the quarterback and has decent size against the run.

This season will be a success if …
Memphis wins the East. There are too many holes to fill and too much overall uncertainty on defense to demand a conference title considering how strong the West is, but there's no reason the Tigers can't win the East. The schedule and the firepower on offense should be enough to get it done.

T4. Marshall
Predicted record: 5-7  Conf. record: 4-4
Best Player: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Jr.
Offense - Could that really have been the Marshall offense? It was the worst scoring attack in Conference USA averaging a mere 18.55 points per game getting inconsistent quarterback production and no push for the running game from the offensive line. There's hope for a big improvement with four starters returning up front, Bernie Morris and Jimmy Skinner back at quarterback, the top three wide receivers returning along with speedster Emanuel Spann, and running back Ahmad Bradshaw good enough to be in the mix for all-star honors.
Defense - Head coach Mark Snyder is a defensive coach and should have things in shape soon. It might take a little while more with three new starters needed in the secondary and a run defense needing to improve after a lousy 2005. The line has the potential to be far better with 300-pounders Juan Underwood and Chris Terrell able to clog up the middle, and rising star Albert McClellan on the outside. The linebacking corps should be a strength if Brandon Souder shines in the middle allowing last year's top two tacklers, Matt Couch and Dennis Thornton, to combine on the weakside.

This season will be a success if …
Memphis wins the East. While it’s a tall order considering all the uncertainty on defense, the schedule and the firepower on offense should be enough to come close.

6. UAB
Predicted record: 4-8  Conf. record: 3-5
Best Player: LB Larry McSwain, Sr.
Offense - UAB has to go on without leader Darrell Hackney at quarterback, but the bigger concern might be at wide receiver after losing Reggie Lindsey and Jhun Cook. Norris Drinkard is a good number one receiver, and now he has to be explosive. The running game, unlike last year, should dominate with a big, talented offensive line led b tackles Cornelius Rogers and Julius Wilson. Corey White and Dan Burks are back leading a good backfield. Of course, all eyes will be on the quarterback situation, where Chris Williams has to use his mobility and practice experience to keep the offense moving like Hackney did.
Defense - There will be plenty of position battles before the season opener with new defensive coordinator Rick Christophel keeping all his options open in the Blazer 4-3. Short on stars but long on experience, there are several jobs still up for grabs, especially in the secondary. Kevin Sanders appears to be ready to star at one corner spot while Chris Felder and Will Dunbar have to be solid at the safeties. Linebacker is solid with five good veterans returning, and there should be more of a pass rusher with all-star end Larry McSwain back. Size up front is an issue.

This season will be a success if …
UAB wins the East. It's dreaming big for a team that's not nearly as complete or as strong as several others in Conference USA, but it should be in the mix for the East title until late November. The sky's the limit if the quarterback situation becomes a positive.

WEST DIVISION

1. UTEP
Predicted record: 8-4  Conf. record: 6-2
Best Player: QB Jordan Palmer, Sr.
Offense - 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.
Defense - The defense melted down over the second half of last season and needs to be far more productive with nine starters returning. The linebacking corps should be excellent with top two tacklers Jeremy Jones and Troy Collavo returning, while the secondary will be one of the most productive in the conference once the corner situation is settled. Alex Obomese leads a good line that should be better if tackles Zach West and Justin Hanel can stay healthy.

This season will be a success if …
UTEP wins the Conference USA title. Tulsa might be the league's best team, but UTEP is hardly going to whither as the second banana despite away games at Houston and Tulsa as part of a stretch of four conference road trips in five weeks.

T2. Tulsa
Predicted record: 8-4  Conf. record: 5-3
Best Player: LB Nick Bunting, Sr.
Offense - It's not going to be the most explosive offense around, but it'll be steady and very, very effective with seven returning starters to an attack that led the league with a 33-point average. Expect another good year thanks to the return of QB Paul Smith and four very good starters to what should be an improved offensive line. The loss of leading rusher Uril Parrish won't hurt with the three-headed monster of Brandon Diles, Tarrion Adams and Oklahoma transfer Courtney Tennial making the ground game stronger. The big problem is at receiver losing All-America TE Garrett Mills and top WR Ashlan Davis. 
Defense - If this isn't the best defense in Conference USA, it'll be close. 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. 

This season will be a success if …
Tulsa wins the Conference USA title. This is the league's best team and anything less than a second straight championship will be seen as a failure no matter what else the team does.

T2. Houston
Predicted record: 7-5  Conf. record: 5-3
Best Player:
QB Kevin Kolb, Sr.
Offense - The nation's 19th best offense should put up yards and points in bunches this season with a tremendous receiving corps and fourth-year starting quarterback Kevin Kolb to deliver the ball. The key will be consistency as well as finishing off drives. The Cougars averaged 439 yards per game last year, but averaged a pedestrian 28 points per outing. The ground game will be a work in progress with Jackie Battle a good, pounding running back, but not necessarily a dangerous threat to crank out big yards. Depth is a problem on the offensive line and quarterback, but not at receiver where the second team would still form one of Conference USA's best corps.
Defense - Ten starters return to a defense that was inconsistent throughout last year, but should be better, especially in the back eight of the 3-4 defense with star FS Will Gulley returning after missing all of last year. The switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 helped improve the run defense, but it still wasn't a rock allowing 4.6 yards per carry and 177 yards per game. That should improve thanks to a deep and talented linebacking corps, while the defensive line has some good young sophomores in Cody Pree and Phillip Hunt to get excited about. Generating more of a pass rush is a must after coming up with 17 sacks last year. 

This season will be a success if …
Houston wins the Conference USA title. There won't be the same mix of starting experience and a favorable schedule for a long time. The first ten-win season since 1990 is also an attainable goal.

4. SMU
Predicted record: 5-7  Conf. record: 2-6
Best Player:
RB DeMyron Martin, Soph.
Offense - The offense started to come on by the end of last year and has the potential to finally start scoring on a regular basis if new QB Justin Willis plays up to the prep hype. There will be a variety of formations with the ability to go to four and five wide sets to run the spread and then quickly adjust to a regular pro-set using a "U End" as a fullback/tight end. Bobby Chase leads a good-looking receiving corps, but the strength is in the backfield where DeMyron Martin leads a deep, speedy group of runners. The line will be fine by the middle of the year once some depth starts to develop.
Defense - Head coach Phil Bennett is all about the defense, and his turned into a solid one as last year went on. The speed and athleticism is finally there to run things the way Bennett would like with more aggressiveness and more forced turnovers, but it might take a little while to fully jell with little experience in the back seven. Safety Joe Sturdivant and linebacker Wilton McCray are nice pieces to build around. The line should be dominant with tackle Adrian Haywood and end Justin Rogers among the best in the league.

This season will be a success if …
SMU has a winning season. There are way too many holes to win the West, but the schedule is nice enough to expect seven wins and a possible bowl bid. At the very least, it would be a disaster if this is another losing season.

5. Tulane
Predicted record: 3-9  Conf. record: 2-6
Best Player:
QB Lester Ricard, Sr.
Offense - The offense struggled way too much last season with no consistent ground game and not enough from the passing attack. This is a team built on getting into shootouts, and it wasn't able to keep pace. The talent is there at quarterback with Lester Ricard needing a bounce-back year, and he'll have targets to throw to with Preston Brown, Damarcus Davis, Brian King and Kenneth Guidroz all able to produce. Matt Forte is a nice-looking back who needs more work behind a line that can pass protect, but can't blow anyone off the ball.
Defense - The defense finished third in the league last season despite getting next to no production against the run and not enough of a pass rush. This year, the line has too many veterans and too much experience not to be better. The defensive back seven will have major, major problems early with only one returning starter and not nearly enough size to handle the more physical teams. Forcing more turnovers is a must after taking it away only 14 times.

This season will be a success if …
Tulane wins six games. It's not going to be easy with seven road games that the Green Wave will likely be underdogs in. It's going to require being nearly perfect at home and getting a road upset to get to .500.

6. Rice
Predicted record: 0-12  Conf. record: 0-8
Best Player:
S Chad Price, Sr.
Offense - Rice intended to mess with a version of the spread offense last year, but it never really happened as the offense finished dead last in the country in passing and 115th in pass efficiency. New head coach Todd Berry and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite have their work cut out for them as they try to make all the pieces fit. Fortunately, they're coaching players smart enough to figure out what they're supposed to be doing and should still be able to use the running abilities of the old days. The big key will be efficient play from QB Chase Clement right away, but he only completed 43% of his throws last season. RB Quinton Smith will be the featured player early on working behind a decent line.
Defense - New defensive coordinator Paul Randolph has plenty of experience to work with, but he has to get far more production out of a D that finished near the bottom in just about every major category and was steamrolled over by any running game with a pulse. On the plus side, things got better as the year went on after allowing 45.7 points per game over the first seven. The hope is for quickness to overcome the lack of size in the back eight of the 3-3-5 alignment with the strength likely to be in the secondary led by safeties Andray Downs and Chad Price. Up front, a replacement is needed for all-star John Syptak and some semblance of a pass rush needs to emerge.

This season will be a success if …
Rice comes up with three wins. It came close to beating UCF and UTEP over the second half of last season and it beat Tulane, but it's going to take big upsets to come close to winning more than a few games.