Midseason Report - Conference USA

Posted Oct 13, 2006

The best Conference USA players, coaches, surprises of the midseason and more

Offensive Player of the Midseason
Kevin Kolb, QB Houston

Defensive Player of the Midseason
Brian Raines, LB Rice

Ten best Conference USA players in the first half of the season
1. Kevin Kolb, QB Houston
2. Johnnie Lee Higgins, WR UTEP
3. Damion Fletcher, RB Southern Miss
4. Brian Raines, LB Rice
5. Paul Smith, QB Tulsa
6. Jarrett Dillard, WR Rice
7. Lester Ricard, QB Tulane
8. Jordan Palmer, QB UTEP
9. Justin Willis, QB SMU
10. Justin Rogers, DE SMU

Biggest Surprise
After opening with lackluster performances against Texas Tech and North Texas to open the season, the Mustangs have been tapping into their pre-death penalty glory days with three wins and a painfully close loss in El Paso Saturday night.  The emergence of redshirt freshman Justin Willis at quarterback has SMU thinking postseason for the first time in 22 years.

Biggest Disappointment – UTEP 
Ever since coming within a field goal of upsetting Texas Tech in Week 2, the Miners have been schizophrenic, losing to New Mexico and nearly getting dumped by New Mexico State and Southern Methodist.  UTEP appeared to be the deepest team heading into the season, however, a so-so defense and non-existent running game means it no longer holds that distinction.    

The Conference USA Champion will be ... Tulsa
As Houston and UTEP have been flighty in the West, Tulsa has been a rock since getting whipped by BYU earlier in the year.  The Golden Hurricane has the league’s best defense and in Paul Smith, a reliable, veteran quarterback who knows what it takes to win big games and a Conference USA championship. 

Best Game of the First Half 
Texas Tech 38 ... UTEP 35 OT, Sept. 9
Texas Tech won in overtime as Alex Trlica's 49-yard field goal bounced off the upright and through to end a crazy game. The Red Raider defense stopped UTEP on the first possession in OT with an interception by Darcel McBath off a tipped pass, and then Tech appeared to have the game on a touchdown catch by Robert Johnson. It got called back because of a holding call, and then Tech was moved back even further because of an excessive celebration penalty called on Johnson. Even so, Trlica came through after missing a 51-yard kick at the end of regulation with Tech getting two untimed downs, thanks to penalties, to get into position. The two teams went back and fourth all game long with Graham Harrell throwing for two scores and running for one, and Shannon Woods giving Tech a seven point lead late on a nine-yard run. UTEP tied it up with 1:04 to go on a 39-yard touchdown from Johnnie Lee Higgins for his second score of the game and Jordan Palmer's third touchdown pass, but he also threw two key interceptions. 
Second Best Game Houston 31 ... Rice 30, Sept. 3
Third Best GameUTEP 44 ... New Mexico State 38, Sept. 30

Worst Game of the First Half 
Southern Miss 45 ... SE Louisiana 0, Sept. 9
SE Louisiana had a chance to go up early, missed a 43-yard field goal, and then got stomped as the Southern Miss offense cruised led by two Damion Fletcher touchdown runs and a 31-yard Damion Carter scoring grab. Larry Thomas added two short scores, and the defense got in the act with a five-yard fumble return for a score by Cornelius McGee. SE Louisiana only converted two of 14 third down chances.

Coach of the Midseason – Phil Bennett, Southern Methodist
Bennett’s taking a page out of former mentor Bill Snyder’s rebuilding manual, guiding Southern Methodist out of the dark ages and back to respectability.  Now that the offense has narrowed the divide on the defense, the 3-3 Mustangs are going to be a handful for every opponent over the final two months of the season.   

Player who'll step up in the second half – Kevin Smith, RB UCF
At Marshall Wednesday night, Smith gave a sneak preview of how he plans to finish his sophomore season, rushing for 166 yards before leaving in the third quarter with bruised ribs.  While Steven Moffett continues to struggle in the passing game, Smith’s play will dictate whether the Golden Knights can rebound from a slow start to repeat as East champions.

Best performance so far – Just days after DB Dale Lloyd died during a workout, Rice honored its teammate with an emotional 48-14 pasting of Army for its only win of the first half.  In the victory, QB Chase Clement returned from an injury to account for 363 yards, while throwing a school-record five touchdown passes, three to WR Jarrett Dillard. 

Top Freshman – Southern Miss RB Damion Fletcher
Fletcher’s not the biggest or the fastest back in Conference USA, but through six games, he’s clearly been the best.  The true freshman with the superb feet and vision leads the league with 601 yards rushing to go along with five touchdowns, taking his own coaching staff by surprise with how quickly he’s matured into the Golden Eagles’ go-to back.      

Coach who needs to have a big second half – Tommy West, Memphis
West is well-respected at Memphis, so this is not at all a statement about job security.  However, the coach made a bold move when he canned defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn last month, a decision that has back fired so far.  The Tigers have slipped to 1-4, only beating I-AA Chattanooga, making a strong finish a must if they’re to qualify for a fourth consecutive bowl invitation.            

Player who needs to have a big second half – UTEP QB Jordan Palmer
When he’s good, he’s real good, but when he’s bad, Palmer can drive a coaching staff to the medicine cabinet.  Considering how poorly the Miner running game is performing, Palmer must string together seven consistent efforts if UTEP is going to remain a serious contender for Conference USA supremacy.     

Best remaining conference game – Tulsa at Houston, Nov. 4
The eventual Conference USA champ is going to come out of the West, and this game at Robertson Stadium will go a long way to determining who cops the division.  Plus, the battle between two of the league’s best quarterbacks, Tulsa’s Paul Smith and Houston’s Kevin Kolb, makes the match up even more appealing.    

Team Mid-Season MVPs & Predictions  
East Carolina – QB James Pinkney
predicted wins: Southern Methodist, Marshall, at Rice
predicted losses: Tulsa, at Southern Miss, at UCF, at NC State
predicted record: 5-7

Houston – QB Kevin Kolb
predicted wins: UTEP, UCF, at Memphis, at Southern Methodist  
predicted losses: at Southern Miss, Tulsa  
predicted record: 8-4

Marshall – RB Ahmad Bradshaw
predicted wins: Memphis, Tulane
predicted losses: at Southern Methodist, at UAB, at East Carolina, UTEP, at Southern Miss
predicted record: 3-9

Memphis – S Wesley Smith
predicted wins: Arkansas State, UCF,
predicted losses: Tulsa, at Marshall, Southern Miss, Houston, at UTEP
predicted record: 3-9

Rice - WR Jarrett Dillard
predicted wins: none
predicted losses: UAB, at UCF, at UTEP, at Tulsa, East Carolina, Southern Methodist
predicted record: 1-11

SMU – QB Justin Willis
predicted wins: Marshall, UAB, at Rice
predicted losses: at East Carolina, Houston, Tulsa  
predicted record: 6-6

Southern Miss – RB Damion Fletcher
predicted wins: Houston, East Carolina, at Memphis, at Tulane, UAB, Marshall  
predicted losses: at Virginia Tech
predicted record: 9-3

Tulane – QB Lester Ricard
predicted wins: Army
predicted losses: at UTEP, at Auburn, at Marshall, Southern Miss, UCF, at Tulsa
predicted record: 3-9

Tulsa – QB Paul Smith
predicted wins: at East Carolina, at Memphis, UTEP, Houston, Rice, at Southern Methodist, Tulane
predicted losses: none
predicted record: 11-1

UAB – DE Larry McSwain
predicted wins: at Rice, Marshall
predicted losses: at Southern Methodist, UTEP, at Southern Miss, at UCF
predicted record: 5-7

UCF – RB Kevin Smith
predicted wins: Rice, East Carolina, UAB, at Tulane 
predicted losses: Pittsburgh, at Houston, at Memphis 
predicted record: 6-6

UTEP – WR Johnnie Lee Higgins
predicted wins: Tulane, Rice, at UAB, at Marshall, Memphis
predicted losses: at Houston, at Tulsa    
predicted record: 8-4