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Preseason Lookaheads - Conference USA
Posted Jan 18, 2007

Why each team should be excited, grouchy, and what each team needs to work on.

The numbers are the CFN pre-preseason national rankings. 

55. Southern Miss   2006 Record: 9-5
Why to get excited: The Golden Eagles should be the favorites for the title with star RB Damion Fletcher and improving QB Jeremy Young returning. TE Shawn Nelson is one of the best in America, while Chris Johnson, the leading scorer among the receivers, will be a top deep target. The defense should be at its typical high level with good replacements ready to step in for the lost starters.
Why to be grouchy: Southern Miss thrives on playing anyone, anywhere, any time, but road trips to Tennessee, Penn State and LSU aren't going to be fun. Three starters are gone off the offensive line, while several great complementary receivers have to be replaced. Darren McCaleb was one of the nation's best kickers for the last two years, and now punter Britt Barefoot will likely have to pull double duty.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting more from Young and the passing game. Now that Young's an experienced veteran, there's no reason USM should be last in the league in passing efficiency and passing offense. The better the quarterback play is, the more room Fletcher will have to run.
Biggest offensive loss: OG George Batiste
Biggest defensive loss: CB Caleb Hendrix

64. Houston   2006 Record: 10-4
Why to get excited: The defending Conference USA champion has a slew of speed and talent returning and shouldn't drop off the map offensively with Blake Joseph taking over for Kevin Kolb. Speedster Anthony Alridge will get the ball more, while Jeron Harvey and Donnie Avery will be dangerous targets. This will still be one of the favorites for the title.
Why to be grouchy: Kolb was the type of star who could carry an entire team and make everyone around him better. The team still might be good, but Kolb made it great. The defense was nothing special throughout the year, and now it has to replace two key defensive backs in Will Gulley and Willis Gaston along with DT Marquay Love, the anchor up front.
The number one thing to work on is: Punting. Justin Laird had a big leg, but the Cougars were last in Conference USA, and 114th in the nation, in net punting averaging just over 30 yards per game. Garrett LeFevre, the likely new starter, can't do much worse, but he needs help from a coverage unit that didn't do much last year.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Kevin Kolb
Biggest defensive loss: FS Will Gulley 

67. Marshall   2006 Record: 5-7
Why to get excited: The team showed it could crank out offensive numbers against average teams last year, while the defense should be solid with star-in-the-making DE Albert McClellan leading the way. Bernard Morris has more than enough experience after splitting the quarterback duties over the last two years, and now he should shine in the full-time starting role.
Why to be grouchy: RB Ahmad Bradshaw appeared to be coming back for his senior year before deciding to turn pro at the last minute. Had he returned, Marshall would've been one of the big favorites to win the league title, but now it'll be up to Chubb Small to run effectively, and Morris to become a consistent playmaker. Four key starters are gone off the defensive back seven, while both offensive tackles need to be replaced.
The number one thing to work on is: Pass defense. The Thundering Herd was 114th in the nation in pass defense allowing 252 yards per game getting burned short, long, and everywhere in between. Blame the problems on the young corners who now need to play like seasoned vets. With McClellan and company sure to generate pressure up front, there's no excuse to not be better.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Ahmad Bradshaw
Biggest defensive loss: SS Curtis Keyes

72. Tulsa   2006 Record: 8-5
Why to get excited: Losing Steve Kragthorpe was expected, and getting Todd Graham, who appears to be hitting the ground running, was a major coup. QB Paul Smith is a seasoned veteran who's been through everything possible and should shine under Graham. Courtney Tennial and Tarrion Adams form a fantastic 1-2 rushing punch, while enough defensive talent returns to keep things going after finishing the season No. 1 in total D.
Why to be grouchy: The offensive line has some rebuilding to do losing four key players, but the biggest problem is in the receiving corps with the three top targets needing to be replaced. While the defense should be fine, Nick Bunting, Kedrick Alexander, Bobby Blackshire and Nick Graham were important. The special teams needs a total overhaul after a lousy year.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting into the backfield. Interestingly enough, the secondary came through with a fantastic year despite the lack of a pass rush. Tulsa's front seven rarely made big plays, almost never came up with a key sack, and didn't do nearly enough behind the line. It would be nice of a killer pass rusher would emerge.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Jeff Perrett
Biggest defensive loss: S/LB Kedrick Alexander

79. SMU   2006 Record: 6-6
Why to get excited: Justin Willis. One of the league's premier players as a redshirt freshman, Willis is the type of quarterback who'll be good enough to win games by himself. Along with backs DeMyron Martin and Cedric Dorsey, the backfield should be the best in the league. Six starters return to the defensive back seven. Junior-to-be Thomas Morstead is a great all-around kicker and one of Conference USA's best punters.
Why to be grouchy: Three starters are gone off the league's number one run defense. As good as Willis was, he got a lot of help from a receiving corps that loses four of the top six receivers including key safety valve TE Ryan Kennedy (although top target Emmanuel Sanders and promising Columbus Givens are back). The secondary might be experienced, but it has to be far, far better.
The number one thing to work on is: Pass protection. Willis held on to the ball too long at times and didn't force bad throws, but the offensive line had issues protecting him giving up way too many big shots. The franchise needs a little more time to operate and he can't get knocked out. Give him a few extra ticks and he'll pick most secondaries apart.
Biggest offensive loss: TE Ryan Kennedy
Biggest defensive loss: DE Justin Rogers 

82. UTEP   2006 Record: 5-7
Why to get excited: QB Jordan Palmer and WR Johnnie Lee Higgins are gone, but everyone else of significance returns to the offense. While Mike Price teams will always look to throw the ball (5th in the nation in passing last year, 116th in rushing), this could quickly turn into a running team with Marcus Thomas working behind a veteran offensive line. Quintin Demps is one of the nation's premier safeties and on the short list of Preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, but ...
Why to be grouchy: ... he can't play everywhere. UTEP loses nine starters off the defense including a ton of quality depth, so don't expect a big-time improvement from a D that allowed 395 yards and over 31 points per game. Palmer and Higgins were NFL-level talents; UTEP won't easily replace them.
The number one thing to work on is: Finding more offensive balance. Thomas is the team's most talented offensive player, but will Price be able to tweak the offense enough to early on to get the ground game moving? The team became too reliant on Palmer over the last few years, and now other players have to produce.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Jordan Palmer and WR Johnnie Lee Higgins
Biggest defensive loss: LB Troy Collavo

83. East Carolina   2006 Record: 7-6
Why to get excited: The program took a huge overall step last year winning seven games and getting to a bowl game. The defense made tremendous strides in Skip Holtz's second year, and now everyone on the front seven returns. Towards the end of the year, the offensive line had to use three freshmen in key roles, and now it should pay off with all five starters back and experienced.
Why to be grouchy: There are just enough key losses to cause a little bit of a tumble. Three starters in the secondary are gone along with QB James Pinkney, receivers Aundre Allison, Bobby Good and Kevin Roach, and leading rusher Brandon Fractious.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting into the backfield. The amazing part about the ECU secondary last year was how it performed despite the lack of pressure up front. The Pirates finished last in the league in sacks with a mere 18 to go along with just 61 tackles for loss. The new starting defensive backs could use some help.
Biggest offensive loss: QB James Pinkney
Biggest defensive loss: FS Jamar Flournoy

91. UCF   2006 Record: 4-8
Why to get excited: Let's try this again. After being the toast of 2005, the team crashed with an ugly 2005 taking a big leap back defensively while the offense struggled to put points on the board. This was a young team last year, an infant team two years ago, and now it's experienced and potentially solid with QB Kyle Israel and RB Kevin Smith leading the way on offense with four starters returning up front. Defensively, there are plenty of quality reserves to challenge the starters. 
Why to be grouchy: After two years of having major problems, maybe, just maybe, the once-promising defensive backs just aren't that great. The production has to be there this year. Mike Walker was everything to the passing game catching 90 of the team's 227 receptions and scoring seven of the 14 passing touchdowns.
The number one thing to work on is: Scoring off long drives. Moving the ball wasn't a problem averaging 373 yards per game, but the offense averaged an inexplicable 19 points per game settling for too many field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. The attack has to develop a killer instinct.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Mike Walker
Biggest defensive loss: DE Chris Welsh

93. Rice   2006 Record: 7-6
Why to get excited: The team showed it has the talent and moxie to win every close game possible and be more than just competitive in Conference USA play, and now nine starters return on offense. Jarett Dillard is one of the nation's best receivers and gets Chase Clement throwing to him again, so expect more big plays and more passing production. Of course ...
Why to be grouchy: ... Todd Graham cranked out one good year at Rice and jetted to Tulsa taking six assistants with him. Rice didn't do much of anything defensively last year and now has to replace five starters. If the offense isn't amazing, and the team doesn't get every tight win, it'll be back to the ranks of the league also-rans.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting in tune with a third head coach in three seasons. Better offensive line play is a must after allowing way too many sacks, while the return game could also use a ton of help after averaging just 7.18 yards per punt return and 18.9 yards per kickoff return.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Quinton Smith
Biggest defensive loss: Safeties Andray Downs and Chad Price 

98. Memphis   2006 Record: 2-10
Why to get excited: The defense can't be any worse with eight starters returning. Last year's disaster won't happen twice in a row under Tommy West, so if there can be just a little bit of improvement, and the offense can use all of its experience (nine starters return) to be more consistent and explosive, a big turnaround is possible. The Tigers lost five games by a touchdown or less. Veteran teams tend to win the close ones, however ....
Why to be grouchy: ... the defense still has miles to go before it's remotely productive, if last year was any indication. The secondary hasn't stopped anyone in two years, and now it loses three starters including all-everything star safety Wesley Smith. Punter Michael Gibson was excellent last year and needs to be replaced.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting into the backfield. Nothing worked despite several attempts to change things up to generate pressure. The defensive front only cranked out 17 tackles and 44 tackles for loss, but that could be blamed on youth starting two freshman and two sophomores for stretches. The secondary can't handle not getting a little support.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Ryan Scott
Biggest defensive loss: SS Wesley Smith 

100. UAB   2006 Record: 3-9     
Why to get excited: New head man
Neil Callaway has just enough coming back to be more competitive. This was one of the hard luck teams of 2006 losing five games by a touchdown or less, and lost to UCF 31-22 in the season finale, so a few bounces the right way could do wonders. Joseph Webb is an interesting quarterback prospect who showed great flashes at the end of last year. He's a player to build the offense around, and ...
Why to be grouchy: ... he'll have to be with a lot of key offensive parts gone. The three best backs are done, as are three starters off the line. There's experience back at receiver, but the jury's still out about how good this group is. Three very good starters are gone off the defensive front led by the loss of Larry McSwain.
The number one thing to work on is: Find something that works. UAB didn't do any one thing particularly well last season, and it showed as there wasn't any consistency and absolutely no clutch plays on either side of the ball. Callaway has to give this team an identity right off the bat.
Biggest offensive loss: RBs Dan Burks and Corey White
Biggest defensive loss: DE Larry McSwain 

102. Tulane   2006 Record: 4-8 
Why to get excited: New head coach Bob Toledo was far better than he ever got credit for at UCLA and should get the offense humming like Green Wave fans are used to. Scott Elliott has enough experience to hit the ground running as the starting quarterback, while Matt Forte, once he's back in the mix, is a big, talented back who can carry the offense. The entire linebacking corps is back.
Why to be grouchy: The defense still has light years to go before it's even mediocre, and Toledo's teams haven't exactly been brick walls on D. If the offense isn't throwing up 35 points per game, Tulane isn't likely to win too often this year. The nation's 113th ranked pass defense has to replace both its starting corners.
The number one thing to work on is: Turnover margin. It's not like the offense turned it over in bunches losing it 25 times, the defense didn't provide any help with a mere 14 takeaways. Getting more consistency out of the ground game would be nice.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Lester Ricard
Biggest defensive loss: CB Israel Route