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2007 CFN Conference USA Preview
Posted Jul 26, 2007

Houston might have lost Kevin Kolb, but Anthony Alridge leads another good team that should be one of the favorites for the Conference USA title. Southern Miss, Tulsa, and SMU are just a few of the other players in the wide open race. Check out the predictions, All-Conference USA team, unit rankings and more in the 2007 CFN Conference USA preview.

2007 CFN Conference USA Preview

Team Previews, Offenses, Defenses & Depth Charts
East Carolina | Marshall | UAB | UCF | Memphis | Southern Miss
West Houston | Rice | SMU | Tulane | Tulsa | UTEP

- 2007 CFN Conference USA Preview
- CFN All-Conference USA Team & Top 30 Players

- C-USA Team-by-Team Capsules

Conference USA Unit Rankings

- Conference USA Schedules & Predictions

By Richard Cirminiello    

Wide open.  It describes some of the offenses in Conference USA and this year’s race for conference supremacy.

In a little over a decade, the league has failed to establish much of a national identity, periodically taking in an eclectic mix of programs like an emergency shelter.  However, parody and some prolific passing attacks have quietly made it one of the more entertaining non-BCS conferences and a haven for future NFL players.  The upcoming season figures to follow that script. 

Save for Memphis, Tulane and UAB which are in transition, every member will enter the season believing it can win a crown or at least earn a bowl invitation.  That’s nine schools without a dramatic gap between them. 

Out of the East Division, Southern Miss returns enough starters on both sides of the ball to be the favorite to return to the league championship game.  East Carolina, however, is a program on the come and beat the Eagles in Hattiesburg last year.  Marshall has been recruiting well for awhile and houses two of the best NFL prospects in defensive end Albert McClellan and center Doug Legursky.  UCF is an enigma with enough talent to win it all or enough turnovers to flop for a second straight year.

The West won’t be won until the final weekend of the season.  It’ll be that tight.  Tulsa gets the benefit of the doubt because of the return of quarterback Paul Smith, however, Steve Kragthorpe is in Louisville and most of Smith’s protection has graduated.  Houston will defend its championship without quarterback Kevin Kolb or his top back and receiver.  SMU will be the story of the year if it can get back to the postseason for the first time since 1984.  Rice wants to prove it can keep the momentum cranking without departed head coach Todd Graham.         

This year’s Conference USA champ? It’ll be a tug-of-war which is one more reason to pay attention to the league in 2007.

Team That'll Surprise
East Carolina – After just two seasons in Greenville, Skip Holtz has gradually begun building something positive at East Carolina, gaining confidence with wins over Virginia, Southern Miss and NC State.  Step one was ending a four-year bowl drought last year.  Step two will be to dethrone the Golden Eagles and win the league’s Eastern Division.  Sure, the program has put out an APB for playmakers in 2007, however, both lines return virtually intact which will help mask concerns in the backfield and the secondary.  

Team That'll Disappoint
Rice – Last season was pure magic as Rice overcame about a million hurdles to make an improbable return to the postseason for the first time in 45 years.   A repeat, however, is unlikely.  It’s not as if the Owls have suddenly closed the talent gap on the rest of the conference and how long can you win with a defense that allows 30 points and 400 yards a game?  Oh, and after one season as the lead magician, Todd Graham bolted for an opportunity to coach Tulsa.  Last year was memorable, but it’s back to a bowl-less December for Rice.

Offensive Player of the Year
RB Damion Fletcher, Soph., Southern Miss – Fletcher is the poster boy for late bloomers.  Almost completely ignored coming out of high school, he exploded as a freshman for 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns, despite missing time with a knee injury.  Just 5-10 and 180 pounds, Fletcher is a slippery back that hits the hole quickly and will pick up six or seven yards even when it looks like he was stopped.  He’s added a few pounds of muscle to handle the rigors of being the feature back of a ground-oriented offense.     

Defensive Player of the Year
DE Albert McClellan, Jr., Marshall – Three years ago, Jonathan Goddard shredded opposing linemen in an All-America season.  McClellan is better.  A 6-2, 245-pound blur coming off the edge, he was literally unblockable at times in 2006, racking up 77 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.  McClellan’s first step and overall athletic ability is no match for Conference USA tackles who are forced to hold the junior rather than watch their quarterback treated like a piƱata.  He’ll bolt for the NFL after this year where he projects as an outside linebacker.        

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight 
DE Albert McClellan, Jr., Marshall
RB Damion Fletcher, Soph., Southern Miss
WR Jarett Dillard, Jr., Rice
QB Justin Willis, Soph., SMU
TE Cody Slate, Soph., Marshall  

Coach on the Hot Seat
Tommy West, Memphis – No one is in imminent danger in Conference USA so this is relative to a league that has four first-year coaches and stalwarts, such as Jeff Bower, Mike Price, George O’Leary and Art Briles that aren’t going anywhere.  West has elevated Memphis, but over the past 26 games, the Tigers have won just nine and last season was a disaster.  West canned Joe Lee Dunn in September, took over the defense himself and led the program to two wins and the country’s 111th-ranked defense.  A repeat will test the administration’s confidence.      

5 Non-Conference Games Conference USA opponents had better take very, very seriously
1. Southern Miss at Boise State, Sept. 27
2. East Carolina at Virginia Tech, Sept. 1
3. Texas Tech at SMU, Sept. 3
4. Oklahoma at Tulsa, Sept. 21
5. Houston at Oregon, Sept. 1 

5 Best Pro Prospects
1. DE Albert McClellan, Jr., Marshall
2. C Doug Legursky, Sr., Marshall
3. WR Jarett Dillard, Jr., Rice
4. TE Shawn Nelson, Jr., Southern Miss   
5. S Quintin Demps, Sr., UTEP   

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. Blake Joseph or L.J. Castile for Kevin Kolb, QB Houston
2. Chubb Small for Ahmad Bradshaw, RB Marshall
3. Joe West for Johnnie Lee Higgins, WR UTEP 
4. Patrick Handy for Justin Rogers, DE SMU  
5. Ryan Hebert for George Batiste, G Southern Miss

5 Bold Predictions
1. The clock is ticking on Skip Holtz’s tenure at East Carolina.  After fielding lots of interest from bigger schools last December, he’ll accept a promotion and pay bump shortly after leading the Pirates back to the postseason. 
2. The bloom will officially be off UTEP coach Mike Price’s rose at some point this season.  No doubt he did a magnificent job changing the culture in El Paso, however, the Miners have flopped at the end of the last three seasons and are facing massive turnover from a team that went 5-7 in 2006. 
3. Even without Kevin Kolb, the Houston offense is going to be a handful for the rest of the league to handle.  Art Briles has his spread attack clicking and third-year sophomore Blake Joseph is set to be his new triggerman with the help of a speedy group of playmakers and five starting linemen.   
4. By the midway point of the season, Arkansas fans will be wondering how in the world Gus Malzahn was allowed to leave an SEC school for Tulsa.  While he doesn’t quite have the right mix of personnel, the program’s new coordinator will gradually transform the Hurricane offense into a powerhouse. 
5. After coming so close in 2006, SMU will finally break through for its first bowl berth in 23 years.  Rising star Justin Willis will help quarterback the program to its most important moments since the pre-NCAA Death Penalty days.       

What Will Happen
- East Carolina will beat Southern Miss in its Conference USA opener and will survive a late-season loss at Marshall to be better than expected. However, in the end, the Golden Eagles will prove to be the class of the league as the season goes on, and will make it look easy at times along the way.
- Tulsa will be the class of the West by far wrapping up the title by mid-November after a win over Houston. The Golden Hurricane will go on to lose to Southern Miss in the title game.
- UTEP will collapse again, Rice will go back to being Rice, at least record-wise, for a year, and Tulane and UAB will battle on October 13th for the honor of being the league’s worse team.
- Tulsa, Hosuton, East Carolina, Southern Miss and SMU will go bowling.


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