2007 Midseason Report - Conference USA
UCF RB Kevin Smith
UCF RB Kevin Smith
Posted Oct 17, 2007

The best Conference USA players, coaches, surprises of the midseason and more. Scroll down for predictions for every team and every game.

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Offensive Player of the Midseason
Kevin Smith, RB UCF

Defensive Player of the Midseason
Gerald McRath, LB Southern Miss

Ten best Conference USA players in the first half of the season
1. Kevin Smith, RB UCF
2. Chris Johnson, RB East Carolina
3. Paul Smith, QB Tulsa
4. Anthony Alridge, RB Houston
5. Gerald McRath, LB Southern Miss
6. Marcus Thomas, RB UTEP
7. Quintin Demps, S UTEP
8. Matt Forte, RB Tulane
9. Trevor Vittatoe, QB UTEP
10. Donnie Avery, WR Houston

Biggest Surprise – UTEP
Although absolutely nothing was expected from a Miner team that was gutted by graduations, it has delivered a commendable 4-3 start and an exciting offense that’s scored at least 42 points in four straight games.  UTEP is tied with Tulsa and Houston in the Conference USA West largely because of the development of QB Trevor Vittatoe and a running game that’s been the most productive in Mike Price’s tenure in El Paso.  The Miners have already beaten the Hurricane, and get the Cougars in the Sun Bowl, so the opportunity is there to cap a surprising start with a division crown.        

Biggest Disappointment – SMU
While the defense certainly had question marks entering the season, it still looked as if the Mustangs would have enough offensive firepower to break through and earn a first bowl berth in the post-death penalty era.  It aint happening.  Through six games, SMU is a dismal 1-5, showing little hope that a turnaround is in store for the second half of the year.  Even QB Justin Willis and the offense have shown signs of wear-and-tear, real bad news for beleaguered head coach Phil Bennett, who looked for a time that he had turned the corner with the Mustangs.          

The Conference USA Champion will be ... Houston
In a wide-open league race that still has six legitimate contenders in the hunt, the only certainty is that both divisions won’t be decided until the final weekend of the regular season.  And you might want to keep your tiebreaker charts handy when that day comes.  Disregard Houston’s average start, which has as much to do with a rugged first-half schedule as anything else.  The Cougars are battled-tested and getting good production from the quarterback tandem of Blake Joseph and Case Keenum.  They’ll get hot over the next six games, beating UTEP in two weeks to take control of the West before topping either East Carolina out the East division.         

Best Game of the First Half
East Carolina 45 ... UTEP 42 OT, Oct. 6
UTEP got a 45--yard field goal from Jose Martinez in overtime, but ECU QB Rob Kass plunged in for a one-yard score to pull off a wild win. The Miners appeared to have the game won, as Marcus Thomas tore off a 31-yard touchdown run with 34 seconds to play, but the Pirates put it into overtime on a 34-yard Juwon Crowell touchdown catch with no time left on the clock. The two teams traded scores throughout, with Thomas starting things off with a 42-yard scoring catch, and ECU taking an early lead with a 50-yard Van Eskridge fumble recovery for a score. In the third quarter, ECU came up with a few haymakers, getting a 57-yard Dwayne Harris touchdown run and an 80-yard Jamar Bryant touchdown catch to go up ten. But UTEP would respond with the third of Martinez's four field goals and a 17-yard Jeff Moturi touchdown grab early in the fourth before the fireworks at the end. UTEP cranked out 589 yards of total offense, while ECU came up with 507.

Second Best Game UTEP 48 ... at SMU 45 OT, Sept. 29
Third Best Game UTEP 48 ... Tulsa 47, Oct. 6

Worst Game of the First Half
Texas 58 ... Rice 14
Texas exploded on Rice with 560 yards of total offense, outgaining the Owls 227 yards to -11 on the ground, in what quickly turned into a laugher. The Longhorn offense cranked out the first 41 points of the game, helped by Limas Sweed touchdown catches from 52 and 24 yards out, and two of Jamaal Charles' three short touchdown runs. Rice didn't get on the board until the final minute of the second half, with Toren Dixon scoring on an 18-yard catch, but the game had gotten well out of hand.

Coach of the Midseason – Skip Holtz, East Carolina
The good news around Greenville is that Holtz is doing another terrific job with the Pirate program.  The bad news is that his name is going to get circulated again when the coaching carousel starts to spin in December.  Despite having issues at quarterback and injuries on defense, Holtz has helped guide East Carolina out of a 1-3 start and into the top spot in the East.  With no teams with a winning record left on the schedule, he’s liable to carry an eight-game winning streak into the Conference USA championship game.  Let the new contract negotiations begin.      

Player who'll step up in the second half – East Carolina QB Rob Kass
Kass has bounced back from a preseason DWI to retake the starting job from Patrick Pinkney while giving a jolt to the Pirate vertical game.  A strong-armed pocket passer, he’s beginning to develop a rhythm with the young East Carolina receivers, and should feast on a second-half schedule that doesn’t include one opponent ranked in the top 65 nationally in total defense.  While Kass made some bad reads in El Paso Saturday night, scoring the game-winner in overtime is sure to give him a sizable confidence boost going forward.       


Best performance so far – On a weekend that Stanford beat USC, no one noticed, but Rice’s upset of Southern Miss in Hattiesburg on Oct. 3 was a Herculean effort for David Bailiff’s club.  Entering the game 0-4 and 21-point underdogs, the Owls jumped all over the Golden Eagles, taking a 31-7 lead and holding on for a 31-29 victory.  For a team that figured to be on life support, we all learned that Rice is going to be quite feisty in the second half of the year.  Individually, no one has topped East Carolina RB Chris Johnson’s performance in a come-from-behind win over UCF on Oct. 6.  With the Pirates laboring through the first two quarters, Johnson went berserk, accounting for 372 yards and four scores while leading the team in rushing and receiving, and opening the third quarter with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.     

Top Freshman – UTEP QB Trevor Vittatoe
In just his first season at the controls, Vittatoe has done an almost seamless job of replacing four-year starter Jordan Palmer at quarterback, occasionally sharing snaps with Lorne Sam and improving each week.  In a pivotal win over Tulsa two weeks ago, he went 21-of-27 for a Miner freshman record 319 yards and three touchdown passes, en route to being named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week.  If not for Vittatoe’s crisp passes and uncommon rookie poise, there’s no way UTEP would be in the hunt for a West division title with only five games remaining.     

Coach who needs to have a big second half – Marshall head coach Mark Snyder
There are just four winless programs left in the FBS.  Marshall is one of them.  No, the Herd was not expected to compete for a Conference USA crown this year, but losses to New Hampshire and Memphis are signs that this program is going in reverse under Snyder, despite talk of the talent being improved in Huntington.  Although the coach is young and well-liked by the administration, could he survive an 0-12 campaign in his third year on campus?  Over at SMU, Phil Bennett is another coach that’s pining for a couple of wins over the final month of the season.  The Mustangs are a disappointing 1-5, when 7-5 was probably the preseason benchmark for the coach to earn another year with the school. 

Player who needs to have a big second half – Southern Miss QB Jeremy Young
Even after inexplicably losing to Rice, the Golden Eagles are still in contention in the East, but they need a healthy Young to be behind center.  Although the offense is serviceable with Stephen Reaves taking snaps, Young adds an element of escapability that frustrates opposing defenses, especially in the red zone.  Before suffering a high ankle sprain in September, he was playing some of the best ball of his career, throwing with accuracy and taking off when the pocket broke down.  Southern Miss needs that element back on offense in order to stay with the likes of UCF and UTEP in the next month, while going stride-for-stride with East Carolina in the Eastern half of the league.      

Best remaining conference game – Houston at UTEP, Oct. 27
Not only will this game go a long way toward deciding the West champion for 2007, but it should also be one of the most entertaining games of the year in Conference USA.  While neither team plays much defense, both have offensive-minded head coaches and a ton of really good skill position talent, such as Houston’s Anthony Alridge and Donnie Avery, and UTEP’s Marcus Thomas and Jeff Moturi.  The way the Miners, in particular, are playing football this season, figure this to be a fireworks show that generates 90 points and 1,000 yards, and requires an extra session or two to determine a winner.  

Team Mid-Season MVPs & Predictions  
East CarolinaRB Chris Johnson
predicted wins: UAB, at Memphis, at Marshall, Tulane 
predicted losses: NC State
predicted record: 8-4

RB Anthony Alridge
predicted wins: at UAB, at UTEP, SMU, Marshall, Texas Southern
predicted losses: at Tulsa    
predicted record: 8-4

MarshallTE Cody Slate
predicted wins: Rice  
predicted losses: Southern Miss, at UCF, East Carolina, at Houston, UAB     
predicted record: 1-11

MemphisQB Martin Hankins
predicted wins: UAB, SMU  
predicted losses: at Rice, at Tulane, East Carolina, at Southern Miss, 
predicted record: 4-8

Rice - LB Brian Raines
predicted wins: Memphis, Tulane,   
predicted losses: at Marshall, UTEP, at SMU, Tulsa      
predicted record: 3-9

SMU – QB Justin Willis
predicted wins: Tulane, Rice,
predicted losses: at Tulsa, at Houston, UCF, at Memphis   
predicted record: 3-9

Southern Miss
LB Gerald McRath
predicted wins: at Marshall, at UAB, UCF, Memphis, Arkansas State
predicted losses: at UTEP
predicted record: 8-4

RB Matt Forte
predicted wins: Memphis, Tulsa
predicted losses: SMU, UTEP, at Rice, at East Carolina
predicted record: 3-9

QB Paul Smith
predicted wins: SMU, Houston, at Army, at Rice
predicted losses: at UCF, at Tulane
predicted record: 8-4

S Will Dunbar
predicted wins: at Marshall  
predicted losses: Houston, at East Carolina, Southern Miss, UCF, at Memphis
predicted record: 3-9

RB Kevin Smith
predicted wins: Tulsa, Marshall, at UAB, at SMU, UTEP
predicted losses: at Southern Miss
predicted record: 8-4

RB Marcus Thomas
predicted wins: at Rice, at Tulane, Southern Miss
predicted losses: Houston, at UCF 
predicted record: 7-5