2008 CFN Conference USA Preview

Posted Jul 30, 2008

If you're into defense, go elsewhere. Conference USA is loaded with high-octane offenses making for a potentially great race. Check out the predictions, All-Conference USA team, unit rankings and more in the 2008 CFN Conference USA preview.

2008 CFN Conference USA Preview

Team Previews & Predictions
East East Carolina | Marshall | Memphis | So. Miss | UAB | UCF 
West Houston | Rice | SMU | Tulane | Tulsa | UTEP

- CFN All-Conference USA Team & Top 30 Players
- Conference USA Team-by-Team Capsules

Conference USA Unit Rankings

- Conference USA Schedules & Predictions

By Richard Cirminiello

Message to Conference USA coaches: Start making defensive backs the priority during the recruiting season. 

In a matter of a couple of years, this disjointed collection of 12 teams has morphed into one of the most pass-happy leagues in the country. More than half of its members threw for at least 3,000 yards, including West Division champion Tulsa, which topped the 5,000-yard mark.  But wait, there’s more.  In the offseason, Conference USA lost five of its top six rushers to the NFL and added June Jones at SMU, Larry Fedora at Southern Miss, and Kevin Sumlin at Houston. While Jones will be installing the run-and-shoot on the Hilltop, Fedora is scrapping Jeff Bower’s conservative offense in favor of the no-huddle spread. All Sumlin plans to do is emulate Mike Leach’s aerial assault at Texas Tech. Lure BYU out of the Mountain West, and you’ve got a modern-day version of the 1980’s WAC Conference.

Last season’s representatives in the league title game, UCF and Tulsa, are slight favorites to meet again on Dec. 6. However, both schools have a ton of holes to plug first. The Knights will be without the nation’s rushing leader Kevin Smith, while the Hurricane has to replace QB Paul Smith, who amassed Arena Football League numbers in his only year with offensive mad scientist Gus Malzahn.

The East is flush with five schools capable of copping the division. Only UAB is on the outside looking in, as Neil Callaway continues his reclamation project in Birmingham. East Carolina is UCF’s stiffest competition, a veteran program that’s still bitter about squandering the division lead last November. Marshall could surprise if a capable quarterback emerges.

Until the others can play some defense, the West is a two-team race between Tulsa and Houston. The pair meets in Texas on Nov.15, with the division probably hanging on the outcome. The Cougars lost head coach Art Briles to Baylor, but Sumlin plans to keep the offense cranking with coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who’s destined to become this year’s Malzahn. Although Jones will bring national notoriety to SMU, the wins may not follow for another year or two.

Conference USA doesn’t appear to have a Hawaii or Utah that can run the table and demand entry into a BCS bowl game. It does, however, have a slew of innovative offenses capable of rewriting school record books. And that should be enough reason to pay attention to the league this fall.

Team That'll Surprise
Marshall – The Herd is a competent quarterback away from being a dangerous sleeper. Fueled by a positive finish, a sense of urgency, and as much depth as it’s had under Mark Snyder, Marshall is poised for a postseason return. The program boasts its best collection of skill position players in years and a defense that’ll get a huge boost from the return of DE Albert McClellan, the league’s 2006 Defensive Player of the Year. Now all the Herd has to do is develop its next Chad Pennington out of Mark Cann, Jonathan Garner, or Brian Anderson. 

Team That'll Disappoint
UCF – It’s asking a lot to keep the momentum going after ten wins and a league championship. The Knights have been schizophrenic under George O’Leary, disappointing when expectations are high and overachieving when no one is paying attention. The departure of RB Kevin Smith leaves a gaping hole in an offense that’s breaking in a new quarterback and three offensive linemen. UCF needed help winning the East, but won’t be as fortunate in a division that’s more competitive than a year ago.   

Game of the Year … UCF at Tulsa, Oct. 26. A rematch of last year’s championship tilt might also be a preview of this December’s game. The match up of the Hurricane receivers versus the ball-hawking Knight secondary alone will be worth tuning in for the Sunday night Game of the Week.   

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. WR Brennan Marion, Sr. Tulsa
2. QB Chase Clement, Sr. Rice
3. RB Damion Fletcher, Jr. Southern Miss
4. DE Phillip Hunt, Sr. Houston
5. TE Cody Slate, Jr. Marshall

Coach on the Hot Seat
Mark Snyder, Marshall – After barely surviving last season’s 3-9 debacle, Snyder won’t get a fifth year in Huntington if the Herd doesn’t make it to the postseason. Hailed as a coach that would get the program back to winning championship, he’s gone just 12-23, finishing no higher than third place in the East Division.         

Bold Prediction … Rice will be forced to assemble a makeshift Heisman campaign for QB Chase Clement a month into the season. He won’t contend for the award, of course, but he will put up the kind of numbers on the ground and through the air that attract national attention.  

5 Non-Conference Games Conference USA had better take very, very seriously
1. Air Force at Houston, Sept. 13
2. UTEP at Buffalo, Aug. 28
3. New Mexico at Tulsa, Sept. 20
4. North Texas at Rice, Sept. 27
5. UL-Monroe at Tulane, Sept. 20

5 Best Pro Prospects
1. LB Gerald McRath, Jr. Southern Miss
2. TE Shawn Nelson, Sr. Southern Miss
3. RB Damion Fletcher, Jr. Southern Miss
4. TE Cody Slate, Jr. Marshall
5. CB Joe Burnett, Sr. UCF

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. Phillip Smith for RB Kevin Smith, Jr. UCF
2. David Johnson for QB Paul Smith, Sr. Tulsa
3. Andre Anderson for RB Matt Forte, Sr. Tulane
4. Andre Kohn or Terrance Ganaway for RB Anthony Alridge, Sr. Houston
5. Dominique Lindsay for RB Chris Johnson, Sr. ECU