2009 CFN Conference USA Preview

Posted Jul 31, 2009

2009 CollegeFootballNews.com Preview - Conference USA Preview

2009 CFN C-USA Preview

Team Previews & Predictions
- East Carolina |
Marshall |
Memphis | Southern Miss | UAB |

- Houston |
Rice | Tulane | Tulsa | SMU

- 2009 CFN C-USA Preview

- C-USA Team-by-Team Capsules

- CFN All-C-USA Team & Top 30 Players
C-USA Unit Rankings
- C-USA Schedules & Predictions

- 2008 CFN Conference USA Preview

By Richard Cirminiello

Defense still wins championships—even in Conference USA, where weekly shootouts have become the norm.

The league has gained some national notoriety for its free-wheeling, high-octane passing attacks, yet the defending champ is East Carolina, a conservative program that leans heavily on defense, special teams, and the running game. Two years ago, the league rep in the Liberty Bowl was UCF, which was fueled by the running of Kevin Smith and a ball-hawking secondary. The moral of these stories? Even in this modern era of slick offenses and fancy passing attacks, you still need a complete team to win a crown.

Until further notice, the Pirates are the most complete team in Conference USA. In four seasons, Skip Holtz has done a terrific job in Greenville, building an efficient offense and one of the league’s stingiest defenses. They’re strong on both lines, tough in the secondary, and consistent in special teams. Plus, sixth-year senior QB Patrick Pinkney brings a steady hand to the huddle. There’s enough talent and experience for this team to be even better than the one that shocked Virginia Tech and West Virginia last September.

East Carolina’s stiffest challenge in the East will come from Southern Miss, which has the offensive firepower and the defensive secondary to take a quantum leap in Larry Fedora’s second season in Hattiesburg. The trifecta of QB Austin Davis, RB Damion Fletcher, and WR DeAndre Brown, if 100%, is as good as any in the conference. Memphis has very quietly been to five bowl games in the last six years, and is eyeing another postseason trip. The Tigers have their own set of dangerous skill position players, headed by RB Curtis Steele, receivers Carlos Singleton and Duke Calhoun, and QB Arkelon Hall. Marshall probably needs to bowl to save fifth-year coach Mark Snyder’s job. While RB Darius Marshall will lead the offense, the defense hopes DE Albert McClellan is ready to recapture his pre-knee injury form. The UCF defense is good enough to win a lot of games, but the offense is not. The Knights need Rob Calabrese to become a playmaker at quarterback in his second season. UAB is improving under Neil Callaway and dangerous with Joe Webb under center, but lacks the depth and defense to make a serious run at bowl eligibility.

The West is, well, wild, with five teams that finished in the top 20 in passing in 2008. Nobody plays defense in this half of the league, which won’t become a factor until December. Houston is going to score in bunches behind QB Case Keenum and a slew of returning skill position players. Anyone holding the Cougars under 40 points ought to take a bow. Tulsa has won the last two division titles, only to lose in the league title game. Even with a new coordinator and a third starting quarterback in three years, the offense will go point-for-point with Houston. The defense, however, especially the secondary is an annual headache. With Trevor Vittatoe calling signals, UTEP is very similar to the two teams it’s chasing, except the offense is a little less potent and the defense a little less opportunistic. The result has been three straight bowl-less winters. Although Rice is coming off its first 10-win season in more than half a century, it also needs to replace all-time greats in QB Chase Clement and WR Jarett Dillard. The drop-off is inevitable, especially with a brutal first-half schedule. Tulane will be trying to break an eight-game losing streak when the season begins. The Green Wave has a chance to be sneaky-good, now that RB Andre Anderson and WR Jeremy Williams, a pair of future pros, are back from injuries. SMU has a long way to go, but the road to respectability is much shorter than it was at this time last year. With Bo Levi Mitchell back at quarterback and Emmanuel Sanders and Aldrick Robinson catching his passes, the Mustangs are going surprise more than one opponent in 2009.

Both divisions are likely to come down to November, when East Carolina hosts Southern Miss and Houston travels to Tulsa. Although points will be abundant again in Conference USA, the eventual champ will still have to play some defense in early December, or else a divisional crown will be the extent of their 2009 hardware.         

Team That'll Surprise
Southern Miss – It only took one season for head coach Larry Fedora to leave his thumbprint all over the Golden Eagle program. With spare parts and bad fits for the system, Southern Miss still managed to close with a momentum-building five-game winning streak, capped by a come-from-behind overtime bowl victory. Much of the balanced offense returns, including versatile QB Austin Davis and 1,000-yard rusher Damion Fletcher. If WR DeAndre Brown is able to make it all the way back from a nasty leg injury, this attack could rival those in the West Division. On defense, the Eagles have a talented veteran secondary, led by Eddie Hicks and Andre Watson, needed to combat some of the league’s high-flying passing games.  

Team That'll Disappoint
Houston – The Cougars are going to score. Often. No one doubts the Houston offense will be prolific, but if the program plans to be a BCS buster, as some have suggested, it has to become a more complete football team. The defense, which wasn’t very good in 2008, figures to be even more vulnerable. The defensive line needs to be completely rebuilt and the pass defense will again be a question mark. If opposing teams can keep Case Keenum on the sidelines for long stretches of time, the Coug attack becomes a little less scary.

Game of the Year … Houston at Tulsa, Nov. 7. Not only is this the pivotal game in the West Division, but it’s also become one of the perennial can’t-miss games of the year in Conference USA. If you enjoy a pinball-like scoreboard, the Cougars and Hurricane are just your cup of tea. With tackling-optional defenses and point-a-minute offenses, the first team to 50 gets a leg up in the race to fill one-half of the championship game.   

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. FS Andrew Sendejo, Sr. Rice
2. RB Andre Anderson, Sr. Tulane
3. DE Bruce Miller, Jr. UCF
4. FS Van Eskridge, Sr. East Carolina
5. S James Lockett, Sr. Tulsa

Coach on the Hot Seat
Mark Snyder, Marshall – We are Marshall. Yes. We are awful, however, would also be appropriate since Snyder came on board. The once-dominant mid-major program has slipped into oblivion over the last four seasons, going just 16-31 and struggling to find much offense. Now that the coach has enough talent and experience to get the Herd into the postseason, he has to deliver a December bonus game, or else it’ll be hard to justify a sixth year on the sidelines. Lining up behind Snyder is Tulane’s Bob Toledo, UAB’s Neil Callaway, and UTEP’s Mike Price, who could all use a vote of confidence.

5 Non-Conference Games Conference USA had better take very, very seriously
1. Appalachian State at East Carolina, Sept. 5
2. Tulsa at New Mexico, Sept. 12
3. Virginia at Southern Miss, Sept. 19
4. Buffalo at UCF, Sept. 19
5. Bowling Green at Marshall, Sept. 19

Bold Prediction
… SMU will begin turning the corner and become a real nuisance in Conference USA. With patience, June Jones is going to be an unbridled success on the Hilltop. There were signs of dramatic improvement in 2008, even as the Mustangs skidded to a season-ending, 10-game losing streak. Now, with that first awkward season out of the way, the program will be much improved in more than just intangible measurements. As the passing game goes, so go the Ponies, and QB Bo Levi Mitchell and dangerous receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Aldrick Robinson are all back in Dallas for another season.

5 Best Pro Prospects
1. DE C.J. Wilson, Sr. East Carolina
2. WR Jeremy Williams, Sr. Tulane
3. DT Torrell Troup, Sr. UCF
4. WR Emmanuel Sanders, Sr. SMU
5. WR Carlos Singleton, Sr. Memphis

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. QB Nick Fanuzzi, John Thomas Shepherd or Ryan Lewis for Chase Clement, Rice
2. WR Toren Dixon for Jarett Dillard, Rice
3. LB Korey Williams for Gerald McRath, Southern Miss
4. CB Darin Baldwin for Joe Burnett, UCF
5. DE Tyrell Graham for Phillip Hunt, Houston