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East Carolina |
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Houston over East Carolina
East Carolina |
8-4 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: QB Patrick
Best Defensive Player: DE C.J.
East Carolina was home to one of Conference USA’s most feeble offenses
in 2008, yet it was the league champ. So much for the necessity of a
high-powered attack in the 21st century. More economical than explosive,
the Pirates aim for a balanced offense that they hope will be more
efficient on third down and in the red zone than a year ago. They got a
late Christmas gift in January, when QB Patrick Pinkney was granted a
sixth year of eligibility. The poster child for the system, he won’t
light up the scoreboard, but he also won’t make many mistakes or put his
team in deficit situations. As the running game continues its search for
a leading man, he could be asked to do a little more than usual through
the air. The wide receivers, led by senior Jamar Bryant and junior
Dwayne Harris, are underutilized, and the offensive line should be the
best in the Skip Holtz era. A few more conversions by this group could
salt away games that otherwise wind up in an extra session.
What does East Carolina
do after delivering its best season defensively in over a decade? How
about get better? Eight starters and 25 lettermen return to a D that led
Conference USA in scoring defense, total defense, and takeaways. Aside
from depth, which could become a problem as the season develops, there
are no glaring weaknesses on this side of the ball. It all begins up
front, where DE C.J. Wilson leads a defensive line that could produce
three NFL Draft picks in the next two years. With the pressure created
by these guys, it’s going to be difficult to move the ball through the
air on a Pirate secondary that’s fast and athletic, and knows what to do
when the ball is in its hands. FS Van Eskridge and LB Nick Johnson are
the stars of a back seven that’s going to produce a bunch of big plays
again this season.
7-5 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: RB Damion
Best Defensive Player: NT Anthony
Last year was supposed to be a painful transition from Jeff Bower’s
power ground game to Larry Fedora’s no-huddle spread. Yet, Southern Miss
still managed to average 433 yards and 30 points a game, setting the
stage for what might be a launching pad season in 2009. Like a poor
man’s Oklahoma State, Fedora’s former employer, the Golden Eagles have
star potential at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. However,
after QB Austin Davis, who was a revelation in his debut, question marks
exist that could keep the lid on this unit. Will 1,000-yard RB Damion
Fletcher get the okay to return after being suspended before the spring?
Has prolific WR DeAndre Brown fully healed from the broken leg he
suffered in last year’s bowl game? Will the line do a better job in pass
protection? If the program can successfully address those concerns, 40
points a game could be the new standard in Hattiesburg.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Southern Miss D in 2008, getting
shredded in September and October before stiffening down the stretch.
Which Eagle unit shows up this fall? Coordinator Todd Bradford has the
parts to keep rolling, but will have to do so without linebacker
extraordinaire Gerald McRath, who chose to leave early for the NFL
draft. Filling his spot in the middle will be sophomore Korey Williams,
who has considerable upside and an opportunity to make a ton of plays.
The defensive line, the Achilles’ heel a year ago, has matured
considerably, and is positioned to stand its ground a little better this
time around. If the front four can mount some kind of a pass rush, few
teams will throw on a secondary that found its groove last November, and
will keep getting better in 2009.
6-6 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: RB Darius
Best Defensive Player: DE
Albert McClellan, Sr.
Second-year coordinator John Shannon welcomes back seven starters, a
good nucleus from a group that averaged just 20 points and largely
underachieved. His up-tempo, one-back set never got off the ground,
struggling badly in the passing game. In his defense, QB Mark Cann was
only a redshirt freshman, but he’ll have to work hard to keep his job.
The competition at quarterback is going to be the story around
Huntington until Mark Snyder makes his choice in the summer. The
playmakers will once again be RB Darius Marshall, a 1,000-yard rusher as
a sophomore, and TE Cody Slate, the one standout in an otherwise
unproven receiving corps.
The defense should be stingier than a year ago, especially since this
will be Rick Minter’s second season as the defensive coordinator. The
learning curve and the introductions will be a thing of the past,
allowing the coach to further implement his aggressive, attacking
system. The encouraging news around Huntington is that most of last
year’s key players, sans LB Maurice Kitchens and FS C.J. Spillman, are
back for another season. Each unit boasts a potential all-star; Albert
McClellan up front, Mario Harvey at linebacker, and DeQuan Bembry on the
last line of defense. If everything clicks and the pass defense
stiffens, the Herd has enough parts to soar past last year’s dismal
6-6 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: RB Brynn Harvey,
Best Defensive Player: DE Bruce Miller, Jr.
Unless they add more FCS schools, the only way is up for UCF, which was
last nationally in total offense a year ago. Hope for progress comes
from budding young RB Brynn Harvey, an underrated group of receivers,
and veteran offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe. Taaffe brings to
Orlando an impressive resume and a pro-style offense that’ll sprinkle in
some option plays. His presence on he staff is going to make a
difference. Just how much of a difference will depend on the development
of true sophomore QB Rob Calabrese and a patchwork offensive line that
got routinely abused in 2008.
Defense: There is nothing
secondary about the defensive backfield this season. It’ll be the
primary concern of the Knight defense right through the opener with
Samford. UCF will be looking to replace all four starters, who combined
for a whopping 183 career starts. That level of production is going to
be impossible to replace. The good news is that the front seven will
provide plenty of support, stuffing the run and giving opposing
quarterbacks minimal time to locate receivers. DE Bruce Miller and DT
Torrell Troup form a menacing tandem up front and the veteran
linebackers do a great job of filling lanes and making plays.
5-7 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: RB Curtis
Best Defensive Player: LB
Greg Jackson, Sr.
While the Tigers boast some really talented skill position players, like
RB Curtis Steele and receivers Carlos Singleton and Duke Calhoun, you
might not know it if everyone else doesn’t step up. For the Memphis
offense to truly flourish up to Tommy West’s expectations, it’s
incumbent upon QB Arkelon Hall to evolve into a steadier passer and the
rebuilt offensive line not to look rebuilt. After showing flashes in his first year out of junior
college, the Tigers are counting on Hall to make good use of his weapons
for at least 12 games. The front wall, which played so well a year ago,
is being forced to replace four starters, and is dangerously thin in
terms of proven depth.
The Memphis defense suffered an unexpected body blow in February, when
defensive coordinator Tim Walton bolted for the Detroit Lions after one
year on the job. He brought a fresh energy and an extensive resume
coaching up defensive backs. In his place steps assistant Kenny Ingram,
who was promoted from linebackers coach. Ingram’s linebackers, a deep
and talented crew, won’t be a problem in his first year on the job. The
coach’s bigger concerns will be to generate a more consistent pass rush,
reduce the number of big gainers, and get a slew of newcomers acclimated
into the system.
4-8 Conf. Record: 4-4
Best Offensive Player:
QB Joe Webb, Sr.
Best Defensive Player: DE Bryant
Everyone is back, but will it make a difference? It should for a school
that lacked consistency or balance a year ago, averaging just 22 points
a game. The centerpiece of the offense will be QB Joe Webb, who rushed
for more than 1,000 yards and showed steady improvement as a passer in
his first year as an every-down player. He’ll be surrounded by a nice
collection of players, all of whom will be asked to elevate the level of
their play. Rashaud Slaughter led all backs with 514 yards on the
ground, adding valuable catches as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
The receivers and tight ends, led by Frantrell Forrest, are deep, big,
and capable of causing mismatches. And while the line still needs to do
a better job of creating daylight, it should be improved on experience
and depth alone. With so many familiar faces wrapped around Webb, the
offense will be ahead of the defense throughout the year.
Drilling down on UAB’s four straight losing seasons reveals a lack of
depth and talent on defense, even by Conference USA standards. You can
expect more of the same from this unit in 2009. Yeah, the Blazers played
their best ball over the final three games of 2008, but it’ll be tough
to maintain that momentum without LB Joe Henderson and CB Kevin Sanders,
a pair of rare all-league first teamers. On defense, there’s a complete
lack of star power or next-level potential on the two-deep. The line
struggles to get much of a push, the linebackers should be wearing name
tags for fans and coaches, and the rebuilt secondary has been a sieve
for years. It all adds up to an increase in pressure for an offense
that’ll need to out gun many opponents in order to come out on top.
10-2 Conf. Record: 8-0
Best Offensive Player:
QB Case Keenum, Jr.
Best Defensive Player: CB
Brandon Brinkley, Sr.
A year ago, Houston had a new staff, a new system, and a new set of
skill position players, yet averaged 562 yards and 40 points a game.
What will Dana Holgorsen’s wide-open attack accomplish now that just
about everyone is back? It’s a scary thought for Conference USA defenses
that had few answers for Case Keenum and his band of precocious freshmen
backs and receivers. Almost overnight, RB Bryce Beall and receivers
Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards blossomed into dynamic playmakers,
giving the quarterback a slew of dangerous weapons. The only thing
that’ll keep the Cougs from bettering their 2008 numbers is an offensive
line in transition. If it can gel in a hurry, with the help of a couple
of JUCO imports, this offense will be borderline unstoppable.
Houston can score points in a hurry. It’ll need to this fall. The
defense wasn’t very good last fall, allowing 28 points nine points, but
at least it had an experienced front and veteran secondary. This year’s
edition won’t be so lucky. The defensive line is basically starting over
and the defensive backfield is searching for three new starters. Put
those concerns together, and what have you got? A major problem stopping
opposing quarterbacks, especially in a league that’s become increasingly
reliant on the forward pass. The Cougars are athletic, which means
they’ll need to create turnovers and make stops with some old-fashioned
speed, hustle, and determination.
7-5 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: WR Damaris
Best Defensive Player: S James
Gus Malzahn, the architect of the wildly successful hurry-up, no huddle
system, may be at Auburn, but don’t expect many changes in philosophy.
Under Herb Hand, the Hurricane still plans to spread the field, operate
out of the shotgun, and mix in the run with the pass. After leading the
nation in total offense the last two seasons, why mess with success? All
eyes will be fixed on a fascinating quarterback race involving last
year’s backup Jacob Bower, Texas transfer G.J. Kinne, and incoming
freshman Shavodrick Beaver. The winner gets an instant opportunity for
monster numbers and national notoriety. While Tulsa is in good shape at
the skill positions, the line is a work-in-progress, needing to replace
three starters and build some depth in a hurry.
Defense: While the Hurricane
D made strides in 2008, it certainly wasn’t enough to satisfy Todd
Graham and the coaching staff. Tulsa still showed cracks against the
better opponents and was downright hideous in pass defense, finishing
near the bottom of the nation. The program will continue to utilize a
3-3-5 formation that gets as many good athletes on the field at one
time, and requires them to play hard and fast. That philosophy accepts
that big plays will be yielded as long as it nets even more sacks and
takeaways. The strength of the defense is at the second level, where
Mike Bryan is poised for another big season and more notoriety. The
front seven, in general, will have to be extraordinary to compensate for
that vulnerable secondary.
4-8 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: QB Trevor
Best Defensive Player: S Da'Mon
Hey, with Trevor Vittatoe behind center and Kris Adams and Jeff Moturi
catching his passes, who’d blame UTEP for wanting to air it out 45 times
a game? It’s clearly what it does best. The Miners, however, would like
more offensive balance in 2009 after finishing 14th nationally through
the air and just 90th on the ground. This is still Vittatoe’s team, but
more contributions from Donald Buckram, Vernon Frazier, and newcomer
Leilyon Myers will inject a much-needed element of unpredictability.
Although the line is big, physical, and very deep, it must develop a
successor for all-star C Robby Felix and keep Vittatoe from running for
cover on every other pass play.
Coordinator Osia Lewis was lured over from New Mexico, where his 3-3-5
defense was a smashing success. Apparently, it’s going to take some time
before this unique system, which employs three hybrid safeties and
attacks from all over the field, gains a foothold in El Paso. The Miners
allowed at least 40 points in half of their 2008 games, finishing 115th
nationally in total defense. Yeah, they created some pressure and
unforced errors, but it wasn’t enough to plug the gaping holes in run
and pass defense. On the bright side, it’s a veteran-laden group that’s
littered with returning starters and gets back all-star-caliber S
Braxton Amy from an ACL tear. There’s hope the 3-3-5 will function
better in Lewis’ second season on campus. It has to, or else UTEP is
staring down the barrel of another disappointing campaign.
2-10 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: WR Toren Dixon,
Best Defensive Player: FS Andrew Sendejo, Sr.
QB Chase Clement is the catalyst of an offense that’s broken a slew of
school records over the last two seasons. A year ago, he led the Owls in
rushing as well as passing, accounting for 3,912 yards and 37
touchdowns, showing a knack for elevating his play late in games. The
receiving corps will again give overmatched league secondaries fits.
Jarett Dillard was a Biletnikoff Award finalist two years ago, and James
Casey is a 23-year old former professional baseball player who debuted
with 46 receptions. Bailiff’s quest to run the ball with more authority
is a direct challenge to a line that got routinely abused and is
revamping the left side.
Is this the year that Rice finally starts turning the corner toward
becoming a respectable D? It has to be because the offense will take
time to adjust to so many changes. The Owls have been garroted for
years, but cause for optimism comes in the form of nine returning
starters and a whopping 26 returning lettermen. Progress was creeping in
toward the second half of 2008, as three of the last six opponents were
held below 20 points. The run defense, in particular, began to stiffen,
forcing teams into more third-and-long situations. With three starting
defensive linemen back, including budding DE Scott Solomon, there’s hope
that trend can continue in 2009. Still, Rice needs to do a much better
job defending the pass in a league loaded with high-powered aerial
attacks. There are quality, young athletes everywhere, led by FS Andrew
Sendejo, but if you can’t stop the pass in Conference USA, you’ll
constantly be playing catch up.
3-9 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: WR Emmanuel
Best Defensive Player: LB Youri Yenga,
Just like he’s done throughout his coaching career, second-year head
coach June Jones aims to spread the field with four or five receivers,
peppering defenses with short and intermediate strikes. After using last
year as one big learning process, the Mustangs are much better prepared
to fulfill their leader’s wishes. Jones bit the bullet by giving the
ball to true freshman Bo Levi Mitchell, which should start paying larger
dividends in 2009. He made plenty of mistakes, but also made huge
strides, while developing chemistry with the dynamic receiving duo of
Aldrick Robinson and Emmanuel Sanders. Don’t expect Hawaii circa 2007
quite yet. Then again, don’t count on SMU circa 2008 either. With most
of the main ingredients back, the Mustangs will better last season’s 21
points and 314 yards a game.
Defense: Realizing that it
housed more linebacker-types on the roster, SMU is switching to a 3-4
alignment this season. With an extra athlete on the field, the hope is
that the Mustangs can use their team speed to string out more plays. It
can’t hurt, right? While the offense has flashed signs of progress, the
defense is showing wear-and-tear, ranking 115th or lower in run defense,
pass efficiency defense, scoring defense, and total defense. These
Mustangs don’t discriminate, allowing every opponent to take its best
shot and gallop up and down the field. If there’s hope, it can be found
in that linebacker corps, which is aggressive and features Youri Yenga
and Pete Fleps, a pair of all-conference-caliber juniors.
2-10 Conf. Record:
Best Offensive Player: RB Andre
Best Defensive Player: DL
Reggie Scott, Sr.
Head coach Bob Toledo’s on-going quest for balance and big plays on
offense continues to come up short. The Green Wave had one of the
nation’s feeblest offenses a year ago, averaging below 17 points a game
and regressing as the season wore on. Of course, it didn’t help losing
RB Andre Anderson and WR Jeremy Williams, a couple of all-star-caliber
players, to injuries midway through the campaign. Without its best
playmakers, Tulane had no answers, lacking the depth to dent even sub
par defenses, like Rice or Tulsa. Well, the good news around New Orleans
is that both seniors are healthy again, eyeing 2009 as one final chance
to impress NFL scouts. Seeking a spark at quarterback, Toledo has given
a tacit nod to sophomore Joe Kemp, the best combination of passing and
running skills on the roster.
Defense: Three coordinators
in three years. Either they’re all coaching their way to promotions or
unable to remain employed. In the case of Tulane, it’s the latter. Steve
Stanard is the newest assistant being asked to turn around one of the
nation’s worst defenses. After a surprising start in 2008, the defense
came apart at the seams, yielding at least 40 points in six of the final
eight games. Vulnerable through the air and, particularly, on the
ground, the Green Wave simply lacks the talent and depth to stifle even
modest offensive attacks. More of the same is expected this fall from a
group with no evident star power or likely next-level athletes. Although
potential exists on the defensive line, with Reggie Scott, Adam Kwentua,
and Logan Kelley, it won’t be enough to counter a flimsy and beatable