College Football Preview: A Look at Conference USA
Teams: East Carolina (East), Florida Atlantic (East), Florida International (East), Louisiana Tech (West), Marshall (East), Middle Tennessee (East), North Texas (West), Southern Miss (East), Tulane (West), Tulsa (West), UAB (East), UTEP (West), UTSA (West)
Best Team: East Carolina
Best Coach: Larry Coker (UTSA)
Top Players: QB Rakeem Cato (Marshall), QB Shane Carden (East Carolina), QB Cody Green (Tulsa), RB Kenneth Dixon (Louisiana Tech), WR Justin Hardy (East Carolina), LB Derrell Johnson (East Carolina)
Top Storyline: Nick Montana, son of legendary quarterback Joe Montana, is the likely starter for Tulane
There used to be some sunlight between Conference USA and the more “lowly” conferences like the MAC and the Sun Belt, but that may not be the case this year. As the top programs in those other non-power conferences have gotten better, competition in the Conference USA may not be quite as strong.
What does jump out in the conference is the relative parity. Just as there are not really those teams in the conference that jump out as particularly strong, there are not many that stand out as being remarkably bad.
The primary program that will be looking to change that perception is East Carolina which tied for first in the East in 2012. Returning for the Pirates are a dynamic offensive trio including junior quarterback Shane Carden (3116 yards and 23 touchdowns), senior running back Vintavious Cooper (1049 yards rushing and 229 yards receiving), and junior wide receiver Justin Hardy (1105 yards and 11 touchdowns). Those three are among 18 returning starters for 4th year coach Ruffin McNeill who also has standout senior guard Will Simmons, senior linebacker Derrell Johnson (62 tackles, 7 sacks, 4 TFLs, and 8 quarterback hurries) and senior safety Damon Magazu (80 tackles) returning.
Prediction: East Carolina struggled mightily against foes outside of the conference last season and even got blown out by Navy 56-28. I would expect similar results this year when the Pirates match up against ACC opponents Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and NC State. Nevertheless, the rest of their schedule lines up well, and I would expect them to be playing for the regular season conference title when they play Marshall in the final game of the season on November 29.
From the West, East Carolina’s top competition is likely to be the Rice Owls who return 19 starters from a team that won its last four games. The Owls made great strides a year ago, and if they make similar improvements after a 7-6 season that included close losses against Marshall and Tulsa they could be a real threat. Dual threat quarterback Taylor McHargue leads an Owls ground attack that is strong and diverse, returning leading rusher Charles Ross whose 800 yards outpaced McHargue’s 667 although the quarterback ran for more touchdowns (11 to 5). The senior signal caller also threw for 2209 yards and top receiver, 6’5” junior Jordan Taylor returns. Additionally, Rice brings back its top 8 tacklers from last season including elite safety Paul Porras and top linebacker Cameron Nwosu who hauled in 93 and 92 tackles respectively as well as two interceptions apiece.
Prediction: The Owls avoid East Carolina and Marshall in regular season play, giving them a relatively smooth path through Conference USA play. Outside of a tough opener against Texas A&M, Kansas (who they beat in 2012) and Houston (who defeated the Owls) are its toughest opponents. Although I would not bet on it, the Owls could be a candidate to repeat the feat of Northern Illinois’ 2012 season that saw the Huskies lose to a power conference foe in the opener only to roll on to win every other game and the conference title and surprisingly make a BCS bowl. Rice is likely a step behind East Carolina, but do not sleep on the Owls.
If the Pirates are going to be stopped in the East, Marshall may be the team to do it despite losing wide receiver Aaron Dobson and head hunting safeties Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha. Junior quarterback Rakeem Cato may be the early favorite for conference MVP, and is at the helm of a team that returns 15 starters in Doc Holliday’s 4th year as head coach. Tommy Shuler, who had 1138 receiving yards last season- nearly double the total of current New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson, returns, and sophomore safety D.J. Hunter is the team’s leading returning tackler after totaling 102 in 2012.
Prediction: The Thundering Herd play a pretty light schedule with the exceptions of an away game at MAC conference opponent Ohio, which should be a good matchup, and an away game at Virginia Tech. Outside of those two contests, Marshall will be favored in every game until they meet East Carolina on November 29.
If Marshall is the top challenge to the best in the East, Tulane may be the primary obstacle for Rice in the West, and, fittingly, the two programs play in their final game on November 30. Making the Green Wave an even more intriguing program is their likely starting quarterback, Nick Montana, the son of the legendary Joe Montana. After being heavily recruited in high school, Montana signed with Washington where he saw limited action before transferring to Mt. MAC Community College where he had a an outstanding season. With Tulane not heavily focused on the run game and all of their receivers returning, including senior receiver Ryan Grant and his 1149 yards. Given the talent at that position, Montana should throw for well over 3000 yards.
Prediction: Despite reasons for optimism in the passing game, the Green Wave were 2-10 last season in first year head coach Curtis Johnson’s inaugural season. The running game and defensive performance will need to drastically improve. Nevertheless, in a lackluster Conference USA, Tulane could finish second in the West and with a slightly above .500 record. Outside of the last game against Rice, the October 26 matchup against Tulsa will be critical.
Since taking over for the Golden Hurricanes, Bill Blankenship has done an outstanding job including guiding the team to an 11-3 record in 2012. Unfortunately for Tulsa, however, he only returns 10 starters from that successful team. Senior running back Trey Watts is one of the best in the conference and ran for 1108 yards while bringing in 343 yards receiving. Backup running back Ja’Terian Douglas also ran for 936 yards giving the Golden Hurricanes a solid ground game. Quarterback Cody Green threw for 2592 yards and his top three receivers from a year ago. Defensively, linebacker Shawn Jackson (88 tackles, 5 sacks, and 5.5 TFLs) is one of the better linebackers nationally.
Prediction: Out-of-conference games against Bowling Green, Colorado State, Oklahoma, and Iowa State will be tough. Moreover, Tulsa draws both East Carolina and Marshall making for a difficult schedule. Although Tulsa returns a solid team, the challenging schedule may make bowl eligibility a challenge.
After a 9-3 season in 2012, Louisiana Tech enters Conference USA with some rebuilding to do. The Bulldogs bring in a new coach, Skip Holtz, to a team that returns only 7 starters. Fortunately for Holtz, one of those returners is sophomore running back Kenneth Dixon who ran for 1194 yards and an astounding 27 touchdowns, easily breaking Marshall Faulk’s FBS record of 21. Junior cornerback Le’Vander Liggins is the leading returner on the defensive side of the ball after finishing 2012 with 50 tackles, 11 passes broken up, and 2 interceptions.
Prediction: A new conference, a new coach, and 15 new starters likely spells a fall from last season’s performance. Moreover, this is somewhat of a reclamation project for Holtz who failed at South Florida. However, Dixon should give Louisiana Tech a chance in every game on its schedule outside of their opener against North Carolina State. Other games, such as November 16 at Rice are likely losses, but the Bulldogs could end up being bowl eligible.
Outside of Nick Montana, perhaps the most intriguing storyline in Conference USA is Jameill Showers, the likely starter at quarterback for UTEP. After almost beating out Johnny Manziel for the Texas A&M QB job, Showers transferred to El Paso and will seek to help the Miners rebound from a 3-9 season in 2012. It is unclear exactly how good Showers can be after playing behind Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Heisman winner Manziel, but if he is as good as advertised he could team up with talented junior running back Nathan Jeffery (897 yards) and junior wide receiver Jordan Leslie (973 yards) to form one of the conference’s most potent offensive attacks.
Prediction: New coach Sean Kugler does not have much on the surface that he can bank on, but the addition of Showers as well as the fact that the Miners never got blown out last season despite tough games against Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and Wisconsin sould bolster his confidence. A tough stretch in the season that includes games at Colorado State, Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, at Rice, at Texas A&M, and at North Texas will determine exactly how much improvement we will see in the Miners, but they could equal last season’s win total in the first three games, and they could be borderline bowl eligible.
Competing with UTEP in the middle of the West will likely be North Texas, which returns 17 starters in Dan McCarney’s third year at the school. The Mean Green open the season with somewhat of a controversy at the quarterback position with senior quarterback Derek Thompson, who threw for 2649 yards last season the likely starter over Kansas transfer Brock Berglund and impressive freshman Dajon Williams. However the quarterback position ultimately shakes out, the Mean Green return some standouts on defense including senior linebacker Zachary Orr (108 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 interceptions) and stellar sophomore cornerback Zac Whitfield (60 tackles, 12 passes broken up, 3 interceptions).
Prediction: The Mean Green were 4-8 in 2012, and could be marginally better in 2013. Nevertheless, it would be a mild surprise if North Texas was bowl eligible. This could be a do or die year for McCarney.
The West may be slightly stronger, but the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders may be the top challenger to the top two in the East. After leaving the Sun Belt following an 8-4 2012, the team returns senior quarterback Logan Kilgore who threw for 2571 passing yards last season and eight other offensive starters. Notably, dynamic return man Reggie Whatley also returns after averaging 30.5 yards per return last season.
Prediction: There is very little separating some of these Conference USA teams, and the Blue Raiders could end up much higher on this list before the season is over. However, this is a team that did not play as well as its record suggests last season with close wins and several embarrassing losses, including a 27-21 loss at the hands of FCS foe McNeese State and a 45-0 beatdown from Sun Belt opponent Arkansas State. This is another team on the bubble of bowl eligibility.
A 3-9 season under first year coach Garrick McGee looks to be improved upon by the UAB Blazers. Star running back, junior Darrin Reaves (1037 rushing yards, 14 total TD, and 302 receiving yards) as well as sophomore quarterback Austin Brown (2673 yards passing) return as part of a group of 16 coming back. Although this team is still young and may be a year away from seriously competing for the conference title, they could pull some surprises in 2013.
Prediction: UAB certainly has the look of a program on the rise, but a tough schedule that includes away games at Troy, LSU, Vanderbilt, Marshall, and East Carolina could be tough to navigate. Bowl eligibility is a possibility, but four or five wins is a more likely outcome. Nevertheless, look out for UAB in 2014.
Carl Pelini, the brother of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, looks to build on a lackluster inaugural year with the Owls. However, only six returning starters from a mediocre offense and a brutal schedule will make that a difficult feat. On the defensive side of the ball, Pelini’s specialty, Florida Atlantic should be solid. They return nine starters and senior linebacker Randell Johnson returns after spending most of last season out with an injury.
Prediction: In their first year in Conference USA, this team does not figure to be much of a factor. After going 3-9 last season, it is conceivable, and perhaps likely, that the Owls could enter their final stretch 0-9. Their last three games at Southern Miss and against New Mexico State and FIU could determine whether Florida Atlantic matches last season’s lowly totals.
Florida International may have placed safety Johnathan Cyprien early in the NFL Draft, but there is very little else that can generate excitement about the program. The Panthers finished 8th in the Sun Belt last season and figure to do little better against Conference USA foes. Junior quarterback Jake Medlock (2127 passing yards) is the headliner of the eight returning starters. Defensively, Giovani Francois returns after gathering 4.5 sacks last season.
Prediction: Much like the other program from the Sunshine State, the Panthers have very few games on their schedule that look winnable. They should beat FCS opponent Bethune- Cookman, and they should be competitive against Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic (both away games). Getting back to 3-9 may be a tad optimistic for Ron Turner, the former coach at Illinois, in his first year.
In just its second season of football, UTSA surprised a number of observers with how they performed last season, going 8-4. However, Larry Coker, who won a national championship with Miami faces a much tougher challenge in 2013. This team returns 18 starters including senior quarterback Eric Soza (2085 passing yards), its leading rusher (David Glasco), all of its top receivers, and playmaking junior safety Triston Wade (who pulled in 4 interceptions to go along with 74 tackles and 7 passes broken up in 2012). However, this will be a tough schedule.
Prediction: Last year’s schedule was a cakewalk. This year, the Roadrunners do not play anyone as easy as the eight teams they best last year. Although I expect UTSA to win a few surprise games, this year will be a rude awakening to real FBS play.
Not many could have predicted how badly Southern Miss would do last season. After years of success, they hired highly regarded defensive guru Ellis Johnson to take the helm, and they tanked, going 0-12. Offensive guru Todd Monken has been brought in, but there is little reason to believe this year;s Golden Eagles squad will fare any better. The team has lost its top passers, its leading rusher, and its leading tackler and top player (NFL Draft pick Jamie Collins). Senior linebacker Alan Howze is likely the top returner after posting 66 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 2.5 TFLs last season.
Prediction: This will be a really bad football team. Monken was a great hire, but his offense returns only four starters from an abysmal performance a year ago. Although it is hard to imagine this team winning zero football games again, a loss in their opener against Texas State would make it hard to foresee any victories in 2013.