NCAA Football Countdown: Conference USA

(November 24, 2011 – Source: Brett Deering/Getty Images North America)





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Central Florida


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East Carolina


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Pros: So, the big question is – are the Thundering Herd on the way back? After being a dominant player (albeit in the MAC) for so long, Marshall has slipped back among the also-rans, but have shown signs of life recently with 19 wins over the last three years. They have a young team that made it to a bowl last year, despite freshman starting at key positions, and the team will only get better under HC Doc Holliday. Rakeem Cato was the first true freshman to start at Marshall since 1975, and threw for 2059 yds with 15 TDs and 11 interceptions. He should be much improved in 2012, especially with top receiver and YouTube hero AaronDobson (49-668-12) returning. The running attack got better over the second half of the season, and both Tron Martinez (649 yds, 3 TDs) and Travon Van (551 yds, 3 TDs) are back. Throw in Miami transfer Kevin Grooms and the Herd should manage a lot more than 120 ypg on the ground. The offensive line returns 3 starters, with all-conference freshman C Chris Jasperse ready to step it up. JUCO Gage Niemeyer and sophomore Josh Lovell are expected to hit the ground running. This offense looks like it could be very productive in the coming season. The defense was hit harder, especially with superstar DE Vinny Curry off to the NFL. Fellow 2011 DL starters Marques Aiken and Jeremiah Taylor were decent, but will have to handle increased attention in 2012. Devin Arrington has switched between SS and LB over the last few years and has performed well at both. This year he moves back to LB, but that makes him the only returning starter. Corners Monterius Lovett and Darryl Roberts improved last season and should take another step forward this year. Andre Booker (1 TD) is a good return man.


Cons: They were young last year and they still are, and while Holliday has done a great job bolstering depth, the team may not hold up if injuries strike, especially on defense. Cato’s health could be the key to success this season with only freshmen in reserve, and a new LT (Niemeyer) is watching his back. Curry’s value may not be noticed until this season, and the replacement DLs haven’t played a whole lot. Same deal with the LBs – MLB Jermaine Holmes started 8 games as a freshman, but didn’t do a whole lot. Both safeties are inexperienced, and while SS DJ Hunter is highly regarded, he’s been banged up so far. New specialists are not good news for a team that relies heavily on field position and playing teams close.


Prediction: A tough OOC could see the Herd fighting an uphill battle all season. Trips to West Virginia and Purdue are likely losses, while a visit from Ohio is no picnic. Western Carolina looks like the only sure win. The good news is Marshall plays in the easier CUSA division; the bad news is they still have to play Tulsa and Houston (both at home). This is a rough schedule, and while Marshall have the personnel to return to a bowl, they can’t afford any slip-ups along the way.





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Southern Mississippi


Pros: The reigning CUSA champs are considered one of the front-runners to take the crown again this season, mainly because they’re always in the running. But with just 10 or so starters returning, and a new HC in Ellis Johnson, can the Golden Eagles actually deliver? Helping them along the way will be their most exciting player, WR Tracy Lampley. Last season Lampley was 3rd in receiving (47-574-4), 2nd in rushing (463 yds, 3 TDs) and returned kicks (21.3) and punts (11.5, 1 TD). Helping him out will be a trio of excellent backs, led by Kendrick Hardy, who all contributed last season to the tune of 1141 yards and 6 TDs. With leading rusher Jamal Woodyard redshirting, they will see a lot more of the ball. Only 5 starters return on defense, but 4 of them are excellent. DT Khyri Thornton did well in 7 starts last season and should be even more impressive with a full season under his belt. Bandit (DE/LB) Jamie Collins can count 19.5 TFLs among his impressive stat haul, but he made plays all over the pitch and was voted 2nd team all-conference for his efforts. Another 2nd team pick, CB Deron Wilson, had 13 PBUs and 4 picks to his credit. Jacorius Cotton is solid at FS. P Peter Boehme is a fine punter and even threw a TD pass last season.


Cons: Who is going to replace super-QB Austin Davis? Davis ended as the leading passer in Southern Miss history, and was also a running threat. Last season he accounted for 3848 total yards and 34 TDs, but more importantly, he was the leader of the team. Junior Chris Campbell has had to throw a pass in the FBS, but looks like the favorite. He’s not the runner Davis was, but he sure can throw it. His biggest asset is probably his poise under pressure – that will be put to the test in 2012. Inexperienced players on the defensive line and at linebacker could be a major concern, although Johnson was a DC at South Carolina, so I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. Depth is definitely a concern. The biggest loss may be reliable K Danny Hrapmann, who didn’t have his best year last season, but the Eagles would rather have him still on campus. Sophomore Corey Acosta should get the job after making both his FG attempts last season.


Prediction: CUSA has been cleaned out of star QBs since last season, leaving the conference race really up in the air. The Eagles open at Nebraska, and also have home games against Louisville and Boise State. A trip to Western Kentucky promises nothing, and USM might be 1-3 (or worse) in OOC play. Trips to Central Florida and SMU from the West are the toughest the conference slate has to offer, giving hope that a bowl game, and maybe even a division title, could be on the cards. It’s all down to how Campbell performs at QB. I reckon the Eagles go 7-5 this season.








Pros: The last time David Piland attempted to replace Case Keenum didn’t go so well as Houston struggled to a 5-7 season. Things should be different this time round as Piland has a year’s experience under his belt (he was a true freshman), and he redshirted last season to watch the master at his work. The difference was apparent in camp as Piland looked much improved. He also has the benefit of all-conference RB Charles Sims at his disposal. Sims rushed for 821 yards and 9 TDs (7.5 ypc!) and caught 51 passes for another 575 yards and 4 scores. The offensive line should be strong again as it only needs to replace 1 starter, although it’s LT Chris Thompson. Reserve Ralph Oragwu gets first crack at that job. RB Jacolby Ashworth is the pick of the rest, but watch out for freshman all-American Rowdy Harper at RT. The defense returns 7 guys and should continue to be one of the better units in the conference, despite the loss of Sammy Brown at LB. Phillip Steward was often overlooked on the strongside, but he’s a good one. Last season he had 77 tackles and 6 interceptions in a productive season. Derrick Matthews (106 tkls, 9 for loss) was a freshman all-American WLB and should only get better. Efrem Oliphant was a solid backup in the middle. DJ Hayden and Kent Brooks are solid on the corners, while Kent Brooks is a solid SS. Depth is excellent. Matt Hogan and Richie Leone are reliable at kicker and punter.


Cons: HC Tony Levine may have coached the big bowl win over Penn State, but can he keep it up over the course of a season? He’ll have to manage with a talented but green receiving corps, not what you need when breaking in a new(ish) QB. Help comes in the form of Deontay Greenberry, the first 5-star recruit in UH history. The defense moves to a 4-3, but none of the returning linemen have stood out. On the plus side, the unit is pretty deep, but a pass rusher (Eric Braswell?) needs to be found. A backup RB would be a plus, as would quality returners. These were both areas of strength last season. Piland’s confidence could be an issue if he struggles early, as the depth behind him is relatively unknown.


Prediction: The defense should be able to carry the team through the early going as the offense finds its rhythm in live action. A home game against carbon-copy Louisiana Tech and a trip to UCLA won’t be easy, but the conference schedule as a whole looks to be manageable. SMU in Dallas and Tulsa at home are the toughest matchups, although trips to East Carolina and improving Marshall should not be taken lately. I reckon the West title is a battle between Tulsa and SMU, with Houston coming third, but they have the talent to run the table. With so much youth on the roster, I think the Cougars will take a little step back to 9-3, but they’re my early favorites for 2013.





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Southern Methodist


Pros: With just 3 starters back on offense, talk of winning the West title must sound like crazy talk, but there is evidence that a big season could be on the cards, not least of which is the loss of Case Keenum at Houston. SMU lose their starter at QB, JJ McDermott, from last season too, but he was average at best. Taking his place is Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert, who never really found his place with the Longhorns, but should enjoy a new lwase of life in Dallas. He has an excellent receiver to throw to in all-conference pick Darius Johnson (79-1118-8) and a bunch of others who’ve seen action. More importantly, all-conference RB Zach Line is back to keep defenses from focusing on the pass. Line ran for 1224 yards and 17 scores despite missing the last 3 games with injury. The defense returns 7 who started the last 5 games (at least) and has quality replacements for some of the vacancies. Torlan Pittman should be decent on the nose, but DE Margus Hunt could be a breakout star. He’s already has a reputation for blocking kicks. The LB unit returns almost everyone from last season’s 2-deep, and should be the strength of the defense. MLB Taylor Reed and WLB Ja’Gared Davis both made 2nd team all-conference and are the best of the group. K Chase Hover hit 8 of 10 FGs last season and has looked good in camp.


Cons: Who’s going to block for the Mustangs this season with all 5 of last year’s starters gone on the OL? It’s not all bleak with former starter Blake McJunkin at LG and others with game experience, but two redshirt freshman could be a concern. The secondary wasn’t bad last season, but struggled against the better passing attacks. Two starters return – CB Kenneth Acker and SS Ryan Smith – but they’re serviceable at best. Depth at RB could be a concern and a couple of receivers need to step up to help out Jackson.


Prediction: The OOC sends them to Baylor, then home for games against Texas A&M and TCU, meaning a 1-3 (Stephen F Austin) start is probable. That won’t matter in conference play, as long as everyone stays healthy, as the league slate is far more manageable. A trip to UCF won’t be fun, but the Mustangs get Houston, Southern Miss and Tulsa in Dallas. The offense shoulds be humming by then, and I can see SMU taking at least two scalps. An 8-5 overall record will be decent, but 6-2 and second in the conference will make this a somewhat successful campaign.



Texas-El Paso


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Pros: With a healthy number of starters (13) returning on both sides of the ball, as well as some key reserves, the Golden Hurricane have to be considered favorites for the West title. They were a (horrible) loss to Houston short of playing in the CUSA title game last season, but that should change in Bill Blankenship’s second year at the helm. Even though GJ Kinne’s gone, the Hurricane feel comfortable at QB with Nebraska transfer Cody Green. Green started 5 games for the Cornhuskers but couldn’t beat out Taylor Martinez, which brings him here. He’s a big, mobile QB who has thrown the ball well so far in camp. Back to help him out will be RBs Ja’Terian Douglas and Trey Watts, who had nearly identical rushing totals last season and combined for 1764 yards and 7 scores. Watts is a useful receiver too. Speaking of receivers, top guys Willie Carter (61-868-7) and Bryan Burnham (54-850-9) give Green a nice pair of targets, and there is some good depth too. The defense was strong against the run and returns 3 starters, led by DE Cory Dorris. The team only returns 1 starting LB, but luckily it’s the excellent Shawn Jackson. SLB DeAundre Brown is a former starter. The secondary returns 3 starters too. Former Bruin Lowell Rose is a decent corner, while safeties Dexter McCoil and Marcon Nelson should push for conference honors again this season. John Flanders took an academic redshirt last season, but has started in the past.


Cons: Rebuilding on the offensive line seems to be a recurring theme in CUSA this season, and Tulsa are no different with only C Trent Dupy and RG Stetson Burnett back. The new starters have seen action before, while the depth looks so good, some may push for starting gigs as the season progresses. The passing attack won’t get a proper test until the season opener at Iowa State. Neither contender for the MLB spot has even started a game, and it’s a crucial piece of the Tulsa D. With the reliable Kevin Fitzpatrick graduating, the Hurricane are left with freshman Daniel Schwarz at kicker. He has a booming leg but no experience.


Prediction: Tulsa have been known to take on some tough opponents in their OOC, but it’s manageable this season as they break in Green. The opener at Iowa State will be tricky, while Fresno State look strong on offense this year, but both games are winnable. A late season matchup at Arkansas likely means 3-1 will be the best Tulsa can manage in OOC. The Hurricane should be 5-0 in conference play before they face the closing 3 games at Houston, home to UCF and then finishing at SMU. The Hurricane should be firing on all cylinders at this stage, and will win the division with at least a 7-1 conference record. They should win the CUSA title too. 

About Al Burke (168 Articles)
I've been a writer for about five years, focusing mostly on college football, but occasionally delving into the murky world of the NFL, especially around draft time. I currently reside north of the Border in Vancouver with my ever-patient wife Vicky and two kids, Niamh and Eoin. I look after the kids right now, and I work in my local library to help pay the bills. I also write for The New Sports Guru and Daily Shootout. You can find more of my work at http://thenewsportsguru.com/category/alan-burke and http://www.dailyshootout.com/ I'm something of a Twitter junkie, so feel free to tweet me and/or like my facebook page. I like to have the last word, so expect a response or ten. I played football for 20 years, right up to the age of 37, and to be honest, I'd still play if there were "old fart" leagues available. I've been an assistant coach for 8 years, and also have head-coaching experience. I currently coach Bantam and JVAA at Sentinel Secondary in West Vancouver.
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