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Debriefing: In Conference USA, the attack is always by air

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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The least you need to know about Conference USA in 2011. Part of Mid-Major Week.

Long in the tooth. According to the venerable Phil Steele, three of the five most experienced teams in the nation reside in C-USA's West Division: SMU, Tulsa and Rice all bring back at least 75 percent of their 2010 letterwinners, at least 80 percent of their total yards, at least 70 percent of their total tackles and at least 100 career starts on the offensive line. By Steele's count, SMU begins the season as the most battle-tested team in college football.

Bombs over Greenville. It's a truth universally acknowledged that nobody in Conference USA plays defense — last year, two-thirds of the league averaged at least 400 yards in conference games — but no one embraced the offensive ethos quite as exuberantly in 2010 as East Carolina. On offense, the Pirates put the ball in the air more often than any other team in the country and cracked 35 points in all but three games; at the same time, they finished dead last nationally in total defense and yielded at least 40 points in all but three games, including an incredible stretch in which opponents rang up 49, 76, 42, 62, 45 and 51 points over the last six games.

The resulting gap between scoring offense (16th nationally) and scoring defense (119th) was as wide as any I-A/FBS team has managed in at least a decade.

This year, the Pirates bring back quarterback Dominique Davis and three receivers (out of five) who brought in at least 40 catches, but forget the pawns: As long as ex-Mike Leach protégé Lincoln Riley is running the board as offensive coordinator, it's full speed ahead.{YSP:MORE}

Almost-perfect storm. On paper, the true nightmare offense resides in Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane wound up leading C-USA last year in total and scoring offense, and bring back just about everybody who had a hand in it — namely, prolific quarterback Gary Joe Kinne, the top four rushers from the league's No. 1 ground attack, the entire starting five on the offensive line and receiver Damaris Johnson, who happens to have more all-purpose yards to his name than any other player in NCAA history after incinerating Hawaii for a career-high 324 yards in the bowl game.

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There are two things, though, the 2010 'Canes had that the 2011 edition will not have: a) Offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who called all the plays and left for Clemson even before head coach Todd Graham set off for Pittsburgh in January, and b) The second-best turnover margin in the nation, without which the generous Tulsa D might find it difficult to hold opposing offenses to "just" 30 per points per game again.

The Knight Defense. One C-USA outfit that played a little defense in 2010: Reigning conference champ Central Florida, which held six of nine conference opponents to 17 points or less, kept Georgia out of the end zone entirely in a 10-6 Liberty Bowl upset and finished in the top 20 nationally in both yards and points allowed. (No other C-USA defense finished anywhere near the top 40 on either count.) The good news for 2011: The Knights return three starters who were voted first or second-team All-C-USA. The bad news: All but one other 2010 starter is out of eligibility.

Catch a Tiger by the woe. Last year was a "How can it possibly get any worse?" kind of a season for Memphis in its first year under head coach Larry Porter, but in fact the Tigers may not have hit bottom just yet: The offense is breaking in a brand new quarterback and four new offensive linemen in a revamped, spread-friendly scheme, opposite five new starters in the back seven on defense, which finished 2010 as the worst pass efficiency defense in the country. By year's end, they may be considered the worst team, period.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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