July 13, 2011
Twelve hyper-specific projections for Conference USA. Part of Mid-Major Week.
• Just three years removed from a 1-11 finish in its first season under June Jones, SMU will win the C-USA championship. The Mustangs have been in the hunt for the West Division title the past two seasons — and won it last year — and that should be the case again as the veteran defense has the ability to hold off the powerful offenses of division rivals Tulsa and Houston. The real challenge will be overcoming an unforgiving cross-division schedule: The Mustangs get East Division frontrunners UCF and Southern Miss in back-to-back weeks in October, which should give them a good gauge as to how far they need to come to get over the championship hump.
• Houston will become a more balanced team. Yeah, all-everything quarterback Case Keenum is back from injury and this is a pass-heavy offense. But the quarterback carousel last season put more emphasis on the running game, and now it might be the deepest position on the field: The Cougars' top two rushers, Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes, combined for nearly 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns. Keenum is not slouch with his legs, either.
• Marshall will lose at least five of its first six games against West Virginia, Southern Miss, Ohio U., Virginia Tech, Louisville and Central Florida, but will rebound to win four of the next five to pull within reach of .500 and a bowl game going into the season finale against East Carolina.
• Tulsa will lead the conference in total offense for the second year in a row but fail to match last year's 10-win mark thanks to a) A brutal non-conference schedule and b) A dramatic swing in turnover margin. The Golden Hurricane successfully covered up one of the most generous defenses anywhere in 2010 by also turning in one of stingiest turnover margins, finishing plus-2 or better in six of their ten wins. As that number regresses to the mean, so will the final record.
• Even with seven new starters, Central Florida will lead the league in total and scoring defense for the second year in a row despite allowing nearly a touchdown more per game than it gave up in 2010. The Knights yielded just over 17 points per game en route to the C-USA championship, eighth-best nationally and a full 8.5 points better than the second-best defense in the conference, SMU.
• Southern Miss will finally crack double-digit wins for the first time since 1988, when the Golden Eagles were quarterbacked by a guy named "Favre." USM has been the most consistent team in the country over the last decade-and-a-half, finishing with seven, eight or nine wins in 14 of the last 15 seasons since Conference USA's formation in 1996. (The only exception: A 6-5 finish in 2001.)
The Eagles were close in 2010, outgaining conference opponents by a league-high 94 yards per game and dropping three conference games by a combined eight points. This year, with an unusually forgiving non-conference slate — the toughest test is an October trip to Navy — a serious shot at the C-USA title game and even a little top-25 buzz, anything less than ten will be a sincere disappointment.
• Rice's defense might lead the league in arrests, but the Owls will continue to rank among C-USA's worst in total defense — especially against the pass. Rice was one of two teams in the country last year to allow 300 yards per game through the air, and even with four returning starters in the secondary, there is no ready solution for the league's most anemic pass rush.
• East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley will depart for another job at season's end after once again calling for more passes than any other play-caller in the country. Despite overtures to more "balance," ECU's rock-bottom defense will force quarterback Dominique Davis to put the ball in the air at least 50 times per game.
• UAB will fall short of a bowl game for the seventh year in a row, but will also pull a quiet midseason upset that eventually decides one of the division races. Championship hopefuls Central Florida, Houston and Southern Miss all visit Birmingham in a five-week span between Oct. 20 and Nov. 17.
• Tulane will fire head coach Bob Toledo after the season. It's been a long, hard road for Toledo, who has had to endure hurricanes, the H1N1 virus, the abrupt exit of his offensive coordinator for a high school job in the dead of the offseason and the persistent apathy of the program. But Tulane hasn't gotten any better during his four years — he's 13-35 - and there's little hope things will change in Year Five. The Green Wave do have a couple dynamic weapons in quarterback Ryan Griffin and spectacularly named running back Orleans Darkwa, but the overall talent level is too far behind the curve to save Toledo from the chopping block.
• UTEP will go through three starting quarterbacks in its effort to replace four-year starter Trevor Vittatoe, without settling on a permanent replacement by season's end. The massively overhauled offensive line — returnees up front have combined for seven career starts going into the season, fewest in the nation except for Arizona — will make Miner QBs the most vulnerable targets in the conference.
• Memphis will go winless in conference play for the second consecutive season, extending its C-USA skid to 21 games dating back to October 2009. On the bright side, the Tigers will crack 20 points at least twice in the process, after failing to hit that mark in any one of its nine-game losing streak to close 2010.
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Some predictions contributed by Graham Watson.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.