C-USA wrap: Final upset ends breakthrough dream

It finally was going to happen: After seven seasons of having the Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences almost annually putting teams into the BCS, this looked to be the season that Conference USA finally broke through.

The Big East is raiding the league – Houston, SMU and UCF are leaving – but at least C-USA’s on-field product this season would garner national attention.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Houston was 12-0 heading into the Dec. 3 league title game, which was played on the Cougars’ home field. But Southern Miss ended the Cougars’ BCS dreams with a dominating 49-28 upset.

Coach of year:
Southern Miss’ Larry Fedora
Player of year:
Houston QB Case Keenum
Freshman of year:
East Carolina LB Jeremy Grove
Coordinator of year:
Houston offensive coordinator Jason Phillips
Defensive player of year:
Marshall DE Vinny Curry
Offensive freshman of year:
East Carolina WR Justin Hardy
Defensive coordinator of year:
Southern Miss’ Dan Disch

The fall was a long one for Houston: From a possible spot in the Sugar Bowl, the Cougars tumbled all the way to the TicketCity Bowl, a 2-year-old game played in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl that has an 11 a.m. local-time kickoff on Jan. 2.

To add more angst to the situation, Houston coach Kevin Sumlin – who led the Cougars to double-digit wins in two of the past three season – seems certain to leave for a “bigger” job, with Texas A&M the likely destination. The same situation exists at Southern Miss, where Larry Fedora will fill the North Carolina vacancy. SMU coach June Jones also looks to be on the way out, with Arizona State the main suitor.

In addition, Tulane, Memphis and UAB – which went a combined 7-30 – fired their coaches. That means that half the teams in the 12-team league will have new coaches next season.

[Video: Bowl games to watch ]

Player of year: Houston QB Case Keenum. He is graduating with basically every important NCAA career passing statistic. While his final home game didn’t go as he wanted, he still will go down as the best quarterback in school history (and, yes, we know Houston’s Andre Ware won the Heisman). He has thrown for 5,099 yards, 45 TDs and just three picks this season, leads the nation in total offense and is third in passing efficiency.

Freshman of year: East Carolina LB Jeremy Grove. While ECU isn’t going bowling this season, the defense made huge strides over last season. Grove is a major reason; he made 122 tackles, a figure that ranks 10th nationally, third in the league and leads the team. Grove, who missed one game, had double-digit tackles in eight contests this fall.

Coach of year: Southern Miss’ Larry Fedora. His team won at Houston to take the league title, so he edges out the Cougars’ Kevin Sumlin. Fedora parlayed his team’s 11-2 record into the coaching job at North Carolina.

Coordinator of year: Houston offensive coordinator Jason Phillips. Phillips, a former Cougars wide receiver, would’ve loved playing in the offense he oversees. Houston leads the nation in total offense, pass offense and scoring offense, and also is effective when it wants to run the ball.

Biggest surprise, team: Marshall. The Herd weren’t overpowering by any means, but they did finish second in the East Division and earn a bowl bid – and with a true freshman starting at quarterback. There’s not really a bad loss on the record, and wins over Southern Miss and Louisville were impressive.

Justin Johnson blossomed into a star in his final season at Houston.
(US Presswire)

Biggest disappointment, team: UCF. The Knights never could get their offense untracked and finished tied for fourth in the East Division. That’s embarrassing. A rebuilt defense was its usually stingy self, but the offense was way too inconsistent. Sophomore QB Jeff Godfrey regressed and the whole unit suffered.

Biggest surprise, player: Houston WR Justin Johnson. There’s always a need for wide receivers at Houston, but Johnson’s huge senior season was a shock nonetheless. Coming into the season, he had caught 33 passes, for 395 yards and three TDs in his career. He had only two receptions for 18 yards in the opener, then became a valuable weapon in Keenum’s arsenal. He followed up that lackluster opener with three consecutive 80-yard games, then ended the season with five consecutive 90-yard games. Though he was the No. 3 option, Johnson still had 75 receptions for 1,081 yards and 11 scores.

Biggest disappointment, player: SMU QB Kyle Padron. He threw for 3,828 yards and 31 TDs last season, and looked to be a legit contender for all-league honors this season. Instead, he had a rough first quarter in the opener against TCU, throwing two interceptions, and, basically, was done for the season. He didn’t take a snap after the third game and ended the season 9-of-20 for 152 yards, no TDs and three picks.

Best game: Nov. 12, Southern Miss 30, UCF 29. This game was a defensive struggle until the fourth quarter, when the teams combined to score 34 points. A field goal early in the fourth quarter gave Southern Miss a 19-9 lead, and considering how inept UCF’s offense had been, the game appeared to be over. But Latavius Murray returned the ensuing kickoff for a score and it became a nail-biter. Another Southern Miss field goal about two minutes after the kickoff return gave the Golden Eagles a six-point lead, but backup QB Blake Bortles then marched UCF to the go-ahead TD. Southern Miss answered with a TD and s two-point conversion on its next drive for a 30-23 lead. Three plays later, Bortles threw a pick, and Southern Miss proceeded to drive to UCF’s 10. But with 2:55 left, Jamal Woodyard fumbled and UCF recovered at its 11. Bortles then guided a 12-play drive that ended with a 25-yard TD pass to J.J. Worton on the final play. UCF disdained the extra point and went for the win, but missed the two-point conversion pass.

Biggest upset: Dec. 3, Southern Miss 49, Houston 28. Houston was a 13-point favorite in the league title game, and a victory would’ve meant a BCS bid for the Cougars. But Southern Miss got off to a fast start, withstood a Cougars rally, then blew it open with a 21-point third quarter. Houston had season-low totals in points and yards (428) and also allowed a season-high in points and TD passes (four).

Underclassmen liable to turn pro: Memphis DT Dontari Poe, UCF CB Josh Robinson

Bowl outlook: Five C-USA teams earned bowl bids, and each game is winnable. At the same team, the league easily could go 0-5 as well. Despite its loss in the league title game, Houston got the most high-profile opponent, as the Cougars meet defense-minded Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. It will be just the ninth Big Six opponent Keenum has faced in his career. Southern Miss gets WAC also-ran Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl, but the Golden Eagles’ focus could be a concern. SMU gets Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Marshall gets FIU in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl and Tulsa faces BYU in the Armed Forces Bowl.

[Video: Oklahoma State isn’t the biggest BCS snub]

QBCase Keenum, Houston; 6-2/210, Sr.; Abilene (Texas) Wylie
RBOrleans Darkwa, Tulane; 6-0/214, Soph.; Nashville Ensworth
RBZach Line, SMU; 6-1/230, Jr.; Oxford (Mich.) High
WRWillie Carter, Tulsa; 6-2/221, Jr.; Crockett (Texas) High
WRPatrick Edwards, Houston; 5-9/175, Sr.; Hearne (Texas) High
WRDarius Johnson, SMU; 5-10/175, Jr.; Missouri City (Texas) Hightower
TLamar Holmes, Southern Miss; 6-6/333, Sr.; Itawamba CC (Miss.), preceded by Gastonia (N.C.) Huss
TMatt McCants, UAB; 6-7/295, Sr.; Mobile (Ala.) Williamson
GClint Anderson, Tulsa; 6-2/285, Sr.; Allen (Texas) High
GDarius Barnes, Southern Miss; 6-4/329, Soph.; Memphis Westwood
CChris Thompson, Houston; 6-2/285, Sr.; Hitchcock (Texas) High
EVinny Curry, Marshall; 6-4/263, Sr.; Cincinnati Harmony Community School
TDelvin Johnson, Marshall; 6-3/312, Sr.; Woodruff (S.C.) High
EScott Solomon, Rice; 6-3/270, Sr.; San Antonio Marshall
LBCurnelius Arnick, Tulsa; 6-1/230, Sr.; Dallas Carter
LBSammy Brown, Houston; 6-3/240, Sr.; Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, preceded by Wiggins (Miss.) Stone
LBJamie Collins, Southern Miss; 6-3/239, Jr.; Meadville (Miss.) Franklin County
LBTrent Mackey, Tulane; 5-11/227, Jr.; Lafayette (La.) Carencro
CBJosh Robinson, UCF; 5-10/192, Jr.; Plantation (Fla.) High
CBDeron Wilson, Southern Miss; 5-10/175, Soph.; New Orleans Walker
FSOmar Brown, Marshall; 5-11/195, Sr.; Moncks Corner (S.C.) Berkeley
SSDexter McCoil, Tulsa; 6-4/222, Jr.; Lutcher (La.) High
KChris Boswell, Rice; 6-2/210, Soph.; Keller (Texas) Fossil Ridge
PIan Campbell, UTEP; 5-11/170, Jr.; Mt. SAC College (Calif.), preceded by Pasadena (Calif.) Maranatha
KRRannell Hall, UCF; 6-2/175, Fr.; Miami Carol City
PRTracy Lampley, Southern Miss; 5-9/168, Jr.; Waynesboro (Miss.) Wayne County
QBAustin Davis, Southern Miss; 6-2/221, Jr.; Meridian (Miss.) West Lauderdale
RBJa'Terian Douglas, Tulsa; 5-11/180, Soph.; Arlington (Texas) Lamar
RBCharles Sims, Houston; 6-0/206, Soph.; Houston Westbury
WRCole Beasley, SMU; 5-9/180, Sr.; Little Elm (Texas) High
WRTyron Carrier, Houston; 5-8/170, Sr.; Houston Worthing
WRLance Lewis, East Carolina; 6-3/209, Sr.; East Mississippi CC, preceded by Concord (N.C.) High
TKelvin Beachum, SMU; 6-3/306, Sr.; Mexia (Texas) High
TTyler Holmes, Tulsa; 6-4/301, Sr.; Ottawa Merivale (Canada)
GKevin Forsch, Houston; 6-5/301, Soph.; Spring (Texas) Klein Oak
GJosh LeRibeus, SMU; 6-2/310, Sr.; Richardson (Texas) Berkner
CJordan Rae, UCF; 6-2/272, Jr.; Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Cypress Bay
ECordarro Law, Southern Miss; 6-2/261, Sr.; Whitfield (Ala.) Sumter County
TDontari Poe, Memphis; 6-5/350, Jr.; Memphis Wooddale
TGermard Reed, UTEP; 6-0/280, Soph.; Lufkin (Texas) High
EDezman Moses, Tulane; 6-3/248, Sr.; Iowa transfer, preceded by Willingsboro (N.J.) High
LBShawn Jackson, Tulsa; 6-0/238, Soph.; Tulsa (Okla.) McLain
LBMarcus McGraw, Houston; 6-0/228, Sr.; Arlington (Texas) Bowie
LBTaylor Reed, SMU; 6-0/230, Jr.; Beaumont (Texas) West Brook
CBBryce Callahan, Rice; 5-10/180, R-Fr.; Cypress (Texas) Cypress Woods
CBD.J. Hayden, Houston; 6-0/190, Jr.; Navarro College (Texas), preceded by Missouri City (Texas) Fort Bend Elkins
FSKemal Ishmael, UCF; 5-11/211, Jr.; North Miami Beach (Fla.) High
SSBradley Jacobs, East Carolina; 5-10/210, Sr.; Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, preceded by Long Beach (Miss.) High
KKevin Fitzpatrick, Tulsa; 6-2/190, Sr.; Jensen Beach (Fla.) High
PKyle Martens, Rice; 6-6/230, Sr.; Spearfish (S.D.) High
KRVernon Frazier, UTEP; 5-6/175, Sr.; Duncanville (Texas) High
PRRichard Crawford, SMU; 5-11/195, Sr.; Saddleback College (Calif.), preceded by Oceanside (Calif.) El Camino
QBRakeem Cato, Marshall; 6-1/180, true freshman; Miami Central
RBTravon Van, Marshall; 5-10/200, true freshman; Milford (N.J.) Milford Academy, preceded by San Diego Helix
RBJamal Woodyard, Southern Miss; 5-8/202, redshirt freshman; Fairhope (Ala.) High
WRJustin Hardy, East Carolina; 6-0/181, redshirt freshman; Vanceboro (N.C.) West Craven
WRDer'rikk Thompson, SMU; 5-11/185, redshirt freshman; Troup (Texas) High
WRJ.J. Worton, UCF; 6-2/193, redshirt freshman; Homestead (Fla.) South Dade
TAl Bond, Memphis; 6-5/295, redshirt freshman; Memphis Southwind
TRowdy Harper, Houston; 6-6/290, redshirt freshman; Broken Arrow (Okla.) High
GDrew Carroll, Rice; 6-4/280, redshirt freshman; Abilene (Texas) High
GJerel Watkins, UTEP; 6-2/275, redshirt freshman; Channelview (Texas) High
CChris Jasperse, Marshall; 6-4/296, redshirt freshman; Greensboro (N.C.) Page
EBrentum Todd, Tulsa; 6-3/222, true freshman; Tulsa (Okla.) Union
TTerry Williams, East Carolina; 6-1/324, redshirt freshman; Loganville (Ga.) Grayson
EDiaheem Watkins, UAB; 6-4/230, true freshman; Centreville (Ala.) Bibb County
LBJeremy Grove, East Carolina; 6-1/230, redshirt freshman; Frederick (Md.) Gov. Thomas Johnson
LBJermaine Holmes, Marshall; 5-11/238, true freshman; Valdosta (Ga.) High
LBDerrick Matthews, Houston; 6-0/200, true freshman; Houston North Shore
LBStephon Sanders, SMU; 6-3/230, true freshman; Mesquite (Texas) Horn
CBBrandon Alexander, UCF; 6-1/180, true freshman; Orlando Evans
CBBryce Callahan, Rice; 5-10/180, redshirt freshman; Cypress (Texas) Cypress Woods
SClayton Geathers, UCF; 6-3/200, redshirt freshman; Hemingway (S.C.) Carvers Bay
SEmmanuel Johnson, Southern Miss; 5-11/175, true freshman; McKenzie (Ala.) High
KTy Long, UAB; 6-2/180, true freshman; Roswell (Ga.) High
PCole Way, Tulsa; 6-8/205, true freshman; Tulsa (Okla.) Union
KRD.J. Vinson, UAB; 5-10/175, redshirt freshman; Clay (Ala.) Clay-Chalkville
PRMario Hull, Rice; 6-1/205, redshirt freshman; Altair (Texas) Rice Consolidated

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Mike Huguenin is a Yahoo! Sports college sports editor. Send Mike a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Dec 7, 2011