Preseason 2005: A Look at Conference USA
Conference USA has changed dramatically since the last viewing. Louisville, Cincinnati, TCU, South Florida, and Army are all out. UTEP, Rice, SMU, Tulsa, Marshall, and UCF are all in. Now there are two divisions and a conference championship game. The conference had fought and clawed it's way up to being considered a near BCS conference, just behind the Big East. Now, the conference has to earn all that respect all over again, as some of their biggest name programs are gone. The fight to earn respect has to start somewhere, and so it begins here.
1. Memphis (8-3, 6-2)- This pick all hinges on the fact that DeAngelo Williams is returning for the Tigers. The running back decided to come back for his senior year. If he can stay healthy, the team has a real shot to win the division. The offensive line returns just two starters, but Blake Butler is an all conference candidate at center. The receivers are lead by Maurice Avery and Ryan Scott, who both can make plays. The quarterback situation is dicey, with Patrick Byrne in the lead and Will Hudgens close on his heels. The defense is anchored by the linebackers, Tim Goodwell, Quinton McCrary, and Carlton Baker. They underachieved last year, but are expected to be big leaders this year. The defensive line returns just one starter. The secondary was one of the worst in Division 1-A last year, but they are all a year older, and they signed six defensive backs during recruiting. Memphis gets UAB and UTEP at home, but must go to Southern Miss. The Tigers will have a shot to win the division, but their defense and quarterback are the big question marks.
2. UAB (8-3, 6-2)- Darrell Hackney stayed healthy last year and UAB finally made it to a bowl game. He is one of the most underrated players in the country. Roddy White, his favorite receiver, went to the NFL, but Reggie Lindsey looks ready to step into his shoes. The offensive line returns four starters. Dan Burks and Corey White return at running back and look quite capable to put up big numbers behind this line. The defense is anchored by Larry McSwain, who had 11.5 sacks a year ago. The secondary should be improved over last year with the healthy return of Carlos Hendricks at defensive back. The linebackers are the major concern for the Blazers defense. They need to find playmakers after five linebackers graduated last year. UAB must go to Tennessee in the first week of the season. A home date with Southern Miss, and road dates with Memphis and UTEP await this bunch. The schedule provides a bit of trouble, but this team looks primed to make a run at the CUSA title.
3. Southern Miss (6-5, 5-3)- Dutin Almond is back at quarterback for the Golden Eagles. He's played a lot of football for them, but last year was a big disappointment. Antwon Courington and Anthony Perine, the two top receivers from a year ago, are both back, and both are expected to make big things happen. The offensive line returns just two starters and look a little thin. The fullback will be Anthony Harris, after his position change from tailback. Larry Thomas will become the tailback, and he averaged 6.9 yards per carry last year as Harris' backup. The defensive line was a real weak spot a year ago when they gave up 175.1 yards per game on the ground. Coach Jeff Bower thinks that Terrance Ford can become a run stopper. The linebackers are all new with Kevis Coley, Trevis Coley, and Naton Stewart. The secondary looks to be the team's biggest strength with John Eubanks being one of the teams best players. Visits to Alabama, UAB, Houston, North Carolina State, and Marshall do not make this schedule easy. They get Memphis at home and this team will have a shot to win the division...if their schedule doesn't punish them first.
4. Marshall (6-5, 4-4)- The Thundering Herd picked a bad year to move to Conference USA. They have a new head coach in Mark Snyder and only six returning starters. Only two offensive lineman return, but they will be asked to block for a new quarterback, which will be either Jimmy Skinner, Bernard Morris, or Derek Devine. The running backs are lead by Ahmad Bradshaw, who appears to be a star in waiting. The wide receivers are lead by Emmanuel Spann, if he comes back healthy from a knee injury. Marcus Fitzgerald (brother of Larry) looks to be another potential all star. The defense is anchored by the secondary. Chris Royal and Curtis Keyes were two of the top safeties in the MAC last year and look to return with a vengeance this year. The rest of the defense will be made up of new starters. The linebackers look a little more well developed than the undersized defensive line at this point. The Herd gets Kansas State, UAB, and Southern Miss at home, while they go on the road to face Virginia Tech, UTEP, and Memphis. If everything falls into place, this is a team that could contend for a division title. More than likely, they will be fighting to get to a bowl game again.
5. East Carolina (3-8, 2-6)- The Pirates return three offensive lineman and should give them and new coach Skip Holtz something to build from. They are a solid unit. Chris Johnson returns at running back, and should, if given the opportunity to run, put up some good numbers. The quarterback is a problem spot. Davon Drew was Holtz' favorite quarterback in the spring. The receivers are lead by Bobby Good, Brian Howard, Kevin Roach, and transfer Aundrae Allison. The offense looks pretty good if they can find a quarterback. The defense is held together by middle linebacker Chris Moore. The defensive line is lead by Shauntae Hunt, a solid senior. The secondary could be a strength this year. Zach Baker, Kyle Chase, Jamor Flournoy, Erode Jean, Kasey Ross and Demetrius Hodges all could be very good. For the Pirates to be competitive (which has to be Holtz' goal for this season), the defense needs to step up, and the quarterback has to play better. The turnovers have to stop. It might take a year to get Holtz' system firmly in place, but this is a program on the rise.
6. UCF (1-10, 0-8)- George O'Leary was very disappointed with his team last year. Even if they make improvements, don't expect it to show up too much in the win column. The offensive line had been revamped and returns five starters. O'Leary threw it all up in the air with a competitive spring practice. With all five starters back and none of them seniors, this group may still be a year away from true dominance. Steven Moffett is a solid quarterback, but needs to find a way to get the Golden Knights into the endzone more. The favorite to be the starting tailback is Dontavius Wilcox. The receivers have big play ability in Brandon Marshall and Mike Walker. The defensive line was very weak a year ago. All the starters return, include sophomores Keith Shologan and Emeka Okammor. This group may be a year away from dominance as well. The linebackers could be constantly shifting througout the year with three signees expected to make an immediate impact. The secondary is young, but is expected to be faster and more athletic. This team looks like it is a year away from really making a jump in the win column. The whole world will find out quickly. The Golden Knights open on Thursday night on ESPN in primetime against South Carolina in Steve Spurrier's first game as Gamecocks head coach.
1. UTEP (10-1, 7-1)- Jordan Palmer returns at quarterback and looks to come out even more from the spotlight of his older brother, Carson. The running game should also be solid with UCLA transfer, Tyler Ebell battling with Matt Austin and Marcus Thomas for the starting job. The receivers are also a great group, with Jason Boyd, Chris Francies, Chris Marrow, and Johnnie Lee Higgins all coming back to contribute to this solid passing offense. The offensive line is the question mark on offense, with just two starters back. The defense is lead by Chris Mineo and Zach West at the defensive tackle positions. The linebackers wil be good with Thomas Howard leading the way in the middle. He is an amazing athlete. James Delgrado returns healthy at cornerback. Quintin Demps was a freshman All-American last year and he returns at safety. The team goes to Memphis and hosts UAB and New Mexico in their toughest games. This team has the ingredients to go on a big run and go undefeated, like Utah did a year ago.
2. Tulane (7-4, 6-2)- Lester Ricard looks to be quite the impressive quarterback after he ranked ninth in passing efficiency a year ago. The receivers, though, are very inexperienced, lead by Damarcus Davis. The running game looks to be in good hands with Matt Forte and Jovon Jackson. The offensive line returns four starters. The defensive line will be lead by sophomores Antonio Harris and Avery Williams. The linebackers hold the defense together with Antonio Mason and Anthony Cannon. The secondary needs to be more physical, but is being lead by Sean Lucas and Israel Route at the corner spots. The Green Wave get UTEP at home, along with Houston. The road trip to Southern Miss will not be friendly. They have a shot to make some noise and win the division, but it would be surprising.
3. Houston (7-4, 6-2)- The Cougar offense should put up points in bunches, as long as the offensive line comes through. Four starters are back, but they allowed 44 sacks a year ago. Quarterback Kevin Kolb is a tremendous amount of fun to watch. He has a gun of an arm, and suffered a bit of a sophomore slump last year. Anthony Evans is back to full strength after battling injuries last year. He could be one of the more underrated running backs in the country. Donnie Avery, Ricky Wilson, and Vincent Marshall all provide tremendous depth at wide receiver. The defense is switching to the 3-4 this year. The front line looks solid with Kade Lane, Marquay Love, and Gerard Richard, but there is very little depth. The linebackers suffered a big hit when Lance Everson went down with a knee injury in spring practice. Wade Koehl may be the best linebacker on the team. The secondary is suffering from graduation and injury and makes it a bit of an adventure back there. Like Tulane, Houston's offense looks explosive, but the defense could hold them back. Oregon comes calling early in the year in what could be a very exciting game. A win and the Cougars are on the national map. Trips to UTEP and Tulane hurt their chances for a conference crown, though.
4. Tulsa (3-8, 2-6)- Uril Parrish and Brandon Diles are excellent running backs and will lead the run-first offense, particularly as the Golden Hurricanes break in a new quarterback. The quarterback is likely to be Paul Smith, but David Johnson is still in contention. The offensive line returns three starters and should be a solid unit yet again. Garrett Mills could be an All-American at tight end, but the receivers are lacking. Ashlan Davis is the top returning receiver and Ryan Bugg and Idris Moss are big play threats. The defense is looking to build itself around defensive lineman Brandon Lohr and linebacker Nick Bunting. The team ranked 106 in Division 1-A in rush defense last year and must improve. The key will be getting others to help out Lohr up front and Bunting at linebacker. In the secondary, Bobby Blackshire and Kedrick Alexander (who returns from a year long suspension) make this a very dangerous secondary. The Hurricanes have a chance to be good. Opening with Minnesota and Oklahoma make this schedule pretty brutal, as do road games with Southern Miss, UTEP, and Tulane. It will not be easy for this team to ever get any consistency this year.
5. SMU (2-9, 2-6)- The Mustangs have an amazing 19 starters back, including all eleven on offense. The amazing thing is that there are still only three seniors on the offense. Quarterback Tony Eckert is one of them. Jerad Romo is also in the running to start at quarterback. He is also a senior, and uses his feet to get him out of trouble. Eckert was the team's leading passer last year, while Romo was the team's leading rusher. This may say something about the running game. This year, Cedrick Dorsey is looking to make a major impact at running back. He has all the tools to be a solid option. Bobby Chase is a top wide receiver and Ryan Kennedy is a good option at tight end. The offensive line has five returning starters, but has to improve. Depth is also a concern on the line. The defensive line only recorded 10 sacks a year ago, so Don Ieremia-Stansbury moved from linebacker to end in the spring in hopes of improving the defense. The linebackers are solid with D.D. Lee and Wilton McCray leading the way. The secondary is anchored by two four year starters, Rolando Humphrey and Jamey Harper. The Mustangs have a chance to be very good. Wins over Baylor and TCU to open the season would give them a lot of confidence heading to Texas A&M and possibly set the team up for a run at a bowl game. However, the odds are they are still young and will struggle again.
6. Rice (2-9, 2-6)- The offensive line returns just one starter, but many others have starting experience for the Owls. Joel Armstrong returns at quarterback, but Chase Clement is pushing him for playing time already. Coach Ken Hatfield is very excited about both quarterbacks. Quinton Smith and Marcus Rucker should provide a lot of yards on the ground in this option offense. No one has stepped forward in the battle for a starting receiver spot. The defense line is lead by John Syptak, who had eight sacks a year ago. The linebackers are small, but have a lot of experience. Adam Herrin, Omeke Alikor and Buck Casson all started a year ago. The secondary has a year more experience now, so that alone should help the team improve. Last year, the Owls gave up 34.3 points per game (104 in the country), but allowed just 364.6 yards per game (good for 50 in the country). The defense needs to do a better job of keeping the other team out of the endzone to give the Owls a chance. Road trips to UCLA and Texas open the year, followed by a home game against Navy and then a road trip to UAB. If they can survive that stretch without too many injuries or too bruised of egos, then this team could make a run at a bowl game.
UTEP will battle Memphis in the first C-USA Championship Game. Memphis will run the ball well with DeAngelo Williams, but in the end Jordan Palmer and the Miners are too much as UTEP wins, 28-20.
QB Darrell Hackney, UAB
RB Anthony Evans, Houston
RB DeAngelo Williams, Memphis
WR Jason Boyd, UTEP
WR Antwon Courington, Southern Miss
TE Garrett Mills, Tulsa
OL Matt Baustic, UAB
OL Toby Bullock, Marshall
OL Jeff Perrett, Tulsa
OL Josh House, UTEP
OL George Batiste, Southern Miss
DL John Syptak, Rice
DL Chris Mineo, UTEP
DL Larry McSwain, UAB
DL Brandon Lohr, Tulsa
LB Thomas Howard, UTEP
LB Chris Moore, East Carolina
LB Anthony Cannon, Tulane
DB John Eubanks, Southern Miss
DB Rolando Humphrey, SMU
DB Curtis Keyes, Marshall
DB Erode Jean, East Carolina
K Stephen Gostkowski, Memphis
P Chris Beckman, Tulane
KR Ashlan Davis, Tulsa
PR Reggie Lindsey, UAB