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Pirate Notebook No. 438
Monday, July 26, 2010

Denny O'Brien

Offensive focus spreads eastward

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

MEMPHIS — If Neil Callaway has learned one thing during his time at UAB, he can tell you definitively that offensive and defensive linemen don't grow on trees. If that were the case, he'd be the first in line to pluck them.

And if the Blazers' head coach — or any other coach in Conference USA for that matter — was more successful at harvesting those big brutes who man the trenches, he's convinced that such success would be reflected in the win column as well.

Perhaps that explains the rationale behind many C-USA programs trending in recent years to a spread offensive approach. The lack of girth up front and an abundance of speed on the perimeter has fueled an emphasis on spreading the field.

It was an approach ushered into C-USA by the West Division, where Houston, Rice, SMU, Tulsa, and UTEP made the 40-point plateau the new standard. The trend is catching on in the East by an influx of new coaches who are altering the philosophy of their predecessors.

The result could be the crumbling of a philosophic wall that has existed between C-USA's two divisions. In other words, it might be time to shed the divisional monikers “the Black and Blue Division” and the “Wild, Wild West.”

Save for maybe Central Florida and Tulane, C-USA as a whole has gone universally offensive. The big reason comes back to where the league's biggest concentration of talent resides, and it is there where Callaway believes you won't find much difference between C-USA and BCS Automatic Qualifier conferences.

“If you take our upper echelon skill people, I think (it's even),” Callaway said. “You look at (ECU receiver Dwayne Harris, and he's a phenomenal athlete.

“You look at the three running backs that came out a couple of years ago — Matt Forte, Kevin Smith, and Chris Johnson. Chris Johnson is the best running back in the league, isn't he? You look at that and it speaks for itself. But then you look back at the past three or four years and how many linemen have come out and it's not that many.”

That's not to say that C-USA hasn't produced some talented linemen, or that good defense isn't a part of the formula for success. In fact, East Carolina saddled a defense that was anchored with a stout defensive front to consecutive league titles in 2008 and 2009.

Central Florida did essentially the same in 2007 when it won the C-USA title behind a between-the-tackles rushing attack and a suffocating defense. Knights coach George O'Leary says that, while you can't deny that C-USA has trended towards wide-open attacks, that doesn't change the fact that titles are built on the back of a good defense.

“My experience in championships and winning is that if you can play good defense and stop the run, you're going to be in most games,” O'Leary said. “I think when you can eliminate one side of the ball and concentrate on, whether it's the throwing game or whatever it be, good defensive teams have the ability to make big plays.

“That's the name of the game, is field position. The league puts a lot of points on the board, but I think the key is playing good defense is what wins championships. Putting points on the board gets people in the seats, but I think unless you can stop the run and play good defense and be good on special teams, you're going to be in trouble.”

In other words, the adage that defense wins championships isn't dead. And despite the explosion of high-scoring offenses in C-USA, history indicates that the league champion must perform well on defense.

League was prepared for jolt

C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky admits he was a little surprised by the lack of wholesale reshuffling of programs during the off-season. Based solely on the abundant speculation surrounding the process, most were.

There was a time when it looked like the Big Ten and Pac-10 could expand up to 16 and the Big XII might vanish altogether. There also were rumors that several C-USA programs might be targets of the Big East and that a couple of potential Big XII holdovers could become targets of C-USA.

In the end, there was little movement, though Banowsky said C-USA was readying itself for the “Big One”.

“I think we were preparing for a fairly seismic kind of move,” Banowsky said. “We had a lot of contingencies that we had discussed that we were ready to maybe implement.

“Frankly, personally I'm pleased that things settled. I think a lot of the discussions about movement really didn't make a whole lot of sense. There were some ideas of some schools from the Southwest moving to the West. I think if you tear up these rivalries and you get away from your geographic center, then you have a challenge for some of these leagues.”

The move to a Super Conference would have presented another challenge, though Banowsky believes that it could be a manageable one.

“We studied a lot of models and even focused on models that would have included 16 teams for our league,” Banowsky said. “I think it works.

“What you have to do is add value. We have something that we think is growing in value with these 12 members. For it to work, we'd have to bring in four schools that add value to the league. Frankly that's hard to find out there on the landscape.”

TV portfolio on the upswing?

Though he didn't provide the details, Banowsky says he is pleased with the financial impact of the new contract between C-USA and CBS College Sports.

The new deal extends the partnership to 2016, and the growth of CBS College Sports over the years means a significant increase in coverage for C-USA schools.

“They have been great partners,” Banowsky said. “They launched CSTV at a time when we were kind of getting this league up and going after realignment. So, we've grown together.

“They were in five million homes and now I think they are in 40 with a projection of getting into 60 million homes. They are distributed in virtually all of our markets, so our fans know how to find them.”

There is, however, a difference between the previous agreement and the one that was just inked. This time around, C-USA didn't bundle all of its remaining rights — those that weren't picked up by ESPN — and hand them over to CBS College Sports.

In other words, C-USA has opened the door for other networks to step in and broadcast games as well.

The league is also in negotiations to extend its agreement with ESPN, and Banowsky said he believes that could be locked up before football season begins. Look for that deal to be for six years as well.

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07/26/2010 03:39 AM

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