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Pirate Notebook No. 441
Monday, August 16, 2010

Denny O'Brien

Houston, UCF are teams to beat

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Conference USA hasn’t released an official preseason poll in college football in a couple of years. Last year an unofficial one was organized by a member of the media, and each school had two of its writers participate in the voting.

I was a member of that panel last year. Though there was no media effort conducted this year, I thought I’d release my own ballot anyway.  Here is how I would have voted, followed by some additional superlatives of note.

East Division

1. Central Florida: The Knights are the team that best fits the mold of the past three conference champions.  They play a conservative, ball control offense and rely on a suffocating defense to shut opponents down.  UCF has by far the best returning defensive talent, led by defensive end Bruce Miller.  Rob Calabrese has struggled throughout his career at quarterback, but he’ll be asked only to be a game manager.  He should be able to handle that.

2. Southern Miss: Coach Larry Fedora says this should be a breakout season for the Golden Eagles, and he could be right.  There is no shortage of firepower on offense, led by quarterback Austin Davis and NFL-ready receiver DeAndre Brown.  Southern Miss will have the most high-powered attack in the East division, and should have enough defense to challenge UCF.

3. East Carolina: The Pirates get a slight — make that very slight — edge over Marshall solely because they get the Herd at home this year.  But don’t be surprised if they slip to the lower half of the division, especially when you consider the schedule.  ECU has an over-ambitious non-conference schedule and won’t be solid favorites in any of those contests.  Its two most difficult conference games — against UCF and Southern Miss — are on the road.  That leaves little room for error during a season of extreme transition.

4. Marshall: The Herd is perhaps the most overlooked bunch in C-USA.  Marshall is riding the momentum of a bowl victory, returns plenty of talent from one of the league’s better defenses from last season, and finally has some decent options under center.  Clemson transfer Willy Korn should pose a solid threat to incumbent starter Brian Anderson.  New coach Doc Holliday has promised to open the offense up, so expect the Herd to score more in 2010.

5. UAB: Neil Callaway definitely has the Blazers pointed in the right direction, but it’s difficult to see them taking a major step forward this fall.  The loss of Joe Webb — the best all-around offensive performer in 2009 — will be difficult to overcome.  But if David Isabelle can come close, the Blazers could find themselves in the top half of the division.  Most of the players are back from last season’s team that challenged for the divisional title.

6. Memphis:  Though the Tigers aspire to be a Big East program, they are far from Big East ready.  First year head coach Larry Porter has promised to upgrade the recruiting in Memphis, but it will be a while before they reap the benefits.  Memphis has relied solely on its offense in recent years, but loses much of its firepower from last season.  Looks like this could be a long season for Porter and Memphis.

West Division

1. Houston: The Cougars looked like a BCS buster early in the season with victories over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.  But a surprising early-season loss at Texas-El Paso burst that bubble.  Houston will again have the league’s most explosive offense, headlined by quarterback Case Keenum and a trio of receivers who will contend for all-league honors.  The running game is also prolific, while the defense should be better.  This could be C-USA’s best chance to bust open the BCS door.

2. Southern Methodist: The turnaround in Dallas has been nothing short of amazing, as the Mustangs again are a program with hope.  June Jones has resurrected SMU with his run-and-shoot attack and an overall belief that the Mustangs can be a winning program.  That was never more evident than in the Hawaii Bowl last December when SMU steamrolled a good Nevada team.  Quarterback Kyle Padron emerged late last year as a superstar in the making and he should keep the Mustangs in the end zone with regularity.  An improving defense should keep opponents out if it enough to widen the gap between wins and losses.

3. Tulsa: After a down season, coach Todd Graham has his players thinking about a rebound.  With talented trigger man G.J. Kinne returning, he has plenty of reason to believe the Golden Hurricane will improve.  No team in C-USA suffered more heartbreaking losses than Tulsa last year, headlined by narrow escapes by Boise State and Houston.  With all of the offensive talent Tulsa has returning, the Golden Hurricane should return to the postseason this fall.

4. UTEP: The Miners possess the most unsung running back in college football in senior Donald Buckram.  Combine that with quarterback Trevor Vittatoe and UTEP has the league’s most dangerous backfield.  But scoring points hasn’t been an issue in El Paso, keeping the opponents from doing so has.  Although coach Mike Price believes he’ll have a more stout defense this season, the competition ahead of him should be better in that department.

5. Rice: After a dream season in 2008, the Owls came back to earth in ’09.  That’s probably where they’ll remain this season as well.  There is decent offensive skill in the fold and experience at quarterback, but the questions remains on defense where Rice surrendered 464 yards per contest last season.  Though it seems there is nowhere to go but up, the ceiling remains pretty low this fall.

6. Tulane: It’s hard to pull against a program that has endured so much in recent years.  It’s even harder to find many scenarios in which Tulane claws its way out of the cellar this fall.  There aren’t many recognizable names on the two-deep chart, which is drenched with underclassmen.  It could shape up to be another long season for the Green Wave.

Coach on the rise: Kevin Sumlin, Houston. The Cougars have one of the hottest names in the business, and should be concerned if a current Big XII school has an opening.  He has extensive roots in the conference and his offensive philosophy is a perfect fit.  Houston should enjoy Sumlin’s services while it has them.

Coach on the hot seat: Mike Price, UTEP.  You could throw Bob Toledo in here, but he should get a pass considering the steep hill his program has faced in recent years.  Price, on the other hand has ample time to build a consistent winner in El Paso, but the Miners have slipped considerably since he last guided them to a bowl.

Best NFL prospect: DeAndre Brown, WR Southern Miss.  Brown has an NFL body and can not be covered in straight man coverage.  And his speed and strength make him a beast to tackle in the open field.  Though a junior, this should be Brown’s final season in Hattiesburg.

Best stadium: Gerald J. Ford Stadium, SMU.  Though it’s small and rarely filled, you won’t find a nicer facility in C-USA.  It opened in 2000, but its architecture has a historic look.  A perfect horseshoe on the edge of a picturesque campus, Ford Stadium is without question the gem of C-USA.

Best game-day atmosphere: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, East Carolina.  The Pirates held this honor before their stadium renovations, which will move the capacity to an even 50,000.  ECU is the only school that sells out with regularity, and no other venue in C-USA can match the volume in Greenville.


O'Brien: Preview: Houston, UCF are teams to beat
BVL Audio: Ruffin McNeill Presser After Scrimmage
Myatt: Success breeds self-assurance
Bailey: Pirates promise defense, too
O'Brien: Harris poised to flourish in Air East
BVL Audio: Ruffin McNeill Media Day Presser
Batten: A smash-mouth sport of his own
Myatt: Education on agents ongoing at ECU
BVL: Recruiting thumbnail (QB Cody Keith)
Bradsher: Red dogs and slants lady-style

Best road trip: El Paso, Texas.  There is no other place like it in C-USA, which makes it worth the visit. Bordering both Mexico and New Mexico, you can find authentic cuisine here, and the landscape and architecture provide the most unique setting within the conference.

Best rivalry: ECU and Southern Miss.  The Pirates and Golden Eagles have been playing since anyone can remember, and it’s a game that both schools circle on their calendars.  USM has a huge historical advantage in the series, but the Pirates have made it more competitive over the past five years.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

Denny O'Brien Archives

08/16/2010 02:51 AM

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