2007 Conference USA Preview

2007 Conference USA Preview

2007 Conference USA Preview
by T.O. Whenham

Conference USA is entering the third season since it was ripped apart by the series of conference shuffles that was started by the move of Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC. Before those changes this was a pretty decent conference, with teams like Louisville and TCU providing some reasonable excitement. Both of those top teams moved to greener pastures, and we are left with a rivalry between Houston and Southern Miss for conference supremacy. It's not a wonder no one pays any attention to C-USA.

Houston, led by a surprising Philadelphia second round draft pick, quarterback Kevin Kolb, was the winner of the conference in 2006. The team was 10-4, and a respectable 8-5 ATS. During the last two weeks of September they truly asserted themselves by beating Oklahoma State by 11, and then just barely losing to Miami by an extra point. Their bowl performance was disappointing given that early promise. They lost by eight to Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in the Liberty Bowl and failed to cover.

Teams on the Rise:

East Carolina just keeps improving. They were a pitiful 2-9 when Skip Holltz took them over two years ago, but they improved to 7-6 last year, including a win over Virginia. On paper at least, they should be better than that this year.

Central Florida was 4-8 last year. But this year they will be moving into a fancy new 45,000 seat stadium right on their Orlando campus. The boost of the new confines should help them win more than two games at home this year. Unfortunately, they open the new Stadium by hosting Texas, so that means at least one loss. On the other hand, a non-conference home game against Louisiana-Lafayette is very winnable. The Knights also have an easier conference schedule this year because they duck Houston.

Team on the Decline:

Tulane. Former UCLA coach Bob Toledo takes over the program, but he has a major task ahead of him in returning this team to respectability. The problems with the program are due as much to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as anything, which makes it a bit sad that the team has little chance of coming anywhere close to last year's 4-8 mark.

Treading Water (hasn't done much to improve):

Tulsa was on the fast track thanks to coach Steve Kragthorpe, but his departure for Louisville to replace Bobby Petrino may slow the momentum a bit. Todd Graham from Rice is the new head coach, and he knows the Tulsa system well since he was a Kragthorpe assistant before heading to Rice. It won't take long for Graham to get comfortable, but it will probably cause the team to end up with a record similar to their 8-5 mark last year.

Money Player (player to bet on):

Anthony Alridge, RB, Houston. He averaged a freakish 10.1 yards per carry in the unique Houston spread offense last year, and he will be given more opportunities to shine with inexperienced quarterbacks stepping in for Kolb.

Bankroll Buster (player to avoid):

Paul Smith, QB, Tulsa. The senior has to not only adjust to a new coach, but also a new scheme. Gus Malzahn brings in his hurry up, no huddle offense that didn't work very well in Arkansas last year. He's a decent passer, but the adjustments will cause Smith to disappoint in his final year.

Important Betting Trends:

Rice (nine times in 11 games) and Marshall (11 times in 13 games) were virtual locks to go over the total last season. Bettors underestimated East Carolina last year. Despite being 7-6, they were 10-3 ATS.

Potential Conference Champions:

Houston. Even without Kolb this team is the class of the conference. They may struggle offensively early, but they have the depth to find their way quickly, and they have an incredibly easy schedule.

Key Games:

Southern Miss at East Carolina, Sept. 15. The season starts with a bang with the two best teams in the East meeting, and Southern Miss looking to avenge their upset loss in the game last year as 5.5-point favorites.

Houston at Tulsa, Nov. 10. This should be a showdown for the win in the West Division. Houston won by 17 last year despite being two point underdogs.

Predicted Order of Finish:

East - Southern Miss, East Carolina, Central Florida, Marshall, Memphis, UAB.

West - Houston, Tulsa, SMU, Rice, UTEP, Tulane.

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Re: 2007 Conference USA Preview

Conference USA - Title game rematch?
July 20th, 2007

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Two years ago, Conference USA won just 11% (two of 19) of its games vs. BCS schools, but finished 12-9 ATS. Last season was an improved campaign with a 19% winning percentage against BCS teams with five wins in 27 tries. However, the conference fared poorly ATS at 12-15.

Houston and Southern Miss hooked up in the championship game last year with the Cougars gaining revenge (34-20) for an earlier season loss. With that win, Houston was awarded a berth in the Liberty Bowl, while the Golden Eagles had to settle for a victory over Ohio in the GMAC Bowl. Incidentally, that was the lone win of the five conference bowl bids.

The West Division, winner of both title games the last two years, dominated the East last season with 12 victories in the 18 head-to-head match-ups, but the tide could turn as the East looks stronger one through five. Look for an even 9-9 split with three of the Wests wins coming vs. UAB. Houston and Southern Miss will battle it out once again for Conference USA supremacy.

WEST DIVISION

1) HOUSTON - Quick question. When was the last time someone not named Kevin Kolb started at quarterback? Answer: 2002. The second-round draft choice of the Eagles guided the Cougars to three bowl games in his four years, but won seven or more games, just once. Strength - The running game, which was number one in conference play with 198 ypg and 5.3 ypc, will still be potent and the defense, with seven starters back, will be the best "D" in the West. Weakness - Houston was on the losing side in turnover margin just twice in 14 games, and with an inexperienced signal caller under center this year that number will take a turn for the worse. Bottom line - The Cougars will not be as strong as they were in 06, but the rest of the division, save for SMU, will be weaker. Still, a 7-5 mark and a conference record of 6-2 will bring them back to the title game. Houston was 8-4 ATS during the regular season and might actually do better since the public might dismiss them with Kolb taking his game to the NFL.

2) SOUTHERN METHODIST - The Mustangs have not been to a bowl game since 1984, but came "oh-so-close" last year. All they needed was a victory over Rice in the season finale, but the Owls hit paydirt with just over four minutes left to pull out the four-point win. Strength - Mark it down, SMU will lead the conference in scoring. Quarterback Justin Willis had a phenomenal freshman season completing 67% with 26 TDs. Both numbers topped Kevin Kolbs freshman campaign. Weakness - The defensive line, which held the rest of the league to 106 rushing yards per game, returns just one starter. Bottom line - This will be the year the Mustangs reach .500 with a 7-5 record and five conference wins. In addition, they will finally get their long awaited trip to a bowl game. SMU was undefeated as a home favorite in 06 and will continue that streak with five more this season.

3) TULSA - The Golden Hurricane were expecting more than another 8-4 campaign in 06 and get a new head coach in former defensive coordinator, Todd Graham. Strength - The secondary has been one of the best in the country the last four years and quarterback Paul Smith, who returns for his senior season, sports a 2-to-1 TD-INT ratio the last two years. Weakness - Four of the top five tacklers depart and the entire offensive line has a grand total of 15 career starts. Bottom line - Despite only 10 returning starters, Tulsa should still win seven games, five in the conference. The Hurricanes are 16-9 ATS the last two years, but they will finish below .500 this season.

4) RICE - The Owls improved from 1-10 to 7-6 and went bowling for the first time in 45 years, but the rest of the conference wont take them as lightly this season. Strength - Jarrett Dillard returns after catching 91 passes and 21 TDs. The secondary, which returns both starting cornerbacks, improved from last to finish third in league play, holding opposing QBs to a 56% completion percentage. Weakness - Despite the 6-2 conference record, the Owls were outscored by an average of 32-31. They finished last in the league in run defense, allowing 4.7 yards per carry, and four of their top six tacklers have exhausted their eligibility. Bottom line - Rice will be hard- pressed for a repeat, especially without 1,000-yard rusher Quinton Smith. Five wins, four in conference, is in store for 07. The Owls were 9-2 as underdogs last year. Dont expect a similar performance.

5) TEXAS-EL PASO - After consecutive 8-4 years, the Miners dipped below .500 (5-7) despite Jordan Palmers fine senior season. Strength - With a healthy offensive line, UTEP will post better rushing numbers than the paltry 58 ypg of a year ago. Weakness - The Miners finished last in conference play, allowing 170 rushing yards per game. Six members of the front seven depart, taking with them 82% of the teams sacks. Johnnie Lee Higgins and Daniel Robinson, who caught a combined 20 of Palmers 26 TD passes, also bid farewell to the college game, not to mention Palmer himself. Bottom line - It looks like a rebuilding year in El Paso. Expect a 3-9 mark, with just a pair of league victories. Stay away from them against the spread.

6) TULANE - Hurricane Katrina devastated the program in 2005, but the Green Wave rebounded by doubling their win total to four in 06. Strength - Running back Matt Forte (859 yards) was heading for a 1,000-yard campaign until an injury forced him to miss the final three games. Tulane vastly improved its run defense and with six starters returning from its front seven, look for the unit to held offenses to under four yards per carry. Weakness - The Green Wave finished last in the conference in total yards gained and yards allowed. Bottom line - Its a new era in New Orleans as Bob Toledo brings in new offensive and defensive schemes. Expect a three win season, two coming in conference play. Tulane was 3-7 as underdogs last year, but could surprise.

EAST DIVISION

1) SOUTHERN MISS - The Golden Eagles won five of their last six games to finish 9-5 and that momentum will carry them to their first Liberty Bowl since 2003. Strength - They return their top five tacklers and eight starters to a defense that led Conference USA in points allowed. Only one QB (Kevin Kolb) threw for over 200 yards against them the last eight games. Running back Damion Fletcher burst on the scene with 1,388 yards with 11 TDs his freshman season. Weakness - Fletcher will have to prove last season was no fluke as two all Conference USA O-linemen depart. Bottom line - The Eagles lead the league this decade with an average of 7.6 wins per season. Look for them to top that mark with nine victories and a splashy 7-1 conference mark. They were 5-7 ATS last year, but will easily better that in 07.

2) CENTRAL FLORIDA - After improving from 0-11 to reaching a bowl game in 2005, the Knights took a major step backward with just four wins last season. Strength - UCF sports an O-line with 124 career starts, which will send RB Kevin Smith over the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in three years. The defense registered 14 sacks, holding opponents to an average of 91 yards rushing for 3.1 ypc, over the final four games. Weakness - Can the Knights replace first team all-conference WR Mike Walker and his 90 receptions? Bottom line - All the pieces are in place for their second bowl appearance ever. George OLearys club will finish above .500 at 7-5 with a 6-2 league record. UCF went 4-7 ATS last year and will easily reverse that mark this season.

3) MEMPHIS - The Tigers were one of the nations most disappointing teams with just two victories, but lost five games by a total of just 17 points. Strength - Martin Hankins completed 60% of his throws with 18 TDs, and those numbers will improve in his second season under center. Defensive end Greg Terrell will be an all-conference performer his sophomore year, and with 10 of its top 12 tacklers returning, Memphis will cut down its points allowed by nearly a touchdown per game. Weakness - The running game must pick up since the Tigers finished in the bottom fourth in league play with only 115 yards per contest. Bottom line - Defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn was let go early last season and the defense took a step backwards allowing a touchdown more per game than the season before. Look for improvement all across the board in 07, and that will lead the Tigers to an 8-4 mark, 5-3 in the conference. Like UCF, Memphis is a club to invest on each and every week.

4) MARSHALL - Four victories in the final six games last year have fans in Huntington excited for the upcoming season. Strength - The Thundering Herd return two two-year starters and two one-year starters to the offensive line. Marshall finished third in league play with 20 sacks and Albert McClellan (11.5) returns for his junior season. Weakness - Bernard Morris has thrown 18 picks in just 404 passes the last two seasons and without Ahmad Bradshaw (1,523 rushing yards, 19 TDs) to hand the ball off to, he must improve his touch or it could be a long season ahead. Bottom line - The Herd are 2-10 on the road the last two years. Lucky for them most of their winnable games are at home. Theyll grab four victories this season and finish 3-5 in Conference USA. Marshall was 1-6 as an away dog in 06 and could go 0-6 in 07.

5) EAST CAROLINA - The Pirates went bowling for the first time since 2001, but were stymied by South Florida, 24-7 in the Papajohns.com Bowl. Strength - For three straight years, East Carolina allowed 4.9 yards per carry. Last season, the Pirates lowered that number to 4.0 and the front seven returns intact. Weakness - Gone are their leading rusher, reception leader and the starting quarterback, and even with a veteran unit in place last season, they still finished ninth in league play in points and yards per game. Bottom line - East Carolina will have its work cut out for them in 07 and will end up with 3-9 and 2-6 records. After an amazing 10-3 ATS mark in 06, look for a major step backwards.

6) ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM - Watson Brown was fired as head coach after 12 years at the helm, partly due to UABs worst record (3-9) since moving into the FBS, formerly known as Division 1-A. Strength - The Blazers return three of their top four tacklers. Weakness - Only eight starters return to a team that finished 95th in the country averaging 310 yards per game and 83rd in the nation giving up 359 per contest. Bottom line - New head coach Neil Callaway will have his hands full in his first season as UAB will win just one out-of- conference game. Stay clear of the Blazers against the spread all season long.

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Re: 2007 Conference USA Preview

2007 CONFERENCE USA FOOTBALL PREVIEW

EAST


Southern Miss - Southern Miss is in off a year that saw them go 9-5 and advance to the Conference USA title game, only to come up short against Houston, 34-20. The Golden Eagles have the potential to make another run at the title game this year, as they return several key players including 8 on the defensive side of the ball where they had the top scoring defense in the conference. On offense they return the leagues 2nd leading rusher, Damion Fletcher, who helped the Golden Eagles become the number one rushing team in the conference a year ago. So there's plenty to work with here, and the schedule looks to be favorable as well. Their toughest tests will be in non conference games against Tennessee and Boise State. Every other game on the schedule is a winnable one, so no reason the Golden Eagles can't make some noise once again this year.

Marshall - Any time a team, any team, in any conference, can start out the season with a string of victories, it makes for a great foundation with which to build on as the rest of the season progresses. Winning breeds winning. Well, the schedule is certainly not doing Marshall any favors this year. They open up at Miami and then come home the following week to take on West Virginia. An 0-2 start for sure, which only adds more pressure the rest of the way. You can pencil in a mixed bag of wins and losses the rest of the way and it looks like maybe a 6 win season for the Thundering Herd. They lost Ahmad Bradshaw, one of the nations leading rushers a year ago to the NFL. The goal here should be to win 6 and hopefully pull an upset along the way to help spring the Herd into a Bowl game this December.

East Carolina - In 2003, East Carolina was won only one game. So they brought in Skip Holtz to help rebuild this program and so far the results have been right on target with each season bringing more wins than the season before. In 2004 they won 2 games. In 2005 they won 5 games, and last year they won 7 games. A classic rebuilding job. But those results set up some high expectations from here forward and we're not so sure Holtz can deliver. The bright spot last year was a defense that was vastly improved and ranked toward the top of the league. That unit returns 7 starters and should once again shine. But the early season schedule, similar to Marshals, isn't kind to the Pirates. They take on Va Tech, Southern Miss, West Virginia and Houston before they even get out of September with all but one of those games on the road. So, for East Carolina to have any shot at equaling or bettering their 7 win mark from a year ago, they'll have to pull a big upset early on. With an offense that returns just 5 and lost A QB and running back, that looks to be a tall task.

Central Florida - How do you make predictions for a team that lost ALL of their games in 2004 and then went to the conference title game in 2005? 2006 was another down year winning only 4 games, so where does that leave the Golden Knights for 2007? They return 8 starters on offense and 8 on defense. But the defense was among the worst in the nation a year ago so can't expect much on that side of the ball, although they can only get better. This team was competitive for the most part a year ago. In spite of the defense, they held their own against some decent teams. A TD loss to South Florida. A 5 point loss to Southern Miss. So the potential is there. This is not a bad team and certainly is a team capable of improving on last years 4 win mark. The goal here should be to win 6 and get a minor bowl.

Memphis - In 2003 Memphis won 9 games. It's been down hill ever since, winning 8  in 2004, 7 in 2005 and a pathetic 2 last year. But there are some bright spots here and some nice building blocks. For starters, although they won just 2 games last year, there were 5 losses that could have gone either way. They lost 4 of those by a field goal or less and one of those by 6. They took eventual league Champ Houston to overtime towards the end of last season and they return 7 starters on offense and 7 on defense. So no reason not to be optimistic heading into 2007. Several new faces on the coaching staff could be a plus or a minus. No way to tell so we'll just have to wait and see. But this team should be a .500 team at worst, so a break here and there and who knows.

UAB - UAB's bright spot came in 2004 with a 7 win season and a bowl game. Otherwise this is a team that is always below .500. Tough to predict what to expect from here forward as UAB will basically be a bunch of new faces across the board with a new coaching staff and new starters at just about all of the key positions on both sides of the ball. We'll take a wait and see approach with UAB, but don't expect much.

WEST

Houston - The Houston Cougars played 14 games last season, winning 10 of them, including the conference title game, and losing just 4. It should also be noted that the games they did lose, were all close games. But the offense on this team took a hit, bringing back only 5 from last year and losing QB Kevin Kolb. The defense returns 7 starters but it's a defense that was really nothing to write home about to begin with, so the Cougars figure to have their work cut out for them in 2007. Winning a title automatically puts a bulls eye on your back for the following year, combined with the loss of talent, and I think you may be looking at a Houston team that may be down a notch this year. Let's call it an 8 win team.

Tulsa - Really tough to guess how Tulsa might fair this year. Tulsa has had only one down year in the past 4 years, a 4 win season in 2004. The other three years the team won 8 or 9 games. But this year they'll have a new coach, and many new faces starting on both sides of the ball. But most of these players are the recruiting handy work of former coach Steve Kragthorpe, so the talent figures to be there. They do return senior QB Paul Smith and 6 familiar faces on defense and there are certainly plenty of winnable games on the schedule. There a minimum of 6 wins on the schedule, what they do beyond that is tough to say. But we'll figure on this team being competitive, and then who knows......

SMU - The goal for SMU is simple. Get to a Bowl game. This program hasn't been to a Bowl game since the early 80's. SMU was handed the "death penalty" in the 80's for recruiting violations which resulted in canceled seasons, and the future inability to get players. It's had an affect on the program ever since. But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel as SMU is knocking on the door. They won 5 games in 2005 and a bowl eligible 6 last year, however 6 wasn't enough as it turned out. They return the QB and running back from last years squad but have some holes to fill on defense. But after starting last year 0-2, this team was in every game the rest of the way so we'll look for more of the same this year. There's at least 6 wins on the table, it's just a question of whether they'll get over that hump and grab number 7. We figure SMU breaks the Bowl drought this year and will be playing in a December Bowl game.

UTEP - UTEP was 4-2 thru 6 games last season and with 6 games left on the schedule, it looked like it would be another successful year for coach Mike Price after having won 8 in each of his previous 2 season with the Miners. But UTEP fell apart the 2nd half of last season, only managing to win one of the final 6 games making the grand total for last year 5 wins. A disappointment to say the least. Now Price and company find themselves in a situation where there are many holes to fill. The first order of business will be QB. While UTEP had no running game last year, they did field the 5th ranked passing unit in the nation but now must replace QB Jordan Palmer. If they can do that, there's hope as there is still a good nucleus of players remaining on the offensive side of the ball from a year ago. The defense only returns 3, however that's not a negative as the defense was near the bottom of the nation in most categories. It can only get better. So for UTEP, the key will be to find a QB. Coach Price knows how to win and the rest of the talent is there to win 7 or 8 games.

Rice - Rice made major changes on offense last year and it paid immediate dividends as the team won 7 games and earned a trip to the New Orleans Bowl. But the new coach who implemented those changes, is one and done, leaving after just one year. On the bright side, Rice returns 8 on offense and will once again use the same scheme. New Coach Dave Bailiff is a former defensive coordinator and figures to drastically improve a Rice defense that ranked near the bottom nationally. So with an offense that figures to do more of the same this year, and a defense that figures to be improved, no reason to think Rice won't  be right in the thick of things this year if they can get over the hump of working with a new coaching staff.

Tulane - Lots of improving to be done at Tulane on both sides of the ball. What Tulane has going for them is the conference they are in. Conference USA teams fortunes can change drastically from one year to the next. With expectations low and the pressure off, don't be surprised to see Tulane win a few games this year and surprise some people.

To Sum Up - The West division looks to be the more wide open of the two. There's enough talent on any number of teams in the West to make some noise. But Conference USA from a handicapping perspective is one of the more difficult conferences to predict. It's simply not "traditional" football. There's no shortage of offense and high scoring games which lends itself to more turnovers and sloppy play. For this handicapper, the conference is a crap shoot and best avoided for the most part. It sure is fun to watch though!

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Re: 2007 Conference USA Preview

Born In The USA

Southern Miss tops the East division while Houston and Tulsa fight it out in the West

In the three years since realignment in Conference USA, the West has reigned supreme, tallying an 11-7 record against East division teams in 2006. With the exception of consistently competitive Southern Miss, star quality at Houston, Tulsa and SMU should ensure that the West will once again own the league. C-USA is not known for its defenses, with half the conference's teams ranking in the nation's bottom 20 in total defense last season, but with defensive mastermind Todd Graham back at Tulsa after spending a year at Rice, expect more stout defensive play this season.

A few stars should emerge offensively this year, including SMU sophomore quarterback Justin Willis, and there is talk of a preliminary Heisman campaign for Rice junior wide receiver Jarett Dillard. Although the level of play in this conference can not matchup with the SEC or Big Ten, the teams are well matched, and in the last two years, C-USA matchups have been the tightest games played by any league in the nation, which means exciting football week after week. Houston at Tulsa Nov. 10 should determine the West Division champion and Tulsa at Rice on Nov. 24 should be a controversy-filled afternoon, with former head coach Graham returning to Houston, where he is not exactly loved, to take on his former team.

EAST

Southern Miss - 2006: 9-5 Overall, 6-2 C-USA

Offense

Quarterback Jeremy Young should thrive this season after being limited by turf toe throughout 2006. The senior still managed to pass for 1,769 yards and 12 touchdowns and ran for 224 yards, good enough for fourth-best rushing yardage on the team. Speedy tight end Shawn Nelson, a preseason all-conference selection, is a good place to start throwing the ball, but the dual-threat QB will need some new receiving targets.

"Receiver, that's probably my major concern," head coach Jeff Bower said. "We're going to have to get some young guys and get ready to play."

Injuries hampered the offense during spring ball, and Bower is still looking for receivers to emerge. All-American running back Damion Fletcher led the Golden Eagles to the nation's 25th-best rushing offense last season, using shifty moves to compensate for his less-than-optimal speed. As a freshman, Fletcher racked up 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns, running the Golden Eagles to the C-USA championship game and a bowl appearance.

"In terms of ability, he's got good feet, balance, good vision, he's a smart football player," Bower said. "He was a pretty mature freshman last year, the way he handled everything. You don't expect that as a coach - you don't count on true freshman to play. I decided not to start him against Florida but had we started him, it wouldn't have fazed him a lick."

Fletcher can expect to start every game this season. Fellow sophomore Tory Harrison compensates in the speed department and prized recruit Antwain Easterling combines speed with size and power. Three interior linemen must be replaced from a unit that allowed only 19 sacks last season, and those linemen must step up quickly to block for a unit that should put up big numbers running the ball.

Defense

Southern Miss is generally known for its defenses, and the 2007 edition will not disappoint. The Golden Eagles return most of last season's stingy defense, which allowed only 308 yards per game, including three starters on the line and all three linebackers. Sophomore Gerald McRath leads the linebacking corps and proved himself as a relentless blitzer last season.

"He's a really intelligent player," Bower said. "He can play any one of the three linebacker positions."

The corners will be new but all-conference selection Brandon Sumrall and team interception leader LeVance Richmond return to fill out the backfield. Southern Miss' defense ranked 30th overall last season, allowing just 18.6 points per game and 180.3 yards passing.

The Skinny

Bower has led the Golden Eagles to 13 consecutive winning seasons, nine bowl games in 10 years and three straight postseason wins. With the conference's top run game and a run-capable quarterback, this year should be no different in Hattiesburg. Even with three of their first four games on the road, a more manageable non-conference schedule (Florida and Virginia Tech have been replaced by Tennessee and Arkansas State) should allow the Golden Eagles to get off to a fast start. The Sept. 15 contest at East Carolina will preview the winner of the East, even though Southern Miss should be a lock to top the division yet again.

Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 8-0 C-USA


East Carolina - 2006: 7-6 Overall, 5-3 C-USA

Offense

Sophomore Rob Kass will captain the ship this season and will have to follow a tough act, that of James Pinkney, ECU's second all-time passing leader. New offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Fitch must help Kass find his footing early, or else it's going to be a tough year for the Pirates. Wide receiver Aundrae Allison is off to the NFL, so East Carolina is looking for some new faces to complement Kass. Head coach Skip Holtz listed sophomore Jamar Bryant, senior Philip Henry and senior Steven Rodgers as players to watch, plus several juco players the third-year head coach hopes will make an immediate impact.

"You'll see it more by committee now that Aundrae is gone and there's no heir apparent," Holtz says. "But I think our program is much stronger because in year one, we didn't have a committee to go to. Now I think you are going to see a lot more players that are good enough to step up and make some plays, so there will be a lot more guys with 20-30 catches."

The Pirates have their work cut out for them in the backfield, where they came up with just 115.5 yards rushing per game. Senior Chris Johnson and junior Dominique Lindsay will share the workload, after Johnson's production on the ground has been slowed while he develops into a receiver and kickoff return man. With 10 or 11 different choices at lineman and the experience of guards Matt Butler and Josh Coffman, the run game has to get better.

Defense

North Carolina transfer Khalif Mitchell will push the experienced group already lined up at defensive end, and the linebackers should be the best in Holtz's three seasons. Senior Fred Wilson will take the middle, once again flanked by juniors Quentin Cotton and Pierre Bell. At 224 pounds, Cotton finished second on the team with 68 tackles and used his speed to break into the backfield. He'll be the leader of the linebacking corps. Travis Williams is the only returning player in the secondary, so teams will likely try their luck passing the ball often against ECU early in the season. The front seven will have to pick up the slack while the secondary gets settled.

The Skinny

Someone in the conference scheduling department has it out for ECU. The Pirates open the season at Virginia Tech before hosting North Carolina and opening their conference play against reigning East division champion Southern Miss. The Pirates then pack up again to face West Virginia on the road, making for one of the toughest schedules in the conference.

"I think we're going to learn a lot about ourselves on the national level, in terms of where we rank with other teams around the country," Holtz said. "We have a chance to be better than we've been. I don't know if the wins and losses will necessarily show that because of the level that we're playing at. We better have a strong September or it's going to be a long year."

Having had three years to mold the program, Holtz is in his best position to make a run for the conference title. Unfortunately, he'll have to do it in this third game of the season. If ECU can top Southern Miss Sept. 15, the division is theirs for the taking.

Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 7-1 C-USA


Marshall - 2006: 5-7 Overall, 4-4 C-USA

Offense

Losing Ahmad Bradshaw is bad news for the Thundering Herd. Juniors Chubb Small, Kelvin Turner and freshman Terrell Edwards will have a tough time picking up the slack for the nation's fifth-leading rusher.

"Ahmad was an awful special running back," said head coach Mark Snyder. "Those kind of guys are hard to replace. We have two freshman tailbacks that we'll give a look to, but it may be running back by committee."

Senior quarterback Bernard Morris has a solid receiving corps to compensate while the running game finds its feet, but he'll have to be more accurate, and certainly throw for more than one touchdown pass against a BCS opponent. Sophomore tight end Cody Slate can be one of the best in the league, hauling in a team-best 43 passes for 684 yards and six touchdowns last season, and former juco star Darius Passmore is expected to give immediate help to the receivers. 

"We have everybody back at wide receiver," Snyder said. "We really did not sign any wide outs because we're so deep there. That should be our strong point."

Redshirt freshman Travius Thompson is one receiver expected to make a splash and take some of the pressure off of Slate. Center Doug Legursky is an all-American candidate at center.

Defense

Marshall's defense is traditionally strong on the line and weak in the secondary, and this year should follow suit, unless new defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap can do something about the 114th worst secondary in the nation. Conference defensive Player of the Year Albert McClellan and his 11.5 sacks return at defensive end and he is expected to have another standout season.

The secondary returns its top three corners, which may not be such a good thing, considering the unit's failures against the pass. Senior Phillip Gamble and junior C.J. Spillman will be expected to bring some solidity to the backfield defense. The Thundering Herd allowed at least 21 points in every game last season, and will have to reduce that number if Marshall is going to be competitive this year.

The Skinny

Morris' third season as quarterback will have to be by far his best if the Thundering Herd is to return to a bowl for the first time since 2004. They'll also have to do something about the special teams - hitting five of 13 field goal attempts and allowing three blocked punts isn't going to help the quest for a bowl. Marshall has a tough road slate, opening at Miami before traveling to Tulsa and Houston in conference. Hosting West Virginia won't help the win column, either.

"I'm excited just to see how much progress we've made," Snyder said. "We're going into year three, so it's a chance to evaluate our program and make sure we're headed in the right direction."

Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 4-4 C-USA


UCF - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 3-5 C-USA

Offense

UCF scored only 20 touchdowns in 50 red zone appearances in 2006, slumping badly after being a preseason favorite to win the conference. It's hard to win games without scoring points, and the Knights (no longer the Golden Knights) found that out the hard way. Senior quarterback Kyle Israel will have to do something about those turnover numbers - the team lost nine fumbles and threw 10 interceptions (and only 14 touchdowns). In his four starts last season, Israel put too much emphasis on creating first downs with his feet, and he'll have to rely more on his arm this season, according to offensive coordinator Tim Salem.

"Kyle has good fieldmanship, good leadership," head coach George O'Leary said. "He gets you out of a bad play with a good play. He'll go into the huddle and they know he's the guy; it's his job to keep, but we will have competition there."

Junior running back Kevin Smith, a two-year starter, will provide some support on offense, especially with four starters back blocking for him on the line. Rocky Ross is the team's veteran receiver, but Javid James will have to be more consistent and redshirt freshman Jevaughn Reams, Brian Watters and Jamar Newsome will all have to show up if Israel is going to have any success throwing the ball.

Defense

UCF finished 106th in total defense last season, prompting the arrival of former Iowa State assistant John Skladany as defensive coordinator and new coaches at secondary and defensive line. Eight starters return on defense, including the entire secondary, but their pass rush will have to be far better if the defense is going to be successful.

Linebacker Steven Baker is returning from surgery and will need to contribute quickly to this struggling unit, especially with projected starter Jordan Richards most likely out for the season with a shoulder injury.

"The one thing is maturity," O'Leary said of the defense. "Most of them are all back with experience. We made some changes in coaching, since I think sometimes chemistry is so important in terms of attitude and all that."

If that chemistry doesn't click, and the Knights perform the way they did (or didn't) last season, the defense will be UCF's downfall.

The Skinny

UCF will inaugurate its first on-campus stadium Sept. 15, a 45,000-seat facility that has been a long time in the making.

"I took this job because I think UCF could be a dominant team, and the last piece of the puzzle is the stadium," O'Leary said. "That's the last piece and it's time to move on and start winning."

Winning will most likely have to wait a week, as the Texas Longhorns are coming to town to christen Bright House Networks Stadium. After that, the schedule evens out a bit with home games against Memphis and UL-Lafayette. If Israel can play turnover-free football, Kevin Smith can put up numbers on the ground and those numbers translate into points, UCF can contend for the East title. The Oct. 6 visit to East Carolina will show this team how well they stack up.

Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 3-5 C-USA


Memphis - 2006: 2-10 Overall, 1-7 C-USA

Offense

Senior quarterback Martin Hankins ran the spread offense effectively last season, throwing for 2,550 yards and 18 touchdowns. The passing game was the high point of the Tigers' offense last year, ranking 39th in the nation, and should be just as good this year, with Hankins' experience and sophomore receiver Duke Calhoun, who is on the verge of becoming a real playmaker. At 6-foot-4, Calhoun caught 42 passes for a team-high 681 yards and six TDs last season, earning him freshman all-conference honors. Juco transfer Steven Black will give Hawkins another solid target. In the backfield, Joe Doss led the Tigers with 910 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last season, and he'll have to produce again this year, which will be all the harder behind a weak offensive line.

Defense

The Tigers' defense ranked 100th or worse in every category except passing yardage, where they ranked 96th last season. The front four left much to be desired, allowing more than 30 points and 400 yards per game. End Greg Terrell returns after joining Calhoun on the frosh all-conference team and junior tackle Freddie Barnett is expected to step up immediately. Heath Grant, Quinton McCrary, Greg Jackson and Jake Kasser all return at linebacker, and will be pushed by JUCO transfer Tommy Phelps, but none put up remarkable numbers last season. The defensive backfield has major strides to make, so defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz is working with the safeties while former Tulsa assistant Derek Jones focuses on the cornerbacks.

The Skinny

With six new assistants on board, the chemistry in Memphis will hopefully change for the better after last year's abomination. Memphis lost all five games that were decided by a touchdown or less, including four games by three points or fewer, so the new coordinators on offense and defense will have to game plan those two-minute situations. After bringing their three-season bowl streak to a grinding halt in 2006, the Tigers are determined to show that last year was a fluke rather than the beginning of a trend. The first two games against Ole Miss and Arkansas State are winnable, and getting off to a good start will be invaluable to this team. If the Tigers can start well and get the kinks out of their new coaching staff early, a .500 season is a possibility.

Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 3-5 C-USA


UAB - 2006: 3-9 Overall, 2-6 C-USA

Offense

First-year head coach Neil Callaway's nine seasons coordinating offenses in the SEC should prove invaluable for the Blazers, whose 18.8 points per game last season ranked them 93rd in the country. The quarterback position is still up for grabs between senior Sam Hunt and sophomore Joseph Webb, and that's just fine with Callaway.

"I'm excited about the competition at quarterback," Callaway said. "I've got two guys, we'll let them compete going into fall practice and let it work itself out, and how it shakes out."

Freshman tight end Jeffrey Anderson may be the best threat at receiver for the Blazers.

"Coming out of spring ball, I thought we were not very good at receiver," Callaway said. "We've got a lot of improvement to do there."

Sophomore Rashaud Slaughter should get the start at tailback, but he's not going anywhere unless tackle Adam Truitt gets some help at offensive line, a position Callaway says is particularly thin.

Defense

The linebacking corps has a chance to be good behind B.J. Steed, Joe Henderson and Kris Guyton, but inconsistency and depth are concerns.

"The bright spot on our defensive football team would be the secondary," Callaway said. "We have two corners in Zach Britten and Kevin Sanders that are good football players."

The secondary will need some help from an inexperienced defensive line, which they will hopefully get from juco transfer Antonio Forbes. Just like the offensive line, the D-line is going to be thin and young, and will have to mature quickly if UAB is going to have a chance in its early games.

The Skinny

Callaway has 13 years of experience assisting head coaches, but 2007 is his first chance to be one, and he's got a lot of work to do. Luckily, he has a plan.

"There's three things we need to make sure we do: play harder than our opponents, play physical and eliminate mistakes. I think if we can do those three things that'll go a long way," Callaway said.

With opening games at Michigan State and Florida State, this team is going to have to gel quickly, or else it's going to be a long season. And there is plenty of gelling to be done.

"We've going to be a very thin football team really at every area," Callaway said. "We'll have a lot of freshman play on this football team." Realistically, UAB will be lucky if it can match last year's record.

Regular Season Prediction: 2-10 Overall, 1-7 C-USA

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WEST


Tulsa - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 5-3 C-USA 

Offense

Last year at Rice, new head coach Todd Graham transitioned the Owls from an option offense to a spread attack with miraculous results, bringing the passing game from 117th in the nation in 2005 to 47th in 2006. With senior Paul Smith heralded as the best under-pressure quarterback in the conference, Graham will have the opportunity to work his offensive magic this season for his former conference rival, where he just happened to be defensive coordinator from 2003-2005. Smith is on track to become the Golden Hurricane's all-time leading passer, and as the conference's best QB under pressure, he should fit well into the new no-huddle spread offense co-masterminded by offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, of former Arkansas fame.

"The whole idea is to go fast," Graham said. "It has to do with our conditioning, our physical-ness, to force defenses to operate under a faster tempo. It's going to be a very exciting brand of football to watch."

Without their top three pass catchers, however, some veterans are going to have to step up and catch those fast-paced passes, but Smith is not worried.

"I think that's what fall camp's all about," Smith said. "We have a couple new guys coming in and it's going to be a time for some of them to prove themselves to the coaches. We've got six or seven guys that can all step up."

Balancing the air attack will be running backs Courtney Tennial, a former Oklahoma transfer, and junior Tarrion Adams, back from injury. With five seniors gone from the offensive line, that front must be shored up before Smith will have time to throw or the run game can take off.

Defense

Graham recruited much of the starting lineup himself, so he's as familiar with his personnel as possible. Graham wants his defense to match the pace of his offense.

"We're an attacking, fast-paced defense," he said, "and we're going to blitz."

The 3-3-5 scheme emphasizes athletes and playmakers, which should allow the conference's top defense to shine with Graham running the show. Senior linebackers Nelson Coleman and Chris Chamberlain quick and aggressive, and Anthony Germany and Steve Craver are big-play safeties. Up front, Terrel Nemons is a 325-pound nose guard with raw power, and the defense is looking to vastly improve on its sack and turnover numbers.

The Skinny

Tulsa was conference champion in 2005 and looked poised to repeat the run last season, winning seven of its first eight before dropping three in a row to end the season. With Graham back on the sideline, all signs point to an impressive year for the Golden Hurricane, provided playmakers emerge at wide receiver to execute the spread attack, and the offensive line gels fast enough to give Smith some protection in the minimal-protection schemes. Nov. 10 is a battle of the last two C-USA champions, when Houston comes to town, but aside from a Sept. 21 date with Oklahoma, Tulsa has a cakewalk schedule. As long as Tulsa wins that Houston game, they should have a crack at Southern Miss for the conference title.

Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 7-1 C-USA


SMU - 2006: 6-6 Overall, 4-4 C-USA

Offense

C-USA freshman of the year Justin Willis is back under center for the Mustangs, and he will lead a unit that should be one of the more effective in the conference. The freshman phenom passed for 2,047 yards and 26 touchdowns, breaking a school record for TD passes in a single season.

"He's multi-dimensional," said head coach Phil Bennett. "He doesn't have a rocket arm but his accuracy is very good. He has a good feel for the game and the ability to make big plays is there. He makes everybody on the team better and we're never out of it with him."

Willis' 158.4 passing efficiency rating was good enough for No. 10 in the nation last season, and with a year of experience, all the pieces are in place for him to have a spectacular season. Standout sophomore receiver Emmanuel Sanders is back after knee surgery, and should be a potent weapon after reeling in 46 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns, a freshman record. Still, SMU's season may depend on its run game. The Mustangs had the eighth-ranked run game in the conference last season, scoring a league-worst seven rushing touchdowns after junior DeMyron Martin went down with a foot injury. Martin is now healthy and should be a workhorse alongside James Mapps and Fred Turner, who give the backfield considerable depth. The offensive line returns five starters, which should be more than enough to create some opportunities for Martin and co.

Defense

All-conference defensive end Cory Muse is the only returning member of last year's front four, which ranked first in the conference against the run. Expect the defense to be built around him after ranking third in the conference with seven sacks, despite missing two games. Muse is an excellent pass rusher, but he will need help in that department, since he should be double-teamed on nearly every play.

"In this league you've got be able to rush the passer," Bennett said.

So a solution will have to be found up front. All three linebackers return, led by Reggie Carrington, who combined with Tony Hawkins and Wilton McCray to record 25 tackles for a loss, best in the conference. Three defensive backs that started at least three games last season are back, including corners Bryan McCann and Jonathan Lindley, who returned a fumble 80 yards for a touchdown against UTEP. The secondary will have to step up this season, as a touchdown reception by Rice star Jarett Dillard over the head of Lindley was the difference between SMU's bowl-eligible season and a bowl-playing season.

The Skinny

Since coming off of the NCAA's 1989 Death Penalty, SMU has had only one winning season, but this could be the Mustangs' second. This year also could, and probably should, be the one the Ponies break a 23-year bowless streak and get into the fight for a division title. For a program that finished winless in 2003 and hasn't had a winning season since 1997, the Mustangs have made major strides, but a tough schedule may stand in the way of postseason glory.

The home opener against Texas Tech should be their toughest test of the season, but SMU is stuck with the three hardest C-USA games available - at Southern Miss, at Tulsa and at Houston. Bennett is not fazed, as long as his players continue to improve.

"Our big word right now is extra," Bennett said. "If every position can improve 5 percent, that's like compound interest - your team becomes so much better."

This should be the year SMU makes enough progress to keep playing in January.

Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 5-3 C-USA


Houston - 2006: 10-4 Overall, 7-1 C-USA

Offense

Kevin Kolb has reported to camp for the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving the Cougars with a new face under center for the first time in four years. Sophomore Blake Joseph and freshman Case Keenum are the top names to take over signal-calling responsibilities, but head coach Art Briles doesn't expect any single player to replace Kolb's output.

"You can't replace Kevin and we're not trying to replace him," Briles said. "We're trying to replace his production, having other people put up numbers to create that same yardage in different manners. You have to be realistic, a starter is not going to come in and throw for 3,800 yards." As for the likely starter, Briles doesn't have one.
"That's what we're going to use fall camp for, to try to determine that,"  he said.

Running back Anthony Aldridge should smooth over the transition period while the Cougars get set under center. The senior moved from wide receiver to running back and never looked back, rushing for 959 yards and eight TDs on 95 carries. Houston has plenty of talent at wide receiver, led by Donnie Avery, Jeron Harvey and Chris Gilbert. Returning four starters on offensive line should allow the run game to flourish while the quarterback finds his feet. The nation's seventh-ranked offense may drop a few notches without Kolb, but should still be enough to get Houston to a bowl game, if not a conference title.

Defense

Houston's defense ranked far behind its offense last season, especially on third down where the Cougars allowed their opponents to convert 47 percent of the time, ranking them 110th in the nation. The team's second year in a 4-2-5 set-up should help take some pressure off of the green offense, as an abundance of defensive backs will be put to good use in the system.

"We're deep right now at DBs, so we might as well play them," said senior Brendan Pahulu, who drops from linebacker to end this season.

"Having that year under our belt really helped us. Now we just go fly to the ball, since we already know what to do."

Junior corner Kenneth Fontenette will anchor the secondary, and the front four has the size and speed to bother almost any offense. Junior defensive end Phillip Hunt should be the team's best defensive player, after leading the team with eight sacks.

The Skinny

Avoiding Southern Miss this season is a gift to the Cougars, who took their only conference loss at the hands of the Golden Eagles last season. Still, Houston doesn't have the smoothest of non-conference slates, opening at Oregon before facing Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Traveling to Tulsa Nov. 10 will be a key game that may determine the west division champion, and other than that, the Cougars should fly through their conference games at Tulane, UAB and UTEP. If the defense can play well enough early for the offense to find its rhythm, Houston may well repeat as conference champion.

"It's going to be an exciting thing for us to try to attempt to establish some dominance and that's what you try to do," Briles said. "You don't want to be a one-hit wonder."

Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 4-4 C-USA


UTEP - 2006: 5-7 Overall, 3-5 C-USA

Offense

Freshman Trevor Vittatoe and senior Lorne Sam are still slugging it out for the quarterback spot, but head coach Mike Price is enjoying the drama as it unfolds.

"How our quarterback situation is going to work out is exciting," Price said. "It may be kind of a two-headed QB. Lorne will play the whole game either at QB, wide receiver or running back. Trevor is just a freshman, but he's probably got a little better arm than Lorne, so playing around with that will be kind of fun."

Joe West and Fred Rouse will join Sam (if he's not under center) in the receiving lineup, which is mostly inexperienced. The offensive line should be stronger this season, returning 12 players with experience, which should give a lift to running back Marcus Thomas and Oregon transfer Terrell Jackson, who should push Thomas for playing time.

Defense

Linebacker Jeremy Jones and safety Quintin Demps are the stars of an defense that only returns five players from last season, but should be fairly strong in the back seven. Jones was the conference's top tackler a year ago before breaking his leg, but should be poised to perform his senior year. Demps picked up seven interceptions last year along with five broken up passes. The defensive line is full of question marks, mixing junior James Olalekan, the sole returning lineman with more than five stops, with three juco transfers, four sophomores and three freshmen.

"We're young on defense," Price said. "I like the energy of our team. We will be a team that gets better from beginning to end."

The Skinny

They'll have to get better in a hurry if the Miners are going to put either of their opening contests into the win column. Hosting New Mexico before traveling to Texas Tech will be big afternoons for the young team, but the Sept. 15 New Mexico State matchup may be the best early-season barometer of how the fresh players are faring.

"Our first three games as far as being competitive and our fans being excited about them are as good as can be," Price said. "There's a big rivalry between NM and us, then we're going up to Texas Tech, then we go to New Mexico state - you just gotta win that game, it's only 25 miles away. Then I'll let you know how we're doing."

In a tough West Division, UTEP's young players will have a hard time facing the maturity they'll find at SMU, Tulsa and Houston. Unless a quarterback emerges early with a ton of talent to rally the team, this will not be the year UTEP returns to a bowl game.

Regular Season Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 3-5 C-USA


Rice - 2006: 7-6 Overall, 6-2 C-USA

Offense

Rice retains last season's successful offensive scheme, giving the Owls the opportunity to build upon last year's step forward, even under the Owls' new head coach David Bailiff. Quarterback Chase Clement has another year under his belt and has four returning starters on the offensive line to give him time to make his throws. Jarett Dillard, Rice's Heisman hopeful, is the headliner on a growing number of receiving targets for Clement. Dillard finished last season with 91 receptions for 1,247 yards and 21 touchdowns, laying down new single-season receiving records at Rice and in the conference and earning him preseason C-USA Offensive Player of the Year honors. He enters the season with 15 consecutive games with a TD pass and is by far the league's most exciting receiver. Six-foot-six tight end Taylor Wardlow is due for a breakout season, and a trio of sophomore receivers should show considerable improvement after gaining experience as true freshmen. Four largely untested question marks remain at tailback, but with a seasoned offensive line, they should have enough blocking to prove their worth early and often.

Defense

Bailiff comes to the Owls with a defense-heavy resume as the defensive coordinator for his final two years at TCU, guiding the Horned Frogs to the nation's top defense in 2002. The Owls will run a 4-2-5 similar to the TCU scheme this season.

"It's very multiple," Bailiff said. "It allows you to leverage the run, lets you handle the verticals. It allows players to play fast."

Rice is plagued by a lack of depth up front, mostly losing playmakers to graduation, but the defense can not be much worse than last season, when it ranked 112th in the nation, allowing an average of more than 33 points per game. The top four defensive ends are all inexperienced, which means that at least two incoming freshmen could be in the starting rotation. Linebacker and safety are more set, with Terrance Garmon, Robert Calhoun and all-conference selection Brain Raines set in the middle. Raines is returning after an off-season shoulder surgery, and if he is healthy, he should anchor the linebacking corps after leading the Owls in tackling last season. Safety Andrew Sendejo returns to lead the secondary after earning freshman All-America honors last year.

The Skinny

Although Bailiff was successful at I-AA Texas State, he'll need to take his game up a step at the BCS level, and expectations are very high in Houston. Todd Graham built the foundation for Rice to continue making moves in the conference, after taking the Owls to their first bowl in 45 years, but the transition period requisite with a new coaching staff will make it tough for the Owls to match last season's magic.

"Winning's tough, but that's going to be the expectation," Bailiff said. "People do what's expected, and we're going to set our standards high."

Back-to-back games against Texas Tech and Texas certainly won't help the overall record, and the defense will have to get considerably better if Rice is going to make the run it made in 2006. Games at Southern Miss, Houston and SMU will stand in the way of Rice's conference title hopes.

Regular Season Prediction: 3-9 Overall, 2-6 C-USA


Tulane - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 2-6 C-USA

Offense

New head coach Bob Toledo was once an offensive genius. As head coach at UCLA, Toledo led the Bruins to two straight Pac-10 titles in 1997-98 thanks to an offense that averaged more than 40 points per game. His 13 years of experience as an offensive coordinator at UCLA, Texas A&M and Oregon should overshadow his three-season hiatus from coaching and the less-than-stellar show he put on as last season's coordinator at New Mexico. Even with that resume, Toledo has his work cut out for him in New Orleans. The likely signal caller for the Green Wave is Scott Elliott, last year's backup with three career starts to his name. Luckily, Toledo can center his offense on the talents of senior running back Matt Forte.

"Offensively you've gotta start with Matt Forte," Toledo said. "I've had an opportunity to be around some great running backs, and he's about as good as any of them. Big, strong, fast, he can catch the ball, throw the ball, punt the football - I'm going to utilize all those abilities. He's the guy that we're going to build our offense around."

The offensive line needs some serious attention if Forte is going to have any room to run.

Defense

The Green Wave is unquestionably experienced up front. Senior tackles Frank Morton and Avery Williams combine with defensive end Antonio Harris to create a strong front four. A shaky secondary unit allowed 23 touchdown passes in 2006, but a deep pool of cornerbacks to choose from may help the situation. The linebackers are less certain, with James Dillard and Evan Lee the front runners, and no one else making too many waves.

"We're trying to expose them to a lot of things and then try to find out what they can do best and tailor the things to what they do best," Toledo said.


Hopefully, he'll find some players that are best at playing linebacker.

The Skinny

Tulane has had only one winning season in the last six years and is struggling to bring in recruits in the post-Katrina years. The talent and depth is simply lacking for Tulane to be a power this season. With a new coaching staff and a weak two-deep, the best Tulane can hope for is a four-win season, and that may be stretching things. The Green Wave opens the year by hosting Mississippi State, a game they won last year on the road.

"I think that first game is important because of the new program," Toledo said. "It's a home game and we need to get off on the right foot. If we can be competitive, I think the people that go to the game, that'll keep them coming back."

Staying competitive with Houston Sept. 15 will be an excellent barometer of how Tulane is doing, but the Sept. 29 matchup with LSU is just cruel.

Regular Season Prediction: 2-10 Overall, 0-8 C-USA

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Southern Miss, Houston Favored To Meet Again In C-USA Championship

Golden Eagles will look to earn revenge on Cougars after falling in title game last year

Aug. 8, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Nearly every year, Brett Favre's alma mater fields a winning team that few beyond the small town of Hattiesburg, Miss., seem to notice.

Buried in SEC country, and playing third-string in its home state, Southern Mississippi again challenged for the Conference USA title last year, falling to Houston in the title game.

Likewise, the Cougars, even in a championship season, get overshadowed at home by Big 12 bullies Texas and Texas A&M.

Such is life in C-USA, where even the top teams have a hard time grabbing headlines.

In a league that has undergone numerous lineup changes, seeing contenders come and go, Southern Miss has been model of consistency.

The Golden Eagles have had winning seasons for 13 straight years now. After last season's 28-7 triumph over Ohio in the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., the Golden Eagles improved to 9-5, marking the fourth time they had a nine-win season in the past decade.

Southern Miss will have a pair of key players back on offense this season in sophomore running backs Damian Fletcher and Tory Harrison.

As freshmen, Fletcher rushed for 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Harrison had 326 yards and a f 6.3 per carry average as a backup.

"That was a bonus to have two kids come in with their kind of ability, and they were able to come a long way in a short period of time to get themselves in the mix," head coach Jeff Bower said. "They played well for us and gave us something that we hadn't had in quite some time in that position."

Bower is looking forward to senior quarterback Jeremy Young's healthy return. Young played with a nagging turf toe injury for nearly all of last season and threw for 1,769 yards and 12 touchdowns.

"Offensively, we have a lot of key personnel back, but we do have concerns with the young receivers, holes on the offensive line and building depth is another task, because we are thin at a lot of positions," Bower said.

Still, if any Conference USA team is primed to try to sneak into the running for a BCS Bowl bid this season, Southern Miss could be it.

The Golden Eagles had the league's top rated defense last season and Bower expects that to the team's strength again.

As usual, the Golden Eagles face a tough nonconference schedule, including an intriguing trip to the Northwest to play Boise State, which busted into the BCS from the Western Athletic Conference and pulled off a stunning win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Houston finished last season 10-4, and coach Art Briles has 17 starters back, including senior running back Anthony Alridge. He averaged a 10.1 yards per carry last season, rushing for 959 yards. The Cougars are a pass-first team, though, and will have to replace career passing leader Kevin Kolb.

Last season marked the first C-USA Championship for the Cougars since they took the league's inaugural title in 1996.

"We're not dealing in vision and hope. We are dealing with reality. They know that there are 12 universities vying to be Conference USA champions and we were it last year," Briles said. "Now, we have to fight like heck and defend it this year."

A capsule look at the teams in their predicted order of finish:

EAST DIVISION

SOUTHERN MISS - With three new starters on the offensive line, it might be tough for the team to match last season's 4,635 yards of total offense. ... The Golden Eagles led the league in scoring defense last season while ranking second in total defense, rush defense and pass defense. The top seven tacklers from last season are back.

EAST CAROLINA - The rebuilding Pirates won seven times in 2006, good enough to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2001. ... Expected starting quarterback Rob Kass saw little more than mop-up duty last season behind James Pinkney. Kass' adjustment to being a starter will be a major factor in Pirates' season, especially since Aundrae Allison, the top receiver from last season, has left for the NFL.

UCF - The Knights open a new on-campus after using the Florida Citrus Bowl as their home field for 28 seasons. The lineup is not new, however. Senior QB Kyle Israel is expected to lead the offense after making four starts last season. Also returning is RB Kevin Smith, who's gained 2,112 yards rushing through his first two seasons.

MARSHALL - Coach Mark Snyder's squad won four of its last five games in 2006 to finish 5-7 and hopes that momentum will carry over. The offense returns eight starters, including QB Bernard Morris and veteran WRs Shawn Lauzon, Marcus Fitzgerald and Emmanuel Spann.

MEMPHIS - Coach Tommy West has six new assistants on his staff, while holdover Clay Helton has been promoted to offensive coordinator. QB Martin Hankins, who set passing records at I-AA Southeastern Louisiana, is back for a second and final season with the Tigers after throwing for 2,550 yards and 18 touchdowns in '06.

UAB - New coach Neil Callaway starts the process of improving a squad the went 3-9 last season and numerous starting jobs are up for grabs, including at quarterback. Senior Sam Hunt and sophomore Joseph Webb are the contenders. Running back is thin. Only one was on scholarship during spring practice.

WEST DIVISION

HOUSTON - Three quarterbacks are competing to replace Kolb - sophomore Blake Joseph, redshirt freshman Case Keenum and senior transfer Al Pena. "These guys make it real tough on us. They are doing a great job," Briles said. "It's a great position for us to be in, but it is a tough situation. We have three guys that could go out and win us football games." ... Houston's last back-to-back championships came in 1978-79 in the old Southwest Conference.

TULSA - Two-year starting QB Paul Smith returns, along with half of the 2006 starters, providing experienced leadership for first-year coach Todd Graham. ... Smith has 5,871 yards passing in his career, second in school history, to go with 36 touchdown passes, which is the third best career mark at Tulsa.

SMU - Mustangs have increased their win total in consecutive seasons and now seem to be within reach of their first bowl invitation in 23 years. ... QB Justin Willis threw for 2,047 yards with 26 TDs and six INTs last season.

UTEP - It's the 90th year of football for the Miners. Jordan Palmer joined his older brother in the NFL after setting school records for passing yardage (11,084) and touchdowns (88). Also gone are 26 other seniors from last year's squad, and most of the starting defense.

RICE - All-American receiver Jarett Dillard, who last year helped Rice to its first bowl game since 1961, returns for his junior season as new coach David Bailiff attempts to keep up with crosstown rivalry Houston. Also returning is QB Chase Clement, who tied a school record with 21 touchdown passes and rushed for 481 yards and four TDs.

TULANE - Former UCLA coach Bob Toledo takes over at Tulane, which now has practice facilities and a home stadium (the Louisiana Superdome) that have been rebuilt and even upgraded since Hurricane Katrina struck two years ago. Toledo can only hope to rebuild Tulane into a winner as quickly in the school's 113th season of football. One of Toledo's first tasks will be to choose a new starting quarterback among junior Scott Elliot, sophomore Anthony Scelfo and redshirt freshman Kevin Moore.


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Re: 2007 Conference USA Preview

East Carolina QB suspended for opener against Hokies
August 28th, 2007

Greenville, NC (Sports Network) - East Carolina's starting quarterback Rob Kass has been suspended by head coach Skip Holtz for the team's opener against Virginia Tech for violating a team policy.

"There is an expectation of conduct associated with being a member of this football program," said Holtz. "I regret anytime we are put in a position to take disciplinary action but we take the responsibility of representing East Carolina seriously."

The sophomore, who was a backup to the graduated James Pinkney, was expected to make his first college start September 1 against the Hokies in Blacksburg, Virginia.

As a redshirt freshman in 2006, Kass completed 14-of-30 passes for 184 yards in five games, including 10 completions for 138 yards in the Papajohns.com Bowl versus South Florida.

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