2008 Conference USA Outlook


Houston Cougars

2007 record: 8-5 (6-2 C-USA)

2007 bowl: Texas Bowl (20-13 loss to TCU) Head coach: Kevin Sumlin (first year at Houston)

n Outlook: The Cougars are going to be hard pressed to replace the offensive production of running back Anthony Alridge (1,597 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and wide reciever Donnie Avery (1,456 receiving yards, seven TDs), but quarterback Case Keenum, last year’s C-USA Freshman of the Year, can make plays with his arms and legs and should be an improved passer this season. Defensive end Phillip Hunt (10Ω sacks) gives the Cougars a dominant pass rusher on the defensive line, and safety Kenneth Fontenette will be counted on to help improve a secondary that was painful to watch last season. Given the team’s returning talent, there’s no reason Sumlin shouldn’t have a successful campaign in his first year at Houston.

Rice Owls

2007 record: 3-9 (3-5 C-USA)

2007 bowl: None

Head coach: David Bailiff (3-9, second year at Rice)

n Outlook: Few C-USA teams will be able boast an explosive offense like the Owls, who return all three of their top playmakers. Quarterback Chase Clement (3,377 passing yards, 29 TDs) and wide reciever Jarret Dillard (1,057 yards, 14 TDs) make up one of the top pass-catching duos in the nation, and tight end James Casey continues to emerge as a deadly option in Rice’s passing attack. Give the Owls a rushing attack and at least a halfway-decent defense (Rice gave up an average of 42.9 points and 510.8 yards per game last season), and they might be worth the price of admission this year.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

2007 record: 10-4 (6-2 C-USA)

2007 bowl: GMAC Bowl (63-7 win over Bowling Green)

Head coach: Todd Graham (10-4, second year at Tulsa)

n Outlook: Tulsa lost a dangerous gunslinger with the departure of Paul Smith (5,065 yards, 47 TDs last season), but with 1,000-yard receivers Brennan Marion and Trae Johnson and 1,000-yard rusher Tarrion Adams back in the fold, Smith’s replacement will have plenty of weapons to work with. The biggest question mark is the Golden Hurricane’s defense, which lost its top three tacklers to graduation.

Tulane Green Wave

2007 record: 4-8 (3-5, C-USA)

2007 bowl: None

Head coach: Bob Toledo (4-8, second year at Tulane)

n Outlook: Running back Matt Forte practically carried the Green Wave’s offense last season, rushing for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns enroute to snagging numerous All-American honors. With Forte having moved on to the greener pastures of the NFL, it’s likely the Green Wave will have to rely more on its passing game. Kevin Moore should lead the way at quarterback, and Jeremy Williams, the returning leading receiver, should become his go-to guy. Tulane’s defense should be up for the task, but will be tested heavily by the likes of LSU, Rice, Houston and Tulsa.

Texas-El Paso Miners

2007 record: 4-8 (2-6, C-USA)

2007 bowl: None

Head coach: Mike Price (25-23, fifth year at UTEP)

n Outlook: Price was hailed as a savior after turning around the Miners’ downtrodden program and leading them to consecutive bowl games from 2004-05, but the honeymoon is over. UTEP has played dead down the stretch during the last two seasons, and it’s up to Price to somehow turn the Miners into contenders in C-USA. He has a competent signal-caller in sophomore Trevor Vittatoe (3,101 yards, 25 TDs last season) and a solid group of wide receivers, but what about defense? Another defensive performance like last season (37.1 points and 504.8 yards per game allowed), and the Miners will be watching the postseason from the living room sofa for the third consecutive season.

Southern Methodist Mustangs

2007 record: 1-11 (0-8 C-USA)

2007 bowl: None

Head coach: June Jones (first year at SMU)

n Outlook: Quarteback Justin Willis, a two-year starter, is still a talented player, but might not figure too much into the Mustangs’ plans this season after he was demoted to the No. 3 quarterback by Jones, who feels that true freshmen Bo Levi Mitchell and Braden Smith have a better grasp of the Run-and-Shoot offense. This means that Willis, a holdover from the Phil Bennett coaching regime, will probably consider a transfer after this season with Jones seemingly committing himself to preparing the program’s future quarterback. Somewhere along the way, Jones, who went 76-41 in nine seasons at Hawaii, will try to lead the Mustangs to their first winning season since 1989, but the odds are it won’t happen this year. If nothing else, it should be fun to watch SMU utilize the Run-and-Shoot.


Central Florida Golden Knights

2007 record: 10-4 (7-1 C-USA)

2007 bowl: Liberty Bowl (10-3 loss to Mississippi State)

Head coach: George O’Leary (22-28, fifth year at UCF)

n Outlook: First things first: The reigning C-USA champions won’t be able to replace the production of running back Kevin Smith, who left early for the NFL after rushing for an eye-popping 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. UCF might also find it tough to replace Israel, who was efficient as a full-time starter last season. But this team should again be pretty good defensively, considering it returns all but two of its starters from that unit. Look for cornerback Joe Burnett, defensive back Sha’reff Rashad and linebacker Derrick Hallman to help the defense regain its form from last season.

East Carolina Pirates

2007 record: 8-5 (6-2 C-USA)

2007 bowl: Hawaii Bowl (41-38 win over Boise State)

Head coach: Skip Holtz (20-17, fourth year at ECU)

n Outlook: The Pirates have improved their win total every season since 2005 under Holtz, and are looking for an even bigger jump this season. ECU again has its sights set on the C-USA championship, but probably won’t have the type of production from any player as they did from versatile running back Chris Johnson. Pat Pinkney and Rob Kass are locked into a fierce battle at quarterback, and there’s a chance both could see significant action this season. The offense should be OK, but the defense needs to step up in a big way.

Memphis Tigers

2007 record: 7-6 (6-2 C-USA)

2007 bowl: New Orleans Bowls (44-27 loss to Florida Atlantic)

Head coach: Tommy West (41-44, eighth year at Memphis)

n Outlook: The Tigers were one of the league’s hottest teams down the stretch last season, winning five of their last six regular-season games to earn a trip to a bowl game. Now, Memphis’ goal is to figure out how to do it all again without the services of quarterback Martin Hankins. Candidates to replace Hankins are Matt Malouf and Arkelon Hall, and whoever wins the job will have some nice weapons to throw to in wide receivers Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

2007 record: 7-6 (5-3 C-USA)

2007 bowl: Bowl (31-21 loss to Cincinnati)

Head coach: Larry Fedora (first year at Southern Miss)

n Outlook: The Jeff Bower reign came to an abrupt end when he was forced out last winter after compiling a 119-83-1 record and 14 winning seasons over 17 years. The school brought in former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora, who has the credentials for such a position. Fedora’s first big task is to name a starting quarterback, but the offense already has a lethal weapon in running back Damion Fletcher (1,586 yards, 15 touchdowns last season). The defense lost a lot of starters, but boasts the returns of reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Year linebackers Gerald McRath and the talented Tokumbo Abanikanda. The defense might regress a little, but not enough to keep the Golden Eagles from recording a 15th consecutive winning season.

Marshall Thundering Herd

2007 record: 3-9 (3-5 C-USA)

2007 bowl: None Head coach: Mark Snyder (12-23, fourth year at Marshall)

n Outlook: Snyder’s changes to his coaching staff during the offseason are proba
bly an indication he’s fed up with the Thundering Herd’s losing ways. Snyder brought in John Shannon to be the new offensive coordinator and Rick Minter to be the new defensive coordinator. Marshall will have to find a suitable replacement for quarterback Bernard Morris to get the offense going, but at least the Thundering Herd has the wide receivers needed for the task. Plus, it’ll be interesting to see how Albert McClellan, the 2006 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year and former defensive end, functions in his new position at outside linebacker.

Alabama-Birmingham Blazers

2007 record: 2-10 (1-7 C-USA)

2007 bowl: None

Head coach: Neil Callaway (2-10, second year at UAB)

n Outlook: The Blazers haven’t had a winning season since going 7-5 in 2004, and probably won’t be any closer to breaking the drought this year. UAB is young and will probably struggle this season, but given more time, it might have a pretty good squad on its hands. The Blazers will lean on quarterback Joe Webb to direct the offense this year, and the offensive line should be able to provide adequate protection for him. Frantell Forrest (563 yards, 5 TDs) gives Webb a quality weapon at wide receiver. The defense struggled last season, and it’s going to take some more time before this young unit improves.

Compiled by Ronnie Turner


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