Covers Expert Marc Lawrence continues his weekly analysis of the upcoming college football season with his Conference USA betting preview.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2013 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Potential designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
EAST CAROLINA (*8/8East Carolina (*8/8)
Team Theme: RUFFIN READY)
After serving 10 years as an assistant under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, former ECU alum (and four-year football letterman) Ruffin McNeil knew it was his time when the Pirates brought him aboard as the head coach in 2010. A 19-19 record does not have the fan base clamoring for him to walk the plank, but his breakout season looks to be at hand in 2013. After 51 players made their first-ever collegiate starts with the Pirates in his first two seasons, he featured only three senior starters on offense in 2012. As a result, ECU will field the second-highest number of returning starts of all FBS teams this year: 355, including 215 from last season. With 25 seniors and 24 juniors (50.5 percent upper classmen) putting on the pads, including record-setting QB Shane Carden, the Pirates are ready to push the envelope.
Stat You Will Like: 75 percentof the Pirates lettermen return in 2013.
PLAY ON: vs. North Carolina (9/28)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC (7/8)
Team Theme: MOVIN’ ON UP
Like the Jeffersons, FAU finds itself moving on up to Conference USA beginning this football season. It didn’t take new head coach Carl Pelini long to make his mark in Boca Raton, where his Owls dramatically improved their offensive numbers in his first year at the helm in 2012. A 101-yard improvement rewarded backers as well with a nifty 8-3 pointspread mark. With 15 starters back, they’re prepared to move up in class this campaign. The good news is they will face only two opponents that participated in a bowl game last season, and will close out the season against seven losing squads. The feeling here, though, is the combination of sophomore blues and a tougher neighborhood may find the Owls asleep on the ATS perch in 2013.
Stat You Will Like: FAU improved from No. 117 to No. 64 in penalty yards per game under Pelini last season.
PLAY AGAINST: at UAB (10/5)
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (*3/3)
Team Theme: TURNING A NEW CORNER
Along with their neighborhood cousins Florida Atlantic, FIU moves in a new direction by joining Conference USA in 2013. In addition, they bring along new head coach Ron Turner, a former boss at Illinois and San Jose State. The former Big 10 Coach of the Year (Illinois 2001) will need all of his coaching skills as he finds the cupboard bare with only three starters back on both sides of the ball after the Panthers lost nearly 30 seniors to graduation. The good news is 22 true or redshirt freshmen made their debuts last season, while 28 players who sat out because of redshirt, injury or transfer status will be suiting up in 2013. Keeping oft-injured QB Jake Medlock healthy is crucial.
Stat You Will Like: Turner is 6-23 ATS in games off a SU/ATS loss in his college career.
PLAY ON: vs. Marshall (11/23)
Team Theme: GREEN COLORED GLASSES
When Doc Holliday arrived in town three years ago he promised to fire up an offense that appeared to have run out of bullets. They’ve re-loaded since, with the buy-sign coming last year when the Doctor’s offense improved a whopping 201 YPG. Puzzling, though, was the fact that after going 7-1 in one-possession games (games decided by a touchdown or less) his first two seasons with a popgun attack, his troops plummeted to 2-4 in the same games last year. The blame can be placed on a defense that has been in decline since Holliday’s arrival. With plenty of offensive power on hand in the likes of QB Rakeem Cato (CUSA MVP) and WR Tommy Shuler (110 receptions in 2012), things will improve when and if the defense does.
Stat You Will Like: In addition to Cato and Shuler, the Thundering Herd offense returns its top three running backs, TE Gator Hoskins (10 TDs) and a whopping eight linemen with starting experience.
PLAY ON: vs. East Carolina (11/30)
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (*9/8)
Team Theme: NO STANDING STILL
The hire of Rick Stockstill at MTSU in 2006 has paid off in spades. He has demonstrated the ability to develop and coach big-time players throughout his career, having worked 24 years as an assistant with legendary coaches Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier, Danny Ford, Tommy Bowden, Ken Hatfield and Tommy West. Coaching is in his blood and it was apparent last year when he led the Blue Raiders to the nation’s biggest win improvement of +six games, including a school record five FBS road wins. Headed to the Conference USA, seventeen starters are back for more, led by senior QB Logan Kilgore who has enjoyed back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons. Going up against only two bowl teams in 2013, anything less than a bowl would be substandard.
Stat You Will Like: In his tenure at MTSU, Rick Stockstill’s teams have gone from an APR score of 892 to 983, the biggest increase of any program in the country.
PLAY ON: vs. North Carolina (9/7)
SOUTHERN MISS (4/9)
Team Theme: HERO TO ZERO
On paper it looked like the right move. Ellis Johnson, a four-year defensive coordinator at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier, was in for the departed Larry Fedora. His job was to extend the Eagles' 18-year win skein, if not somehow improve on 2011's school-best 12-win effort. It turns out Johnson became the poster-boy for the Peter Principle when he led his team to ZERO wins. Like a candle in the wind, his flame burned out long before his legend ever did. Enter Todd Monken, former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. He is the third Golden Eagles head coach of the last four hired whose previous job was OC with the Cowboys. The good news for Monken: Zero-win lined teams have gone 248-439-4 the next season since 1991.
Stat You Will Like: David Duggan, Southern Miss defensive coordinator in 2011, returns as DC this season.
PLAY ON: vs. Texas State (8/31)
Team Theme: OINTMENT APPLIED
Former Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was fully aware of what it was he was getting into when he assumed the reins at UAB last season. He inherited a team on a seven-year losing skid and a defense that was torched for more than 500 yards on seven occasions. The seven-year itch wouldn’t go away but a solid improvement on both sides of the ball provides the salve needed to soften the wounds. Led by returning QB Austin Brown’s school-record 309 passing YPG, and joined by last year’s leading WR Jackie Williams and top RB Darrin Reaves, the Blazers take the field in 2013 with the look of a team ready to turn the corner.
Stat You Will Like: Four returning wide receivers caught 40 or more passes last season.
PLAY ON: vs. Troy (8/31)
LOUISIANA TECH (3/4)
Team Theme: BOW-WOW
You know the tale of Mother Hubbard going to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone, only to find the cupboard bare. That same verse is running through new coach Skip Holtz’s head as he assumes the reins in Ruston with a total of seven starters back from last year’s record-setting squad that tallied 51 PPG and 578 YPG en route to a 9-2 season. Unfortunately, the program turned down an Independence Bowl invite hoping for a more high-profile game, only to have their porous defense (allowed 526 YPG) fail to impress the bowl scouts elsewhere – thus, the Bulldogs remained home for the holidays. Skippy will need to rely on his playbook more than ever this season with QB Colby Cameron (4,147 pass yards) listed among the departed. Sophomore RB Kenneth Dixon (1,194 rushing yards) will be heavily counted upon to carry the load.
Stat You Will Like: Skip Holtz is 15-3 ATS as a dog versus a .500 or less opponent.
NORTH TEXAS (*8/8)
Team Theme: SMOOTH OPERATOR
Dan McCarney’s operation of weaning JUCO’s and concentrating instead on recruits showed promising signs - on the stat sheet at least - last season when the Mean Green improved its numbers on both sides of the ball despite slipping both SU & ATS. Longtime followers of this publication know what that equation means – expected improvement this season. For the first time in 60 years NTSU had three players rush for more than 500 yards in a single season and two of them are back in 2013. They join senior QB Derek Thompson to form a potent backfield. Coupled with a defense that allowed the fewest points in a season since 2006, the transition to the CUSA could be smoother than anticipated.
Stat You Will Like: North Texas’ offensive line allowed the fewest sacks in the nation last season (6).
PLAY ON: vs. Middle Tennessee State (10/12)
Team Theme: MANY HAPPY RETURNS
A five-game season-ending win skein is not all that propels the Owls into the 2013 season. For the first time in head coach David Bailiff’s seven-year tenure, the entire coaching staff returns intact. In addition, 19 returning starters dot the roster led by QB Taylor McHargue. The clincher, though, is the fact that 14 freshmen debuted last season and they combine with an FBS-best 233 returning starts from last year’s team to bring experience aplenty. That makes the wide-eyed Owls a major player in the CUSA this campaign. Think not? Then chew on this: last year’s 3-3 SU and 4-2 ATS away mark put a halt to a 1-17 SU and 5-13 ATS road mark since 2009.
Stat You Will Like: The Owls led the nation in time of possession (33:59) last season.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Louisiana Tech (11/16) - *Key off win
Team Theme: SAY A LITTLE PRAYER FOR C.J.
When C. J. Johnson brought his 25 years of coaching experience, along with some flashy hardware – namely: a Super Bowl trophy during his stint with the New Orleans Saints and a national championship ring as an assistant at Miami Florida – the hope was his glossy resume would be a good start toward recovery for a program that has wallowed 10 straight years on the south side of .500. Year two of the rebuilding project finds hope with 16 starters back, including all-CUSA WR Ryan Grant (led the conference in receiving yards last year). The wish is that JUCO transfer QB Nick Montana will assume the reins and walk on by to the north side of the barrier.The wishin’ and hopin’ continues in the Big Easy.
Stat You Will Like: PK Cairo Santos was the winner of the 2012 Lou Groza award. Santos nailed 21 of 21 field goals last season.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. North Texas (10/5)
Team Theme: STARSHIP ENTERPRISE
Replacing four-year starter G.J. Kinne proved to be no problem for Bill Blankenship’s Golden Hurricane last season when they tied a school record with 11 wins thanks to a same-season revenge win over Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl. QB Cody Green, along with his top-three wide receivers and two running backs, are back for more, giddy as all get-out after winning Tulsa’s first conference title since 2005. In fact, no other senior class has managed to top the 29 wins recorded by this group in school history. After venturing where few other Tulsa teams have gone before, Blankenship’s star-studded no-huddle spread offense will hope a gutted defense, sans the entire D-line, doesn’t let their efforts go to waste.
Stat You Will Like: Blankenship is 15-2 SU and 12-5 ATS in conference games with the Hurricane, including 4-0 SU/ATS off a loss.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Marshall (11/14)
Team Theme: GLORY DAYS
If kudos and coaching pedigree are a part of the equation when it comes to evaluating a new coach, then the Miners struck gold this off-season when they inked Sean Kugler to replace Mike Price. “There’s absolutely no question that he’s the best football coach I’ve ever been around,” beamed Boise State head coach Chris Peterson. Kugler is a former UTEP offensive lineman who spent one year with the Broncos in between eleven years as an assistant with the Bills, Lions and Steelers in the NFL. To top it off, he hired Scott Stoker as his defensive coordinator. Stoker, the 2011 FCS DC Coach Of The Year, guided Sam Houston State to consecutive FCS National Title games. Ex-Texas A&M QB Jameill Showers, who played behind Ryan Tannehill in 2011 and Johnny Manziel in 2012, will usher in the Kugler era.
Stat You Will Like: New OC Patrick Higgins, former UTEP offensive coordinator (2000-03), served as interim OC and interim head coach at Purdue last season.
Team Theme: REBORN IN THE USA
After spending their first year as an FBS member in the WAC, the Roadrunners are off to the Conference USA. This upstart program will become a full-fledged FBS program and bowl eligible in 2014. That’s good news for a program built from the ground up by former national championship head coach Larry Coker, who is 72-25 with a .742 career win percentage, as he has appeared in 18 bowl games in his collegiate career with his teams winning 14 of those contests. But first things first as the jump to a tougher neighborhood will likely dampen last year’s successful debut. Eighteen returning starters in 2013 – and 21 last year – make this a seasoned lot. Remember, though, only half of their eight wins last season were against FBS squads, and those teams finished up 8-41.
Stat You Will Like: NBC Sports personality Michelle Beadle is a Texas-San Antonio alum.
Be sure to check back here next Monday, July 8 for Marc’s 2013 Independent Football Preview!