NCAAF conference preview: C-USA team-by-team breakdown
The new four-team playoffs is now the talk of college football, and it appears the evolution of the proposed 16-team league ‘Super Conferences’ is more up in the air than ever before.
One thing is certain: the BCS remains intact through the 2013 season and, like it or not, it’s their world and they still rule. A misnomer commonly associated inside the bizarre-world of the BCS is that only six major conferences carry the handle of being a ‘BCS conference’.
Actually there are 11 BCS conferences in all, six who qualify with automatic berths (AQ) into BCS bowl games for their conference champions, and five who do not (non-AQ). The current Conference USA being among the latter.
Despite its non-AQ status, the C-USA has more than held its own of late with 10 different teams from the conference participating in 40 bowl games over the last seven years. And they’ve held their own in these post-season affairs, going 18-22 SU and 19-20-1 ATS. Interestingly, in that span against .666 or greater bowl opponents the C-USA is 13-8 SU and 15-6 ATS, while just 5-14 SU and 4-14-1 ATS versus sub .666 foes.
Houston’s 13 wins tied LSU for most in FBS last season while the C-USA posted a sterling 4-1 bowl record in the 2011 campaign.
The C-USA will lose Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF to the Big East next season. Meanwhile the C-USA imports Charlotte, FIU, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio in 2013 – although it’s unclear at this point which teams will be football member of the new-look C-USA.
If talk like this isn’t dizzying enough, the loop welcomes five new head coaches in 2012 while breaking in six new starting quarterbacks as well.
Stepping outside the conference, members will take on 15 foes that finished in the Top 25 last season, including 18 games against foes from the Big Ten, the Big12 and the SEC. In head-to-head games against these three super conferences, the C-USA stands 45-187 SU and 97-124-5 ATS since it formed the conference, including a super-scary 2-110 SU and 33-77-2 ATS in games in which its teams fail to score 17 points.
Scarier, perhaps, is the fact many of the teams hanging on in this conference are uncertain which neighborhood league they will be calling home by the time the new NCAA Championship playoff format debuts in 2014.
Talk about sacrificial lambs.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2012 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine by the same author. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
EAST CAROLINA – (7/7)
Team Theme: OVER THE TOP
The Pirates witnessed an abundance of players (25) making their first-ever collegiate start last season, one more than the previous year. This forced-maturity, coupled with a roster featuring over 50 percent upper classmen, makes for exciting times in Greenville.
The loss of QB Dominique Davis hurts but the return of WR Justin Hardy, the Pirates leading reception and yardage receiver in 2011, along with four starting offensive linemen, should aid an attack that slipped substantially in 2011.
More importantly, a defense that was last in the loop in 2010 improved by 102.5 YPG after switching to a 3-4 formation and returns 70 percent of its production in 2012.
Stat You Will Like: The Pirates have appeared in seven bowl games since 2000, including five the last six years.
PLAY ON: vs. Marshall (11/23)
MARSHALL – (*8/5)
Team Theme: IN THE HERD
The Herd benefited last year from having played 28 freshmen in 2010 as they made it to – and won – a bowl game in Doc Holliday’s second season in Huntington. They did it while facing the nation’s second strongest slate of non-BCS opposition, while squaring off against three ranked foes for the first time ever in one season.
Unfortunately, they ride a 0-13 SU streak against ranked opposition heading into this season. The good doctor, however, will once again have QB Rakeem Cato as well as a defense that ranked in the Top 20 in tackles for loss, fumble recoveries, fourth-down and red-zone efficiency at his disposal.
Stat You Will Like: Marshall is 8-0 SU at home and 0-8 SU away versus teams hailing from the state of Texas.
PLAY AGAINST: at Rice (9/22)
MEMPHIS – (*9/8)
Team Theme: ALL SHOOK UP
After winning five games the last three years, the Memphis brass decided it was time to turn a Frog into a Tiger. New HC Justin Fuente arrives from TCU where he served as QB coach and co-offensive coordinator. In his three years at Fort Worth, the Frogs set single-season records for TDs, points scored and first downs.
“Our players have to become more comfortable with how we do things… because it’s going to be different from anything they have done before,” contends Fuente.
Fortunately, what won’t be much different is an offensive line that returns four starters. However, the rest of the unit just may get a Memphis makeover.
Stat You Will Like: No wide receiver caught more than one touchdown for the Tigers last season.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. UAB (11/17)
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI - (6/4)
Team Theme: AND THE BEAT GOES ON
When the Golden Eagles defeated Nevada in last year’s Hawaii Bowl, it marked the first time in school history a Southern Miss team had won 12 games in the same season. It also marked the end of a terrific four-year run by HC Larry Fedora, who takes his entire staff to Chapel Hill.
Fear not, Eagles enthusiasts. New boss Ellis Johnson, the defensive coordinator at South Carolina the past four seasons, hits Hattiesburg with some strong pedigree himself, as former college head coaches Rickey Bustle and Tommy West head the offensive and defensive units, respectively.
Stat You Will Like: The Eagles have enjoyed a winning season each of the last 18 years. Only Florida, Florida State and Virginia Tech have more.
PLAY ON: vs. Marshall (10/20)
UAB – (*7/4)
Team Theme: BLAZING COLD
One of five new head coaches this season in C-USA – and only the fourth in UAB history – former Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee looks to halt a seven-year losing skid in Birmingham.
QB Jonathan Perry is back after getting the starting nod midway through last season and leading the Blazers to their only three wins in 2011, but he’ll have to operate behind an offensive line that loses four starters. A more inspired effort will be needed from a stop-unit that was torched for more than 500 yards on seven different occasions but it probably won’t be enough as four of UAB’s six road games are against bowlers.
We don’t see a quick cure for this seven-year itch.
Stat You Will Like: The Blazers’ defense ranked dead last in the nation in sacks (8) last season.
PLAY AGAINST: at Southern Mississippi (11/3)
UCF – (6/8)
Team Theme: STORM’S A BREWING
Last year we lauded the talents of QB Jeffrey Godfrey and he promptly proceeded to lay an egg on our face (and his) when the pressure to perform on the field and in the classroom proved too much for the talented signal-caller to handle. After threatening to transfer, Godfrey agreed to rejoin the team as a receiver and part-time QB in UCF’s version of a Wildcat package.
Bigger news is the addition of Miami (Fla.) transfer Storm Johnson, a RB who made a huge impression in spring camp. QB Blake Borties is back after beating out Godfrey and topping C-USA in passing efficiency. Don’t be (O)Leary – the Knights have enough weapons to return to the roundtable.
Stat You Will Like: The Knights tied Miami Florida for most losses (6) by eight or fewer points last season.
PLAY ON: vs. UAB (11/24)
HOUSTON – (5/6)
Team Theme: CASE CLOSED
After the final dust settled in last year’s bowl games, C-USA finished with the best percentage of all conferences, posting a 4-1 mark. New HC Tony Levine did his part as he guided the Cougars to a win over Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl when Kevin Sumlin jumped ship knowing NCAA career passing yards leader Case Keenum’s eligibility was about to run out.
Sumlin did lead the Coogs to an unbeaten regular season but that was due to an incredibly soft schedule that featured only one foe with a winning record from the previous year. It looks like Levine may go ‘ground’ in 2012 as All C-USA RB Charles Sims (1,396 combined yards, 7.5 YPR) returns for his junior year.
Stat You Will Like: The Cougars are 1-19 SU and 3-17 ATS as dogs off back-to-back conference losses.
PLAY AGAINST: at UCLA (9/15)
RICE – (*5/5)
Team Theme: NO SNAP, CRACKLE OR POP
It seems like eons ago, but it has actually been only four years since the Owls recorded a 10-win season. They’ve gone 10-26 since, with one glaring common denominator over that span: a rotten defense. Sixth-year boss David Bailiff realizes his fanny is getting warm so he’ll need to improve on the Owls’ 467.5 YPG annual-yield since he’s been on the Rice sidelines.
Bailiff will count heavily on CB Bryce Callahan, whose six interceptions is tops among C-USA returnees. The keys to the offense will be given to QB Taylor McHargue but things won’t change until the Owls wake up on the road and improve on a 1-17 SU and 5-13 ATS mark since 2009.
Stat You Will Like: Under Bailiff, the Owls are 2-15 ATS versus opponents off back-to-back wins, including 0-11 ATS away.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. SMU (11/17) - *KEY off win
Team Theme: TOUGH TO FACE
On the heels of seven-plus wins over the last three years for the first time since 1982-1984, the Mustangs made their biggest score when HC June Jones stayed put in Dallas rather than jump ship for Arizona State. QB J.J. McDermott has graduated and Kyle Padron has transferred, opening the door for former Texas starter Garrett Gilbert.
RB Zach Line returns off a pair of 1,000-yard rushing efforts, as does star WR Darius Johnson – the MVP in each of the Ponies’ last two bowl games. However, if an offensive line is truly the ‘face of the team’, then SMU is faceless as the trenches must be rebuilt.
One ray of light is a defense that has improved each and every year under Jones.
Stat You Will Like: June Jones is 5-0 ATS as a dog of fewer than 20 points versus undefeated opposition.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Texas A&M (9/15) - *KEY if A&M is undefeated
TULANE – (*7/7)
Team Theme: C.J. TO THE RESCUE
After nine straight losing seasons, including the last five in a row under Bob Toledo, the Green Wave placed a 911 call to New Orleans native Curtis ‘C.J.’ Johnson and he responded. Johnson brings 25 years of coaching experience, along with some pretty nice hardware: a Super Bowl trophy during his stint with the Saints and a national championship ring as an assistant at Miami.
And though a glossy resume won’t win games, it’s a good start towards recovery. So, too, is the return of senior QB Ryan Griffin, who has started 30 games the last three seasons, and RB Orleans Darkwa, who has rushed for 1,849 yards in 17 career starts.
Stat You Will Like: Five of the Green Wave’s final six games are versus foes that finished the 2011 season with a losing record.
PLAY ON: at Memphis (11/10)
TULSA – (6/7)
Team Theme: CATEGORY 8
The eight wins registered by Bill Blankenship in his first year at the Tulsa helm was really no surprise considering the Hurricane has logged eight or more wins in six of the last seven seasons since exiting the WAC in 2005.
Blankenship’s biggest challenge in 2012 will be replacing all-conference QB G.J. Kinne and the entire left side of an OL that has started 83 games over the past four seasons. Hulking Nebraska transfer Cody Green won the starting QB job in spring camp and he’ll be joined by a pair of backs who each rushed for more than 800 yards in 2011 and a set of receivers who each reeled in more than 850 yards.
With an easier slate, is eight enough in 2012?
Stat You Will Like: Tulsa faced the toughest strength of schedule of all non-BCS teams last year.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at Iowa State (9/1)
UTEP – (*7/4)
Team Theme: THE PRICE IS NOT RIGHT
Six in a row… and counting. That’s how many consecutive losing seasons the Miners have encountered under Mike Price after he was inked to a contract extension in 2005 following back-to-back bowl appearances. What seems like eons ago actually is if you apply a dose of daily math to the numbers – meaning it’s been 2,190 days since UTEP last struck bowl gold.
The good news is the top three tacklers are back from last year’s defense. The bad news: all three starting LBs depart meaning the secondary will be busier than usual. With Price’s contract up at the end of the year, can you say, “Come on down… you’re the next coach in the unemployment line.”
Stat You Will Like: Price is 43-83 SU and 41-82 ATS from Game Seven out in his career.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Tulane (10/20)