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Conference USA Football Preview

   by Ben Burns - 07/22/2010

A conference on the fall

Houston is the consensus favorite in Conference USA.
That should tell you where CUSA sits on the nation’s totem pole, somewhere just above the WAC.
Yes, Houston has its hot-shot Heisman candidate quarterback in Case Keenum. But in case you forgot, he’s the same hot-shot that tossed nine picks in the final two games last season. Both were losses by the way, including getting blown out by Air Force in Armed Forces Bowl. Air Force’s vaunted defense intercepted Keenum six times en route to 37-20 rout.
For giggles, let’s give Keenum a pass and try to believe that he’ll use his awful finish to last season as motivation for this year. We’ll even give the nod to the Cougars as the conference’s best team. But then who? And, besides Keenum, how many big-name stars can name out of CUSA?
Southern Miss wide receiver DeAndre Brown’s a nice player, so is UTEP’s senior quarterback-running back combination of Trevor Vittatoe and Donald Buckram. But, overall, CUSA’s talent level seems to have dropped.
Will the questionable talent be evident when it’s time to step out of conference? CUSA teams went 4-24 against BCS competition last season, but were 17-9 against non-BCS opponents. The most impressive of those non-BCS wins may have been SMU’s 45-10 drubbing of a red-hot Nevada team in the Hawai’i Bowl. The Mustangs were 12.5-point underdogs.
While June Jones has SMU on the rise, there are bunch of programs on the decline and a few that are having trouble finding their way out of rock bottom.
Two-time defending conference champion East Carolina must replace a ton of talent, including a proven coach in Skip Holtz with an unproven one in Ruffin McNeill. Marshall and Memphis also made coaching changes.
UAB stuck with Neil Callaway, despite his three-year 11-25 record. Tulane resided to keep Bob Toledo and his 9-27 mark for a fourth year. There have been exactly 0 signs of either of those programs turning things around.
Some pundits are touting Tulsa, UTEP, Central Florida and even Rice as possible contenders. Again, when a program like Rice is believed to have enough talent to compete for a conference title, it really puts into perspective the league’s overall strength.
To summarize, CUSA is poised to take a step backwards this season. Handicappers who correctly gauge just how far the league’s teams will fall stand to make a profit.
Conference USA Odds & Ends
(ATS records from last three years)
Houston Cougars
ATS: 17-20 (Home: 8-5. Away: 7-12)
Thing to remember: Under coach Kevin Sumlin, the Cougs are starting to build a significant home-field advantage at Robertson Stadium. Houston is 7-1 ATS at home in Sumlin’s two seasons.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
ATS: 17-20-1 (Home: 9-8. Away: 6-12-1)
Thing to remember: In coach Todd Graham’s first two seasons, the Golden Hurricane was ultra-explosive. Tulsa averaged 47 points per game in 2009. But last year, trying to work in a new quarterback, the Golden Hurricane scored just under 30 a game.
Now, with a year under his belt, quarterback GJ Kinne, a Texas transfer, leads a versatile offense loaded with playmakers like wide out Damaris Johnson, who led the nation in total yardage last year.
UTEP Miners
ATS: 17-18 (Home: 8-9. Away: 8-9)
Thing to remember: Senior quarterback Trevor Vittatoe has an offensive line made up of five seniors. The Miners have averaged 31.8 points per game in Mike Price’s six seasons. But the defense has surrendered 34.7 in the last four seasons.
Rice Owls
ATS: 18-17-1 (Home: 9-8-1. Away: 8-10)
Thing to remember: A conference-high 18 starters, nine on each side, return for the Owls.
SMU Mustangs
ATS: 15-19-1 (Home: 4-11. Away: 10-7-1)
Thing to remember: June Jones really got things turned around in his third season at Hawaii. With time to adjust to Jones’ system, the Warriors went 9-3 straight up and 7-4 against the spread in his third year. Now, at SMU, Jones enters his third season with 15 returning starters, including his quarterback and four offensive linemen.
Tulane Green Wave
ATS: 13-21 (Home: 5-12. Away: 8-9)
Thing to remember: The Green Wave hasn’t posted a winning ATS record in six years. With only four returning starters on defense and an offense severely lacking playmakers, breaking that streak will be difficult for coach Bob Toledo.
Central Florida Knights
ATS: 22-14-1 (Home: 11-6-1. Away: 11-6)
Thing to remember: Since joining Conference USA in 2005, coach George O’Leary’s program has been a cash cow for bettors. The Knights are 26-15-1 ATS in conference play the past five seasons, including a stellar 7-1 ATS mark last year.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
ATS: 20-17 (Home: 7-9. Away: 11-7)
Thing to remember: The Eagles have averaged over 30 points per game in coach Larry Fedora’s two years. But this year, they return only three starters on offense. Only one starter returns on an offensive line that has by far the least amount of career starts in the conference at 26, according to Phil Steele.
UAB Blazers
ATS: 16-17-1 (Home: 7-5-1. Away: 9-12)
Thing to remember: UAB has had trouble competing with teams from BCS conferences in coach Neil Callaway’s three seasons. The Blazers are 0-7 against BCS conference teams under Calloway, losing by an average margin of 21 points in those contests.
Marshall Thundering Herd
ATS: 15-13-1 (Home: 6-8-1. Away: 8-10)
Thing to remember: The Herd’s top cornerback DeQuan Bembry was dismissed from the team after a July arrest, leaving new coach Doc Holliday with just four viable options at corner on the roster.
East Carolina Pirates
ATS: 20-19-1 (Home: 9-7-1. Away: 8-11)
Thing to remember: New coach Ruffin McNeill inherits a team with a conference-low eight returning starters, including just two on defense. McNeill, a former assistant under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, spent the offseason installing his version of Leach’s “Air Raid” offense. Walk-on Brad Wornick appears to be the favorite to start at quarterback, but Boston College-transfer Dominique Davis also will get a look.
Memphis Tigers
ATS: 13-20-1 (Home: 7-8. Away: 6-7-1)
Thing to remember: First-year coach Larry Porter has stressed that his defense will be the strength of his team. Filtering the coach speak out of that, it really means the offense could struggle mightily. During the offseason, he often talked in future tense when addressing the offense, stuff like “eventually our fans will be excited about our offense.” Eventually?

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