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Conference USA Preview

   by Matt Fargo - 08/19/2009

Conference USA has seen five ten-win teams over the least three seasons and there are five teams with the potential to win double-digit games this year. Three of those come out of the West Division which is slightly stronger than its counterpart from the East. Last year it was Tulsa that won the division title with a 7-1 record which earned a trip to the C-USA Championship. Rice also had a 7-1 record but lost the tiebreaker and Houston came in third with a 6-2 mark. Rice will take a fall this season but Houston and Tulsa remain in the mix along with UTEP.

Houston Cougars 8-5 SU, 5-7 ATS, 7-5 O/U

Summary: I think the Cougars are the team to beat in the West. The schedule is not in their favor but they have the most talent out of the top three teams and that is what counts the most. Houston is going to score and score often as eight players are back from a unit that finished second in the country in total offense and 10th in scoring offense. Case Keenum is back at quarterback as are running back Bryce Beall and receiver Tyron Carrier, both 1,000-yard producers at their respective positions. The defense is the biggest question mark after finishing 100th overall last season but there should be enough improvement to carry the Cougars over the top.

Schedule: The schedule is the most difficult challenge. Houston plays at Oklahoma St. and Mississippi St. while hosting Texas Tech so the non-conference portion should give us an idea of how good this team is. The C-USA opener is at UTEP and later in the year, Houston also has to travel to Tulsa. Its two tough games from the East, against Southern Miss and Memphis, are both at home.

Bottom Line: If Houston can go into El Paso and take care of the Miners, it will have the inside track early. A loss means there is work to do so that conference opener is a big one. The Cougars gained at least 415 total yards in every game last season and went over 600 yards six times. Moving the ball will not be an issue but stopping the opposition could be. The game at Oklahoma St. will be entertaining to say the least.

Betting Forecast: Houston went 0-4 ATS as a road favorite last season and it will be in that spot a bunch this year. Tread lightly as there will be no value backing Houston.

UTEP Miners 5-7 SU, 5-7 ATS, 8-4 O/U

Summary: UTEP has had three straight losing seasons but that should change in 2009. The offense finished 31st and 25th in total offense ands scoring offense respectively last season and will be better as eight players are back led by quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, who had a monster sophomore campaign. The problem is the defense as UTEP was dreadful last season, finishing 115th in the country in total defense. They allowed fewer than 30 points only four times but with seven starters coming back, things should be better. The problem is that how much of a jump forward can it make? If the stop unit can leapfrog Houston then the Miners have a great shot at winning the division.

Schedule: The best part of the schedule is that the Miners get both Houston and Tulsa at home. There is not much good news after that however. Six of the first seven games are against teams that were in bowl games last season including a home game against Kansas and a road game at Texas. Three of the final four games are on the road including three straight. Not good for a team that is 12-35 on the road the last eight years.

Bottom Line: UTEP is right there with Houston but a weaker defense and a tougher early season schedule make it tough to take the Miners in the top spot of the West. The big game is the conference opener at home against the Cougars and a loss there could mean an early end to the division quest. The Miners will go bowling nonetheless and they will be out to win their first bowl game since 1967.

Betting Forecast: The Miners are 6-2 ATS at home underdog under head coach Mike Price. They will likely be dogs against Kansas in Week Two and should be a take.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane 11-3 SU, 8-5 ATS, 6-5-2 O/U

Summary: Tulsa has been on a great run with four straight winning seasons and it has gone 50-29 since going 2-21 combined in 2001 and 2002. The winning will continue in 2009 but vying for the division will get tougher. The Golden Hurricane were the top ranked offense in the country last season, averaging a staggering 569.9 ypg. The issue now is finding a replacement for record setting quarterback David Johnson, 1,523-yard rusher Tarrion Adams and 1,112-yard receiver Brennan Marion. There is talent in the likely replacements but keeping up with Houston and UTEP will be a challenge. The defense needs to make huge strides to offset the offensive backstep.

Schedule: Tulsa opens the season with three straight road games including the conference opener in Week One at Tulane. Non-conference games include a game at state rival Oklahoma as well as a home game against Boise St. The Golden Hurricane do get Houston at home but they must travel to UTEP and Southern Miss. The final four games are all against teams likely to be in their respective division races.

Bottom Line: With a 21-7 record and two bowl wins the last two seasons, expectations will be high once again for head coach Todd Graham who wins wherever he goes. It will be tough to get to that double-digit win mark this season but it cannot be counted out. Winning on the road will be a must especially early on with four of the first five games being away from home.

Betting Forecast: Tulsa went 5-1 ATS as a home favorite last season and the public will likely follow that trend again this year. It will not be as easy in 2009.

SMU Mustangs 1-11 SU, 3-6-2 ATS, 4-7 O/U

Summary: Expectations were pretty high at SMU last season when June Jones took over as head football coach. Those expectations were shattered as the Mustangs went 1-11 for a second straight season. Now with the Jones system heading into its second season, things should get better. The complex offense sputtered at times last year but with eight players back on that unit, we should see major improvements. SMU lost four games by a touchdown or less last season so it was definitely competitive at times. It finished 113th in the nation in turnover margin and even a slight improvement of that means more games in the win column.

Schedule: Even though the Mustangs first two FBS games are on the road, don’t be surprised to see them 3-0 heading into TCU. Stephen F. Austin starts the season followed by very winnable games at UAB and Washington St. Playing Houston and Tulsa on the road in consecutive weeks to end October is not good but the Mustangs close the season with three home contests in their final four games.

Bottom Line: SMU was making progress with head coach Phil Bennett as it increased its win totals for three straight years before the dreaded 1-11 2007 season. Jones brought in a new attitude, new systems and a better recruiting background. Six wins and a bowl game for the first time since 1984 are not out of the question although the real turnaround likely begins next season.

Betting Forecast: Since Bennett took over, SMU is 34-45-1 ATS and has had five of seven losing ATS seasons. SMU could turn into one of the best cover teams this year.

Tulane Green Wave 2-10 SU, 5-7 ATS, 4-8 O/U

Summary: Tulane last had a winning season in 2002 when it went 8-5 and earned a trip to the Hawaii Bowl. Another winning season is unlikely but it is out there for the taking if the Green Wave remain healthy. They lost an amazing 17 players to season-ending injuries last year and a great start turned into a season that ended with eight straight losses. Any improvement starts with the offense that averaged a mere 16.7 ppg last year and scored more than 24 points only once. That obviously needs to get better because the defense is not good enough to carry the load, especially in this conference. This team is very young still with only 15 seniors on the 44-man two-deep chart and that could give head coach Bob Toledo one more year to work with.

Schedule: The schedule is almost unfair to the Green Wave and not because of the difficulty. Five of their first six games are at home and then five of their final six games are on the road and that means travel in every one of those finals weeks. The goods news is that Tulane gets Houston, UTEP and Tulsa all at home so an upset is there for the taking. BYU and LSU are part of the non-conference slate.

Bottom Line: Toledo should be given a mulligan for last season and the 2-10 record that Tulane registered. Injuries played a key role in that and it is difficult for any team to find any chemistry when there is so much turnover taking place. The schedule setup does it no favors this season even though the final three games on the season, all on the road, are winnable games.

Betting Forecast: Tulane is 8-23-1 ATS within the conference over the last four years. The spread record will be better this season since expectations are so low.

Rice Owls 10-3 SU, 9-4 ATS, 9-4 O/U

Summary: It looks like a first to worst season for the Owls. Although they did not win the West Division last season, they tied Tulsa for first with a 7-1 record but lost the tiebreaker due to getting thumped by the Golden Hurricane. Gone is one of the most prolific quarterback/wide receiver connections college football has ever seen as Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard have moved on. Because the entire offense is going to take a step back, the defense will need to pick up some of the slack and that may be an issue. Rice finished 111th in total defense last season and while that unit was young, it is still rather green and inexperienced. Last year was not an aberration but more of what’s to come for this program. It just won’t happen this season.

Schedule: Rice begins the season with three straight road games starting with the conference opener at UAB followed by games at Texas Tech and Oklahoma St. It then comes back home for three in a row but all are tough as it faces Vanderbilt, Tulsa and Navy. The remainder of the schedule is tough as well as it gets UTEP at home but catches East Carolina and Houston on the road.

Bottom Line: Expectations were not very high last season and Rice was the surprise of C-USA and one of the biggest surprises in the entire country. The Owls won their first bowl game in 54 years and with that comes hope. However, it also comes with higher expectations but everyone realizes the talent that was lost was no regular talent. It will take Rice a year to recover.

Betting Forecast: Rice is 7-1 ATS as a home underdog over the last three years and it will see that role a lot this year. I do not expect similar results in 2009 however.

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