The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 17, 2011

2011 Conference USA Preview

Filed under: College Football — Tags: , , , , , , , , — piratings @ 10:40 am

2011 Conference USA Preview

 

The Mountain West and Western Athletic Conferences have placed teams in BCS bowls and had teams ranked in the top three.  Conference USA has not been able to break through, but at least their champion finally won a bowl game over an SEC team, when Central Florida beat Georgia last year.

 

2011 should be an interesting year in CUSA, especially in the West Division.  Three teams should contend for the division flag.  In the East Division, we see two teams contending.  Two teams have a chance to run the table thanks to avoiding any powerhouse non-conference opponents.

 

East

Southern Mississippi has consistently fielded good but not great teams in the 21st Century, but the Golden Eagles have not won the conference title since 1999.  Fourth year coach Larry Fedora has his best team yet, and 2011 could find USM playing in the CUSA Championship Game for just the second time.

 

Austin Davis returns at quarterback, and the senior should become the all-time leading passer in Hattiesburg as early as the opening game of the season.  Davis completed 63% of his passes for 3,100+ yards and a terrific 20/6 TD/Int ratio last year.  Davis rushed for 452 and 10 big scores to give him a total of 30 accounted for.

 

Davis’s top pass catcher, Kelvin Bolden, returns to the fold this season after grabbing 46 passes for 722 yards and six scores.  Quentin Pierce should top 50 receptions after finishing with 38 in an injury-plagued season.

 

The Golden Eagles have a two-headed monster at running back.  Starter Kendrick Hardy and key backup Desmond Johnson combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010.

 

The offensive line returns three starters, none of whom are big stars.  USM surrendered just 17 sacks last year, but a lot of that had to do with Davis’s mobility. 

 

The Golden Eagles scored 37 points per game last year, and there is no reason to think they cannot approach or top 40 points per game this season.

 

Southern Miss lost five games in 2010 because their defense could not match their offense’s production.  The Golden Eagles gave up 30 points per game.  The run defense was not all that bad; in fact, it was quite good, giving up just 113 rushing yards per game.  Five of the front six starters return this year, including linebacker Korey Williams, who recorded 14 ½ stops behind the line last year.  End Cordarro Law led USM with six sacks, and he added four QB hurries.

 

The secondary has room for improvement after giving up 243 yards through the air last year.  Three of last year’s five starters will not be around this year, so this unit could even take a minor step backwards.

 

The Golden Eagles have a big weapon in placekicker Danny Hrapmann.  Hrapmann was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after connecting on all 55 of his extra point attempts and 26 of 31 field goal attempts with a long of 54 yards.

 

While this team may be no more talented than any of the previous 10 Golden Eagle squads, the schedule could not be any more beneficial.  The toughest non-conference game is at Virginia, and the toughest two conference games are at home.  If USM can win at Virginia and at Navy, they have a chance to run the table in the regular season.

 

Trivia question: Who is the only team to make it to a bowl game after giving up 44 points and more than 475 total yards per game?  Do you think this is a trick question and that no team has ever done that?  Think again.  East Carolina gave up those numbers and still went to the Military Bowl in 2010. 

 

The Pirates won because they outscored opponents last year.  They beat Tulsa 51-49; Southern Miss 44-43; and UAB 54-42.  They also lost to Navy 76-35 and Maryland 51-20.

 

In the second year of the Air Raid offense, look for ECU’s already scary offensive numbers to get even scarier.  Quarterback Dominique Davis just missed the 4,000-yard passing mark, and he tossed 37 touchdown passes last year.  He will certainly miss Dwayne Harris and his 101 receptions from last year, but he welcomes the return of Lance Lewis, who caught 89 passes for 1,116 yards and 14 touchdowns (tied for the lead in the conference).

 

The running game loses its top two rushers from last season, but welcomes junior college transfer Reggie Bullock and freshman Alex Owah.  The success of the running game has more to do with forcing defenses into using five and even six defensive backs.

 

The offensive line is a bit of a concern with the loss of three starters, including two that made All-CUSA teams last year.  Look for the number of sacks to go up from last year’s ultra-low of 15 out of 647 possibilities.

 

ECU will score a ton of points this season, but the offense may not be as consistent as 2010.  We believe the Pirates can be as successful as last season thanks to a big improvement on the other side of the ball.

 

Where is there to go but up for this defense?  ECU gave up 227 rushing and 252 passing yards per game.  That put them in a two-team league with New Mexico!

 

The Pirates will use a 3-4 defense this season.  Coach Ruffin McNeill will blitz his linebackers much more this season in an attempt to put more pressure on the quarterbacks.  The Pirates only recorded 15 sacks and very few hurries. 

 

Up front, the new three-man line is stocked with veterans, but nose guard Michael Brooks is a bit undersized for a 3-4 scheme.  ECU may be vulnerable to runs between the tackles and quick traps.

 

The secondary will be the strength of the defense. Emanuel Davis and Derek Blacknall are decent cover corners, while Bradley Jacobs plugs the deep half as good as any safety in the league.  Davis will miss the first game against South Carolina due to a suspension for public drunkenness and resisting arrest (Wide receiver Michael Bowman also was suspended).

 

ECU’s schedule is difficult, and the Pirates will have a difficult time improving upon last year’s 6-6 regular season record.  After a probable 0-2 start, the home game with UAB on September 24 will be a must-win game.  After that game, there are only three cupcakes on the schedule.

 

Central Florida won the conference championship and then upset Georgia in the Liberty Bowl to finish 11-3 last year.  Coach George O’Leary can put that on his resume.  He may not want to include this season’s results though, because his excellent defense was decimated by graduation.  Gone are seven starters and several key reserves from a team that gave up just 17 points and 315 yards per game.  To make matters worse, defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable replaced Dave Doeren as Wisconsin’s DC.

 

All is not lost on the defensive side of the ball.  The secondary should be fine with cornerback Josh Robinson being one of the four returning starters.  Robinson was a 1st team all-conference player last year after intercepting a couple of passes and batting away a baker’s dozen passes.  Free safety Kemal Ishmael led the Knights in tackles.

 

At linebacker, Josh Linam is strong against the run and the pass, but the two teammates lining up with him in the second line of defense are raw and inexperienced.  Up front, only one starter returns, and that is tackle Victor Gray.  However, Darius Nall returns after serving as the designated pass rusher.  Coming in on passing situations, Nall led the team with 8 ½ sacks and another 14 QB hurries.  Look for Nall and end Troy Davis to team for 15-20 sacks this year.

 

The UCF offense gained less than 375 yards per game but still topped 32 points per game, thanks to a great field position advantage given to it by the defense.  Expect the offensive production to suffer some this year due to the weaker defense.

 

Quarterback Jeff Godfrey will not be confused for Case Keenum, but the sophomore signal caller should top 2,500 yards through the air this year and make few mistakes.  He also can run the ball, as his  nearly 700 rushing yards (factoring out sacks) proves.  Godfrey will have an entirely new set of receivers after the top three from last year are gone.  With the return of all the key running backs, UCF will run to set up the pass.  With running backs Latavius Murray and Ronnie Weaver, the Knights have three players (Godfrey included) capable of topping 100 rushing yards in a game.

 

The offensive line lost its top blocker in tackle Jah Reid, but with three starters back, it should be in decent shape.

 

UCF has a tougher schedule than Southern Miss, and that could prevent the Knights from challenging for the division title.

 

U A B was so close last year.  What turned out to be a 4-8 season could have been 8-4, but the Blazers lost a lot of close games.  They came up short four times, losing to Florida Atlantic by a point, Tennessee by a field goal in double overtime, Mississippi State by five, and Rice by five.

 

This could be the year the Blazers break through and challenge for a bowl bid, but the schedule maker did the team no favors with three tough non-conference games.

 

Quarterback Bryan Ellis almost made UAB fans forget Joe Webb last year.  Ellis threw 25 touchdown passes while completing 56+% of his passes for 2,940 yards.  He was not the runner Webb was.

 

Two of Ellis’s favorite receiver targets return this season.  Patrick Hearn finished second on the team with 536 receiving yards and four touchdowns, while Jackie Williams caught 30 balls.  Running back Pat Shed is a great dual threat.  Aside from his 847 rushing yards, he came out of the backfield to grab a team-leading 47 catches.

 

The offensive line will be the strength of the offense this season.  Four starters return from last year, and all of them should contend for all-league honors.  The fifth offensive linemen has seen considerable action and has started in the past, so this unit will be top notch.

 

UAB averaged better than 26 points per game and almost 425 yards per game, but the Blazers could have averaged more than 30 if they had been able to hang onto the ball better.  We think they will this year and will average at least 28 points per game.

 

As good as the offense should be, the defense should improve even more.  The front four needs to be rebuilt, but the back seven are experienced, talented, and deep. 

 

In the trenches, tackle Elliott Henigan is the leader of the unit.  Henigan led UAB with 15 ½ total tackles for loss.  At 6-4, he was able to get his hands up and knock away five passes last year.

 

Marvin Burdette could become a 1st team All-CUSA player this year.  He led the Blazers with 114 tackles with three sacks.  In the secondary, safety Jamie Bender will try to earn a second 1st team All-CUSA award.

 

This is not a great defense, but it will be better than last year and surrender less than 30 points per game for the first time in five years.  UAB has a chance to get to six wins, but it will not be easy with out-of-conference games at Florida and Troy as well as a home game with Mississippi State.

 

Marshall is another team that narrowly missed bowl eligibility in 2010.  The Thundering Herd came up one win short for first year coach Doc Holliday.  An overtime loss to in-state rival West Virginia was the difference.

 

2011 does not look like the year Marshall will return to greatness.  Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich are not eligible.  Instead, a true freshman could end up starting at quarterback.  Rakeem Cato will battle sophomore A. J. Graham for the starting nod.  Whoever starts will have one of the best receivers in the league running underneath those passes.  Aaron Dobson is as quick as a hiccup, and he can take a five yard slant pass and turn it into a 75-yard touchdown.  Dobson averaged almost 16 yards per reception last year.  Look for Troy Evans to contribute more this year.

 

Marshall could not run the ball last year, finishing with less than 100 yards in eight games.  Another true freshman, Travon Van, could step in and start from day one.  Martin Ward and Essray Taliafero are sure to see playing time at back as well.

 

The offensive line will need to be rebuilt after three starters departed.  Two of the returnees, tackle Ryan Tillman and guard C. J. Wood could contend for all-conference accolades.

 

Marshall averaged less than 21 points per game and only 314 yards per game, and it could be hard to improve on those numbers with a tough non-conference slate of opponents (West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Louisville, and Ohio).

 

Defensively, the Herd is in better shape.  It all starts up front, where Marshall has the best defensive end in the league.  Vinny Curry introduced his body to enemy quarterbacks a dozen times last year, while forcing them to hurry throws another 16 times.  He added six other tackles behind the line.  Curry should be an early draft choice in the 2012 NFL draft.

 

Three experienced veterans will line up at linebacker.  Kellen Harris, Tyson Gale, and Devin Arrington will not appear on the all-conference 1st team, but the trio is more than capable.

 

Things are not so optimistic in the secondary.  What was going to be a major asset has turned into a minor liability due to a situation at the safety positions.  2010 starter Donald Brown was dismissed and then projected starter D. J. Hunter suffered a knee injury and may not be ready to plug the strong safety position.  When Marshall conducted its first scrimmage, former wide receiver Raheem Waiters was running with the first team.  Five other safeties are ailing, and it is unsure who will start at the free safety position against West Virginia on September 4.

 

Too many freshmen and sophomores having to play do not bode well for the Thundering Herd.  This team will be exciting to watch, but they will experience growing pains.  Holliday’s recruiting efforts will begin to pay off, but not this season.  Marshall may take a small step backwards in 2011 before challenging for a bowl berth next year.

 

Memphis has fallen on hard times.  The Tigers finished 2-10 in 2009 and 1-11 last year.  Prospects are not bright for 2011, and second year coach Larry Porter could very well see his career record move to 2-22.

 

The offense never got in a groove at any point last year.  The Tigers averaged just 14 points and 285 yards per game.  The offensive line could not protect inexperienced quarterbacks that could not read defenses fast enough.  None of the backs reminded anybody of DeAngelo Williams.  To make matters worse, the one of the two real stars on last year’s offense, wideout Jermaine McKenzie, has used up his eligibility.

 

At least the other big play receiver returns, and that is where Memphis will try to revive its offense.  Marcus Rucker will see a lot of double teams this year after catching 41 passes and averaging 17.2 yards and scoring eight times (Memphis only scored 19 touchdowns).  Former Alabama wideout Keiwone Malone is trying to gain immediate elibility due to family health issues, but the NCAA will probably not rule before the end of August.  If he is eligible, the receiving corps could become an asset.

 

Quarterback was a major problem last year, as it has been for several years.  Memphis seems to have a jinx here with frequent injuries at this spot.  Andy Summerlin, a juco transfer appears to have the edge over former Wake Forest QB Skylar Jones and true freshman Taylor Reed, but if fate holds out, all three may have to see the field this year.  None of the trio is going to star, because the offensive line will still be a major liability. 

 

Jerrell Rhodes could be a diamond in the rough at running back.  He rushed for 469 yards last year, and he could be ready to break out and have a big year.  But, he will need help, and the holes just may not open for him. 

 

Only one starting lineman returns this season, but at least he was the best of the quintet last year.  The Tigers will rebuild around tackle Ronald Leary.

 

The defense was equally to blame for Memphis’s 1-11 record.  Opponents scored 40 points per game and gained 461 yards per game.  Six starters return, but eight reserves that saw considerable playing time return as well.

 

The defensive line could develop into something memorable.  Tackles Frank Trotter and Dontari Poe could be the best tandem at this position.  They teamed for 23 total tackles for loss last year.

 

Troubles begin once you get past the front four.  Memphis will have trouble stopping the excellent bevy of CUSA quarterbacks this year.  Last year. the Tigers gave up 289 passing yards per game and allowed enemy passers to complete better than 65% of their passes.  To make matters worse, the best pass defender has used up his eligibility, and the second best transferred after Spring practice.

 

The schedule gives Memphis a chance to win at least one game.  A September home game against FCS school Austin Peay should be a nice win.  Memphis does not play UTEP from the West, and we do not see the Tigers winning in league play this year.

 

West

Tulsa might have been our choice to break through and become the first CUSA team to make it to a BCS bowl game this year, but two factors prevented us from going out on that limb.  First, former coach Todd Graham left for Pittsburgh, leaving a rookie, Bill Blankenship, as the new coach.  More importantly, the Golden Hurricane open the season at Oklahoma and then host Oklahoma State two weeks later.  They then make a trip to the field of blue to play Boise State; no CUSA team will play in a BCS Bowl with a 10-3 record, even if the three losses are to top 10 teams.

 

Tulsa returns 10 starters from the fifth best offense in the nation.  TU averaged 41 points and more than 500 yards per game last year, and there is no reason to expect much drop-off this year.  It all starts at quarterback in the spread formation, and G. J. Kinne is a magician.  The former Texas QB passed for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2010, and he led the team with 561 rushing yards (more than 750 when factoring out sacks). 

 

As good as Kinne is, his offensive line is the real strength of this team.  All five of these prized possessions return for an encore, and three could earn 1st Team All-CUSA honors.  Center Trent Dupy, guard Clint Anderson, and Tackle Tyler Homes will all be watched by NFL scouts this year.

 

It is rare when a wide receiver becomes a team’s big play man in the running game, but Damaris Johnson was that man.  He averaged more than 10 yards per rush and ran the ball 55 more than four times per game.  When he wasn’t sprinting wide with the ball, he found time to lead the team with 57 pass receptions good for 872 yards.  In his spare time, he returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.  We haven’t heard yet whether he sells programs before the games or marches in the band at halftime.

 

Willie Carter and Ricky Johnson teamed up for just 41 receptions last year, but they both averaged 16 yards per catch.  They will team with Mr. Everything to make a dangerous group.

 

Tulsa’s Achilles heel last year was its defense.  The Golden Hurricane surrendered more than 30 points and 450 yards per game last year.  New defensive coordinator Brent Guy moves TU from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3 defense.  Expect middle linebacker Curnelius Arnick to become an even bigger playmaker in this alignment after he led the team with 115 tackles in 2010.  Shawn Jackson and DeAundre Brown team with Arnick to form one of the top linebacker trios in the league.  If Brown can return to his pre-injury 2009 form, this will be the best unit.  Jackson led TU with 15 ½ stops for loss, including 8 ½ sacks.

 

Safeties Dexter McCoil and Marco Nelson form an excellent tandem of ball hawks.  Both players intercepted six passes last year.

 

Up front, end Tyrunn Walker is the top holdover, earning 2nd Team All-CUSA honors last year.  He recorded 12 tackles for loss.

 

Tulsa hosts Houston in the season finale, and that game should determine the West Division representative in the conference title game.  If Tulsa can stay healthy against this demanding schedule, we believe the Golden Hurricane is the favorite for that spot.

 

S M U returns most of their key players from a team that won the West Division last year, but the Mustangs are the third choice to start 2011.  Coach June Jones’ team finished just 7-7 overall due to 1-3 non-conference record and losses to UCF in the Championship Game and Army in the bowl.  Another tough non-conference schedule will prevent the Mustangs from making any major leap forward.

 

Kyle Padron returns at quarterback after throwing for 3,828 yards and 31 touchdowns.  Five of his top six receivers return, including Cole Beasley, who caught 87 passes for 1,060 yards.  However, the one receiver lost was an NFL draft choice.  Aldrick Robinson caught 65 passes and averaged 20 yards per catch with 14 touchdowns.  With the breakaway threat gone, the other receivers will find the going a little tougher, and SMU will pass for less yards this season.

 

Taking up the slack in the yardage department will be an excellent running game.  Zach Line rushed for almost 1,500 yards last year and averaged more than six yards per carry. 

 

Up front, SMU’s offensive line is almost as talented as Tulsa’s.  All five starters return as well as the five second teamers.  Tackle Kelvin Beachum earned 1st team all-conference honors last year and could contend for Honorable Mention All-American honors this year.

 

SMU gained more than 5,800 total yards last year but only scored 360 points.  That averages out to more than 16 yards per point.  The average effective offense scores a point for about 13 yards of offense, meaning SMU should have scored close to 450 points last year.  The Mustangs could gain fewer yards and score more points this season, but only if the backs can hold onto the ball, and Padron can keep his interceptions down.

 

SMU’s defense has improved for three consecutive seasons, and it could be more of the same in season four of the Jones era.  Eight different defensive players made an all-conference team last year, and six of them return, two each in the three different units.  Ends Margus Hunt and Taylor Thompson were two of those award winners.  The duo teamed up for 7 ½ sacks. 

 

In the second line of defense, linebackers Taylor Reed and Ja’Gared Davis combined for 235 tackles.  Both could earn 1st Team All-CUSA accolades this year.

 

Cornerback Richard Crawford and safety Chris Banjo are the stars of the secondary.  Crawford recorded 12 passes defended with four interceptions, while Banjo proved to be strong against both the run and the pass.

 

September will bring an almost assured 3-2 start for SMU.  Road games against Texas A&M and TCU bookmark games with UTEP, Northwestern State, and Memphis.  After a week off, the Mustangs host Central Florida in a game that will decide if either team will contend in their respective division.

 

Houston has the schedule Tulsa needs to become a BCS Bowl participant.  The Cougars are not that far behind Tulsa in talent, and if Coach Kevin Sumlin can plug a couple of holes on both sides of the ball, we would not be surprised to see Houston visiting Tulsa with a perfect won-loss record on the line.

 

All this optimism hinges on the 100% return of Heisman Trophy candidate Case Keenum.  The Cougars have had some outstanding quarterbacks, including a Heisman Trophy winner in Andre Ware and current Arizona Cardinals’ QB Kevin Kolb.  However, Keenum may be better than both.  When he was healthy in 2009, he completed 70% of his passes for 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns.  If he replicates those numbers this year, all other marbles should fall in place.  Backup David Piland threw for 2,641 yards and 24 touchdowns as Keenum’s fill-in, so there is excellent depth.

 

Keenum will hook up frequently with Patrick Edwards.  Edwards led the Cougars with 71 receptions, 13 touchdowns and 1,100 yards.  Houston will have to break in two new receivers, but they have some real sprinters ready to go in 2011. 

 

Houston has not been a running back factory since the old veer offense days of the 1960’s and 1970’s; more recently, they have produced one productive back at a time.  This year, the Cougars have three great running backs.  Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes teamed for almost 1,500 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns last year, while former co-regular Charles Sims returns after missing last season.  The trio should team up for about 175 rushing yards per game this season; considering that Houston passes the ball about 60% of the time, this is a scary statistic.  It will give Keenum more open looks when defenses have to remain honest.

 

The one question mark to the 2011 offense is a rebuilding offensive line.  Keenum was not sacked in the two plus games that he played before his ACL injury.  Piland only went down 12 times after that.  Expect the sack total to go up by at least 50% this year due to some inexperience in the blocking corps.  Center Chris Thompson is one of the best at his position in the conference, and Keenum should feel comfortable with him.

 

Houston averaged more than 40 points per game with Keenum directing the offense in 2008 and 2009.  They scored 122 points in the first two games last year before he went down for the count and averaged “just” 33 points per game without him.  We believe he will regain his old form, and the Cougars will move north of the 40-point mark again this year.

 

Whether 40 points per game will be enough to win all the games on the schedule is an unknown at this point.  Houston’s defense will not be championship material this year.  The Cougars gave up more than 32 points and 430 yards per game, and there may be no improvement and even a small deterioration in the numbers this year.

 

The secondary is a major concern.  Just one starter returns from a unit that gave up about 225 passing yards at a 60% completion rate.  As of this writing, Sumlin has not yet decided on his starting four nor has he even decided where to play some of his players.  Expected starting cornerback Chevy Bennett was playing safety in the early scrimmage.

 

As raw as the secondary will be, the linebackers will be grey beards.  Seniors Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw could both earn all-league honors, and Brown could contend for defensive player of the year.  He recorded 20 tackles for loss with 7 ½ sacks in 2010.  Junior Phillip Steward is an excellent pass defender from his strong side spot.

 

Up front, the three-man line had a tough time stopping the run last year.  UH gave up more than 200 rushing yards as close to a five yard per carry rate.  Ends David Hunter and Kelvin King return, but the Cougars will have a new nose guard as Matangi Tonga graduated.

 

Houston has a couple of special teams weapons as well.  When not catching passes, Edwards is one of the best punt returners in the nation.  Tyron Carrier is an asset in the kick return game.

 

Houston has a slim chance of running the table this year, but with too many questions on the defensive side, we tend to believe they will fall once or twice.

 

Last year, Rice began to recover some from its slide from 10 wins in 2008 to 10 losses in 2009.  The Owls won four games and blew out East Carolina 62-38, so Coach David Bailiff has enough talent to get back above the .500 mark.

 

Injuries ruined any chance for the Owls to contend for a bowl bid last year.  Quarterback Taylor McHargue played sparingly due to injuries last year.  In his time under center, he completed 57% of his passes at 8.5 yards per attempt. 

 

Former quarterback 6-07 Taylor Cook moves to wide receiver and will team with tight end 6-05 Luke Wilson and wideout 6-05 Vance McDonald to make one of the tallest receiver units in college football history.  While there isn’t a trailblazer in this group, there will be a lot of 3rd down passing plays converted to first downs.

 

Sam McGuffie is a dual threat back.  He led the Owls with 883 rushing yards while catching 39 passes.  That earned him 2nd team all-league honors.

 

The offensive line returns four starters, but they are mediocre at best.  Guard Davon Allen and tackle Jake Hicks are the two quality players in the blocking corps.

 

Rice should exceed last season’s production of 29 points and 375 yards.  Look for more than 30 points and 400 yards this season.

 

In Bailiff’s four seasons in Houston, Rice has given up 43, 33, 43, and 39 points per game.  They won 10 games when they gave up 33 points, so it will not take much for a record reversal.  Unfortunately, with the tough out-of-conference schedule and road games against Southern Miss, Houston, and SMU, it does not look like the Owls can chop much off last season’s numbers.

 

The biggest problem with the Rice defense is the secondary.  The Owls gave up 304 passing yards per game last year and intercepted just six passes.  Of course, a better pass rush would have helped, as enemy quarterbacks hit the turf just 14 times.  Four of the five starters return from a year ago, and unfortunately three of them were the top three tacklers on the team.  That can never be a good sign.

 

There is some good news at linebacker.  Kyle Prater takes over in the middle after transferring from LSU two years ago.  There’s more good news in the trenches with the return from injury of end Scott Solomon.  However, that is not enough good news to turn Rice’s fortunes around.

 

The schedule makers did the Owls no favors this year.  Rice plays at Texas, Northwestern, and Baylor and hosts Purdue out of the league, and that could very well equate to an 0-4 mark.  The three conference road games listed above are basically unwinnable, so even if the Owls win the other five games, they will finish with a losing record.  They must sweep the five easier teams and then pick up a big upset somewhere along the line.  We do not see it happening this season.

 

Tulane has not enjoyed a winning season since 2002, when Mewelde Moore was running loose.  The Green Wave always seem to be good for one upset, but they cannot get over the hill.  This could be Coach Bob Toledo’s last attempt to reverse the poor fortunes in the Crescent City.

 

The offense will revolve around running back Orleans Darkwa.  As a freshman, Darkwa rushed for 925 and 11 touchdowns, earning 1st team All-CUSA awards.  Look for Darkwa to run the ball more than the 15 times he averaged last year.  He should carry the ball 25 times for about 125 yards per game.

 

Junior quarterback Ryan Griffin was adequate but not exceptional last year.  He completed 60% of his passes for 2,371 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2010, but he played part of the season with a lame shoulder.  He should have more zip on the ball this year, and his numbers will improve.

 

Only one real threat returns to the receiver corps.  Ryan Grant grabbed 33 passes and blazed for almost 16 yards per catch. 

 

The offensive line could be a liability this year.  Three starters return and three second teamers are back, but we do not see any stars in this group.

 

Tulane averaged 25 points and 373 yards per game last year.  We expect those numbers to improve some this year, but we do not see a 30-point, 400-yard production.  That’s what the Green Wave offense will need to get to seven wins.

 

Defensively, TU gave up more than 37 points per game in 2010.  Six times, they surrendered 42 or more points.  No unit stands out as a strength this year, and we expect the Green Wave to give up more than five touchdowns per game for the third consecutive season.  Tulane’s biggest problem is an inability to stop the run.  Opponents averaged five yards per carry, and you must realize that their schedule found them facing a majority of opponents that preferred to pass rather than run.

 

Up front, end Dezman Moses was the one bright spot.  Moses recorded six sacks and forced seven QB hurries after transferring from Iowa.  In the second line of defense, Trent Mackey made the 1st Team All-CUSA roster after he led TU with 124 tackles.

 

The secondary looked better than it was, because teams found the going so easy running the ball against the Green Wave.  Yet, TU did surrender just 53.9% in completion percentage. 

 

Unlike Rice, Tulane’s schedule is manageable.  Outside of league play, TU should beat Southeast Louisiana.  They should compete against Duke and Army, and Syracuse comes to the Superdome in what looks like a big upset chance for TU.  Remember, they always come up with one upset.  In conference play, home games with UTEP and Memphis will give the Green Wave an excellent chance to pick up two league wins.  There is an outside chance Tulane could be 6-6 and playing for bowl eligibility when they head to Hawaii for the season finale.  This team is not as good as Rice, but the schedule gives them the chance that Rice will not receive.

 

U T E P used to be referred to as the University of Texas at intercepted passo by one a pollster that used to rank the Bottom 10 every year.  Then, the Miners started to get better earning three bowls in six years.  After four sub-.500 seasons, UTEP recovered to break even in the regular season in 2010.  A bowl loss sent their final record back under .500 again.  It looks like 2011 could find the Miners resembling their old moniker once again. 

 

Only one starter returns to an offense that was just pedestrian in CUSA standards last year.  Running back Joe Banyard may wish he wasn’t the lone returnee.  He led TEP with 623 rushing yards last year, but with no starters returning at QB, wide receiver, and offensive line, he will probably not match that number this season.

 

At quarterback, Nick Lamaison has been named the starter.  He completed 60% of his passes for almost 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns as a sophomore at junior college. 

 

Donovan Kemp is the only receiver left on the roster that caught more than 10 passes and gained more than 100 yards.  He is coming off an ACL injury, so he may not be 100% at the beginning of the season.

 

With no returning regulars to the front five, Coach Mike Price had to recruit multiple juco players to fill the spots.  Center Eloy Anderson has one career start.

 

UTEP has averaged no less than 26 points per game for the last seven years.  2011 may find them averaging less than they did in 2003 (22.2).

 

The Miners have almost the exact opposite situation on the other side of the ball.  15 of the top 19 tacklers from 2010 are back this year.  Of course, those players contributed to a defense that gave up 28 points and more than 400 yards per game, so there may be little or no improvement.  If the offense struggles and the time of possession suffers, UTEP could even fare worse defensively in 2011.

 

The secondary is the strongest unit on the stop side.  Safety Travaun Nixon was voted to the All-CUSA 2nd team after he defended 12 passes with four interceptions.  Fellow safety DeShawn Grayson earned honorable mention all-conference honors.

 

At linebacker, all three starters are back for more.  Royzell Smith, Jamie Irving, and Isaiah Carter combined for 226 tackles, each recording more than 70.  Up front, three starters return, but this group lacks a star. 

 

UTEP will start the season 1-0 thanks to a cupcake game with Stony Brook.  After that game, a road trip to Las Cruces to play New Mexico State is their best shot at picking up a second win.

 

Conference USA Preseason Media Poll

 

C-USA EAST

1st Place Votes

Total Votes

Central Florida

20

139

Southern Miss

4

122

East Carolina

 

93

Marshall

 

65

U A B

 

61

Memphis

 

24

     
C-USA WEST

1st Place Votes

Total Votes

Houston

12

127

Tulsa

8

117

S M U

4

116

Rice

 

60

Tulane (tied)

 

42

U T E P (tied)

 

42

 

Conference USA PiRate Ratings

C-USA EAST

PiRate #

Prediction

Southern Miss

97.0

7-1/10-3

East Carolina

94.8

6-2/6-6

Central Florida

91.9

5-3/7-5

U A B

89.1

3-5/3-9

Marshall

85.8

3-5/3-9

Memphis

72.0

0-8/2-10

 

 

 

C-USA WEST

PiRate #

Prediction

Tulsa

103.6

7-1/9-4 *

S M U

102.0

5-3/6-6

Houston

96.7

7-1/10-2

Rice

89.7

3-5/3-9

Tulane

80.9

2-6/4-9

U T E P

76.0

0-8/1-11

 

 

 

* Tulsa picked to beat Southern Miss in the Championship Game

 

Next: The Western Athletic Conference preview—Thursday, August 18

 

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