The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 21, 2012

2012 Conference USA Preview

Conference USA placed two teams in the Final Poll last year; Houston finished number 18, and Southern Mississippi came in at number 20.  Tulsa and SMU were not far from cracking the poll as well.  Just when this league appears ready to break out and become the top non-BCS conference, the weakest BCS league pirated four teams.  CUSA stays the same for one more season, but the league will lose four teams to the Big East in 2013 and pick up four new members.  The four departing teams will be Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, and SMU.  Joining the league next year will be Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, and UT-San Antonio.

 

The league will be down some this year with the loss of some great talents, especially at quarterback.  Gone are Houston’s Case Keenum, Tulsa’s G. J. Kinne, Southern Mississippi’s Austin Davis, East Carolina’s Dominique Davis, SMU’s J. J. McDermott, and Rice’s Nick Fanuzzi.  Five of the top seven receivers (three of them from Houston) are missing.

 

The Conference races should be more wide open this year.  In the East, the team picked to win the division by the media, as well as both the PiRate and PiRate Vintage Ratings, may be ineligible for the Conference USA Championship Game.  Central Florida was placed on a one year bowl ban in football, as well as additional punitive actions for the football and basketball program, but the school is appealing the ruling.  Chances are high that the Knights will be finished playing in November.

 

The league media poll and our two polls are almost exactly the same, something that has rarely occurred at the PiRate Ratings.

 

Media Poll

 

CUSA East

Votes

Rank

Team

1st Place

Total

1

Central Florida

13

85

2

Southern Miss.

2

70

3

Marshall

0

58

4

East Carolina

0

56

5

U A B

0

29

6

Memphis

0

17

 

 

 

 

 

CUSA West

Votes

Rank

Team

1st Place

Total

1

Houston

8

81

2

Tulsa

4

73

3

S M U

3

67

4

U T E P

0

39

5

Rice

0

35

6

Tulane

0

20

 

 

PiRate Ratings

Rank

CUSA East

PiRate

1

Central Florida

100.5

2

Southern Miss.

98.3

3

Marshall

94.3

4

East Carolina

93.6

5

U A B

81.9

6

Memphis

75.7

 

   

Rank

CUSA West

PiRate

1

Houston

105.9

2

Tulsa

104.9

3

S M U

97.9

4

U T E P

90.2

5

Rice

89.0

6

Tulane

79.9

 

 

 

Vintage Ratings

 

Rank

CUSA East

Vintage

1

Central Florida

102

2

Southern Miss.

98

3

Marshall

96

4

East Carolina

95

5

U A B

91

6

Memphis

84

 

   

 

Vintage Ratings

 

Rank

CUSA West

Vintage

1

Tulsa

105

2

S M U

103

3

Houston

100

4

U T E P

93

5

Tulane

89

6

Rice

86

 

 

Team

U A B  Blazers

               
Head Coach

Garrick McGee

               
Colors

Green and Gold

               
City

Birmingham, AL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

3-5

Overall

3-9

               
PiRate Rating

81.9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

111

               
Vintage Rating

91

               
National Rating

98

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

2-2

Overall

4-8

 

Neil Callaway’s five year record of 18-42 did not cut it in Birmingham, especially when Alabama and Auburn topped 18 wins in the last two years.  Garrick McGee takes over after running the offense at Arkansas.

 

The Blazers’ offense came alive in November last year, as UAB scored 41 points on Memphis, 34 points in an upset of Southern Miss, and 35 points on Florida Atlantic.  Quarterback Jonathan Perry started eight games and completed 58% of his passes for 2,042 yards and 10 touchdowns.  If he stays healthy, Perry should pass for more than 3,000 yards this year.

 

Perry benefits from having an experienced group of receivers returning.  The top seven pass catchers are back again this season.  Jackie Williams is a fine possession receiver, while Nick Adams, Patrick Hearn, and Jamarcus Nelson can turn a short pass into a long gain.

 

Greg Franklin is the returning starter at running back, but he will be pressed hard by former highly-rated recruit and Georgia transfer Dontavius Jackson.  McGee also plans to play Darrin Reaves and Bashr Coles.

 

The offensive line is the biggest liability on the offensive side of the ball.  Four starters must be replaced.  The lone returnee, tackle Chris Hubbard, was an honorable mention All-CUSA pick last year, but there isn’t enough talent here to make the offensive explosive enough to move UAB in to the upper half of the East standings.

 

The UAB defense gave up almost 37 points per game last year and close to 490 yards per game.  Oddly, their best defensive effort came against SEC foe Mississippi State.  With a tougher schedule that includes games at South Carolina and Ohio State, as well as conference games at Southern Miss and Houston and a home game against Tulsa, the Blazers could actually take another step back this year.  

 

The only bright spot on this side of the ball is at linebacker.  Marvin Burdette and Greg Irvin made a lot of tackles, some of them as the last defender before the opposing player broke loose for a long gain.

 

The front four is not strong enough to stop the run or rush the passer with any success.  UAB registered an anemic eight sacks last year; end Diaheem Watkins led with just 1 ½ sacks.

 

The secondary doesn’t have much chance to shine when opposing quarterbacks can read War and Peace before they throw the ball and still not worry about getting hurt.  Safety Jamie Bender made way too many tackles last year (119), and he has moved on.  No starters return to this unit, so opposing quarterbacks will have excellent dreams the night before they face UAB.

 

The good news in Birmingham is that UAB faces Troy, Memphis, Tulane, and Southeast Louisiana. As weak as the Blazers are, they can win these four games, and even if they lose one, they could pull off an unbelievable upset like they did last year when they defeated Southern Miss as a 23-point ‘dog.

 

 

Team

Central Florida Knights

               
Head Coach

George O’Leary

               
Colors

Black and Gold

               
City

Orlando, FL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

3-5

Overall

5-7

               
PiRate Rating

100.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

59

               
Vintage Rating

102

               
National Rating

58

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

6-2

Overall

8-4

 

The Knights could finish first in the East this year, but it appears they will be prevented from playing in the conference title game or going to a bowl game.  Too bad for Coach George O’Leary: He has 16 starters returning from a team that should have won seven or eight games last year and could have won as many as 11.  UCF finished 5-7 despite outgaining opponents by more than 100 yards per game and outscoring opponents by nine points per game.  In their five wins, they outscored their opponents by an average score of 36-5.

 

Blake Bortles takes over starting quarterback duties full time this year.  As a part-timer last season, he completed 68% of his passes and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt.  Tyler Gabbert was not happy at Missouri, where his older brother Blaine was a star.  He transferred to Orlando and will back up Bortles.

 

Dropped passes have been a bugaboo for the receiving corps, but J. J. Worton, Quincy McDuffie, and Josh Reese still combined for 114 receptions, 1,474 yards, and seven touchdowns.

 

Brynn Harvey and Latavius Murray teamed for 1,123 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, but they will take a backseat to Miami transfer Storm Johnson.  Johnson has 1,000-yard potential.

 

The offensive line returns four starters.  Center Jordan Rae, guard Theo Goins, and tackle Phil Smith are good enough to make one of the all-conference teams.

 

The defense features three talented units.  The front seven is the best in the league this year.  Troy Davis is one of the top ends in the league.  In 2011, he made 8 ½ stops for loss, including five sacks.  Former tackle Victor Gray has moved to end, and he has all-league potential.

 

Linebackers Jonathan Davis and Troy Gray teamed up for 74 tackles.  Sophomore Terrance Plummer takes over at the vacant middle linebacker spot.

 

The secondary will benefit from a good pass rush up front.  Three starters return to the back line including a fine pair of safeties in Kemal Ishmael and Clayton Geathers.  The duo finished one-two in tackles with 81 and 67 respectively.  UCF needs to have more of a ball-hawking presence.  Cornerback A. J. Bouye is the only returning player that had more than one interception last year.

 

UCF could finish first in the East standings, but the Knights’ final year in this conference will see them home for the holidays.

 

 

Team

East Carolina Pirates

               
Head Coach

Ruffin McNeill

               
Colors

Purple and Gold

               
City

Greenville, NC

               
2011 Record              
Conference

4-4

Overall

5-7

               
PiRate Rating

93.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

80

               
Vintage Rating

95

               
National Rating

83

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-3

Overall

7-5

 

Usually when a team improves defensively by 12 points and 100 yards per game, their record improves by three or four wins.  East Carolina actually won one less game.

 

Third year coach Ruffin McNeill welcomes back 15 starters, but one of the seven missing is quarterback Dominique Davis, who passed for 3,225 yards and 25 touchdowns.

 

A number one quarterback has yet to be named, but junior Rio Johnson has had the best scrimmage results so far.  Johnson saw limited action last year, completing 20 of 29 passes for 157 yards.  Cody Keith is the future here, but he is likely to see no action this season.  Shane Carden and Brad Warnick are competing with Johnson.

 

Whoever starts under center should immediately produce fat passing numbers thanks to a talented and deep pool of receivers.  As a freshman last year, Justin Hardy led the team with 64 receptions.  Fellow freshman Danny Webster grabbed 43 passes.  This now sophomore duo should combine for 125 receptions this season.  Reese Wiggins is the one real deep threat.

 

McNeill’s Air Raid (Mike Leach-style) offense actually passes the ball less than 60% of the time.  Last year, the running game let him down, as ECU rushed for just 109.1 yards per game and averaged 3.3 yards per try.  Four backs return this year, but one should emerge as a possible 1,000-yard rusher.  Reggie Bullock was on pace to approach 1,000 yards rushing before he was injured midway through the year and saw limited carries from then on.  Hunter Farr transferred from North Carolina, and he has all the tools needed to be a big time contributor.

 

Four starters and three key backups return to the offensive line, and the Pirates should see their offensive numbers improve this year, even with a new quarterback.  Look for ECU to score more than 30 points this season.

 

The defense gave up 32 points per game after yielding an incredible 44 points per game in the 2010 bowl season.  The strength of the 3-4 scheme is at linebacker, where all four 2011 starters return.  Jeremy Grove led ECU with 122 tackles.  Fellow inside backer Daniel Drake added 74 tackles.

 

Michael Brooks held his own at nose guard, and his play allowed the two inside linebackers to roam freely to the ball.  ECU is a little thin at end, and the Pirates need a better pass rusher to emerge.

 

The secondary has to holes to plug as three starters have used up their eligibility.  Safety Damon Magazu intercepted four passes last year and finished second on the team with 80 tackles.  At cornerback, Leonard Paulk and Jacobi Jenkins have considerable experience as backups and limited starting experience, but McNeill feels comfortable with these two seniors.

 

One player that will sorely be missed is placekicker Mike Barbour.  The Pirates were in field goal position when they got to the opponents 40 yard line.

 

McNeill is on the hot seat.  While his teams have been exciting to watch, they have not built upon what former coach Skip Holtz left.  ECU must win seven or more games this year or else his Air Raid offense will have to fly to another destination.

 

 

Team

Marshall Thundering Herd

               
Head Coach

Doc Holliday

               
Colors

Green and White

               
City

Huntington, WV

               
2011 Record              
Conference

5-3

Overall

7-6

               
PiRate Rating

94.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

78

               
Vintage Rating

96

               
National Rating

81

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

4-4

Overall

5-7

 

Marshall fans are anxious for a return to the good ole days of the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The Thundering Herd has a cumulative record of 35-50 in the last seven years.  Third year coach Doc Holliday guided Marshall to a bowl win last year, but the Herd came up one game short in the conference race.

 

MU has a better team this year, but their schedule is still the toughest in the division.  The Herd must face Tulsa and Houston from the West.  Their third Western foe is Rice, and that game is played in Houston this year.

 

Holliday faces some rebuilding on the defensive side of the ball.  The secondary loses its top player from last year; Rashad Jackson intercepted four passes and broke up nine others.  Two transfers from Boston College, Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha, both started six games with the Eagles, and they make this unit deep.  However, nobody on this roster can replace Jackson.

 

It will be even more difficult to replace second round draft pick Vinny Curry.  The end finished second in the league with 11 sacks and 22 total tackles for loss.  Jeremiah Taylor has all-league potential, but he will not record 11 sacks.

 

The second line of defense actually has the most rebuilding to do as two of last year’s three starters must be replaced.  Devin Arrington is a better pass defender than run stopper.

 

The schedule starts with the short trip to Morgantown to face West Virginia.  A home game with Ohio and road game at Purdue makes it difficult for MU to become bowl eligible this year.

 

 

Team

Memphis Tigers

               
Head Coach

Justin Fuente

               
Colors

Blue and Gray

               
City

Memphis, TN

               
2011 Record              
Conference

1-7

Overall

2-10

               
PiRate Rating

75.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

118

               
Vintage Rating

84

               
National Rating

114

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

2-6

Overall

4-8

 

The Tigers have been uncompetitive the last three seasons, and they bring in their third head coach in four seasons.  The new man, Justin Fuente, comes from TCU, where he helped guide the offense.  This program could hire Nick Saban to run the defense and Chip Kelly to run the offense, but if the school does not devote more resources to the program, it isn’t going to move out of the basement.

 

The Tigers start over on offense with a new plan after finishing dead last in the league in rushing offense, passing offense, and scoring offense.  The two quarterbacks scheduled to return from 2011 both transferred, and Fuente brought in Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam to run the offense.  Karam rarely saw the field in two seasons in Lubbock, appearing in limited action in five games.  Still, he should be considered an upgrade at this position.

 

Karam does not inherit a good situation, as UM has limited talent at receiver.  Kevin Wright figures to be the primary receiver this year, and he could see his total catches double from the 36 he had last year.

 

The passing game might be more efficient if the running game could get going.  If Jerrell Rhodes can stay healthy, he has the potential to help the UM ground game get above triple digit in yardage per game for the first time in three years.

 

The offensive line will not produce any all-conference players, but the 2012 version will be better than its 2011 counterpart.  Five players have multiple-game starting experience, and they should help the Tigers improve their rushing and passing numbers.  UM may actually move up to number 11.

 

In a league where seven teams surrendered more than 30 points per game, Memphis was not too far behind on this side of the ball.  In fact, the Tigers finished ahead of UAB and Tulane in scoring defense.

 

Pass defense has the potential to be greatly improved if a credible pass rush can develop up front.  The Tigers only produced 14 sacks last year, so replacing most of the key pass rushers should not be as harmful as it could have been.  Memphis actually produced a first round NFL draft pick from its interior line.  End Dontari Poe finished with eight tackles for loss.  Opposite end Frank Trotter leaves after leading UM with five sacks.  Nose tackle Johnnie Farms can cover two gaps just by lining up.  The 310-pounder recorded 2 ½ sacks.

 

The back two lines of defense should be improved this year. The linebacker quartet features Akeem Davis, who plays tough against the run and covers well against the pass.  Davis registered 78 tackles with eight going for losses last year, and he led the Tigers with three interceptions and seven passes defended. 

 

The Tigers gave up right at 300 passing yards per game last season, and a weak pass rush was equally to blame with the secondary.  All four starters return with a year’s more experience, so the Tigers should improve just a little this year.  If any type of pass rush can emerge, this group could improve by more than a little.  Former starting quarterback Cannon Smith now patrols the deep zones at safety.  He broke up six passes last year, but he was burned a few times as well.

 

Memphis could actually begin the season 5-0 if everything went their way.  Their first five games come against UT-Martin, Arkansas State in nearby Jonesboro, Middle Tennessee, Duke in Durham, and Rice.  There is one additional winnable game when Tulane visits in November.  Of these six games, we believe Memphis can win as many as four.  That would almost give Fuente the Coach of the Year award in this conference.

 

 

Team

Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles

               
Head Coach

Ellis Johnson

               
Colors

Black and Gold

               
City

Hattiesburg, MS

               
2011 Record              
Conference

6-2

Overall

12-2

               
PiRate Rating

98.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

69

               
Vintage Rating

98

               
National Rating

71

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

6-2

Overall

7-6

 

 

The Golden Eagles improved steadily under former coach Larry Fedora the previous three seasons, and USM upset Houston to win the CUSA Championship last year.  Now Ellis Johnson takes over after spending four years directing South Carolina’s defense.  Johnson, a former defensive coordinator here, faces a major rebuilding project on that side of the ball.

 

The front wall of defensive coordinator Tommy West’s defense features just one player with any starting experience, but all three projected starters contributed last year.  Khyri Thornton showed flashed of greatness at one tackle spot, and he could emerge as the leader of this unit.  Nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches has the perfect body for his position.  At 312 pounds, he will plug the “A-gaps.”

 

The top player on this side of the ball lines up at the bandit position (a hybrid linebacker/end) Jamie Collins is a multi-tool weapon.  He made 98 tackles, 6 ½ sacks, 19 ½ tackles for loss, eight QB hurries, and nine passes defended.  Collins is the only experienced player on the second line of defense.

 

The back line features two potential 1st team All-CUSA players.  Cornerback Deron Wilson led the league with 17 passes defended last year (four interceptions), and safety Jacorius Cotton added seven passed defended to 98 tackles.

 

After giving up 21 points and 340 yards last year, the defense may take a minor step backwards in 2012.  We could see USM surrendering 24 points and 360 yards per game this season.

 

The offense will also experience some growing pains as the passing game has to be rebuilt.  Austin Davis will be a tough quarterback to replace, after he passed for 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior.  There is a three-way race to earn the starting nod in the opener against Nebraska.  Junior Chris Campbell leads the race, but true freshman Anthony Alford and redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd are still in the race.  Eventually, this job will become Alford’s, as he has the tools to be another RG3.  He could become the starter after the opener, as the Golden Eagles have a bye week following their trip to Lincoln.

 

Whoever wins the QB job will have a decent set of receivers running routes, but the top two pass-catchers from last year are gone.  Slotback Tracy Lampley is speedy and can break loose for long gains as a pass receiver and as a runner.  Dominique Sullivan is a deep threat and runs well after the catch.  Senior Quentin Pierce is a sleeper; he could emerge as a key contributor as a first-time regular.

 

Two running backs figure to share the majority of the carries this season.  Desmond Johnson and Kendrick Hardy are more north-south bulldozers than breakaway threats, but a power running game forces defenses to cheat their safeties up a bit.

 

Experienced talent returns to the offensive line.  Four starters are back, and all four could vie for all-conference recognition.  Center Austin Quattrochi has an NFL future.

 

One late change involves the offensive coordinator’s position.  Steve Buckley has moved up to OC, while Rickey Bustle has moved down to running backs coach due to illness.

 

Southern Miss will have some excellent days moving the ball, but they will not be as consistent as they were in 2011.  Look for about 28 points and 400 total yards per game.

 

With Central Florida more than likely ineligible, Southern Miss may repeat as East Champs almost by default.  The Eagles host East Carolina and Marshall, the two teams that have a fighting chance to contend.  We see USM winning both games.

 

 

Team

Houston Cougars

               
Head Coach

Tony Levine

               
Colors

Red and White

               
City

Houston, TX

               
2011 Record              
Conference

8-0

Overall

13-1

               
PiRate Rating

105.9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

44

               
Vintage Rating

100

               
National Rating

64

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-3

Overall

8-4

 

New Houston coach Tony Levine hopes that history can repeat itself.  Back in 1990, Houston had to replace Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, and David Klingler stepped in and passed for more yards than Ware had.

 

That’s wishful thinking for Levine, because nobody is going to top the yardage produced by Case Keenum last year.  Keenum finished the season with 5,631 yards to shatter the all-time Division 1 career passing mark.  His 48 touchdowns to just five interceptions and 71% completion rate were mind-boggling as well.  Keenum did not pad those numbers with a bunch of “dink and doink” passes two yards away.  He showed remarkable accuracy throwing the deep routes as well.

 

David Piland is not an untested replacement.  He actually replaced Keenum once before.  When Keenum was injured in 2010, Piland started the final eight games and passed for 2,600+ yards with a TD/Int ratio of 24/14.  Expect Houston to still be among the nation’s passing leaders, but the drop in yards per game could top 100.

 

Also gone are three highly talented receivers that took 272 receptions worth 3,939 yards and 37 touchdowns.  That is too much talent to replace for any team.  Fifth year senior Ronnie Williams caught just 16 passes, but he should at least triple that number as the new starting H-back.  Mark Roberts and Chance Blackmon figure to be the starting wideouts, while Daniel Spencer gets the nod at the other inside receiver spot.  This trio combined for just 19 receptions last year.

 

Charles Sims averaged an eye-popping 7.5 yards per rush last year, which was better than any other back in the nation that was not the pitch option at Army, Navy, or Georgia Tech.  Sims carried the ball just nine times per game, and he will see more action this season (and thus his average per carry will fall).

 

Thanks to the return of almost all 2011 contributors, the offensive line will be a team strength.  Guard Jacolby Ashworth should be a 1st team All-CUSA player this year.

 

The defense was overlooked last year, but UH played tough on that side of the ball.  The stats didn’t look as good as other teams, but they had to defend for 75 scrimmage plays per contest, whereas Central Florida’s defense only had to defend 61 plays.

 

New defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant switched Houston to a 4-3 alignment in hopes of improving against the run.  Factoring out sacks, the Cougars gave up 4.7 yards per run!  Tackle Dominic Miller should benefit from the switch.  Look for his tackles to increase by 50%.  Ends Kelvin King and Eric Braswell teamed for 73 tackles last year, but neither was a sack monster.

 

UH will miss two talented linebackers in Marcus McGraw and Sammy Brown (234 tackles, 16 sacks, 44 ½ tackles for loss).  However, there is returning quality in Derrick Mathews and Phillip Steward.  Steward is a dual threat linebacker (tough vs. run and pass), while Mathews is not far behind talent-wise.

 

The back line of defense returns three starters and four top reserves from last year, so it should be in great shape.  Cornerback D. J. Hayden is the best of the bunch; he intercepted a couple of passes and broke up 11 more.

 

Even with all the losses sustained by this team, Houston figures to contend for the CUSA West Division crown.  The Cougars play at SMU in October and host Tulsa in November.  Road trips to East Carolina and Marshall could be tricky, and a loss in either one could be enough to finish second or third in the division. 

 

 

Team

Rice Owls

               
Head Coach

David Bailiff

               
Colors

Dark Blue and Gray

               
City

Houston, TX

               
2011 Record              
Conference

3-5

Overall

4-8

               
PiRate Rating

89.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

97

               
Vintage Rating

86

               
National Rating

112

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

1-7

Overall

2-10

 

Since their outstanding 10-3 season in 2008, Rice has won just 10 of 36 games.  Sixth year coach David Bailiff will not end the malaise this season, as he faces heavy graduation losses on both sides of the ball.

 

On offense, the Owls were very inconsistent last year.  Quarterback Taylor McHargue had good games and bad games, as he could not hold onto the starting job the last two seasons.  McHargue completed 57.5% of his passes with a TD/Int ratio of 8/5.  He only averaged 6.2 yards per pass attempt.  Redshirt freshman Driphus Jackson is more of a running quarterback, but he could see considerable time if McHargue struggles again.

 

Rice has depth at receiver this year with the return of three receivers plus the addition of a potential star who could line up just about anywhere on the offense.  That star is Sam McGuffie.  McGuffie missed most of 2011 due to injury, and his healthy return could be worth three or four points per game.  Look for him to line up in the slot, but he could return to the backfield as well.  It wouldn’t be shocking to see him even take some snaps in a wild owl formation.  Tight end Luke Willson could top 40 receptions this year.  The 6-5 senior caught 29 passes last year.

 

Running back Charles Ross looks to rebound from injury as well.  The junior can bulldoze his way for an extra yard or two on power runs, but he is not going to sweep around the flank for long gains.

 

The offensive line is in shambles with only one full-time starter returning.  Guard Drew Carroll could potentially make an all-conference team in a year or two, but he is the senior statesman of this unit as a sophomore.

 

The Rice defense gave up 460+ yards per game last year, and prospects are not all that good for any improvement in 2012.  In fact, things could get worse if the offense cannot sustain time-consuming drives.

 

The Owls will use a 4-2-5 defense as their base this year, and the five defensive backs are the strength on this side.  Bryce Callahan is the big star on the defense.  The cornerback tied for the conference lead with six interceptions last year, and he batted away nine others.  Kat Safety Paul Porras and free safety Corey Frazier combined for 137 tackles last year.

 

The linebacker tandem is still up for grabs in August.  Former highly recruited Kyle Prater did not live up to his press clippings when he transferred here from LSU.  He made just 19 tackles and just one for a loss.  He competed with James Radcliffe at the weak side spot, while Cameron Nwosu tries to hold on to his starting strong side spot.  Nwosu led the team with 108 tackles, but he is being pushed hard by two others.

 

There will be three new starters up front, and nobody on this roster can adequately replace Scott Solomon at end.  Solomon led the Owls with 8 ½ sacks and 13 ½ tackles for loss last year.  Jared Williams is the lone holdover from this unit.

 

The Owls non-conference schedule is tricky.  After opening at home with UCLA, which should be a loss, they visit Kansas and Louisiana Tech, before hosting Marshall.  It isn’t impossible that they could be 0-4 when they play Houston at Reliant Stadium.  They follow that game with a visit to Memphis, and still, the Owls could be winless when they play UT-San Antonio on homecoming.

 

It is going to be a long year for the Owls.  They should be competitive in about half their games, but they may only win about two.

 

 

 

Team

S M U  Mustangs

               
Head Coach

June Jones

               
Colors

Crimson and Blue

               
City

Dallas, TX

               
2011 Record              
Conference

5-3

Overall

8-5

               
PiRate Rating

97.9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

70

               
Vintage Rating

103

               
National Rating

53

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

6-2

Overall

7-5

 

 

June Jones has no trouble recruiting quarterbacks to pilot his run and shoot offense.  If he cannot pull them out of the high school ranks, he gets them from other colleges.  He has a potential 1st team all-conference player in Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert.

 

Gilbert was pressed into duty against Alabama in the 2009-10 National Championship Game, and he showed he was up to the task as a freshman.  He was blamed for Texas’s downturn in 2010, but he was not the reason why the Longhorns did not win.  Expect Gilbert to complete about 60-62% of his passes and gain around 3,300 yards.

 

Gilbert will have two exceptional receivers to hook up with this year.  Darius Johnson returns after leading the Mustangs with 79 receptions and 1,118 yards.  Der’ricck Thompson caught 30 passes good for 411 yards in eight starts.

 

Keeping defenses honest is the top running back in the league. Zach Line missed three games and still rushed for 1,224 yards and 17 touchdowns. 

 

The offensive line is the big question this year.  All five starters must be replaced, two of whom were NFL draft choices.  Blocking for the run and shoot is not the easiest thing in the world, and guard Blake McJunkin is the only returnee on par with what was lost.

 

The Mustangs have improved their defensive numbers every year under Jones.  If you follow the linear progression, SMU is due to give up about 21 points and 330 yards per game this year.  If they do, they will be at the top of the CUSA West Standings.

 

The 3-4 alignment will revolve around the quartet at linebacker, where all four starters return this year.  Ja’Gared Davis and Taylor Reed were the top two tacklers last year.  The dynamic duo teamed up for 184 stops, 9 ½ sacks, 21 ½ total stops for loss, and 11 passes defended.  Cameron Rogers is a potential star here as well.

 

The front line features a giant in Margus Hunt.  The 6-8, 295 end dumped enemy quarterbacks three times last year in a designated pass rush role.  Nose tackle Torlan Pittman made 37 tackles, with six going for losses.

 

The secondary was more of a liability last season, and it is a minor question as 2012 starts.  The best player from this unit has moved on to the NFL, so SMU could be vulnerable against the pass. 

 

SMU benefits in league play by getting to host both Houston and Tulsa.  Additionally both games follow relatively easy games the week before.  The Mustangs have a tough out-of-league schedule with games at Baylor and at home against TCU and Texas A&M.  They also draw Central Florida and Southern Miss out of the East, so they could lose enough games to finish in second place even if they beat Houston and Tulsa.  We think this team will fall one game short of taking the West flag, but they will be bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season.

 

Team

Tulane Green Wave

               
Head Coach

Curtis Johnson

               
Colors

Olive Green and Sky Blue

               
City

New Orleans, LA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

1-7

Overall

2-11

               
PiRate Rating

79.9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

113

               
Vintage Rating

89

               
National Rating

103

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

2-6

Overall

3-9

 

It has been 10 years since Tulane last had a winning season.  There are no J. P. Losman’s or Mewelde Moore’s on this current Green Wave edition, so it will be at least 11 years after this season.

 

Curtis Johnson is the new head coach.  He comes from the New Orleans Saints via the Miami Hurricanes.  Johnson faces a tough uphill battle in the Crescent City.

 

What had the makings for an improved defense has quickly eroded into another fine mess.  TU had one of the top defensive players in the league in middle linebacker Trent Mackey (145 tackles, 4 ½ sacks, 14 TFL).  Mackey was just suspended indefinitely following his arrest.  Mackey is worth about 2 ½ to 3 points to the Green Wave.

 

Three additional players expected to contribute and contend for starting spots on the defensive side will not be around this year, including expected starting end Michael Pierce.

 

What do these defections leave in the front seven?  Not much.  Sam Linebacker Darryl Farley finished a distant second to Mackey with 69 tackles.  Matthew Bailey made just 33 tackles from his weakside linebacker position.

 

Up front, end Austen Jacks is the sole returning starter.  Jacks made 32 tackles with 2 ½ sacks in 2011.

 

The back line of defense suffered no late scratches, and it is the only area of the defense that is not a major concern.  Cornerback Ryan Travis is now the top player on the stop side.  Travis intercepted four passes and knocked away six more last year.  Safety Shakiel Smith finished third on the team with 68 tackles, but he needs to step up in pass coverage.

 

The TU defense gave up 37.5 points and 410 yards of offense last year.  Without Mackey, those numbers could be worse. 

 

There is a glimmer of hope on the other side of the ball, as Tulane has some decent offensive talent.  Quarterback Ryan Griffin will benefit from the implementation of the new pro-set offense.  Griffin completed 55.6% of his passes for 2,502 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, but he needs to cut down on his 10 interceptions.

 

Orleans Darkwa came close to rushing for 1,000 yards for the second year in a row, and maybe the third time is the charm.  Darkwa scored 13 touchdowns and proved to be a receiving threat with 37 receptions.

 

Darkwa was the number four receiver on this team, and the good news is that the three players with more receptions all return.  The best news is that neither of the three will be the best receiver this year.  Ryan Grant returns after missing almost all of last year with a hernia.  Add Grant to Wilson Van Hooser, Justyn Shackleford, and Xavier Rush, and TU should have a much improved passing game this year.

 

The offensive line is a little inexperienced with just two starters returning, but there should not be much drop-off.  Tackle Eric Jones has all-conference potential.

 

Tulane averaged just 21 points and 340 yards per game last year.  We expect the Green Wave to run for 130 and pass for 230 yards this year and score about 24 points per game. 

 

Home games with Ole Miss, Louisiana-Monroe, UAB, and Rice coupled with road games against Louisiana and Memphis give TU a chance to win more games this season than last.  Three wins would be a 50% improvement.

 

 

Team

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

               
Head Coach

Bill Blankenship

               
Colors

Blue and Gold

               
City

Tulsa, OK

               
2011 Record              
Conference

7-1

Overall

8-5

               
PiRate Rating

104.9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

49

               
Vintage Rating

105

               
National Rating

43

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

6-2

Overall

10-3

 

It can be tough being number three in your state, but Tulsa has been successful and exciting in recent years and with three coaches.  In the past five seasons, the Golden Hurricane have averaged 8.8 wins per year, 38.4 points per game, and 494 yards per game.

 

TU relied on a Texas transfer the previous three seasons, and now they turn to a Nebraska transfer.  Cody Green takes over at quarterback for G. J. Kinne.  Green completed 54% of his passes in two seasons at Nebraska (17 games).  If Green can live up to his potential, the TU offense will shine once again, because the Hurricane are loaded at back and receiver.

 

The receiving corps ranks at the top of the league.  Three players have the ability to turn any pass into a long gain.  Willie Carter and Bryan Burnham both made the 2nd team all-conference list last year after teaming for 115 catches and 1,718 yards.  Jordan James added 31 receptions.  Out of the backfield, Trey Watts caught 31 passes.

 

Watts teams with Ja’Terian Douglas to form the best one-two running back punch in the league.  Both topped 880 yards rushing last year.  Watts is the more consistent of the two, but Douglas is the game-changer.

 

The offensive line faces a minor rebuilding effort.  Center Trent Dupy and guard Stetson Burnett will form the nucleus, and they are all-conference quality.

 

Coach Bill Blankenship’s offense could easily top last year’s results (33.1 points/440 yards).  Whether the defense can improve on its numbers will determine if the Hurricane can get back to the CUSA Championship Game for the first time since 2008.  TU gave up 27.3 points and 415 yards per game last year, but those numbers were skewed by the fact that they faced Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State, and Houston.  In the other nine games, TU gave up 17.8 points and 352 yards per game.

 

The defensive line will show improvement this year with the return of three regulars.  Tackles Derrick Jackson and Daeshon Bufford should keep opponents from running up the middle, while end Cory Dorris should plug the off-tackle hole on his side.

 

Shawn Jackson anchors the second line of defense.  The Will linebacker paced TU with 4 ½ sacks, and he recorded 11 total tackles for loss.  DeAundre Brown returns to the Cane position (hybrid linebacker/safety) after missing nine games to injury last year.

 

Tulsa is loaded on the back line with the best secondary in the league.  Bandit safety Dexter McCoil and free safety Marco Nelson could both make the all-conference team this year.  McCoil tied for the conference lead with six interceptions and knocked away seven others. 

 

You can call the 2012 “A Tale of Two Schedules” for Tulsa.  The Hurricane open with Iowa State, Tulane, Nicholls State, Fresno State, UAB, Marshall, UTEP, and Rice, and it is possible they will be 8-0 and ranked in the top 20 heading into their week off.  They get two weeks to prepare for the final four games: at Arkansas, at Houston, Central Florida, and at SMU.  What a way to end a season!  We think Tulsa may drop one of those first eight but win two of those final four and get back to the CUSA Championship Game.

 

 

Team

U T E P  Miners

               
Head Coach

Mike Price

               
Colors

Orange and Navy

               
City

El Paso, TX

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-6

Overall

5-7

               
PiRate Rating

90.2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

94

               
Vintage Rating

93

               
National Rating

90

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

3-5

Overall

4-8

 

After guiding the Miners to consecutive 8-4 seasons, Coach Mike Price has suffered through six seasons of near misses where UTEP has been a one or two wins away from returning to a bowl ever since.  The end of the line could be near for Price, and we don’t see him righting the ship this season.  The schedule is much too difficult to find six winnable games.

 

Price likes to throw the ball all over the field, and he has a decent quarterback with experience returning for his senior year.  Nick Lamaison was slowed by injuries last year, missing four games.  He returned in the final month, and UTEP averaged 238 passing yards in those games (but won only one of five).

 

Mike Edwards and Jordan Leslie give Lamaison two credible targets.  Edwards led the team with 50 receptions and 657 yards last year.  Kevin Perry should provide more offense at tight end this year.

 

Nathan Jeffrey started just one game last year, but he will be the regular running back.  Jeffrey may not be a 1,000-yard threat, but he is a fine run-pass combo back.  He may even be more dangerous coming out of the backfield on passing plays.

 

An improved offensive line will make the UTEP offense succeed this year if it can stay healthy.  Center Eloy Atkinson and Tackles James Nelson and Brander Craighead missed spring practice nursing injuries.

 

A vulnerable defense is the reason UTEP will not be able to get above .500 this season.  The Miners have some talent, but they have holes everywhere on the stop side. 

 

End Horace Miller is the top player in the trenches.  Miller led UTEP with five sacks and eight tackles for loss.  Senior Greg Watkins inherits the other end spot after he started five times in 2011.

 

There will be a drop in talent at linebacker following the graduation of leading tackler Jeremy Springer as well as Isaiah Carter.  Josh Fely is the lone holdover.

 

The secondary returns two starters, neither of whom will make even the honorable mention of the all-conference selections.  Safety DeShawn Grayson is the leading returning tackler (67), and if he leads the team this year, it will be bad news.

 

UTEP’s schedule includes non-conference games with Oklahoma and Wisconsin, as well as a road trip to Ole Miss.  1-3 is probably the best they can hope outside of league play, and the Miners are not capable of going 5-3 in the league.  So, it looks like another subpar season, possibly the last for Price.

 

Coming Wednesday afternoon/evening: A look at the Big East Conference.  Should it still be a BCS league?

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