The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 13, 2010

2010 Conference USA Preview

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Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.  Many hours of research go into our weekly selections against the spread.


2010 Conference USA Preview

28.8 points per game—that is the average score put up by members of Conference USA in conference games last year.  These teams averaged 417 yards of offense per game.  If wide open offenses and 150 scrimmage plays per game are up your alley, you have found the conference to follow.

The most outstanding of these offenses belongs to the Houston Cougars.  This is the third time in the school’s history that Houston has been so dominating on offense.  In the late 1960’s, it was the veer offense.  The Cougars were the last team to reach 100 points in a game when they did so against Tulsa in 1968.  In the late 1980’s, it was the run and shoot offense.  Houston came within five points of repeating the triple digit score when they hung 95 on SMU.  Now, with Case Keenum running a four wide receiver spread offense, could the Cougars possibly be primed to challenge the triple digit mark again?  Two opportunities present them with a great chance in the month of September.  It will be fun to watch—unless you are a fan of one of the two teams that could see it happen. 

C U S A Predictions
Pos Team Conf Overall
1 Southern Mississippi 6-2 9-4
2 Central Florida 6-2 8-4
3 U A B 4-4 6-6
4 Marshall 4-4 6-6
5 East Carolina 2-6 2-10
6 Memphis 0-8 0-12
Pos Team Conf Overall
1 Houston 7-1 10-3
2 S M U 6-2 7-5
3 Tulsa 6-2 8-4
4 U T E P 4-4 7-5
5 Rice 4-4 4-8
6 Tulane 0-8 2-10


CUSA Championship Game: Houston over Southern Mississippi


Liberty Bowl—Houston

Hawaii Bowl—Southern Mississippi

Armed Forces Bowl—S M U

St. Petersburg Bowl—Central Florida

New Orleans Bowl—U T E P

Eagle Bank Bowl–Tulsa


Team By Team Breakdown



Team East Carolina Pirates
Head Coach Ruffin McNeill
Colors Purple and Gold
City Greenville, NC
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 9-5
PiRate Rating 89.6
National Rating 89
2010 Prediction  
Conference 2-6
Overall 2-10


Offense: Things will be much more exciting in Greenville this season when the Pirates have the ball.  New coach Ruffin McNeill brings the Texas Tech “Air Raid” offense with him from Lubbock.  He also brings former TTU receivers coach Lincoln Riley as his offensive coordinator (youngest coordinator in FBS by three years!)

Gone is the ball-control offense that wasn’t flashy but was effective enough to win back-to-back CUSA titles for former coach Skip Holtz.  ECU will throw the ball more than 40 times a game (maybe over 50).  There is a minor battle going on to decide which of four quarterbacks will start against Tulsa in game one.  It appears that former Boston College QB Dominique Davis will get the nod over Brad Wornick and Rio Johnson, but it would not surprise us if eventually true freshman Shane Carden emerges as the full-time starter. 

The receiving corps returns two key players who could both approach 100 receptions this season. Dwayne Harris and Darryl Feeney teamed for 131 receptions in 2009.  Harris is more of the possession receiver, while Feeney is the breakaway threat.

ECU has had some off the field issues with multiple running backs, and this year’s starter by default has not been immune to that.  Jonathan Williams will get one last chance to live up to his high recruit status, but he only averaged 2.7 yards per carry last year.  The Pirates will run the ball 20-25 times with several draw plays.

The offensive line returns three starters, but the two that graduated were both All-CUSA performers.  Throw in the fact that they must learn an entirely new blocking scheme, and you can expect sacks to possibly triple from the 14 of last year.

We believe the new passing offense will produce a lot of yards through the air, while sacks and weaker blocking will haunt the running game.  Look for about 75 yards rushing and 300-325 passing yards, but only about 24-28 points per game.

Defense: We’re talking trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for players, as in nine lost starting players from 2009.  To make matters worse, not a single player in the front seven returns this year to a defense that will be on the field for at least 5-10 more plays this year.

The only experience is in the secondary, where both cornerbacks, Emanuel Davis and Travis Simmons, combined for 121 tackles.  Davis intercepted two passes and knocked away a dozen.  They benefitted from one of the best pass rushes in the league, and they won’t be so fortunate this year.  Even with the experience and talent, expect enemy quarterbacks to find the going easier against the Pirate secondary.

Worse than the lack of a returning starter up front is the possibility that as many as three of the four starters in the trenches could be freshmen or sophomores.  Senior Dustin Lineback should emerge as the star of the linebacking unit, but he only recorded 29 tackles last year.

When you factor into the equation that the new offense will struggle at times and force the defense back on the field much more than last year, it looks like this will be a long year for ECU.  Look for the Pirates to give up 30-35 points and 400+ yards per game.

Schedule: Out of conference games at Virginia Tech and North Carolina are sure losses.  Home games with North Carolina State and Navy also look like losses.  The Pirates get Memphis at home, and that is the only sure win.  We figure they will pick up one more along the way.  2-10 would be a big disappointment, but ECU will take a lot of lumps in transitioning to the new offense.


Team Marshall Thundering Herd
Head Coach Doc Holliday
Colors Green and White
City Huntington, WV
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-6
PiRate Rating 88.7
National Rating 91
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-6


Offense: Here is another school with a new coach.  Marshall gave the Okay to Doc Holliday to corral the Thundering Herd talent into winners at the CUSA gunfight.  He has enough talent to succeed in year one.  

Holliday has worked for Urban Meyer, so you can expect some form of the spread offense.  The first order of business is to identify who will be piloting the new scheme.  Willy Korn was a high school phenom when he signed with Clemson.  Things didn’t pan out there, and he transferred to Marshall where it was expected he would beat out 2009 incumbent Brian Anderson.  However, our spies in Huntington tell us that Anderson is going to keep his job as starter.  Korn may not even be the number two, because hot shot freshman Eddie Sullivan has a really big arm and fast shoes.  This position is in very good hands.

Anderson will have a quartet of fine receivers to throw to this year.  2009 leader Antavious Wilson caught 60 passes for 724 yards last year.  Aaron Dobson is the speedster of the group.  He won’t catch 60 passes, but the 30-40 he does grab should average more than 15 yards per reception and produce double-digit touchdowns.  Tight end Lee Smith is the hands down best at his position in the conference.

The offensive line is better blocking for the run than pass, but we believe they will pick up the new scheme quickly.  All five projected starters are experienced upperclassmen. 

The formerly strong running game is the one concern on this side of the ball.  The Herd lost a 1,000-yard rusher last year, and 2010 figures to be a season where the leading runner could gain less than 800 yards.  If Korn sees action, he could be used as the running alternative to Anderson.

We believe Marshall’s offensive numbers will increase minimally this year.  Look for 24-26 points and 350-375 total yards.

Defense:  Former Marshall coach Mark Snyder was supposed to be a defensive wizard, after he molded some great defenses at Ohio State.  The Buckeye defenses actually improved under Jim Heacock after Snyder left.  His Herd defenses were mediocre, and that cost him his job. 

This year, the pieces are in place for another mediocre showing.  Marshall will fare well against most opponents’ running games, but they will suffer against the slate of excellent opposing quarterbacks they will face this season.  The secondary is a big concern following the loss of its top two stars.  Free safety Omar Brown and cornerback Ahmed Shakoor return, but there is not much experience or depth in this unit.

The defensive line also returns half of its starting contingent, but there is more depth up front than in the back line.  End Vinny Curry could make 1st Team All-CUSA this year after he registered 8 ½ stops behind the line last year.

The middle trio is the strength on this side of the ball.  Linebackers Kellen Harris and Mario Harvey are both excellent run-stoppers.  They will be called on to contribute more in pass coverage this year to hide the liabilities behind them.

The new offense may force the defense to play a couple more plays per game, and we believe Marshall will give up a couple more points and yards per game this season.  Look for 25-28 points and 375-400 yards allowed.

Schedule: Marshall opens the season at the Giant Horseshoe in Columbus against Ohio State, and then the home-opener the following week is against West Virginia.  The Herd will be 0-2 when they go to Bowling Green in week three.  That will be a must-win game if Marshall is to earn six wins again this season.  They host Ohio U the following week before beginning conference play.  Their first two games in the league come against the top two teams in their division—Southern Mississippi and Central Florida.  They could be 1-5 by then and figure to be 2-4.  Home games with UTEP, Memphis, and Tulane will make the back end of the schedule much more fun for Herd fans.  Look for Marshall to flirt with a winning season but fall short and finish 6-6 or 5-7.



Team Memphis Tigers
Head Coach Larry Porter
Colors Blue and Gray
City Memphis, TN
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 2-10
PiRate Rating 77.7
National Rating 114
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-8
Overall 0-12


Offense:  Welcome to a big mess!  Memphis doesn’t have much going for it these days.  If you walk around town, the natives will tell you they wish they lived somewhere else.  There is a malaise there.  You can get away from it by making a trip to the Rendezvous for a plate of ribs, but 2010 is not a fun time for the Bluff City.  Ditto that for Memphis Tiger fans.  Tommy West did not go quietly when he was given his walking papers.  He warned the administration that they needed to make a significant renewed effort to revitalize the football program, or else drop football.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will this football program.  It has been rumored that Memphis will be admitted to the Big East Conference in a few years, but Big East officials deny this.  If it doesn’t happen, Memphis could become the next Villanova.

Okay, let’s talk some real football.  New coach Larry Porter comes from LSU, where the coaching staff has been under fire now for a couple of seasons.  He steps out of one frying pan into another.  The Tigers will have new players starting at quarterback, running back, and two of the receiver positions.  They lost their top two rushers and top two receivers. 

The new quarterback will be under close media scrutiny from day one.  Cannon Smith is the son of Federal Express ex-CEO Fred Smith.  Smith has offered up a 10 million dollar “bribe” to any major conference if they accept Memphis as a member.  Most of us have seen cases where the son of the big shot got preferential treatment (like George Herbert Walker Bush’s son and Joseph Kennedy’s sons).  Smith played in one game for Miami (FL) two years ago, but even if he is worthy of being the starter, there will be too much pressure on him to prove it to the rest of the world.

Making matters worse, there isn’t that much talent for Smith to throw the ball.   Sophomore Marcus Rucker is the best of this bunch, but he had just 18 receptions in 2009.

Don’t expect the next DeAngelo Williams or Curtis Steele to suit up for Memphis this year.  True freshman Jerrell Rhodes will likely get the most carries with Lance Smith supplementing.

The offensive line is better than average but not great.  All 2009 starters return, but they will be called to sustain their blocks up to a half-second longer for the inexperienced quarterbacks and receivers to hook up.  Without Steele, they will have to do more in run blocking as well.

We are extremely pessimistic on this year’s team.  We believe Memphis will struggle to score 17 points per game and be fortunate to produce 325 total yards per game.

Defense: The picture on this side of the ball makes the offense look peachy.  The Tigers are going to crash and burn on this side of the ball in 2010.  Only five starters return to a defense that couldn’t stop the pass last year. 

In their final four games, Memphis surrendered 415 passing yards per game last year, and they lost their top two secondary starters.  Cornerback DA Griffin was out for those four games, and his return gives the Tigers a little solace.

Middle linebacker Jamon Hughes led Memphis with 87 tackles last year.  He could be the lone player on this side of the ball to make the All-CUSA team.

Up front, there is some quality and depth.  Three starters return, and the projected fourth starter saw significant action.  Porter recognizes a need for a better pass rush, and he moved Winston Bowens from linebacker to end.

Memphis gave up 35 points per game last year, and they will not improve this year.  Expect 35-40 points and 450-475 yards allowed.

Schedule:  The non-conference schedule isn’t all that difficult, and in a good year, the Tigers could have possibly won all four of these games.  With the major rebuilding project here, they are likely to lose all four.  They open at Mississippi State and play at Louisville in October.  They host Middle Tennessee and Tennessee.  Throw in Houston, Tulsa, and UTEP from the other division, and the almost sure losses add up to seven.  Inside divisional play, Southern Miss and Central Florida are two more sure losses.  That leaves three games—East Carolina, Marshall, and UAB for Memphis to try to find one win.  It may not happen this year.  0-12 is a possibility.  Cheer up Memphis fans.  Basketball season begins soon.



Team Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Head Coach Larry Fedora
Colors Black and Gold
City Hattiesburg, MS
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 7-6
PiRate Rating 91.1
National Rating 84
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 9-4


Offense: Coach Larry Fedora has produced two excellently balanced offenses in his first two seasons in Hattiesburg.  The Golden Eagles might be just as balanced this year, but that just means that the decimated attack drops off equally in the running and passing stats. 

The offensive line is the major concern.  Only center Cameron Zipp has any starting experience.  He will be surrounded by upperclassmen who have never started a game, and that is a little bit of a concern.

If the line can gel just enough to be considered average, the rest of this offense should be okay.  Quarterback Austin Davis isn’t Case Keenum or G.J. Kinne, but he is a fine passer.  The Eagles have the best backup quarterback in the conference.  Martevious Young had a 16/3 TD/Int ratio last year when he filled in for the injured Davis. 

Only one starting wide out returns.  DeAndre Brown was a consensus freshman All-American last year after catching 47 passes for 785 yards and nine scores.  Junior college transfer Kelvin Bolden was a high school teammate of Brown, and he has the speed to make defenses pay if they try to stop the bigger Brown.

Southern Miss lost its career rushing leader when Damien Fletcher graduated.  Look for Fedora to use a three-player platoon with V.J. Floyd getting first crack as the starter.  Watch out for freshman Kendrik Hardy, who could see a lot of action in short yardage situations.

Southern Miss will not be as explosive on offense this year.  Look for a drop to 25-28 points and 375-400 total yards per game.

Defense:  This side of the ball is in much better shape.  The Golden Eagles will improve here, and with enough improvement, they could be playing on December 4 as the East Division representative in the CUSA Championship Game.

The entire front seven returns from last year, and that includes four juniors and three seniors.  Tackle Anthony Gray and end Cordarro Law have legitimate NFL talent.  They combined for 21 ½ tackles behind the line last year.

The three linebackers were the top three tacklers on the team.  All three (Martez Smith, Korey Williams, and Ronnie Thornton) could make one of the three-deep All-CUSA teams.  The entire trio plays the run and the pass exceptionally well.

The secondary is the only weak spot on the defense, but with an experienced front seven, their inefficiencies may be hidden.  One player who won’t have to hide is cornerback C. J. Bailey.  He knocked away 13 passes last year.

Throw in a great punt returner in Tracy Lampley, and USM might have the best overall defense in the league this season after giving up 26 points per game last year (42 to Middle Tennessee in the New Orleans Bowl loss).  We believe the Eagles will shave both points and yards off 2009’s averages.  Look for 22-24 points and 350-375 yards allowed.  In this league, those numbers will be good enough to lead. 

Schedule: The opener is a toughie at South Carolina on Thursday night, September 2.  Home games follow with Prairie View and a rebuilding Kansas.  Southern Miss wraps up non-conference play with a visit to a rebuilding Louisiana Tech, so a 3-1 start is quite possible.  In league play, it all comes down to the last three weeks of November, when the Eagles play at Central Florida, host Houston, and finish at Tulsa.  They could lose two of those games and still win the division title.  The game with UCF should determine which of those two schools win the division flag.  We tend to favor USM by the thinnest of margins—maybe 50.1% to 49.9%.



Team U A B  Blazers
Head Coach Neil Callaway
Colors Green and Gold
City Birmingham, AL
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 5-7
PiRate Rating 90.4
National Rating 87
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-6


Offense: How do you replace Superman?  You can’t, and UAB cannot replace departed quarterback Joe Webb.  Webb was a one-man offense for the Blazers last year, leading the team in rushing with more than 1,400 yards (1,600+ when you factor out sacks) and 11 touchdowns, while passing for 2,300 yards and 21 touchdowns.  He accounted for 32 of UAB’s 39 touchdowns!

Fourth year head coach Neil Callaway has three options to choose from in selecting Webb’s replacement.  While all three are decent runners, none can do what Webb did.  Sophomore David Isabelle, Junior Bryan Ellis, and Juco Emmanuel Taylor have been splitting the snaps in practice so far, and it will take at least one or two scrimmages to determine the winner.

There is quality and experience at wide receiver and tight end.  Wide out Frantrell Forrest and tight end Jeremy Anderson return after finishing one-two in catches last year.  Both combine decent size and speed with good hands, so if the new QB has any accuracy, UAB should be able to move the ball overhead.

The running back spot was more of a decoy and pass blocker last year.  It was so bad that Isabelle was the team’s second leading rusher, and he saw very limited action backing up Webb.  Like the QB position, three players are vying for the one spot.  Justin Brooks is the best downhill runner able to create holes with punishing plunges.  Pat Shed is the dangerous long-gain threat able to make quick cuts and evade tackles.  Daniel Borne is a combination of the other two.  All three will fail to equal the rushing numbers put up by Webb, but they could give the Blazers a more balanced look.

The offensive line is a major asset this year.  It could even be in the top three in the league.  Four starters return from last year, led by tackle Matt McCants, a 6-7 monster.

Look for UAB’s offense to take a step backward in both point and yardage production, but the Blazers will not be a slouch for any opposing defense in this league.  Expect about 23-26 points and 375-400 total yards.

Defense:  Here is where there is much optimism for 2010.  UAB gave up more than 32 points per game last year, but things are looking up on this side of the ball.  12 of the top 13 tacklers return, including the entire defensive line (technically one of these starters, Daniel White, started at outside linebacker).  Three of those linemen, tackles Elliott Henigan and D. J. Reese and end Bryant Turner, have good shots at making one of the All-CUSA teams.  They teamed for 23 stops behind the line, and that number will go up by at least five this year.

Linebackers Lamanski Ware and Marvin Burdette return, but this unit lacks a little something.  None of the linebackers are 1st team all-league material.

The secondary is solid this season.  Free safety Hiram Atwater is one of the three best defensive backs in the league.  He led UAB with 89 tackles last year.  Cornerback Terrell Springs broke up 10 passes last year while finishing third in tackles.

Callaway hopes his secondary players don’t lead the team in tackles this season, but it is likely to happen.  Still, the Blazers will improve on this side of the ball and surrender less than 30 points per game for the first time since Watson Brown was the head coach.  Look for 25-28 points and 380-410 yards allowed

Schedule:  UAB is lucky this year.  They avoid both Houston and Tulsa from the other division.  Out of league play, the Blazers have two winnable games with Florida Atlantic and Troy coming to Legion Field.  Road games at Tennessee and Mississippi State appear to be double-digit losses, even though both SEC teams will finish near the bottom of their respective divisions.  There are a couple of key games that will decide whether UAB can get to six wins for the first time since 2004.  The Blazers host UTEP, Marshall, ECU, and Memphis.  If they win all four, they are looking at 6-6.



Team U C F Knights
Head Coach George O’Leary
Colors Black and Gold
City Orlando, FL
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 8-5
PiRate Rating 94.5
National Rating 76
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 8-4


Offense:  UCF has not registered back-to-back winning seasons since 2001 and 2002.  On the other hand, they have not had back-to-back losing seasons either.  It has been feast during the odd years and famine during the even years.  Head Coach George O’Leary’s team looks primed to break that trend easily this year.  The Knights are the co-favorites in this division.

If O’Leary can find an adequate new quarterback to replace Brett Hodges, UCF will become the overwhelming favorite to win the East Division for the second time in four years.  Rob Calabrese has won the starting job twice before, but he apparently wasn’t ready to lead the team.  O’Leary believes the third time is the charm.  The only fly in the ointment may be that he could feel the nerves after being booed at home last year.

The rest of the offense is fairly well set.  At running back, Central Florida returns every player who contributed in the ground game last year, including Brynn Harvey.  Harvey rushed for more than 1,100 yards, scoring 14 times.  He won’t be available until the third or fourth game due to a knee injury he suffered in spring drills, but Jonathan Davis, Ronnie Weaver, and Brendan Davis will fill in admirably until Harvey is full speed once again.

The Knights have a terrific trio of wide receivers returning.  A.J. Guyton, Kamar Aiken, and Jamar Newsome combined for 104 catches and 1,471 yards.

Helping make this offense go is an experienced and very deep offensive line.  Four starters return and eight of the two-deep return.  O’Leary landed a bonanza of quality recruits here, so there is depth galore.

Look for UCF to score 24-28 points and gain 340-370 yards per game on offense this year.  If they can average 28 points per game, they will be tough to beat in the conference.

Defense: Since O’Leary took over in 2004, the Knight defense has given up 33, 29, 29, 27, 24, and 23 points per game per season.  Do you see the pattern?  Expect that patter to continue again this season, because UCF is loaded on this side of the ball.

The Knights have an outstanding set of ends in David Williams and Bruce Miller.  The two senior terminals specialize in making tackles on the offensive side of scrimmage.  Miller registered 13 sacks and five other tackles for loss.  The tackles are inexperienced, but they both tip the scale at 300+ pounds.  It will take more than one blocker to drive them off the line.

The linebacking trio returns two 2009 starters, but it is just like having all three back, because 2008 star Chance Henderson returns after missing last year with an injury.  Lawrence Young and Derrick Hallman combined for 23 ½ tackles for loss.

The secondary ranks with Southern Miss and UAB as the best in the conference.  The Knights are toughest at cornerback where Josh Robinson and Justin Boddie form the best outside defending pair in the league. 

UCF will give up less than 23 points per game this year.  Call if 18-22 points and 325-350 yards a contest.

Schedule: The Knights open with four consecutive non-conference games and then get a week off before starting league play.  They should be 2-2 at that point after beating South Dakota, losing to North Carolina State in a close game, winning at Buffalo, and losing at Kansas State.  They host Southern Miss on November 13, but they must face Houston on the road the week before.  We expect the Cougars to be clicking on all cylinders by then and think that game will be a loss for UCF.  It will all come down to the USM game.  At this moment in time, we favor the Eagles by about a half-point.





Team Houston Cougars
Head Coach Kevin Sumlin
Colors Red and White
City Houston, TX
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 10-4
PiRate Rating 104.3
National Rating 46
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 10-3


Offense: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the event you’ve all been waiting for.  Step right up and see the magical Case and his band of merry men prowl and loot through the land.

As we told you at the beginning of this preview, this is the third time that Houston has become an offensive titan in college football.  In 1968, running what we call the Houston veer today, the Cougars averaged 42.5 points per game while rushing for better than 300 yards and passing for more than 200 yards per game.  On November 23, 1968, they reached the century mark in a game against Tulsa (Country music star Larry Gatlin rushed for the touchdown that gave Houston 93).  That team topped 70 points two other times.  Flash forward to 1989.  Houston, out of the run and shoot offense, rode the arm of Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware to the tune of 53.5 points per game.  That team passed for more than 400 yards per game and almost repeated the feat of the 1968 team when they hung 95 points on SMU and topped 60 points four other times.

While we don’t believe this Houston team will score 50 points per game, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise.  The Cougars have topped 40 points per game the last two years, while averaging 563 yards of total offense both seasons.

Quarterback Case Keenum has a shot at becoming the next Heisman Trophy winner at UH.  He completed better than 70% of his passes last season.  Before you think that most of them were little dump passes, consider this:  he averaged better than eight yards per attempt and 11.5 yards per completion.  As a team, Houston put up 434 passing yards per game.  There is no reason to believe Keenum will not match or even exceed those numbers in his senior season.  He should be a first or second round pick in next year’s draft.

Keenum will benefit from the return of his big four receivers.  James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier, Patrick Edwards, and Charles Sims caught more passes (350) than 117 of the other 119 FBS schools!  This quartet gained 4,023 yards and scored 28 touchdowns.

Unlike most mega-passing teams, Houston can run the ball quite competently.  Both of last season’s big two rushers were set to return, but Charles Sims was declared academically ineligible.  Bryce Beall returns after rushing for 670 yards and seven scores.  He added 32 receptions and scored three times through the air.  Factoring out sacks, Houston exceeded five yards per rush.

The offensive line lost two starters, but the reserved picked up considerable playing time last year.  They gave up only 24 sacks in over 700 passing attempts, and that feat can be repeated again this year.

How much better could this Houston offense be in 2010?  If the defense can improve enough to give the offense a few more plays, and if the key players can stay healthy, this team could challenge the 50-point barrier.  It would not surprise us if Keenum throws for “just” 5,400 yards after topping 5,600 last year, because the running game could top 150 yards per game.  You won’t see a better offense in college football. 

Defense: This is the bugaboo for this team.  If the defense was just average, we would be discussing which BCS Bowl the Cougars would be headed to in January.  Houston gave up more than 30 points and 450 yards per game last year, and if the defensive line doesn’t improve by leaps and bounds, the Cougars could lose two or three games this year by scores of 45-35.

The line gave up a disgusting 227 rushing yards and better than five yards per carry.  In their four losses, the Cougars gave up an average of 253 rushing yards.  One of last year’s starting defensive linemen, Isaiah Thompson, has been moved from nose tackle to offensive guard, as Houston moves to a 3-4 defense.  That leaves UH with just one veteran on the front three. 

The quartet of linebackers has the potential to be much better than last year’s three-man unit.  Inside ‘backer Marcus McGraw was the star of last year’s defense, and he should repeat as 1st Team All-CUSA.  He is equally tough against the run and the pass, and he is going to be a demon on the zone blitz.

The secondary returns two very capable starters in cornerback Jamal Robinson and free safety Nick Saenz.  Robinson intercepted five passes and knocked away eight others.

The Cougars are still not world-beaters on this side of the ball, but they should give up less than 30 points and 425 yards per game this year.

Schedule: A tougher schedule will keep the Cougars out of the BCS Bowl picture.  After an easy opener at home against Texas State and a conference opener at home with UTEP, UH plays at UCLA.  The Cougars must also face an improving Mississippi State team and close the season at Texas Tech.  We can only see a 2-2 mark out of league play.  In the conference, Houston must face Southern Miss and Central Florida from the East.  A road game at SMU should be one of the most entertaining games of the year with a score that looks like a basketball game.  We think Houston will fall one time in league play, but they should still win their division.  The Cougars are our choice to win the CUSA Championship Game and face a beatable SEC team in the Liberty Bowl.



Team Rice Owls
Head Coach David Bailiff
Colors Dark Blue and Gray
City Houston, TX
2009 Record              
Conference 2-6
Overall 2-10
PiRate Rating 86.4
National Rating 95
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 4-8


Offense: The fall was sharp.  Rice followed up its first 10-win season in 60 years with a 10-loss season last year.  Nine starters return on offense, and one of those starters could be benched in favor of a transfer from the Big Ten.

Let’s start with the offensive line.  All five starters and four of the second unit return from last year to make this one of the most experienced blocking corps in the nation.  Guards Jake Hicks and Davon Allen and tackle Scott Mitchell will contend for all-conference honors.  Look for great pass protection and better run-blocking this year.

Quarterback Nick Fanuzzi returns after starting two-thirds of Rice’s games last year.  He passed for just under 1,600 yards last year, and that mark could easily double in 2010.

Fanuzzi will need some newcomers to step up from the group of receivers.  The Owls lost three of their top four from 2009, and the receivers who do return did nothing spectacular. 

The running game should make a major move forward.  After averaging a meager 109 yards on the ground in 2009, the Owls welcome Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie.  McGuffie is the highest-rated recruit to play at Rice in some time, and he should run the ball more than 20 times per game.

Rice won’t approach 2008’s offense numbers, but the Owls will combine a solid running game with a decent passing game to top last year’s output.  Call if 23-26 points and 325-350 total yards per game.

Defense:  This is where improvement must be made.  Rice gave up 43 points and 464 yards per game in 2009.  Nine starters return on this side of the ball too, including the entire defensive line.  The line also returns five other contributors from last year, and it should be much tougher to run on Rice this year.  Look for the pass rush to be much better as well with the return of ends Cheta Ozougwu and Scott Solomon.

Rice plays a 4-2-5 defense, and they have a decent pair of linebackers this season.  Neither will earn all-conference honors.

The biggest weakness is a porous secondary that surrendered 273 passing yards per game and allowed 67% of enemy passes to be completed.  Opposing quarterbacks averaged better than nine yards per attempt against them.  Any quarterback that averages better than nine yards per attempt for the season, and isn’t an option quarterback throwing eight passes a game, would be a Heisman Trophy finalist.  Safety Travis Bradshaw led the Owls with 121 tackles a year ago and earned 3rd team all-conference accolades.

Rice could improve by 10 points per game on defense this year.  Let’s call it about 30-35 points and 410-440 yards allowed per game.

Schedule: The Owls need to fire the schedule-maker.  He has guaranteed that they go no better than 1-3 outside of the league and maybe even 0-4.  The only winnable non-league came will be at North Texas.  Rice hosts Northwestern and Baylor, two private schools that could both be bowl-bound this year.  The fourth non-conference game is the opener at Reliant Stadium against Texas.  In league play, Rice could split their eight games and go 4-4, but they have no chance at a winning season unless they win six league games. 



Team S M U  Mustangs
Head Coach June Jones
Colors Crimson and Blue
City Dallas, TX
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 8-5
PiRate Rating 92.3
National Rating 83
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 7-5


Offense: Coach June Jones may draw comparisons to Annie Sullivan before he retires from the game.  Like Sullivan, you can call Jones a “miracle worker.”  He took a weak Hawaii program and created a little dynasty on the island, culminating with a trip to the Sugar Bowl in his last season there.  In just two short seasons in Dallas, he has brought SMU out of a quarter century of doldrums.  The Mustangs returned to a bowl last year for the first time since their pre-Death Penalty days of the 1980’s.

Jones is a mastermind with the passing game, but SMU’s exceptional pass offense will get pushed to the back of the sports pages playing in the same division as Houston.  Quarterback Kyle Padron took over as starter midway through the season following an injury to since departed Bo Levi Mitchell.  The true freshman completed better than 67% of his passes last year for more than 9.5 yards per attempt.  If he can replicate those numbers for a full season, he could top 3,400 yards this year.

SMU lost the services of its best pass receiver in school history.  Emmanuel Sanders took his 98 receptions to the NFL.  Aldrick Robinson has NFL potential.  He caught 47 passes for 800 yards (17.0 avg./catch) last year. 

Missing from the running game is Shawnbrey McNeal, who gained close to 1,200 yards last year.  Jones is very high on true freshmen Darryl Fields and Kevin Pope.  Fields can take a simple dump pass or quick pitch and turn it into a touchdown ala Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans.  Pope has the power to run over defenders. 

The offensive line will be manned by five juniors, four of whom started last year.  Three of the four received some form of postseason honors.

Jones should mold another fine offense in Dallas this year.  Look for the Mustangs to improve to 35+ points and 425+ yards per game this year.

Defense: SMU trimmed 11 points and 80 yards off their poor showing of 2008.  Enough talent returns this year to believe that the Mustangs will continue to show improvement.  The defensive line is the strongest unit on this side.  Ends Marquis Frazier and Taylor Thompson teamed up for 9 ½ sacks.  True freshman Mike O’Guin could step in as the new starting nose tackle.  O’Guin tips the scale at 320 pounds, and he will not be easily moved out of the middle.

Three of the starting four linebackers return.  The best of the quartet is outside ‘backer Pete Fleps, who made 83 tackles.

The secondary could be a problem this year, and in a conference where teams pass the ball 40 to 60 times a game, that could become a big problem.  Cornerback Sterling Moore broke up 11 passes last year, but the Mustangs lost two honorable mention all-conference players who teamed up for eight interceptions and 17 passes knocked away.

A solid pass rush could help hide the liabilities in the secondary, but we believe SMU will give up 225-250 passing yards and 375-400 total yards this year, which leads to about 24-28 points surrendered.

Schedule: The non-conference portion of this schedule is rough.  Look for a 1-3 mark as the Mustangs venture to Texas Tech and Navy and host TCU.  Only a home game with anemic Washington State gives them a shot at a win.  Once league play begins, SMU will be able to compete with anybody on their schedule, even Houston and Tulsa.  We actually believe the Mustangs will pen a loss on Houston and be in the division race until the end.  Road games against Rice and UTEP may determine if SMU can sneak through with a division title.  The Mustangs avoid the top two teams from the East.



Team Tulane Green Wave
Head Coach Bob Toledo
Colors Olive Green and Sky Blue
City New Orleans, LA
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 3-9
PiRate Rating 72.2
National Rating 119
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-8
Overall 2-10


Offense: It has been eight long years since Tulane last enjoyed a winning season.  The Green Wave has lost eight or more games for five consecutive seasons, and the stigma of Hurricane Katrina still haunts this program.  The Green Wave offense has fallen on hard times, averaging less than 17 points per game the last two seasons.

If TU is to improve on a 3-9 season of a year ago, the offense will have to make a huge leap forward.  Sophomore quarterback Ryan Griffin won’t have to share duties with Joe Kemp this year, as Kemp has been moved to wide receiver.  Griffin could be the best Tulane quarterback since Patrick Ramsey by the time he graduates, but he needs better receivers.  Only one receiver with any real experience returns this year, and Casey Robottom isn’t going to be confused with DeAndre Brown or James Cleveland.

In two seasons, Albert Williams has accumulated 143 rushing yards.  He will be asked to carry the load this year and fill the shoes of last year’s star Andre Anderson.  Expect a major regression here, as TU could rush for less than 100 yards per game.

The offensive line returns four starters, and they have the potential to be an excellent pass blocking front for Griffin.  Center Andrew Nierman is among the best in the league at his position.

It doesn’t look promising for Coach Bob Toledo in his fourth year in New Orleans.  We don’t see him righting the ship in the Crescent City.  Look for Tulane to continue to struggle to score points and access territory.  Call it 17 points and 300-325 yards per game. 

Defense:  The offense looks like a juggernaut compared to this side of the ball.  Tulane has been weak on this side for a long time.  In the last seven years, opponents have averaged an aggregate of 34 points and 415 yards per game.  With but four starters returning on this side of the ball, the Green Wave could be looking at even worse numbers in 2010.

Only one starter returns to the front seven, so this will be a major headache this season.  Tackle Justin Adams is the lone returnee up front, and he is coming off a season in which he registered just 17 tackles.

The secondary has three returning starters, but they will be asked to defend some of the best receivers in the nation for a longer amount of time this year.  None of these experienced defenders will show up on an all-conference team.

We believe Tulane is headed toward a Washington State-type of season.  Look for the Greenies to yield more than 40 points and 450 yards per game this year.

Schedule: Tulane is fortunate that they open at home against Southeast Louisiana.  That could be the only game they win this year.  The Green Wave host Ole Miss and Army and travel to Rutgers out of league play, and these three games look like big losses.  In conference play, it just doesn’t look promising that they can pick up a win.  It doesn’t help that they must play Southern Miss, Central Florida, and Marshall from the other division. 



Team Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Head Coach Todd Graham
Colors Blue and Gold
City Tulsa, OK
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 5-7
PiRate Rating 92.8
National Rating 81
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 8-4


Offense: For a team that averaged 29 points and 410 yards per game last year, it was funny to hear fans mutter, “What’s wrong with our offense?”  Tulsa averaged 44 points and 557 yards per game over the course of the last two years.

The offense should rebound with another stellar season this year, but there are a couple causes for concern.  Offensive coordinator Herb Hand left his position in late July to take a non-coordinator position at Vanderbilt.

Coach Todd Graham hopes the team can hit the ground running and not miss a beat.  He has an experienced attack unit that should be able to get over the loss of their top offensive assistant.

Quarterback G. J. Kinne began his career at Texas before transferring to Tulsa.  He fired the ball 345 times last year and completed 61% for 2,732 yards and 22 touchdowns.  He takes a back seat only to Case Keenum in this conference.  With better pass protection this year, he should add at least 1,000 yards to his 2009 total.

Tulsa has one of the three or four best receivers in CUSA.  Damaris Johnson caught 78 passes for 1,131 yards last year. He is also the best combined kick/punt returner in the league.  Joining him on the other side of the line should be Jameel Owens a transfer from Oklahoma.  Owens has the physical tools to be a great possession receiver.

The running backs are used more for their blocking and pass catching abilities than their running abilities.  Kinne was the leading rusher from the spread formation.  Fullback/H-back Charles Clay rushed for just 236 yards last year, but he caught 39 passes and scored 12 total touchdowns.  At 6-3 and 235, he seldom goes down on first contact.  Graham will rely on as many as six players to share the rushing load.

The offensive line had some difficulties last year, and with four starters and all of the second five returning, look for some improvement.  You will not see the quarterbacks go down 46 times like last year.

Tulsa will rebound with a move back over 35 points and 450 yards per game this year.  If the line improves enough, the Golden Hurricane could top 40 points per game.

Defense: Tulsa has not fielded a strong defense since Dave Kragthorpe was the head coach and Graham was the defensive coordinator.  Graham has indicated that he will take more control over the defense this year.

Six starters have been lost from last year, so it will take a monumental coaching effort to keep Tulsa from giving up 30 or more points per game.  Two starters return up front, but Graham brought in three junior college recruits who could all see considerable time in the trenches this season.  Best of the lot is nose guard Darrell Zellars.

Tulsa uses a 3-3-5 defense with two players, a bandit and a spur, playing a hybrid linebacker/safety position.  Spur DeAundre Brown returns after leading TU with 102 stops last year.  He only picked off one pass, and that was Tulsa’s major weakness on defense.  In fact, no returnee had more than one pick last year.

We see some form of improvement in the 2010 numbers, but how much is a mystery.  Our best guess if 25 points and 375 yards allowed.

Schedule: The non-conference schedule is not overly imposing.  The Golden Hurricane should win at least two and maybe three of their four games.  They face Bowling Green and Central Arkansas at Chapman Stadium, and they go on the road to a rebuilding Oklahoma State and Notre Dame.  In league play, it will all come down to a couple of games.  TU plays at SMU on October 9, at Houston on November 13, and closes the regular season with Southern Miss at home.  If they win two of those games, they will reach double figure victories for the third time in the last four years.  We see at least nine regular season wins.



Team U T E P  Miners
Head Coach Mike Price
Colors Orange and Navy
City El Paso, TX
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 4-8
PiRate Rating 82.3
National Rating 103
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-5


Offense: UTEP has been successful on this side of the ball for the last six years, and 2010 should not be an aberration.  Coach Mike Price returns the best quarterback in the conference not wearing a Houston or Tulsa uniform.  Trevor Vittatoe needs just 2,122 passing yards to become the school’s all-time leading passer.  If he stays healthy, he should do that by late October.  Vittatoe took a step backward last season, but he will have a better offensive line blocking for him this year.

Two quality receivers return for the Miners in wide out Kris Adams and tight end Jonny Moore.  Junior receiver Donavon Kemp has breakaway speed, and if he can learn to hold onto the ball, he could be an “X-factor” in this offense.

The running game has one outstanding rusher but very little depth.  Donald Buckram rushed for nearly 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns.

The offensive line returns three starters, and the two new starters have past starting experience.  UTEP should move the ball with consistency against every team on the schedule.

This looks like another 30+-point scoring team in the conference.  Call it 32 points and 425 yards this year.

Defense: Poor defensive play has been the Miners’ downfall during the Price era.  The natives are getting restless in El Paso, and another poor showing could bring that era to an end.

The Miners will have troubles up front, where three starters have graduated.  End Robert Soleyjacks is the lone holdover; he made just 19 tackles a year ago.

The linebacking unit loses the defense’s top player from 2009, and there is nobody on the roster who can replace Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith and his 108 tackles.

The news is not any better in the secondary.  Both cornerbacks and the free safety graduated, taking with them 20 deflected passes.  Strong safety Braxton Amy was granted a sixth season of eligibility after missing the last eight games of 2009 to injury.

UTEP will not contend for the division crown because they will not be able to stop the Keenum’s Kinne’s, and Padron’s of the conference.  Look for the Miners to yield 31-34 points and 450 yards per game.

Schedule: UTEP has a chance to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2005 thanks to an easy non-league slate.  The Miners host Arkansas-Pine Bluff and New Mexico State, and they face New Mexico in Albuquerque.  They can win all three of those games.  Only a visit to Arkansas will be bad news.  UTEP avoids UCF and Southern Miss from the East.  They get Memphis, UAB, and Marshall.  We believe they can split their conference games this year and win seven games overall.



Coming Tomorrow: The WAC Preview—Boise State is primed to run the table once again if the Broncos can get past a tough opening game opponent.

August 29, 2009

2009 Conference USA Preview

2009 Conference USA Preview

A PiRate Look

In the fifth in our series of conference previews, we take a look at Conference USA, where defense is just a suggestion and offense rules.  The 12 member institutions collectively surrendered 30 points per game last year.

Here are the preseason PiRate ratings for the league.  The ratings have been rounded to the nearest whole number even though we calculate them to two decimal places.  Thus, when you see multiple teams with the same rating, they are not actually exactly even.  To understand what the rating means, it is set so that 100 is average.  Thus, a rating of 90 means the team is 10 points weaker than the average team in the FBS.  The average of all 120 FBS teams should round to 100 if the math has been successfully calculated.

For those who have not followed the PiRate Ratings before and wonder about the home field advantage, we do not assign set in stone advantages.  These are assigned on a game-by-game basis.  For instance, if Central Florida was to get really lucky and host the mighty King Tebow, it would be expected that the Gator fans would find a way to get to Orlando and make it a home game for the visiting team.  However, if that same UCF team hosted Hawaii a week after the Warriors played at Boston College, then the Knights could enjoy as much as a touchdown in home field advantage.  The PiRates think it’s ridiculous to issue a blank home field advantage for all teams or even assign a range of set home field advantages.


Conference USA Preseason PiRate Ratings



Prediction *






    CUSA East




    East Carolina




    Southern Mississippi












    Central Florida




    U A B








    CUSA West












    U T E P








    S M U













# Tulsa over ECU in CUSA Championship Game


*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but


on expected changes to rating during the year



East Carolina: The Pirates return 16 starters from a year ago, including nine on the offensive side.  We give them the edge over Southern Miss solely on the basis of their game with the Eagles being at home to close out the year.  For full disclosure, our founder steadfastly believes USM will win this division.

Quarterback Patrick Pinkney is back for his senior season after completing better than 61% of his passes for 2,675 yards and a TD/INT ratio of 13/7.  We believe he will approach 3,000 yards this year with more touchdown passes and the same or even fewer interceptions.  On the other end of those passes will be a talented group of receivers, including Dwayne Harris (58-654) and the speedy Darryl Feeney (16 yards per reception).

The backfield is a weak spot, as nobody on the roster is capable of striking fear into opponents.  As long as they can pick up five to seven yards on a 2nd & long draw play and convert first downs on 3rd & 1 or 2, they will suffice.

The offensive line returns almost intact, as every starter has experience starting in the past.  Look for ECU to increase their offensive numbers to 28 points and 380 yards per game this season.

ECU’s defense was the only one in the league that was somewhat reliable last year.  Seven starters and 13 of the top 17 tacklers return, so the stop troops should be good again this year. 

Nick Johnson anchors this side of the ball from his middle linebacker spot.  He’s coming off a season where he registered 102 tackles including 10 behind the line.

Up front, C.J. Wilson is a monster at end.  A year ago, he recorded 10 ½ sacks and eight other tackles for loss.  He’ll compete for CUSA Player of the Year.

Two defensive backs should contend for league honors this year.  Cornerbacks Dekota Marshall and Emanuel Davis combined five interceptions and 14 passes broken up.  Behind those two, safety Van Eskridge stops receivers for little or no gain after the catch.

The schedule is favorable within the conference, but a killer outside league play.  Expect Virginia Tech and West Virginia to exact revenge this year, while ECU will probably taste defeat at North Carolina.  The other game is a season opener with Appalachian State, the preseason number one team in the FCS.  Appy State won at Michigan two years ago.  The road game with Tulsa comes immediately after the Thursday night tilt with Virginia Tech, and we expect ECU to suffer in that one.  We also think they will have a chance at revenge in December.

Southern Mississippi: East Carolina won’t have an easy road to a repeat division title this year, because the Eagles are loaded on both sides of the ball with nine starters back on both units.  If Southern Miss can pull off an upset over Kansas in Lawrence on September 26, it isn’t totally out of the realm that they could get on a roll and run the table.  No CUSA team has made it to a BCS bowl yet, so it’s something to think about.

Quarterback Austin Davis performed admirably as a freshman last year.  He passed for 3,128 yards and 23 touchdowns against only eight interceptions.  Defenses will not be able to key on him because back Damion Fletcher rushed for 1,313 yards and 10 scores at a six yard per carry clip.  He’s on the NFL scout’s radar. 

All three starting wide receivers from last year return, and they are an excellent trio of pass catchers.  DeAndre Brown nabbed 67 balls for 1,117 yards and 12 scores.  Gerald Baptiste hauled in 35 balls for 480 yards, and Freddie Parham caught 19 balls but only started six times.  All told, this unit is the equal of Houston’s and superior to the other 10 league members’ receiving units.

Four starters return to the offensive line, but overall this group is not as strong as some others in the league.

Defensively, Southern Miss will be strong in the trenches and in the secondary, but there is a question mark with the linebackers, where the top two tacklers from last year are gone.  In the secondary, cornerback C. J. Bailey and safety Chico Hunter will challenge for all-conference honors.  The secondary surrendered 226 yards per game, and that number should remain about the same this year.  However, it may occur due to more opponent passes.

The defense against the run will be improved after giving up 140 yards per game last year.  No, the increase won’t be large, but we predict an improvement to about 120 yards per game.  There will be some vulnerability due to inexperienced linebackers.

The schedule is set up so that if the Eagles upset Kansas and then knock off Louisville on the road, they could quickly move into the top 15 and venture to Greenville to face ECU with either an 11-0 or 10-1 record.  We think it won’t happen, but Southern Miss will challenge for the East title and definitely improve upon their seven-win season of last year.

Marshall: Coach Mark Snyder starts his fifth season in Huntington, and it will be his last one if the Thundering Herd fails to gain bowl eligibility.  The former Ohio State defensive coordinator has a dark horse contender for the division title this year, so a record of at least 6-6 should be a reality.

The roster took a big hit this summer when former CUSA all-freshman guard Josh Evans transferred.  We think Snyder has molded an adequate albeit piecemeal offensive line with Brandon Campbell moving in at left tackle and Ryan Tillman moving down to left guard.

At quarterback, former starter Mark Cann has fallen all the way to third team, and Brian Anderson will begin the season as the starter.  Cann threw too many interceptions, and Anderson has a more accurate arm.  Anderson’s receiving crew isn’t quite as experienced or talented as the teams Marshall will try to surpass in their division, so back Darius Marshall will be called on to move to the next level after rushing for 1,095 yards last season.  He needs to top 1,300 yards this year for the Herd to compete for the division title.

The Defense is going to be better, but it has a long way to go to gain respect after surrendering 28 points and 418 total yards per game in 2008.  The front four can match up with any CUSA rival.  End Albert McClellan has all the tools and will have a monster year if he can remain healthy.  Cornerback DeQuan Bembry is a ball-hawking pass defender who broke up 11 passes in addition to recording 7 ½ tackles behind the line.

Marshall hosts Southern Illinois to start the season, and it won’t be a sure win.  The Salukis are ranked #7 in the FCS preseason poll.  Games at Virginia Tech and West Virginia are sure losses, while a home tilt with Bowling Green must be a win.  Can Marshall break even in conference play?  Definitely, yes, but it may be hard to get that fifth league victory to cinch a bowl bid.  East Carolina and Southern Miss must come to Huntington, and Marshall has the horses to upset them both.  Road games with Memphis, UTEP, and Central Florida need to produce at least two wins for the Herd to go bowling.  It will be close.  Five wins ends Snyder’s reign.

Memphis: The Tigers somehow stay under the radar for most of the year and emerge at the end as a bowl team.  They have been to bowls five of the last six seasons, even though on paper they don’t appear to have the talent to do so.  This year is no different.  The PiRate stats say they have no chance of breaking even and could win just three games, but common sense says they will beat three teams as underdogs and earn a New Orleans Bowl bid or equivalent.

Coach Tommy West has consistently put out balanced offenses, averaging 407 yards per game over the last six seasons.  This year, we expect those numbers to drop by up to 50 yards per game (417 in ’08).  The Tigers lost too much talent and will rebuild on the attack side.  The major problem is the offensive line, where only one starter returns.  Memphis has done well with experienced lines and quality backs.

The Tigers do have a quality back in Curtis Steele, who rushed for 1,223 yards and a 5.6 average.  His numbers could suffer some because there will be times where he is met in the backfield by multiple defenders.

Quarterback Arkelon Hall is average for this league, and with less time to throw, we expect his interceptions to go up and percentage to drop.

Seven starters return on defense.  Last year, UM gave up just 354 total yards per game, but they gave up 27.2 points per game.  Those 354 yards came on just 60 total plays.  Memphis won’t hold onto the ball for 76 plays per game like last year, so we believe that even though the defense could be more talented, it will be on the field for 100 more plays this year; that could mean 500-600 more total yards.  That’s why we believe Memphis will fail to gain bowl eligibility. 

The schedule is on the rough side.  Memphis opens at home with Ole Miss on Sunday, September 6.  Then, they bus to Murfreesboro to play at Middle Tennessee six days later.  We see the Tigers starting 0-2 before getting a breather with Tennessee-Martin.  A game at Tennessee should make their non-conference record 1-3.  In CUSA play, UM gets Marshall, UTEP, East Carolina, and UAB at the Liberty Bowl and plays at Central Florida, Southern Miss, Houston, and Tulsa.  We just cannot see five winnable conference games.

Central Florida: The Knights were the one CUSA team that didn’t have an explosive offense last year.  To be blunt, UCF stunk last year, gaining just 230 total yards per game.  They couldn’t run the ball, and they threw 176 incomplete passes versus just 132 completions.  A mediocre defense meant UCF had one of the better stop troops in the league, but it wasn’t enough to have a winning season.  This year, the offense can only be better, but the defense will be weaker.

Quarterback Rob Calabrese completed less than 40% of his passes, which would have been bad 50 years ago.  It’s not like he can run the ball like Colin Kaepernick.  If Calabrese doesn’t improve immediately this season, look for former Wake Forest QB Brett Hodges to take over. 

The receivers will make whoever throws the ball a better passer this season, as everybody who caught a pass last year returns.  There’s just as much experience returning at running back, and the offensive line should be about as mediocre as last year.  Look for UCF to gain about 275 total yards per game this year and increase their point production from 16.6 to around 21.  Unfortunately, that won’t be enough to win six games.

The defense has a major Achilles Heel.  The secondary lost all four starters, and the new starters will get burned often by Pinckney, Davis, Anderson, Joe Webb, and especially Case Keenum.

The front seven will be considerably stronger this year with linebacker Lawrence Young leading the way.  Young is equally proficient against the run and the pass.

Perhaps the biggest offensive weapon this year could be late signee Jamie Boyle, a kicker/punter with a cannon for a leg.  Boyle is capable of connecting on a 60-yard field goal.

The schedule gives UCF a remote chance of posting six or seven wins.  Home games with Samford, Buffalo, Memphis, Marshall, and Tulane and road games with UAB and Rice are the winnable contests.  Miami and Texas will both destroy the Knights; road games against Southern Miss, East Carolina and a home game with Houston appear to be out of reach.

U A B: The Blazers have fallen on hard times as of late, winning just nine of 36 games the last three years.  UAB will be stronger on both sides of the ball, but a difficult schedule should keep them at the bottom of the standings.

10 Starters return on offense, including quarterback Joe Webb.  Webb completed 59% of his tosses for 2,367 yards last year, but he threw 16 interceptions.  Webb also can run the ball and led UAB with 1,021 yards on the ground.  Should he go down with an injury, it will be big trouble in Birmingham. 

All the key receivers from last year return and running back Rashaud Slaughter has a great pair of hands to catch balls out of the backfield, many of which are nothing more than forward lateral sweep plays.

The offensive line would have had all five starters returning, but tackle Terence Edge will miss the season.  Still, they should open more holes this year and protect the quarterback for a fraction of a second longer.

The defense gave up 31.3 points and 430 yards per game last year.  Unfortunately, the top two tacklers plus another who tied for third have run out of eligibility.  Additionally, the top pass defender has picked up his sheepskin.  A weak pass rush will expose a weak secondary, and the three linebackers are below average talents.  It looks like another long season at Legion Field.  Speaking of the home stadium, Legion Field’s upper deck has been closed to spectators.  That’s a perfect microcosm for this program. 


Houston: The Cougars set the college football world on fire in 1968, when the Houston Veer offense of then coach Bill Yeoman averaged over 300 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game.  They even scored 100 points against Tulsa.  In the late 1980’s, it was the run and shoot offense that passed for more than 400 yards per game.  Houston almost scored 100 points again, beating SMU 95-21 in 1989.  Now, the Cougars of Coach Kevin Sumlin are poised to run up some new gaudy offensive statistics and perhaps score 70 points in a game again this season (yep, they did that against Tulsa last year).

Quarterback Case Keenum won’t repeat the feat of Andre Ware and become the second UH QB to take home a Heisman Trophy, but the junior signal caller will top 5,000 passing yards once again.  He could approach 50 touchdown passes and post just 10 interceptions.  Keenum has a nice stable of receivers to play catch with, led by Tyron Carrier.  Carrier is coming off a season where he caught 80 passes for 1,026 yards.  Keep an eye on L. J. Castle, who can turn a five yard pass into a 70 yard touchdown.

It’s not all about passing at Houston.  Running back Bryce Beall ran for 1,247 yards last year with 13 touchdowns.  He is a danger to break free for long gains, and Keenum frequently passed to him coming out of the backfield.

The offensive line has three returning starters and should be about as good as last year.  JUCO transfer Roy Watts should start immediately at tackle and gives the Cougars the equivalent of a fourth starter.

The defense should be happy that they don’t have to face the Houston offense in a game, because UH couldn’t stop a feather last year.  They surrendered 31 points and 413 yards per game, and only four starters return from that team.  Worse, they lose Phillip Hunt and his 14 QB sacks.

Linebackers Marcus McGraw and C.J. Cavness will have to lead the defense this year.  The two combined for 180 tackles in 2008.  In the backfield, Brandon Brinkley will be assigned to the opponents’ top receiver.  Brinkley led the team with 15 passes broken up and tied for the lead with four interceptions.

An out-of-conference schedule that includes games against Oklahoma State in Stillwater and Texas Tech will prevent the Cougars from having a chance to sneak into the BCS bowl picture.  They also must face both Tulsa and UTEP on enemy turf, so we don’t believe Houston can win the division.

Tulsa:  Houston’s 563 total yards and 41 points per game was not the best in the nation last year; it wasn’t even the tops in the conference or even the West Division.  Tulsa averaged 47.2 points and 570 total yards per game.  While, the Golden Hurricane have just five starters back on offense and lost a quarterback who passed for more than 4,000 yards and 46 touchdowns, they could put up similar numbers this season.

Coach Todd Graham has three quarterbacks that could start for BCS conference teams.  As of this writing, it looks like Texas transfer G.J. Kinne may have a slight edge over JUCO standout Jacob Brewer and freshman Shavodrick Beaver, who spurned a scholarship offer from Michigan.  Then, there’s backup receiver A. J. Whitmore who will receive snaps out of the wildcat formation.  Graham has hinted that more than one of these talented players could be on the field at the same time, and even all four could be out there for a play.  Imagine trying to prepare for that scenario.

Whoever throws the ball, there will be three excellent receivers with breakaway speed on the other end of those tosses.  Damaris Johnson, Slick Shelley, and Trae Johnson combined for 1,845 yards on 112 catches (16.5 avg per catch) and 21 scores.

The running game will take a hit this year after the loss of Tarrion Adams and his 1,500+ rushing yards.  Jamad Williams and Charles Opeseyltan could share the majority of carries and approach 1,500 combined rushing yards.

The offensive line needs a little rebuilding, as three starters are gone.  If Tulsa fails to win the division, this will probably be the reason why.

On the stop side, the 3-3-5 defense returns four starters to the secondary, and the new starter at the bandit strong safety position (DeAundre Brown) started six games and basically gives them five returning starters.  This was TU’s major fault last year, but it should be a better unit this year.

The pass rush will be led by James Lockett from his blitzing spur safety alignment.  He comes off a year where he recorded 16 ½ tackles behind the line.

The schedule will not allow Tulsa to sneak into the BCS bowl picture.  A road game against in-state rival Oklahoma will put an end to those chances on September 19.  The Golden Hurricane could play spoiler when Boise State comes for a visit on October 14.  The key games in the division are against Houston and UTEP.  If they split those two, which we think they will, TU should go 7-1 in league play and repeat as West champions.

U T E P: On paper, this Miner team looks strong enough to win the league championship, but Mike Price’s teams have not played enough defense to win the West Division much less the conference championship.  We think UTEP will score almost as many points as their two main rivals, but the Miners will find a way to lose a conference game against one of the lower-placed teams due to a breakdown on defense. 

The offense averaged 33 points per game and 407 total yards in 2008, and most of the key components return this year.  Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe may not have put up the gaudy numbers equal to Keenum, but he tossed 33 touchdown passes against just nine interceptions.  He played a good portion of the season with a lame ankle, so his numbers could be more Keenum-like this year.

Vittatoe’s top two targets return this season.  Kris Adams and Jeff Moturi teamed for 101 receptions for 1,613 yards and 23 touchdowns.  The running game is as lame as the passing game is spectacular.  Nobody topped 500 yards last year, and we look for three or four players to share the load again this year.  However, we don’t expect the rushing numbers to change much—about 125 yards per game.

The progress of the defense will determine if this club can challenge for conference honors.  UTEP gave up an eye-popping 37 points and 469 yards per game in 2008, and with four of the top five tacklers gone, there isn’t much room for improvement.  UTEP uses a 3-3-5 defense, but they don’t have capable blitzers to disrupt offenses.  There isn’t much depth either, so a couple of injuries to starters could be big trouble.

The schedule is the only reason why the Miners have any chance to win the division this year.  They get both Houston and Tulsa at the Sun Bowl.  We think that they will lose at least one of those games and then fall in an upset on the road to Memphis, Tulane, SMU, or Rice.  Out of conference, the Miners host Buffalo and Kansas and venture to New Mexico State and Texas.  We say they will split those games and gain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2005.

Rice: The Owls had their best team since the 1953 squad beat Alabama in the Cotton Bowl with the aid of the only major college penalty that ever resulted in an automatic touchdown, when an Alabama player (Tommy Lewis) raced from the bench to tackle Rice’s back Dicky Maegle.  Rice didn’t need that type of penalty to win the Texas Bowl and finish 10-3; they had the machine gun arm of quarterback Chase Clement.

Clement graduated after passing for 4,119 yards and 44 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.  Also gone are the top two receivers, who merely combined for 198 catches and 33 touchdowns and the top two running backs.  Throw in three new starters in the offensive line and a new offensive coordinator, and the Owls’ offense could plummet from 41 points and 471 yards per game to about 25 points and 375 yards per game.

The defense will be much better this year after surrendering 33 points and 452 yards per game in 2008.  Nine starters return and all 11 second teamers are back as well.  This side of the ball will have excellent depth even though the overall talent is marginally average.  The back seven are the strength of the team, led by Andrew Sendejo from his free safety position.  He paced the Owls with 94 stops a year ago.

The schedule is tough this year, as a home game with Tulane appears to be the only sure conference win.  Outside the league, the Owls face Texas Tech and Oklahoma State on the road and host Vanderbilt and Navy.  It looks like 1-3 at best and maybe just two wins in league play.

S M U:  June Jones had two losing seasons in nine years as coach at Hawaii, and he could have two losing seasons in two years at SMU.  It’s going to be close, but we think the Mustangs will fall one game short of a break even season.  Watch out for them in 2010.

Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell performed quite well as a freshman, tossing 24 touchdowns and picking up 2,865 yards.  He also gave the ball away 23 times, and he should cut down on that number with a year’s experience under his belt.

Two dandy receivers as well as four other key contributors return to the fold this year.  Aldrick Robinson and Emmanuel Sanders teamed for 126 catches for 2,005 yards and 2o scores.  Until some semblance of a running game forms, this offense will never have a chance to get unleashed.  SMU rushed for just 41 yards per game, the worst amongst FBS schools.  There isn’t a back on the roster capable of striking fear into opponents.

The offensive line has some decent pass blockers, but they just cannot open running lanes.  Center Mitch Enright could challenge for league honors.

The defense was consistently appalling against both the run and the pass last year, giving up 226 yards rushing and 254 yards passing per game.  Eight starters return including six of the top seven tacklers.  Linebacker is the team strength with Pete Fleps and Youri Yenga capable of earning all-conference honors.

The secondary has some ball hawks with Derrius Bell, Rock Dennis, and Bryan McCann teaming up for 20 passes swatted away in ’08.

An opening game with Stephen F Austin will give the offense a chance to put up some fat numbers.  A road game against UAB could move the record to 2-0, and if so, the Mustangs just may gather enough momentum to move north in the standings.  Washington State on the road is not infallible, and it’s foreseeable that SMU could win that one as well.  A week off precedes the first blowout loss when SMU goes to TCU.  A home game with East Carolina could help decide the other division champion.  After a home game with Navy, the Mustangs face consecutive powers Houston and Tulsa on the road, and they should lose them both by big numbers.  

Tulane: This program has never fully recovered from the hurricane.  Last season’s 2-10 record may be hard to top this year and could easily be matched in 2009.

Coach Bob Toledo’s squad couldn’t move the ball or stop opponents for most of 2008 thanks to a young squad and numerous injuries to key players.  Running back Andre Anderson was headed to a 1,500 yard season before going down for the season.  After his injury, the Green Wave could only muster 64 rushing yards per game.

TU will hand the quarterbacking duties over to sophomore Joe Kemp, who beat out last year’s starter Kevin Moore.  Moore tossed 13 interceptions against just eight touchdown passes, and Kemp should better those numbers with ease if he stays healthy. 

Jeremy Williams is the top returning receiver after grabbing 27 balls for 437 yards last season in less than half the season.  He suffered multiple injuries and missed the last seven games.  Without him, the TU passing game dropped off by 75 yards per game.

The offensive line returns three starters from a year ago, but there is a depth problem and the overall talent is among the weakest in the league.

Likewise, there are big problems on the other side of the ball, where Tulane just couldn’t consistently stop anybody.  There are no stars at linebacker and no depth in the secondary.  The front four has some talent, with tackle Reggie Scott leading the way.  Keep an eye on rush end Logan Kelley, who led the Green Wave with seven sacks even though he didn’t start.

The special teams’ unit returns the punter, place-kicker, punt returner, and kick returners from last year.

Tulane last fielded a winning team in 2002, and it will be at least another year for the Greenies to challenge.  The schedule this season includes non-conference games at home against BYU and on the road at LSU.  The other two out-of-league tilts are winnable—McNeese State and at Army, but we think TU will lose at West Point.  The Green Wave will have to pull off an upset to avoid going 0-8 in league play, but we believe they will pull off one upset.

Next up: A look at the Mountain West Conference, where two or even three teams have the talent to earn an at-large BCS bowl bid.

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