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August 10, 2011

C-USA preview: 'O' rules, but 'D' is key

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

Welcome to Conference USA, where a runner never fails to gain 5 yards and a receiver never fails to get open.

Well, that might be a little too much hyperbole - might be - but this definitely is a league where offenses rule. Half of the league's 12 programs ranked in the top 33 nationally in total offense and four ranked in the top 16 in scoring offense. On the other hand, only three schools ranked in the top 70 in total defense and five were ranked 103rd or worse. Four league schools were among the eight worst in allowing points, and only one school ranked higher than 58th in scoring defense.

Thus, if it's offense to want to see, tune in to a C-USA game. The league has the second-best collection of quarterbacks in the nation (only the Pac-12 is better), and as many as six signal-callers could throw for 3,000 yards this season - Houston's Case Keenum (who should graduate with NCAA career records for yards, touchdowns and completions), Tulsa's G.J. Kinne, SMU's Kyle Padron, East Carolina's Dominique Davis, Southern Miss' Austin Davis and UAB's Bryan Ellis. UCF's Jeff Godfrey - who has the potential to develop into one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation - and Tulane's Ryan Griffin should reach the 2,500-yard plateau.

The league could have as many as six receivers with 100 receptions, and three or four tailbacks could run for 1,000 yards. In addition, it wouldn't be surprising if Houston and UCF have at least three players each rush for 600 yards.

In short, it's an offensive coordinator's dream world - and a defensive coordinator's nightmare.

Perhaps ironically, the teams that had the best defenses - SMU and UCF - met in last season's title game. Coaches June Jones of SMU and George O'Leary of UCF have placed a premium on playing solid defense while also being productive offensively. That school of thought should pay off again.


BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Houston QB Case Keenum. Keenum was lost for the season in Game 3 last season and was granted a sixth season of eligibility. He is a great fit in the Cougars' offense. He understands the scheme and has a ton of playmakers surrounding him. He has a legitimate chance to set NCAA career marks in passing yards, completions and touchdown passes. He threw for 5,671 yards and 44 TDs in 2009, and if he approaches those numbers again, he will be in the Heisman hunt.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Southern Miss LB Korey Williams. After a great sophomore season in 2009, in which in made 121 tackles, Williams had a slightly disappointing junior campaign. He still made 93 tackles, including 14.5 tackles for loss. Expect a rebound to '09 numbers from Williams, who is a physical middle 'backer who can run.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: East Carolina QB Dominique Davis. Davis began his career at Boston College, moved on to a junior college, then enrolled at ECU last season. He proved to be a great fit for the Pirates' pass-happy attack, throwing for 3,967 yards and 37 TDs. But the rushing attack is questionable and the defense closely resembles a sieve, which means Davis has to cut down on his picks (16) if ECU wants to go bowling again. Davis is going to have to be consistently good if ECU is to overcome its issues.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Houston CBs Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden. Houston's offense is going to be highly productive and good enough four the Cougars to win the league. Thing is, Tulsa, SMU, Southern Miss and probably UCF can say the same things about their offenses. Which defense is going to come through? Bennett and Hayden were teammates at national junior college champion Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas; they enrolled in time for spring practice and are the likely starters. They better play well because depth looks non-existent: The third corner likely will be Jeffery Lewis[/db, who was a tailback last season.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Tulane TB Orleans Darkwa. He had a good freshman season in 2010, turning heads in the league. This season, he should garner some national attention. He ran for 925 yards and 11 TDs as a true freshman last season; it was the highest single-season rushing total by a freshman in school history. He had five 100-yard games, second-most by a freshman back in league history. Expect coach Bob Toledo and his staff to rely heavily on Darkwa this season.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: UCF T Victor Gray. Gray started 10 games as a redshirt freshman for a tough UCF defense last season. This season, he is the only returning starter on the line and one of just two in the front seven. He's still a bit on the light side - he's 6 feet 4 but listed at just 256 pounds - but he plays hard and has good quickness for an interior lineman. He should contend for all-league honors.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: SMU K Mike Loftus. Loftus, a redshirt freshman, is expected to be the Mustangs' kicker. SMU made just seven field-goal attempts last season, and in a division in which the top three are pretty evenly matched, it will help if a team can count on its kicker. Loftus is from Anaheim (Calif.) Servite and generally was considered one of the nation's top 10 kickers as a high school senior.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: UCF LB Ray Shipman. Shipman is a junior and a transfer from Florida - where he played basketball. Indeed, he hasn't played football since 2005, when he was a wide receiver and safety for a powerhouse Miami Pace program. But coaches like his size (6-5/237), toughness and athletic ability, and he should start at outside linebacker.

East Division

1. UCF [ Team Preview ]

2. Southern Miss [ Team Preview ]

3. East Carolina [ Team Preview ]

4. UAB [ Team Preview ]

5. Marshall [ Team Preview ]

6. Memphis [ Team Preview ]

West Division

1. SMU [ Team Preview ]

2. Houston [ Team Preview ]

3. Tulsa [ Team Preview ]

4. Tulane [ Team Preview ]

5. Rice [ Team Preview ]

6. UTEP [ Team Preview ]

Championship game

SMU over UCF


COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: UAB's Neil Callaway. He is 15-33 in four seasons and hasn't had a winning record. Granted, UAB isn't a powerhouse and is vastly overshadowed in its home state by Alabama and Auburn. But middling finishes in Conference USA still will get you fired, so there will be some pressure on Callaway to at least flirt with a .500 record this fall.

BEST STAFF: SMU. Everyone knows about June Jones and his love of the passing game, but he also hires good assistants, which is a big reason he was successful at Hawaii and is building a solid program at SMU. Defensive coordinator Tom Mason has done great work with what used to be a ghastly unit, offensive line coach Adrian Klemm is a recruiting demon and wide receiver coach Jeff Reinebold - who was the defensive line coach at Hawaii in 2006 and '07 - has done a solid job with his position group.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: East Carolina's Lincoln Riley. Riley, 27, is the youngest coordinator in the FBS ranks and is heading into his second season overseeing the Pirates' attack. Last season, ECU broke or tied 29 team or individual school offensive records. Riley, who's from Muleshoe, Texas, is a former walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech for Mike Leach. After one season as a scout team quarterback, Riley became a student coach for three seasons while still enrolled. He later became the Red Raiders' inside receivers coach for Leach, and followed coach Ruffin McNeill - who had been Tech's defensive coordinator - to ECU before last season.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: SMU's Tom Mason. UCF's Dave Huxtable left to become Wisconsin's linebacker coach, so we'll go with Mason. Mason, who was Fresno State's linebacker coach when Jones hired him at SMU, doesn't get enough credit for the turnaround he has overseen. SMU was 40th nationally in total defense last season and allowed 352.9 yards per game. In 2007, that total was 498.7. Mason has presided over dramatic improvement - from 479.5 in '08 to 397.1 in '09 to last season. Mason runs a 3-4 set and blitzes frequently.

BEST POSITION COACH: UCF DL coach Jim Panagos. UCF consistently has one of C-USA's best defensive lines, and Panagos is a major reason. He is a former NFL assistant who has put together good units in his four seasons with the Knights. No matter who departs, the next guy in line gets the job done. Panagos spent three years in sales for the Safelite auto glass company from 1994-97 before getting back into coaching.

UCLA at Houston, Sept. 3

Boston College at UCF, Sept. 10

Southern Miss at Virginia, Sept. 24

UCF at SMU, Oct. 15

SMU at Southern Miss, Oct. 22

SMU at Tulsa, Oct. 29

Tulsa at UCF, Nov. 5

UCF at Southern Miss, Nov. 12

SMU at Houston, Nov. 19

Houston at Tulsa, Nov. 26


TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: UCF. Forget all those key guys lost on defense. Focus on the offense instead. Yes, we're talking about a George O'Leary-coached team's offense. Sophomore QB Jeff Godfrey is a star on the rise, and the tailback depth is exceptional. Plus, with O'Leary in charge, you can be sure the defense is going to be fine. More than a few analysts think UCF will finish second in the East. We're saying not to be surprised if UCF wins the overall league title for the third time in five seasons.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Marshall. The Herd finished strong in 2010, winning four of their final five games. But the offensive backfield is undergoing a makeover, the defense lost tackle machine/LB Mario Harvey and the secondary could be shaky. Plus, the early-season schedule is a bear; each of the first six games is against a bowl team from 2010, with four of those on the road. And the Herd have to play at Houston and Tulsa. It's too tough a schedule to expect a winning record.

GAME OF THE YEAR: SMU at Houston, Nov. 19. We say it's an even-money bet that the West Division regular-season title will be on the line when these teams meet. Houston has won five in a row in the series, averaging 40.4 points during that streak.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Tulsa. There are a lot to choose from, but we'll go with the Golden Hurricane, who have the non-conference schedule from hell. They play Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State in the first month of the season. Yikes. Tulsa also plays at UCF. Two positives: The Golden Hurricane play host to both Houston and SMU.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Southern Miss. The toughest road game is against Navy. The toughest league road game is East Carolina. And the Golden Eagles miss Houston and Tulsa among their inter-division games.


We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about Conference USA. Here are their responses:

Olin Buchanan: Tulsa
Tom Dienhart: Houston
David Fox: Houston
Mike Huguenin: SMU
Steve Megargee: Houston

Olin Buchanan: East Carolina
Tom Dienhart: UCF
David Fox: Tulsa
Mike Huguenin: Marshall
Steve Megargee: Tulsa

Olin Buchanan: Eighth
Tom Dienhart: Eighth
David Fox: Eighth
Mike Huguenin: Eighth
Steve Megargee: Eighth

Olin Buchanan: Tulsa WR Damaris Johnson
Tom Dienhart: Marshall DE Vinny Curry
David Fox: Marshall DE Vinny Curry
Mike Huguenin: Houston QB Case Keenum
Steve Megargee: Houston QB Case Keenum

Olin Buchanan: SMU RB Zach Line
Tom Dienhart: SMU RB Zach Line
David Fox: Tulane TB Orleans Darkwa
Mike Huguenin: SMU RB Zach Line
Steve Megargee: SMU RB Zach Line

Olin Buchanan: Houston's Case Keenum
Tom Dienhart: Houston's Case Keenum
David Fox: Houston's Case Keenum
Mike Huguenin: Houston's Case Keenum
Steve Megargee: Houston's Case Keenum
Olin Buchanan: SMU WR Cole Beasley
Tom Dienhart: East Carolina WR Lance Lewis
David Fox: SMU WR Cole Beasley
Mike Huguenin: East Carolina WR Lance Lewis
Steve Megargee: East Carolina WR Lance Lewis

Olin Buchanan: Houston LB Marcus McGraw
Tom Dienhart: UAB LB Marvin Burdette
David Fox: Marshall DE Vinny Curry
Mike Huguenin: SMU LB Taylor Reed
Steve Megargee: Houston LB Marcus McGraw

Olin Buchanan: Tulane
Tom Dienhart: SMU
David Fox: SMU
Mike Huguenin: Tulsa
Steve Megargee: UCF

Olin Buchanan: UCF
Tom Dienhart: UCF
David Fox: UCF
Mike Huguenin: UCF
Steve Megargee: UCF

Olin Buchanan: Memphis
Tom Dienhart: UAB
David Fox: Tulane
Mike Huguenin: Tulane
Steve Megargee: Tulane

QBCase Keenum, Houston (6-2/210, Sr.)
RBOrleans Darkwa, Tulane (5-11/200, Soph.)
RBZach Line, SMU (6-1/230, Jr.)
WRPatrick Edwards, Houston (5-9/175, Sr.)
WRDarius Johnson, SMU (5-10/175, Jr.)
WRLance Lewis, East Carolina (6-3/212, Sr.)
TTyler Holmes, Tulsa (6-4/305, Sr.)
TMatt McCants, UAB (6-7/295, Sr.)
GClint Anderson, Tulsa (6-2/285, Sr.)
GJosh LeRibeus, SMU (6-2/305, Sr.)
CChris Thompson, Houston (6-2/285, Sr.)
EVinny Curry, Marshall (6-4/252, Sr.)
TElliott Henigan, UAB (6-4/280, Sr.)
ETaylor Thompson, SMU (6-6/287, Sr.)
LBJa'Gared Davis, SMU (6-1/220, Jr.)
LBMarcus McGraw, Houston (6-0/225, Sr.)
LBTaylor Reed, SMU (6-0/230, Jr.)
LBKorey Williams, Southern Miss (6-2/243, Sr.)
CBRichard Crawford, SMU (5-11/195, Sr.)
CBJosh Robinson, UCF (5-10/192, Jr.)
FSKemal Ishmael, UCF (5-11/211, Jr.)
SSKendrick Presley, Southern Miss (6-2/200, Sr.)
KDanny Hrapmann, Southern Miss (5-9/160, Sr.)
PKyle Martens, Rice (6-6/200, Sr.)
KRQuincy McDuffie, UCF (5-10/175, Jr.)
PRDamaris Johnson, Tulsa (5-8/170, Sr.)

Offensive backfield

1. Houston: QB Case Keenum should graduate with some key NCAA passing records. And there are three tailbacks with 1,000-yard potential.

2. UCF

3. SMU

4. Southern Miss

5. Tulsa

6. UAB

7. Tulane

8. East Carolina

9. Rice

10. Marshall

11. UTEP

12. Memphis

Receivers/Tight ends

1. SMU: Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson could combine for 200 receptions. There are some good complementary guys as well.

2. Houston

3. East Carolina

4. Southern Miss

5. Tulsa

6. Marshall

7. UCF

8. Rice

9. UAB

10. Tulane

11. Memphis

12. UTEP

Offensive line

1. Tulsa: All five starters return, headed by T Tyler Holmes and G Clint Anderson. Tulsa barely edges out SMU for the top spot.

2. SMU

3. UAB

4. Rice

5. UCF

6. Southern Miss

7. Houston

8. East Carolina

9. Tulane

10. Marshall

11. Memphis

12. UTEP

Defensive line

1. Marshall: E Vinny Curry had 94 tackles and 12 sacks last season, and his linemates have some talent as well.

2. Southern Miss

3. UCF

4. SMU

5. Tulsa

6. Memphis

7. Rice

8. UAB

9. Houston

10. UTEP

11. Tulane

12. East Carolina


1. SMU: Ja'Gared Davis is a big-play guy, and Taylor Reed makes a ton of tackles (145 last season).

2. Southern Miss

3. Tulsa

4. Houston

5. Marshall

6. UAB

7. UCF


9. Tulane

10. Rice

11. Memphis

12. East Carolina


1. UCF: CB Josh Robinson can play for anybody (and also is a dangerous punt returner), and FS Kemal Ishmael is another who should contend for all-league honors.

2. SMU

3. UAB

4. Southern Miss

5. Marshall

6. Tulsa

7. East Carolina


9. Rice

10. Tulane

11. Houston

12. Memphis

Special teams

1. Houston: Though he doesn't have a big leg, K Matt Hogan is consistent and accurate. P Richie Leone is steady and also a solid kickoff specialist. Tyron Carrier (kickoffs) and Patrick Edwards (punts) are excellent return men. Carrier has six kickoff-return TDs in his career; the NCAA record is seven by former Clemson TB C.J. Spiller. The coverage units need work, though.

2. Tulsa

3. Southern Miss

4. UCF

5. East Carolina

6. Rice

7. Marshall

8. UAB

9. Tulane

10. SMU

11. UTEP

12. Memphis

Coaching staff

1. SMU: June Jones has done yeoman work at Hawaii and SMU. Tom Mason is the best defensive coordinator in the league. And the position coaches are solid, too, especially Adrian Klemm (offensive line) and Jeff Reinebold (wide receivers).

2. UCF

3. Houston

4. Southern Miss

5. East Carolina


7. Tulane

8. UAB

9. Marshall

10. Tulsa

11. Rice

12. Memphis

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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