Florida. Michigan. Virginia Tech.
Though national notoriety has escaped them, Conference USA's Southern Miss Golden Eagles share a bit of gridiron glory with those powerhouses. They are the only four Division I-A schools to have winning records in each of the past 13 seasons.
|Can Damion Fletcher top his '06 output of 1,338 rushing yards? (US Presswire)|
Bower has longtime ties to the school, winning team MVP honors as quarterback after the 1975 season. Not long after graduating, he was invited to serve as a graduate assistant by then-coach Bobby Collins.
Though he jumped around to various assistant positions with different schools throughout the '80s, his fondness for his alma mater never wavered, and the school ultimately hired him for their head coaching post on Dec. 2, 1990.
Bower and the Golden Eagles have been soaring ever since.
Southern Miss has compiled a 112-77-1 record during his tenure, making him the second-winningest coach in school history. He is the fourth-longest tenured active coach at one school, trailing only Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech) and coaching legends Joe Paterno (Penn State) and Bobby Bowden (Florida State).
His teams have captured four Conference USA championships (1996, '97, '99, '03) and have been especially stout at home (60-16).
|1. Southern Miss|
|4. East Carolina|
|Team to beat:|
|Jarett Dillard, Rice|
|Albert McClellan, Marshall|
|Coach of the year:|
|Todd Graham, Tulsa|
Last year the school won its third consecutive bowl after earning its ninth berth in 10 seasons.
This time, expectations are at an all-time high, with some considering Southern Miss a strong candidate to become C-USA's first team to break through for a BCS bowl bid. The Golden Eagles return six starters -- including sophomore RB sensation Damion Fletcher -- to the league's top-rushing offense and nine starters to the conference's top scoring defense.
Bower isn't absorbed with the preseason praise, however, noting at C-USA media days that his team wasn't a favorite last year when it reached the C-USA championship game. It's all about getting it done on the field, he says.
If the Golden Eagles can survive a three-game road trip that takes them to Tennessee (Sept. 8), conference-rival East Carolina (Sept. 15) and last season's sweetheart Boise State (Sept. 27), they could be in good shape to run the table.
"Boise State showed if you take care of business, anything can happen," Bower told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. "But to get there, you have to go undefeated.
"Boise has the reputation of a BCS team. They've had a great ride and everyone in this league wants that. It can happen. But there is just so much parity. I would certainly like for us to be the next Boise State."
Jarett Dillard, Rice: Last season, the 5-foot-11, 160-pound Dillard hauled in 21 touchdown passes, smashing school and C-USA records. Overall he caught 91 passes for 1,247 yards, a 13.7 yards per catch average. Entering this season, he carries a streak of 15 consecutive games with a TD reception, three off the record established by Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald in 2003.
Albert McClellan, Marshall: The junior is the choice of conference coaches to repeat as the defensive player of the year, and we're not about to argue. Last year, McClellan led C-USA in sacks with 11.5 (seventh nationally), in tackles for loss with 19 (sixth nationally) and ranked second in forced fumbles with four (tied for 10th nationally). In total, he amassed 77 tackles from his defensive end post.
Predicted FinishEASTERN DIVISION
|Kevin Smith is back, but he needs to step up for UCF to get better. (US Presswire)|
2. UCF: After an 8-5 season and the school's first bowl berth in 2005, the Knights returned to earth with a thud (4-8) in 2006. A bit more stability -- 17 starters return from a season ago -- and a new on-campus stadium, have the Knights thinking of a return to bowl land. Kevin Smith must carry the load. After a stellar freshman campaign in which he rushed for 1,178 yards and nine TDs, he faded to 934 yards and seven TDs last season.
3. Marshall: This could have been a special season for the Thundering Herd, but the loss of Ahmad Bradshaw, who jumped ship to the NFL, have dampened hopes somewhat with no clear frontrunner to fill his shoes. Despite the presence of Albert McClellan, the 2006 C-USA defensive player of the year, the defense ranked as one of the worst in the nation last season.
4. East Carolina: Though question marks abound, especially on the offensive line, third-year coach Skip Holtz is excited about what awaits his team in 2007 after leading them to a bowl berth last season. Sophomore Rob Kass takes the reigns at QB from the departed James Pinkney. If the line holds up, he has some solid skill players at his disposal. The defense returns seven starters, including six of the front seven.
5. Memphis: The first year of the post-DeAngelo Williams era was a mighty struggle for the Tigers. One of the top rushing teams in the nation with Williams, they ranked 10th in conference last season. Coach Tommy West revamped his staff in hopes of bringing a renewed energy to the squad. Led by Joseph Doss, there's depth in the backfield, but no true star. Though QB Martin Hankins returns, he could see a challenge from Will Hudgens. The defense ranked as one of the worst in the league last year, but did see steady progress throughout the season.
6. UAB: It's a rebuilding season in every sense of the word. The Blazers, 3-9 a season ago, welcome a new coach in Neil Callaway, who had served as the offensive coordinator at Georgia the past six seasons, and he inherits a roster decimated by graduation. Seven starters are gone from the offense and seven more on the defense as part of a senior class the numbered nearly 30 players.
|Tulsa QB Paul Smith might flourish in Todd Graham's new offense. (US Presswire)|
2. Tulsa: After one season at Rice in which he captured C-USA Coach of the Year honors, Todd Graham jumped at the chance to return to Tulsa, where he served as defensive coordinator from 2003-05, to replace Steve Kragthorpe. The defense, the top unit in the conference last season, loses five starters, but is deep and experienced and should remain among the elite. The new staff is installing a no-huddle spread offense, which should serve senior QB Paul Smith well if adequate replacements are found for four lost starters along the offensive line.
3. SMU: By all accounts, the Mustangs feature their most talented and deepest roster in years, so the pressure is on coach Phil Bennett to lead SMU to its first bowl games in 23 seasons. The offense appears in good hands with sophomore QB Justin Willis, a revelation as a freshman in 2006 whose 158.4 rating ranked 10th in the nation. An inconsistent defense returns seven starters and needs to show improvement. All key members return to a special teams unit that ranked as one of the best in conference.
4. UTEP: The Miners dropped to 5-7 last year and things don't appear promising for a rebound this season. UTEP loses 27 seniors including record-setting QB Jordan Palmer and his top target Johnnie Lee Higgins. There are five players vying to replace Palmer with no favorite materializing through spring. On top of that, the rushing game was abysmal in 2006, ranking 116th in the nation. Coaches are hopeful the return of LB Jeremy Jones from injury will shore up the defense, but overall, the unit lacks depth and experience.
|2007 Conference Previews|
|Sun Belt||Big 12|
5. Rice: The Owls reached their first bowl game since 1961 last season, and then promptly lost coach Todd Graham to conference-rival Tulsa. So the Owls are on to their third coach (David Bailiff) in as many seasons, which doesn't do much for the stability of the program. Bailiff will retain the spread offense that allowed QB Chase Clement and Dillard to flourish and four starters return along the offensive line.
6. Tulane: There's renewed optimism for the program with the hiring of Bob Toledo, but if he's to turn things around, it'll likely take two or three seasons. As it stands now though, he inherits a team that ranked last in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The offense will certainly have a different look with a new QB -- still to be determined -- for the first time in three seasons and a new scheme. Eight starters return on defense.