Conference USA preview: Houston, Tulsa still best in ever-changing league

by | College Football Blogger
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Quarterback David Piland will attempt to replace Case Keenum at Houston. (US Presswire)  
Quarterback David Piland will attempt to replace Case Keenum at Houston. (US Presswire)    
At one point, Doc Holliday took a quick survey of the room at Conference USA's annual media day in Dallas and came to a sobering realization: After two years as head coach at Marshall, he was already on the verge of becoming an elder statesman in a league awash with new blood.

If not for George O'Leary, entering his ninth year in the top job at Central Florida, Holliday and his third-year counterpart at East Carolina, Ruffin McNeill, would be the deans of the East Division. And considering that O'Leary didn't show in Dallas, for the day, they already were.

"I was joking about it with Ruffin," Holliday said. "I'm not really sure that's a good thing."

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For the sake of connecting with fans through familiarity and continuity, maybe not. But for a league in transition at every level, it is the reality. Of C-USA's 12 current head coaches, five are in their first year on the job: Justin Fuente (Memphis), Curtis Johnson (Tulane), Ellis Johnson (Southern Miss), Tony Levine (Houston) and Garrick McGee (UAB). Of that group, only Ellis Johnson has previous head coaching experience, in brief, obscure stints at The Citadel and Gardner-Webb; neither Levine nor Curtis Johnson has ever served as a coordinator on either side of the ball. Throw in Bill Blankenship, now in year two at Tulsa after two decades in the local high school ranks, and fully half the conference is in the process of rebooting under new management.

The same goes for their quarterbacks. From beginning to end, the conference was epitomized last year by a handful of prolific, recognizable passers -- notably Houston's Case Keenum, a long-reigning headline magnet who graduated with NCAA records for career passing yards, total yards, touchdown passes and most everything else after five years in the Cougars' up-tempo spread attack, but also Southern Miss' Austin Davis, Tulsa's G.J. Kinne and East Carolina's Dominique Davis, each of whom emblazoned his name in his school's record book by passing for at least 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in consecutive seasons.

In their absence, the league can't boast a single player going into the season who has come anywhere near those marks. The active leader in total offense, UCF quarterback Jeff Godfrey, has been moved to wide receiver and may struggle to see the field at all after losing his starting job and bouncing off and on the roster the past year.

Instead, the most anticipated passers are all new starters or transfers from more high-profile programs in other leagues. Four C-USA teams this fall, Memphis, SMU, Tulsa and UCF, are all expected to start new quarterbacks who began their careers in the Big 12. It's a very good bet the conference's next breakout star will come from that group.

Southern Miss linebacker Jamie Collins had 19.5 tackles for a loss in 2011. (US Presswire)  
Southern Miss linebacker Jamie Collins had 19.5 tackles for a loss in 2011. (US Presswire)    
From close up, then, the unifying themes across the conference are fresh faces and new beginnings, with the occasional redemption narrative.

But take a couple steps back, and 2012 begins to look like an ending for a certain era in the conference's short history, one that arguably extends all the way back to its formation 16 years ago.

The upcoming season will be the last in C-USA for four members, Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU, who have received the long-awaited call-up from the Big East. Once there, they'll (re-)join former C-USA members Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida in the equivalent of conference realignment grad school. Those four will be replaced in 2013 by newcomers Florida International and North Texas from the Sun Belt Conference and Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio from the WAC. At which point we are talking about a truly different league than Conference USA has been in the past.

Not that this is a new development, but given the opportunity, everyone in the conference would prefer to be somewhere else. Of the original six teams that formed C-USA's first lineup in 1996 -- Cincinnati, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, Southern Miss and Tulane -- only Southern Miss and Tulane will remain after the upcoming season. Of the five schools that joined between 1996 and 2004, just ahead of the first wave of mass realignment that established the current two-division lineup in 2005, there will only be two more: East Carolina and UAB. By this time next year, pre-2005 members will be matched by the 2013 newcomers, and outnumbered two to one overall.

A conference started and predominantly populated for most of its existence by a bunch of longtime independents who already had been playing each other for years, anyway, will be a true Frankenstein's monster of a league, assembled almost entirely from the detritus of the WAC, the Sun Belt and (thanks to Marshall) the MAC. And that's before UNC-Charlotte and Old Dominion arrive as football members in 2015, by which point who knows what other current members may have been picked up to fill another hole in the vulnerable, ever-evolving Big East or which other aspiring obscurities C-USA will have grafted on to replace them?

From that perspective, maybe a little turnover and unfamiliarity isn't so bad. Maybe it means things are working perfectly. Players come and go, coaches come and go. Now conference rivals come and go. Everyone's just passing through on the way to the next rung on the ladder, the more expensive house the next town over. And every few years you look up and realize that, without going anywhere, the old neighborhood has regenerated itself into something else entirely.

Matt Hinton's predicted order of finish:

West

1. Houston: The Cougars are sending off the most prolific quarterback in NCAA history, his top four wide receivers and more than 80 percent of the total yards from an attack that led the nation in total and scoring offense. They're also replacing SEC-bound head coach Kevin Sumlin with a longtime special teams coach, Tony Levine, who has never been a head coach or coordinator. So what does it say about the reputation the program built under Sumlin that Houston is still overwhelmingly favored to win the West Division? For one thing, it says that a lot of people who vote in those polls think the unprecedented passing stats accumulated by Case Keenum throughout his career are basically replicable by his replacement, junior David Piland. That wasn't quite the case in 2010, when Piland was shoved into the fire as a true freshman following season-ending injuries to Keenum and his top backup. But the relentless philosophy behind the nearly point-a-minute offense will not change, and the new receivers are at least as talented as the previous group with the arrival of former Arizona signee Dewayne Peace and blue-chip freshman Deontay Greenberry, a longtime Notre Dame commitment who stunned everyone with his signing day decision for the Cougars. This team may lean a bit more on the running game and defense than previous editions, but may ultimately go further by claiming the conference championship Sumlin and Keenum never did.

2. Tulsa: Despite considerably more turnover among coaches and quarterbacks, the one C-USA offense that can credibly stack its system against Houston's over the past five years is Tulsa's. Since 2007, the Golden Hurricane have easily averaged upwards of 500 yards and 40 points in conference games, and won 29 of those games to the Cougars' 30. For now, the only difference in that record is the season-ending, 48-16 smackdown Houston put on Tulsa with the West Division title on the line last November. On paper, though, where almost of the players handling the ball for the Cougars this fall will be new, the Hurricane have proven firepower at virtually every position. The giant exception is the new quarterback, emphasis on the giant: 6-foot-6, 245-pound Nebraska transfer Cody Green is the unquestioned starter after sitting out 2011 under standard NCAA transfer rules, and he brings more raw talent to the position than any of the guys who have succeeded there before him. If he comes anywhere near fulfilling it, the rest of the pieces are in place for Tulsa to reclaim the West crown.

3. Southern Methodist: June Jones likes reclamation projects. At Hawaii, he inherited a team that had failed to win a game the year before his arrival, orchestrated the most dramatic single-season turnaround in NCAA history in his first year and eventually took the Warriors to the Sugar Bowl. At SMU, he inherited a team that won a single game the year before his arrival and hadn't been to a bowl game since the program was axed by the "death penalty" two decades earlier. Five years later, the Mustangs have played in three consecutive bowl games and have every reason to expect to make it four. In that context, Garrett Gilbert may be the perfect June Jones quarterback: A former five-star recruit from just outside of Austin, Gilbert spent one hugely disappointing season as Texas' starting quarterback in 2010 and was barely into a second when he was bounced from the lineup in favor of a wholesale youth movement. He wasn't literally banished from his hometown, but by the end it must have begun to feel that way. In Dallas, Gilbert has a second chance in an offense that will give him every opportunity to redeem his maligned arm, as well as a pair of All-C-USA seniors, tailback Zach Line and wide receiver Darius Johnson. Both are far more proven playmakers than anyone Gilbert shared a huddle with at Texas. What he will not have is an offensive line -- all five starters will be new in place of the most experienced front in the nation in 2011. Before we get too carried away with the redemption narrative, let's just hope he makes it out in one piece.

4. Rice: Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to win at Rice: Within their first four years in Conference USA, the Owls delivered two surprise winning seasons (7-6 in 2006 and tying a school record for wins at 10-3 in 2008). So it can be done, just not very often. Since cracking the 10-win mark, David Bailiff's past three teams have managed only 10 wins combined -- only two of which, a one-point win over North Texas in 2010 and a two-point upset of Purdue last September, have come outside of the conference. So much for rallying cries. This year, the Owls do return a relatively experienced quarterback whose name lends itself to a fun pirate accent (junior Tyler McHargue) and should be much better in the secondary, a perennial Achilles' heel. But other than sophomore cornerback Bryce Callahan, the lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball ensures another year of taking solace in mocking opponents' ACT scores.

5. Texas-El Paso: According to the preseason ballots of C-USA coaches, UTEP senior Nick Lamaison is the best quarterback in the conference, which is a fine honor. Although frankly, it says a lot more about the dearth of proven passers in the league than it does about Lamaison, who had fewer touchdown passes against C-USA defenses (8) in his first season as a starter than Case Keenum had in a single night against Rice (9). With Lamaison often struggling, and nearly as often injured, the Miners didn't come close to beating a team with a winning record and limped out with four losses in their last five. At any rate, on a team that's been outgained by nearly 100 yards per game in conference games each of the last two years, and hasn't produced a winning record since its first season in the league in 2005, it's hardly certain that a first-rate passer would be enough to lift them back into a bowl game, anyway. On the bright side, punter Ian Campbell is as good as they come.

6. Tulane: All new coaches would rather talk about energy, optimism and selling points than inherent barriers to success, but as of last December, Curtis Johnson is the first Tulane coach in decades who actually has something tangible to sell: A brand new, $60 million "crown jewel" of a stadium planned for Tulane's uptown New Orleans campus, expected to take the Green Wave out of the echoing canyon of the Superdome by the fall of 2014. In the meantime, it's the same, familiar slog through the conference cellar for a program now 10 years removed from its last winning record, and currently riding a 10-game skid heading into the season. Unfortunately, All-C-USA linebacker Trent Mackey cannot singlehandedly tackle his team into relevance.

East

1. UCF: Prior to the aforementioned bowl ban, the UCF buzz since last winter was mainly over three high-profile transfers on the offense, quarterback Tyler Gabbert (Missouri), running back Storm Johnson (Miami) and offensive lineman Pete Smith (Georgia Tech), all of whom are expected to start right away and provide a boost to the overall talent level. For a team that managed to drop six games last year by a touchdown or less, despite outgaining opponents on average by a little over 100 yards per game, even a minor edge on the field could spark a significant turnaround in the standings. But as they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Meanwhile, the defense is so steady it's getting a little boring: Including last year's effort, the Knights have led the conference in total defense three years in a row, and in scoring defense in each of the last two. With eight starters back -- at least six of them potential all-conference types -- they don't need any transfers to feel like they can take the defense for granted.

2. Southern Mississippi: Like Houston, Southern Miss delivered arguably the best season in school history -- 12 wins, conference championship, top-20 finish in the polls -- and immediately hit "reset" as its head coach and record-breaking quarterback said their farewells. Enter 60-year-old Ellis Johnson, a longtime defensive coordinator at various SEC stops, who made it his first priority to fill the void left under center by four-year starter Austin Davis. He may have found the answer a few minutes away in touted local Anthony Alford, whose high school coach, Steve Buckley, just happened to be an old colleague of Johnson's from their stint together at USM in the late eighties, and who just happened to choose the Golden Eagles over opportunities in the SEC and pro baseball after Buckley joined Johnson's staff. In May, Buckley agreed to take over play-calling. Whether Davis' old job goes to a freshman (besides Alford, there is redshirt Ricky Lloyd) or to junior Chris Campbell, the starter will have the luxury of four returning starters on the offensive line and four different backs who rushed for at least 400 yards last year. On the other hand, he will also have the decided non-luxurious task of learning on the job in an opening-day trip to Nebraska, as well as in non-conference visits from Louisville and Boise State by the first week of October. If he's up to speed by then, though, the running game and defense could carry the Eagles back to the top of the East Division.

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3. East Carolina: There are recoveries, and then there's whatever happened to East Carolina's defense between 2010 and 2011, which may have been closer to a faith healing, or an exorcism. After finishing dead last nationally in total defense and next-to-last in scoring D in Ruffin McNeill's first season as head coach, the Pirates answered McNeill's dramatic offseason weight loss by shedding more than 100 yards and 12 points per game from their average yields for the year. But the defense could not stop the ECU offense from giving the ball away 35 times, more often than any other offense in the nation, resulting in an equally dramatic plunge of 10 points per game from the Pirates' season scoring average, and their first December at home since 2005. Under the circumstances, throwing a new quarterback into the fire isn't such a bad thing, even if they're not sure exactly who that's going to be yet. If the gains on defense hold with seven returning starters, though, a steady, within-the-offense type who takes care of the ball will qualify as progress.

4. Marshall: When the Thundering Herd went down in 2011, they went down hard: All six losses came by double digits, all but one of them by at least three touchdowns. On the other hand, when the Herd won, it tended to be by the skin of their teeth: Five of their six regular season wins were decided by a touchdown or less. Accordingly, the stat sheet looks a lot uglier than the final 7-6 record would suggest. But the future looks a little brighter, too, largely thanks to sophomore quarterback Rakeem Cato, who predictably struggled as a true freshman against a brutal non-conference schedule, was benched for three games at midseason and finally seemed to find his footing during a three-game winning streak to close the year. With a season's worth of growing pains under his belt and future pro Aaron Dobson on hand to terrorize opposing secondaries, back-to-back bowl bids are in the cards for the first time since Byron Leftwich rode into the sunset ten years ago.

5. UAB: Neil Callaway lasted five years as UAB's head coach, which was at least three years after all but the most hardcore Blazer fans noticed he was still there, if they ever noticed in the first place. Callaway's teams turned in a nice, quiet record of 18-42, topping out at 5-7 in 2009, and never bothered the neighbors with too much racket during home games. Whatever else he's up against as Callaway's successor, Garrick McGee's first and most daunting priority is getting someone, anyone to care about making the Blazers competitive, a hurdle that got that much higher when plans for a much-anticipated on-campus stadium were rejected by the state's board of higher education just before Callaway's dismissal. That means that whatever progress UAB does make on the field will have to unfold in front of tens of thousands of empty seats at Legion Field, and it will have to happen relatively quickly, or it will be that much harder to convince recruits, boosters or anyone else that it can happen at all.

6. Memphis: Not only has Justin Fuente never been a head coach on any level: At 35 years old, Memphis' new boss is easily one of the youngest head coaches ever in Division I. (At the moment, only two of his active peers are younger, Toledo's Matt Campbell and Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart, the latter by only a little over a month.) But the Tigers are in no position to quibble over birthdays. After three wins in two years and back-to-back last-place finishes under Fuente's predecessor, Larry Porter, they need a winner, and at least Fuente knows what a winning program with limited resources looks like: In five years at TCU, he was part of teams that won three outright Mountain West championships, turned in three top-10 finishes, played in two BCS bowl games and finished an undefeated season in the Rose Bowl in 2010. As a coordinator, Fuente oversaw offenses that set school records for yards and points in 2009, surpassed both marks a year later and came up just short of breaking the scoring record against last year — and that was despite breaking in a new quarterback, sophomore Casey Pachall, for NFL-bound Andy Dalton. In both years under Porter, Memphis finished among the most impotent offenses in the nation in every major category. Expectations in the River City could not be lower, and Fuente could not have picked a better stepping stone if he manages to turn the thing around. For now, narrowing the gaping margins of defeat would be an impressive enough start.

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