Welcome to Big 12 Jr.
Just like its big brother, Conference USA is high scoring. The offensive talent is wide ranging. Yes, there are even Heisman candidates at this level. The Big 12 has six programs from Texas and Oklahoma. CUSA has five. Both are able to mine those areas of the Southwest for talent.
C-USA had three teams in the top 10 in total offense. The Big 12 had five. Only C-USA and the Big 12 averaged more than 400 yards in total offense per game. C-USA finished second behind the Big 12 nationally in touchdown passes per game, points per game and plays per game.
Just don't come around here to find any defense. Just like the Big 12, Conference USA had a problem stopping the ball. Half the league finished No. 100 or lower in total defense last season.
On offense, though, six of the top seven rushers and eight of the top 10 passers return. Nine of the 12 teams have at least eight offensive starters returning. Four of the nation's top 20 players in total offense last season were from C-USA.
Houston, Tulsa, Texas-El Paso, East Carolina and Southern Miss look like bowl teams. Houston or East Carolina could be BCS busters.
Whatever happens, it will be fun to watch.
1. Houston -- Kevin Sumlin set a school record for wins by a first-year head coach (eight). Don't be surprised if the former Oklahoma assistant pumps out double digit wins this year. Sumlin's best players still haven't reached their peak yet. Quarterback Case Keenum (5,020 passing yards) should be a Heisman candidate. Tyron Carrier caught 80 balls as a freshman. If a shaky defense holds up behind CUSA defensive player of the year Phillip Hunt, the big boys better watch out. Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State are all on the schedule. They're all winnable games.
2. Tulsa -- In less than a month's time Todd Graham's offense scored 77 (against Texas El-Paso) and his defense gave up 70 (to Houston). If Graham can ever balance this thing out, the Golden Hurricane are going to be a BCS buster. Unfortunately for them, it's not going to be this year. The offense lost coordinator Gus Malzahn to Auburn, its quarterback (David Johnson) and top rusher (Tarrion Adams, 1,523 yards). Tulsa will score will rely on a veteran defense to hold teams under 70.
3. Texas-El Paso -- This might be Mike Price's best team since he headed for the border five years ago. Four of the five starters are back on the offensive line. Some think quarterback Trevor Vittatoe could be the league's best. A defense that helped put the Miners among the top 10 in turnover margin returns seven starters.
4. Rice -- From biggest turnaround in the country (seven-game improvement from 2007) to bottom half of the West. David Bailiff has to replace 56 touchdowns produced by Chase Clement (44 passing, 12 rushing). It's not going to be easy with the first three games on the road. After that the Owls plays Tulsa, Navy, East Carolina and Houston. If Bailiff goes 5-7 with this group give him a bonus.
5. Tulane -- Bob Toledo has won only six of 24 games in his two seasons in New Orleans. The beat should go on this year. The Green Wave's only victories last season were against Louisiana-Monroe and SMU. They come into this season having lost eight in a row, the last seven by at least 17 points.
6. SMU -- This is exactly where Hawaii was 11 years ago -- at the bottom, 0-12 under Fred vonAppen. June Jones blew into the islands in 1999, going 9-4 in his first season. It's going to take a little longer at SMU. Jones went 1-11 in his first season at SMU. He has most of his offensive talent returning but this is still SMU, losers of 17 consecutive CUSA games.
1. East Carolina -- The Pirates are loaded with 16 starters returning a CUSA championship team that beat Virginia Tech and West Virginia. While opponents are more wise to the ways of quarterback Patrick Pinkney, it's hard to scout takeaways. The Pirates had 33 of them last year, including six against Tulsa in the conference title game.
Skip Holtz stayed put after becoming one of the hottest coaching commodities around. That means the Pirates could once again take a run at a BCS berth if they are able to defeat West Virginia and North Carolina in back-to-back weeks on the road.
2. Southern Miss -- Larry Fedora has 19 starters back from a team that won its final five games. The Golden Eagles might have the best running backs, receivers, offensive line and defensive backs in the league. The difference might be Nov. 28 when Southern Miss has to go to East Carolina for a division showdown.
3. Memphis -- Jucos usually need a year to get acclimated. Tailback Curtis Steele came in from Northwest Mississippi and ran for 1,223 to become conference newcomer of the year. If the Tigers can stay healthy at quarterback then senior receivers Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton should have big seasons. Calhoun has caught a pass in 37 consecutive games. The 6-foot-8 Singleton is tied for the school career receiving touchdown record (19).
4. Marshall -- Mark Snyder is under pressure to produce a bowl game. Marshall hasn't been to the postseason in his four seasons. Snyder is 16-31 and is coming off a 4-8 finish in '08. If he doesn't get it done with 16 returning starters including All-American prospect Cody Slate at tight end, then it might be time to freshen up the resume.
5. Central Florida -- George O'Leary has alternated winning and losing seasons in his five seasons. The pieces are in place for an above .500 finish but that's about it. Last season's offense was last in I-A. It's going to take more than the return of 15 starters to rebound from a 4-8 downer. O'Leary loses only left tackle Patrick Brown (All-CUSA) on offense. The problem will be scraping out seven wins in the ultra-competitive East Division.
6. Alabama-Birmingham -- This is Neil Callaway's best team in Birmingham. The Blazers, though, have to play seven road games (in a nine-week stretch). Joe Webb was No. 3 rushing quarterback (1,021 yards) in the country.