Conference USA Football Predictions
Conference USA has emerged into one of the stronger non-BCS conferences in the country. In 2010, UCF finished the season ranked No. 21 in the country and Tulsa wasn’t far behind at No. 24. It marked the first time a C-USA member finished the year inside the Top 25. Things got even better in 2011, as Houston ended up No. 18 and Southern Miss No. 20.
Unfortunately this will probably be the last season that C-USA is considered one of the top non-BCS conferences. In 2013, Houston, UCF, SMU and Memphis will all make their way to the Big East, while Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, and UTSA (University of Texas at San Antonio) join to keep the conference at an even 12 teams.
Houston nearly put C-USA in a BCS Bowl last year, as they entered the conference championship game ranked No. 7 overall with a perfect 12-0 record. Southern Miss put an end to those hopes with a huge upset, as they crushed the Cougars 49-28 to take home the title. The conference ended up sending five teams to a bowl game, and would go on to finish with an impressive 4-1 record in postseason play.
There are six teams that figure to battle it out for the title in 2012. UCF, Southern Miss, and East Carolina are the favorites to come out of the East, while Houston, Tulsa and SMU are the teams to beat in the West. Here are my predictions on how the East and West divisions will play out in 2012.
1. UCF Knights
The Knights were considered one of the favorites to win the East in 2011, but things didn’t exactly go as planned. UCF wound up going just 5-7 overall and 3-5 inside C-USA. That won’t stop me from picking the Knights to deliver in 2012. UCF has a conference-best 16 starters returning. They will once again have one of the top defenses in C-USA (allowed 18.3 ppg in ’11), as they get back 8 starters on that side of the ball. What really has me excited about this upcoming season is the additions of quarterback Tyler Gabbert (Missouri transfer) and running back Storm Johnson (Miami transfer) on the offensive end. While the Knights draw both Tulsa and SMU out of the West, they will host both East Carolina and Southern Miss.
2. East Carolina Pirates
The Pirates are another team that struggled to get anything going last year, but their 5-7 finish was more of a result of a brutal non-conference schedule. East Carolina faced the likes of South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina in the first four games of the season. This year the Pirates return 15 starters and are definitely a team to watch out for in C-USA. While they have to go on the road to face both UCF and Southern Miss and draw Houston at home out the West, I have them favored in every other conference game. There’s a good chance they could upset either Southern Miss and/or Houston and be right their with UCF for the division title.
3. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
It may surprise a lot of people to see Southern Miss picked 3rd after their impressive 12-2 campaign in 2011, but I think the Golden Eagles will really struggle to match their success from a season ago. Not only do they lose head coach Larry Fedora (34-19 over four seasons), they have a total of just 10 starters coming back. I really like the addition of true freshman quarterback Anthony Alford, who will be a star in Hattiesburg by the time he leaves town, but he is just one player. The defense was depleted and will have just four starters returning, Southern Miss also loses their two best playmakers at wide receiver, which will limit Alford’s impact in 2012. The Golden Eagles do have a favorable schedule in C-USA, as they avoid my top two teams out of the West in Tulsa and Houston, but overall they will disappoint.
4. Marshall Thundering Herd
Head coach Doc Holliday has done an amazing job of getting his team to play above expectation in his first two years on the job. The Thundering Herd surprised a lot of people last year with their second place finish in the East (5-3). Marshall would upset FIU in the Beef ‘O’ Brady Bowl to finish up the year at 7-6. It’s really going to take a lot for Holliday to keep the Thundering Herd out of the bottom half of the East in 2012. While they get back eight starters on offense, the defense loses their star in Vinny Curry and five of their top six tacklers from last year. Marshall also has a very difficult conference schedule. Three of their four C-USA home games are against the likes of Tulsa, UCF and Houston, leaving most of their winnable games on the road.
5. UAB Blazers
Despite finishing just 3-5 in conference play, the Blazers pulled off a couple of big upsets last year. They defeated UCF 26-24 at home as a 16-point underdog and later knocked off Southern Miss at home 34-31 as a 23-point underdog. Those two wins weren’t enough for head coach Neil Callaway to keep his job, as he was let go and replaced by Garrick McGee. While I really like the addition of McGee, it’s going to take some time before he gets this program headed in the right direction. The Blazers have just 11 starters coming back for 2012 and I have huge concerns with their offensive line this year. UAB avoids the basement in the East thanks to a home game against Memphis.
6. Memphis Tigers
The Tigers have won a total of two conference games the past three seasons. They were outgained by an average of 230 ypg inside the conference in 2011, which makes their win over Tulane seem like more of a fluke than anything. Memphis should at least be more competitive with 14 starters come back, but they simply have to much ground to make up. The Tigers also have to adjust to the new systems of first year head coach Justin Fuente. They do have a couple winnable games at home against Rice and Tulane, but neither one is a sure thing.
1. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
I don’t think there is any doubt the Golden Hurricane were at worst the third best team in C-USA last year. While they finished up the season with an 8-5 overall record, each of their five losses came against some pretty good competition. They lost to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Houston and BYU (bowl game). Even though Tulsa loses one of the school’s all-time greats at quarterback in G.J. Kinne, they are my favorites to win the West in 2012. The loss of Kinne will be eased by the addition of Nebraska transfer Cody Green. They also feature the conferences best rushing attack and get back their top two receiving threats. Tulsa does have to go on the road to face both Houston and SMU, but I think they are talented enough to take both of those games.
2. Houston Cougars
A lot of experts are picking the Cougars to repeat in the West this year, but I think the loss of star quarterback Kase Keenum and head coach Kevin Sumlin will be too much for Houston to overcome in 2012. I don’t think people understand how much better Keenum made everyone else around him. If it wasn’t going to be hard enough for sophomore quarterback David Piland to fill the shoes of Keenum, he has to do it without the Cougars top three receiving threats from last year. While I still have the Cougars picked to finish 2nd in the West, I wouldn’t be surprised if they dropped off even more.
3. SMU Mustangs
I really had a difficult time picking SMU behind Houston, but the Mustangs have just 10 starters coming back in 2012. They should see improvement at quarterback with the addition of Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert, but the offensive line is a major concern. Last year the Mustangs had an NCAA-best 158 career starts returning on the offensive line. This year they have just 34 and have to replace all five starters. Not only will it limit what Gabbert can accomplish in his first season, but it’s going to make it very hard for running back Zach Line to match his 1,244 yards and 17 touchdowns from last season.
4. UTEP Miners
The Miners are a team to watch out for in the West this season. Head coach Mike Price figures to field his most talented team in years. However, UTEP has the hardest schedule of any team in the conference. For starters, they have a non-conference slate that features Oklahoma, Mississippi and Wisconsin. They also draw each of the top three teams out of the East in UCF, East Carolina and Southern Miss. Even if they can pull off an upset at home against either SMU or UCF, I can’t see them winning more than three conference games.
5. Rice Owls
The Owls have suffered three straight losing seasons since their magical 10-3 run in 2008. They ended up just 4-8 overall and 3-5 inside C-USA last season. It doesn’t look like 2012 will be the year Rice gets back on track. The Owls have just three true home games and two of those come against the likes of Southern Miss and SMU. The only two games where they could actually be favored is at home against Marshall and at Tulane.
6. Tulane Green Wave
The Green Wave are another team that will open 2012 with a new head coach. Tulane went out and hired New Orleans Saints wide receiver coach Chris Johnson. I think it’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s going to take some time for Johnson to get his players into the system. The expectation is that Johnson is going to play a lot of young players, which has me thinking the Green Wave are in for yet another long season. Tulane has won a total of just five conference games the last four years.
Conference USA Championship Game: Tulsa defeats UCF