Conference USA Football Predictions

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Conference USA had two teams ranked inside the top 20 at the end of the 2011 season. It was arguably the best year in conference history. However, last season was a big flop for Conference USA as it went just 12-36 overall in non-conference play, which was the worst mark in the country. That included a 1-23 regular season mark against BCS teams with the lone victory coming by Rice in a 1-point triumph over 1-11 Kansas.

The conference rebounded in the bowl games last year, finishing a surprising 4-1 in December and January. Conference USA loses Memphis, UCF, SMU and Houston to the American Athletic, but it has added FIU, FAU, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Middle Tennessee and UTSA in 2013. Next season, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa will bolt for the AAC, while Western Kentucky, Charlotte and Old Dominion will join Conference USA.

There is a lot of talent coming back to the conference in 2013, meaning this should be a bounce-back year. In fact, six of the top seven quarterbacks in passing efficiency return. Eight of the top nine rushers and three of four receivers that finished with at least 1,000 yards last year are back. Let’s take a look at how Conference USA will play out in 2013.

Conference USA East Predictions

1. Marshall – The Thundering Herd will be one of the most improved teams in the country in 2013. Off a 5-7 season, I’m picking them to win the East division and push for 10 wins. They have the conference’s top offense behind QB Rakeem Cato and eight returning starters from a unit that put up 40.9 points and 534 total yards per game last season. The defense will be improved as well with seven starters back. While Marshall draws Tulsa from the West on the road, it gets a key game against East contender ECU at home, which will be the deciding game as to which team wins the division.

2. East Carolina – The Pirates will be one of the most experienced teams in Conference USA in 2013. They have 18 starters back from a team that won eight games last year while finishing tied for first in the East Division. This is easily Ruffin McNeill’s best team yet in Greenville. While I could see ECU winning the East, I believe it will lose at Marshall in that pivotal November 29 meeting and fall just short for a second straight year.

3. UAB – The Blazers are my surprise team in the East Division. They gave Ohio State and Tulsa all they could handle last year despite finishing just 3-9 on the season. Now, they return 16 starters and will be much-improved in head coach Garrick McGee’s second year on the job. UAB gets Southern Miss at home in the season finale, which is why I have it pegged ahead of the Golden Eagles.

4. Southern Miss – The Golden Eagles became the first team in FBS history to go from 12 wins to 0 from one season to the next. They clearly weren’t as bad as their 0-12 record would indicate last year, losing four games by eight points or less. Southern Miss will improve a ton defensively with nine starters back on that side of the ball. The offense can’t be any worse despite having just four starters back. Cal transfer Allan Bridgford could be a good one at quarterback. The Golden Eagles avoid the top two teams in the West and will be one of the most improved squads in the conference.

5. Middle Tennessee – Rick Stockstill could have one of his most talented teams yet in 2013. That’s because 16 starters return from a team that went 8-4 last year. However, a step up in competition from the Sun Belt to Conference USA won’t do him any favors. The Blue Raiders get FIU and UTEP at home, but they also face the top two teams in the East in ECU and Marshall in Murfreesboro. They’ll likely be an underdog in every conference road game, which will make it very difficult to match last year’s win total.

6. Florida Atlantic – Amazingly, Florida Atlantic went from -128.9 yards per game in Sun Belt play in 2011 to +10.8 yards per game in conference action in 2012. Despite going just 3-9 last year, head coach Carl Pelini has this program headed in the right direction. The schedule gets much tougher this year as the Owls make the switch from the Sun Belt to Conference USA. With 15 returning starters, they at least have a chance to be competitive once again. However, five road games in the first six weeks could lead to a disastrous start to 2013.

7. FIU – The Golden Panthers were the biggest disappointment in the Sun Belt last year. They had gone 8-5 in 2011 and returned 17 starters from that team, but inexplicably finished 3-9 in 2012. Now, they have the second-fewest returning starters in Conference USA with only eight guys coming back. While FIU avoids the top three teams from the West, its inexperience will make it tough to be competitive in its new conference in 2013.

Conference USA West Predictions

1. Rice – I believe the Owls will win the West Division in 2013. They are coming off a 7-6 campaign from 2012, and they return the most starters (19) in all of Conference USA in 2013. The offense is loaded with QB McHargue, RB Ross, WR Taylor and all five starters along the O-line coming back. The defense returns each of its top eight tacklers from a year ago and will be improved. Rice avoids the top two teams from the East in Marshall and ECU. Even though it has to travel to face Tulsa, I believe a 7-1 record in conference play will be enough to win the West in 2013.

2. Tulsa – The Golden Hurricane have been the cream of the crop of Conference USA since joining the league in 2005. They have finished in the top spot of the C-USA standings in three of the past five years while going 48-17 (74%) in league play since ’05. That being said, this will be one of the worst teams that Tulsa has fielded in a long time with only 10 returning starters. The offense is in good hands with seven returning starters, including QB Green, RB’s Watts and Douglas, and WR Garrett. However, the defense will take a big step back with only three starters coming back, and the losses of seven of its top nine tacklers. Plus, Tulsa draws each of the top two teams from the East in Marshall and ECU.

3. Tulane – The Green Wave have a chance to be the most improved team in Conference USA in 2013. They return 16 starters from a team that went just 2-10 last year. After finishing last or tied for last in the West for four consecutive seasons, Tulane will escape the basement in 2013 and actually finish 3rd. The talented Nick Montana, son of former Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, takes over the offense after tearing it up at the junior college level last year. The Green Wave also get a healthy Orleans Darwa back, a two-time first-team All-Conference USA running back.

4. North Texas – The Mean Green had not won more than three games in any season since 2004 when Dan McCarney arrived three years ago. He has made this football program much more competitive in his two years year, guiding North Texas to a 5-7 record in 2011 followed by a 4-8 campaign in 2012. This will be McCarney’s best team yet as 17 starters return. The offense has nine starters back and should be improved no matter who wins the starting QB, which will either be Kansas transfer Brock Berglund or incumbent starter Derek Thompson. The defense is loaded with eight returning starters from a unit that allowed 27.8 points per game last year, including first-team All-Sun Belt LB Zachary Orr.

5. Louisiana Tech – Sonny Dykes did a tremendous job in leading Louisiana Tech to a combined 17 wins over the past two seasons. He has bolted for Cal, and now Skip Holtz will have his hands full in matching Dykes’ success in his first year. The Bulldogs return a conference-low seven starters in 2013. The good news is that leading rusher Kennet Dixon (1,194 yards, 27 TD) returns, and Texas Tech transfer Scotty Young could be a good one at quarterback. The bad news is that the defense loses each of its top seven tacklers from a year ago. This is clearly a rebuilding year for Holtz, though I expect LA Tech to win at least three conference games.

6. UTEP – The Miners have just 12 starters back from a team that finished tied for last in the West Division while going 3-9 in 2012. The did lose five games last year by 11 points or less, so they were more competitive than their record would indicate. Mike Price has decided to step down after 31 years of coaching, paving the way for Sean Kugler to take over. He could give this program new life, and the cupboard certainly isn’t bare for him. I like the addition of Texas A&M transfer Jameill Showers at quarterback. Heck, he nearly beat out Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel there. RB Nathan Jeffery (897 yards, 7 TD) and WR JOrdan Leslie (51 receptions, 973 yards, 6 TD) return, so the offense should be in good hands. It’s the defense that loses seven of its top eight tacklers that I’m concerned about.

7. UTSA – The Roadrunners have only played football for two years. Larry Coker has done a nice job here, especially last year as he guided UTSA to an 8-4 record in 2012. However, all four of their losses came against their best four opponents in Rice, San Jose State, Utah State and Louisiana Tech, and they all came by 20 or more points. Now, the Roadrunners will face a much more difficult schedule in 2013. They do have a chance to be competitive with 18 starters and 51 lettermen returning, but they play at UTEP, thus I am picking them to finish in the basement of the West.

Conference USA Championship Game: Rice defeats Marshall

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