Conference USA Nosedives to Rock Bottom
By Paul Myerberg // Sep 13, 2012
Rewind eight months. Houston capped one of the finest seasons in program history by decimating Penn State, 30-14, during bowl play. Southern Mississippi won its program-record 12th game against Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl – and in their last time out, the Golden Eagles had harassed Case Keenum and the Cougars out of the B.C.S. conversation. Tulsa, S.M.U. and Marshall acquitted themselves well in the postseason, with the Mustangs beating Pittsburgh, Marshall beating Florida International and the Golden Hurricane leading B.Y.U. for 59 minutes before a late collapse. Was last season the finest in the history of Conference USA? It’s not hard to make that case.
Here we are today, two games into the 2012 season, and Conference USA and the Sun Belt are neck-and-neck along the bottom of the F.B.S. – these are the two worst conferences in the country. How bad is it for Conference USA? It’s worse than you think.
The coaching change, with Tony Levine replacing Kevin Sumlin, has crippled Houston. Perhaps the move wasn’t an issue during bowl play, but take note: Keenum and his wide receivers were still in the fold for the date with the Nittany Lions, and nothing was going to slow these seniors during their final game with the program.
It’s been a mess since kickoff. The mess dates back before kickoff, in fact, back to Levine’s decision to hire Mike Nesbitt away from Stephen F. Austin. How long did this marriage last? Try 60 minutes – the amount of time it took the nation’s most prolific offense to lay an egg against Texas State, of all teams.
Either Nesbitt is a scapegoat or Levine quickly realized that this key relationship was not going to work – or it’s a combination of both, which is the most likely scenario. Nesbitt was relieved of his duties the day after the loss to Bobcats, replaced by quarterbacks coach Travis Bush, who called plays for Texas-San Antonio a season ago.
Houston is a mess. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the light turned on during Saturday’s record-breaking loss to Louisiana Tech; while the Cougars’ offense was hardier, 22 of those 49 points came in the fourth quarter, after Sonny Dykes and Louisiana Tech took their foot off of the gas pedal.
Southern Mississippi isn’t the same team, though only partly due to its own coaching change – Ellis Johnson replacing Larry Fedora. The Golden Eagles have taken a step back due more so to personnel changes, from quarterback to nearly every level of the defense, as we saw in their opening loss to Nebraska. Twelve wins? Not this year. Seven wins is far more likely.
S.M.U. was blitzed by Baylor in the opener. Tulsa held an early lead against Iowa State before melting over the game’s final three quarters, dealing Conference USA a setback in a marquee non-conference game – a game many thought that Tulsa would win, in fact.
Thus far, the league’s highlight-reel moment came in Rice’s narrow win over Kansas. Now, that’s a nice win for the Owls and David Bailiff; in addition, an earlier loss to U.C.L.A. looked better after the Bruins picked Nebraska apart later on Saturday. But this isn’t good: Conference USA’s top moment through two weeks is a win over Kansas.
The big story is Houston’s utter collapse – the Cougars’ drop from the B.C.S. conversation to a punch line. But behind this theme is the inept play of the league’s lower tier; amazingly, a few teams might be even worse than expected.
Memphis? Lost to Tennessee-Martin in the opener before giving Arkansas State a run on Saturday, losing by five points. U.A.B.? Lost to Troy, which then needed a late touchdown to lose to Louisiana-Lafayette by only 13 points, 37-24. After running with Oklahoma for most of 60 minutes, UTEP allowed Mississippi to gain 538 yards of total offense despite committing three turnovers.
Marshall? One quote says it all: Asked about this week’s opponent, James Madison, Dana Holgorsen said that the Mountaineers “expect this to be a bigger test than what we faced a week ago.” A week ago, West Virginia punted once in a 69-34 win over the Thundering Herd. Ouch.
(An aside. While Tulane is part of Conference USA’s second tier, it’s not fair to include it among those disappointing teams listed above – the Green Wave are another story.)
Your heart goes out to Tulane; your prayers go out to Devon Walker, who was injured with no time left in the first half of Saturday’s game against the Golden Hurricane. The severity of the injury remains unknown, and will remain unknown for at least a few days following Walker’s surgery on Monday, which stabilized his spine.
On the same day – and I’ve been unable to ascertain the time he spoke, whether before or after surgery – Curtis Johnson said that Walker had regained some movement in his shoulders.
After the game on Saturday, Johnson said that the “mood in the locker room was somber. Definitely one of the most difficult times.” How does his team respond to this level of adversity? In a similar scenario, Rutgers lost its last six games of 2010 after Eric LeGrand suffered his spinal injury against Army.
For Johnson and the Green Wave, wins and losses are secondary. I hope that Johnson can tap into his N.F.L. contacts and speak with Greg Schiano, who could lend him some guidance when it comes to leading a team through this sort of situation. Again, keep Walker in your thoughts.
Tags: Conference USA, Curtis Johnson, Dana Holgorsen, David Bailiff, Devon Walker, Ellis Johnson, Houston, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Memphis, Mike Nesbitt, Rice, S.M.U., Sonny Dykes, Southern Mississippi, Texas State, Tony Levine, Travis Bush, Tulane, Tulsa, U.A.B., UTEP
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