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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

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Conference USA Nosedives to Rock Bottom

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.

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  1. Preaching to the Choir says:

    Amen, brother. I’ve been screaming this gospel for a while now.

    And it’ll only get worse, once those overrated and underachieving programs leave and are replaced by FCS start-ups/brand new “just-add-water” insta-programs.

    Who’s running that place and how is it that they still have a job?

  2. tulaneoutlaw says:

    Thanks for the special section on Tulane and Devon Walker. Much like Legrand in 2010, Devon’s injury is tragic and may provide long term health issues. You’re absolutely right, wins and losses are secondary, the most important thing now is Devon’s health.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nice analysis of the Sun Belt’s woes. Oh wait, they’ve already got a win over an SEC team, and everyone in the conference is .500 or better. CUSA is neck and neck with the WAC and MAC. The Sun Belt is fighting to be the best non-Big Six conference out there right now.

    Typical ignorant backhanded slap at the Belt.

  4. No one expects the WAC! says:

    And out of nowhere the WAC is going out in a blaze of glory, one last flare for the dying conference.

  5. ouch says:

    While I agree wholeheartedly with the fact that the Sunbelt and CUSA are running neck and neck after two weeks, you have to cut CUSA some slack. How many coaching changes did the Sunbelt have last season? How often do 1st year coaches come in and dominate? It seems to me that this is just a volley match and could be a great year for the Sunbelt. But if Hudspeth (ULL) gets a bigger job, FIU and LTU move to CUSA, Memphis leaves CUSA, and Ellis Johnson gets a grip and starts his 5-star QB the discussion is quite different week 2 next season. In short, the college game is so volatile that the end of the season may look completely different.

    That said….two weeks in, CUSA has been God awful.

  6. NTXCoog says:

    If La Tech let up in the 4th quarter as you claim, then they are fools.

    Last year La Tech was up by 27 points with 5 minutes left in the 3rd. UH scored 28 points after that including 21 points in the 4th quarter to win.

    This year La Tech was only up 15 going into the 4th quarter. The difference between this year and last is La Tech scored 14 points in the 4th or you might have had a similar story line to last year.

  7. SBC going to 9-game conference schedule in 2015 says:

    This is somewhat related.


    This move seems odd. It makes sense for the sake of the round-robin but it doesn’t appear to be a sound move for the long term health of the conference.

    Sun Belt schools simple do not have the budget to run their athletic departments without the “paycheck” games against the SEC. A 9-game conference schedule would only allow for three OOC games and if two of those basically HAVE to be SEC “bodybag” games that leaves one free OOC game to schedule.

    That free game would most likely be against an FCS team in order to try to reach bowl eligibility (plus the cheaper price tag, see budget) leaving NO games against the conferences (CUSA) that the Sun Belt is trying to prove itself against.

    All this will do is secure that the Sun Belt stays at the bottom of the pecking order.

    Bad move, especially now when the SBC has the chance to overtake CUSA for that “second to bottom” ranking.

  8. GoDawgs says:

    NTXCoog – If you don’t think Tech let up, you are blind. We could have scored 100 on that defense (or lack there of). We drove 99.5 yards in under 1 minute. Our best player (Quinton Patton) only touched the ball 4 times. We played with a completely vanilla offense and defense and still picked up the win. Last year was last year, Keenum is gone and you are going to be hard pressed to find a team that is shaking in their boots when Piland’s name comes up.

    Houston has players and will still win about 8+ games but come on, give credit where credit is due. LaTech crushed Houston this year the same way Houston crushed LaTech last year.

  9. KittyHawkPirate says:

    You didn’t mention that several of the bottom feeders in CUSA this year are off to the BE next year. Let them deal with the trainwreck.

    Houston 0-2
    Memphis 0-2
    SMU 1-1
    UCF 1-1

  10. NTXCoog says:

    GoDawgs: I have no problem giving La Tech credit for the win. They dominated most of the game. But again, if Dykes is so stupid to let UH come within an onside kick and a Hail Mary of losing the game after the big comeback last year, it’s no wonder he didn’t get picked up by an AQ school this season.

    If you want to tout 99 yards in under a minute, UH also went 74 yards in 17 seconds. Based on that, if UH gets the onside kick, don’t you think they could go 50 yards in 33 seconds?

    If La Tech could score at will, it might have been smart for them to score after UH cut the lead to 14 with almost 5 minutes to play. Instead they went 13 yards and punted allowing UH to have the slim, but real, opportunity for the comeback.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either he didn’t call off the dogs or he was a fool to let UH back into the game. I’ll let you decide.

  11. southwvboy says:

    And great underlying story is that some these under achieving CUSA teams are going to the Big East next year.

    And I think you could line up the top four from the MAC vs the top 4 from CUSA and the MAC is going to come out with more wins.

  12. ECWho says:


    What YOU didn’t mention is that those bottom feeders in CUSA that are off to the BE next year are being replaced by:

    - Charlotte (has never taken a snap at any level in football)

    - Old Dominion (FCS team. Restarted football in 2009, last season before that was a 0-6 season in 1940)

    - Texas-San Antonio (First fielded football team in 2011 as FCS with a 4-6 record including a loss to Div III team)

    - Florida International (First year of football 2002. First FBS in 2005. Coming into this year had a 39-79 overall record)

  13. Football says:

    Regarding ECWho’s idiotic post.

    Charlotte and Old Dominion are not replacing the four defectors…they don’t join CUSA until 2014 or 2015. And referencing ODU’s 0-6 record from 1940 is just plain stupid.

    UTSA’s loss to a DIV III team was actually to a team transitioning to DIV II that finished 9-3. And UTSA was in their first year with mostly freshmen and walk-ons. This year UTSA is 3-0 with two road wins over DIV I schools.

    The other two schools that are replacing the defectors are LA TECH, who is 2-0, and North Texas, whose two losses are to top-15 teams LSU and Kansas State.

    CUSA will be better next year with these four teams in place of the horrible Memphis, Houston, SMU and decent UCF.

  14. ECWho says:

    @ Football:

    “CUSA will be better next year with these four teams in place of the horrible Memphis, Houston, SMU and decent UCF.”

    * * *

    Medication would help your condition.

    Which four teams? You conveniently left off 1-4 Florida International.

    UT-KFC has played a Div II school, a school transitioning from NAIA to Div II, a school transitioning from FCS, a school that just finished transitioning from FCS, and NMSU. And is about to get a beatdown from Rice.

    pUNT’s only win has come against an FCS school and is set to get trounced by one of the defecting schools.

    Congrats on acquiring LA Tech. They are head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in that scrub conference.

    And don’t forget, Charlotte and ODUh on the horizon.

    If the Sun Belt continues to improve, you better keep your fingers crossed that they don’t raid CDOA for LA Tech and USM. And before you choke on your laughter, keep in mind that the budgets at those schools are more in-line with the Sun Belt budgets, they would have a tighter regional footprint with more natural local rivals, and they would be able to get as much if not more from the SBC than they would be getting from that hemorrhaging clusterEF that you call a conference.

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