Forecasting Conference USA in 2011
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 9, 2011
It’s not Grand Canyon-like, but it’s wide. What’s another natural chasm, one slightly smaller than the Grand Canyon, to use as a metaphor for the split between the haves and the have-nots in Conference USA? Here are the haves: Houston, U.C.F., Tulsa, S.M.U., Southern Mississippi and maybe, if I’m being kind, East Carolina. The have-nots: Marshall, U.A.B., UTEP, Rice, Tulane and Memphis. It’s a very distinct gap, one that highlights the strong upper half of the conference but also one that diminishes the resume a Conference USA power might bring into bowl play.
That’s a double-edged sword. A team like Houston, for instance, could roll through an easy non-conference slate and not really be tested until the final two weeks of the year, when it finally encounters a portion of Conference USA’s stronger half in S.M.U. and Tulsa. If the Cougars do run through the regular season undefeated, you can hear the calls already: they’ve achieved nothing, they don’t deserve to be here, they’re not fit to share the stage. Could you really disagree with that?
Most likely to reach the B.C.S.
Houston The Cougars have that schedule, which is far from intimidating. The last three games will provide a test, with S.M.U., Tulsa and a date in the conference title game, if all goes according to plan. Houston also brings back Case Keenum at quarterback, which should push the offense back into the upper echelon of the country. And don’t underestimate this team’s desire to put last year behind them: Houston should be embarrassed with how quickly the wheels fell off down the stretch, and that should provide tremendous impetus to start the year off with a bang. Did I mention how the schedule is easy?
Most likely conference title game meeting
Houston vs. U.C.F. Picking the Knights to come out of the East division isn’t a stretch: Southern Mississippi’s a fairly close second, but no team in the division can match U.C.F.’s combination of defensive intimidation and offensive potential. Houston’s road to the top of the West leads them through Tulsa, which has a similarly gifted offense, and S.M.U., last year’s division champs. I think Houston has what it takes to win seven games in conference play, if not finish a perfect 8-0.
Most likely to struggle
Memphis Expecting someone else? The Tigers have nothing to write home about: no depth, no leadership, no quarterback and, judging by last season, not a lot along the sidelines. Larry Porter can recruit, mind you, so he could turn things around in a relative hurry should Memphis do well with the number of second-tier prospects in the region. Maybe 2012 and 2013 will be better; this year looks like another struggle.
If not Memphis, then who?
Tulane or UTEP The Green Wave are always a safe pick to disappoint. Bob Toledo hasn’t lifted Tulane out of the bottom of Conference USA since his arrival, and while he has a nice running back to work with and some healthy pieces defensively it seems like this year will again find the program hovering around the four-win mark. UTEP’s a program that started last season strong but completely fell apart over the second half of the year. The Miners return very little experience, so this team could really bottom out in 2011.
Wait until next year
S.M.U. I know, the Mustangs are going to be pretty good in 2011. They could be absolutely dynamite in 2012, should the roster remain intact. Even if there’s some turnover, I have great faith in Junes Jones’ ability to continue leading this program to the forefront of the conference. This year’s schedule might lead to little improvement in the win column, but the future is extremely bright. S.M.U. will be better than it was in 2010, even if the West division falls to either Tulsa or Houston.
June Jones, S.M.U. There’s a solid list of coaches here, from younger options like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin to more established coaches like Jones and U.C.F.’s George O’Leary. What Jones achieved at S.M.U. alone gives him a solid case for Conference USA’s finest coach; what has done in the past, at Hawaii, makes it official. Remember what S.M.U. was like prior to his arrival, if you can. And try to recall that the Mustangs went 1-11 in his debut campaign before turning things around over the last two years. S.M.U. has arrived — or returned, I guess — thanks to Jones.
Coach not long for Conference USA
Kevin Sumlin, Houston He’s young, energetic, a terrific recruiter, has experience on some of college football’s biggest stages and holds a strong background on offense. That’s why Sumlin will someday move onto a B.C.S. conference position, and it may be sooner rather than later should Houston return to double-digit wins in 2011. Did his reputation take a hit with Houston’s tumble to five wins last fall? Maybe a bit, but you have to give Sumlin at least a slight pass for a decline with roots defensively and in injuries. If Sumlin can remake the defense on the fly, it’ll only boost his already strong resume. The next time a Big 12 program has an opening, look for Sumlin to be in heavy contention.
Offensive player of the year
Case Keenum, Houston His Heisman hopes should still be alive, in my mind. Why not? You can’t control injuries, which is what took Keenum off the map in 2010. And you can’t discount the production, which is record-breaking, or soon should be, even if the offensive system has much to do with Keenum’s fertile production. If winning matters, Keenum should stand above the rest. If numbers matter, Keenum is well above the rest. You can also make a strong case for Tulsa’s Damaris Johnson, S.M.U.’s Zach Line, Southern Mississippi’s Austin Davis and East Carolina’s Dominique Davis. But I think Keenum will have the numbers, and Houston should experience enough of a rebound for him to be considered Conference USA’s finest offensive player.
Defensive player of the year
Josh Robinson, U.C.F. It has to be someone from U.C.F., as the Knights have a defense that dwarfs all other comers in Conference USA. It’s not even close: Houston has the best offense, but the distance between Houston and Tulsa, as an example, is far slighter than the one between U.C.F. and the conference’s second-best defense. The Knights have a defense that stands up nationally, in my mind. So who’s the pick? Linebacker Josh Linman? Tackle Victor Gray? Ends Troy Davis, Darius Nall or Toby Jackson? All are solid picks, but my vote goes for Robinson, perhaps Conference USA’s best cornerback. He’s the reason, along with free safety Kemal Ishmael, why U.C.F. can bring such pressure up front.
Five biggest non-conference games
U.C.F. at B.Y.U. Sept. 23
Tulsa at Boise State Sept. 24
Tulsa at Oklahoma Sept. 3
Oklahoma State at Tulsa Sept. 17
U.C.L.A. at Houston Sept. 3
Five biggest conference games
Tulsa at Houston Nov. 26
U.C.F. at Tulsa Nov. 3
Houston at S.M.U. Nov. 19
S.M.U. at Tulsa Oct. 29
U.C.F. at Southern Mississippi Nov. 12
Projected order of finish
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Tags: Case Keenum, Conference USA, East Carolina, Houston, Josh Robinson, June Jones, Kevin Sumlin, Larry Porter, Marshall, Memphis, Rice, S.M.U., Southern Mississippi, Tulane, Tulsa, U.A.B., U.C.F., UTEP
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