UTEP fans were expecting the Miners to go forward from a surprising 8-4 finish in 2004 and challenge for a 10-win season.
So what happened with these great
expectations? Central Florida
started off the season 0-2 after losing to South Carolina and getting trounced
by South Florida. Then, something
happened. The Knights won eight of
their next nine and claimed the East Division title. Tulsa opened the season as fodder for
Minnesota and Oklahoma and then won nine of their last 11 to claim the C-USA
Memphis saw their C-USA title chances
disappear just three plays into the 2005 season when quarterback Patrick Byrne
broke his leg against Ole Miss.
Backup Will Hudgens, not to be outdone, broke his leg two weeks later
against Tulsa. Williams missed the
Tennessee game, yet he rushed for 1,964 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Tigers finished the regular season
6-5 and then won the Motor City Bowl.
As for UTEP, after starting the season
8-1, the Miners lost at home to UAB and then surprisingly at SMU, allowing Tulsa
to pass them for the West Division title.
UTEP then proceeded to lay the biggest egg in the bowl season as Toledo
blitzed them 45-13 in the GMAC Bowl.
In the official preseason poll, both
division winners from 2005 were picked to repeat—Central Florida in the East and
Tulsa in the West. Following UCF in
the East poll were Southern Mississippi, Memphis, Marshall, UAB, and East
Carolina. Picked behind Tulsa in
the West were UTEP, Houston, SMU, Tulane, and Rice.
What does 2006 hold for C-USA
according to the PiRates? There is
no clear-cut favorite in the East where nine points separate first place and
last place. Any of the six teams
could win the division title and 6-2 should be good enough for an outright title
(5-3 could earn a share). In the
West, the top three teams in the league will fight it out with the bottom three
teams in the league jostling for fourth place.
1. Southern Mississippi Golden
National Ranking: 60
Coach Jeff Bower’s Golden Eagles
always win more than they lose, but in four of the last five seasons, USM has
lost five games or more. Last year,
they finished 7-5 with what could have been called a rebuilding season. This year, with a much improved offense
and status quo defense, Southern Miss. should have its best team since
The offense should score more points
this year thanks to an experienced front line. Guards George Batiste and Travis Cooley
could both earn All-CUSA honors.
Batiste should be an NFL draft pick in 2007.
The line will protect new quarterback
Jeremy Young, giving him a chance to spot open receivers. Young will get competition for the job
from Michigan State transfer Stephen Reaves.
Whoever ends up starting at
quarterback will have a strong contingent of receivers led by the conference’s
top tight end Shawn Nelson. A year
ago, Nelson caught a team-leading 35 passes and showed a dazzling ability to run
after the catch, averaging 15.4 yards per reception. Joining Nelson in the receiver corps are
Josh Barnes and Anthony Perine, who combined for 63 catches and 862
Southern Miss. hasn’t fielded strong
defenses the last two seasons, but the Eagles should fare well enough to let
their offense outscore opponents.
Opponents should have a rougher go of it passing against this defense in
2006. Four potential All-CUSA
players will be patrolling against the pass. Rover/safety Brandon Sumrall defended
nine passes in 2005. Cornerback
Caleb Hendrix did so seven times.
Linebacker Gerald McRath looked like
an all-league performer prior to breaking his leg early on. Linebacker Tokumbo Abanikanda combines
strength to blitz and speed to cover in one package. There’s lots of depth in this
Up front is where this defense is a
little suspect. Two key players
from last year are gone, and the depth here is a little thin. Matthew Chatelain and Robert Henderson
give the Eagles two above-average bookends to work
Southern has two of the best kickers
in the nation on hand, or should I say foot. Placekicker Darren McCaleb booted 23 of
28 field goal attempts through the uprights, including 10 from beyond 40
yards. New Punter Britt Barefoot
(dig the name) has a leg that will make some older fans remember some guy named
USM must open the season at Florida
and play at Virginia Tech later in the year. Home games with SE Louisiana and North
Carolina State round out the non-conference part of the schedule. The Eagles could split these four games
and could even put a scare in Florida.
The key to their season will come on consecutive Tuesday night conference
games. They must play at Central
Florida and at Tulsa. Even though
they will more than likely drop both games, they can run the table the rest of
the way and finish 6-2/8-4, which should earn them at least a share of the East
2. Central Florida Golden Knights
National Ranking: 66 (t)
The 2005 season is one that Coach
George O’Leary can put on his resume of past successes. 2006 may garner another line or two on
that document. UCF improved from no
wins to eight wins and the outright division title by two
The Golden Knights return a load of
talent on both sides of the ball and should be in the thick of the race once
again, especially if quarterback Steven Moffett has a senior year as good as his
junior year. Moffett tossed 22
touchdown passes against only nine interceptions, while completing close to 60%
of his passes for over 2,900 yards.
Moffett will have to break in some new
receivers, but one he will know quite well is Mike Walker, who caught 64 passes
for 855 yards. Replacing Brandon
Marshall and his 1,195 yards and 11 scores will be difficult. Look for speedsters Willie Thornton and
Brooks Turner to emerge as deep threats and take some heat off
UCF is loaded at tailback, where Kevin
Smith returns after rushing for 1,178 yards in 2005. Fullback Jason Peters returns as well,
and he runs the ball more than a 21st century fullback. Last year, he averaged 5.6 yards per
try. The combo should force
linebackers and defensive backs to hesitate just enough for the speed-burning
receivers to get open deep.
The offensive line returns intact, but
they have lots of room for improvement after giving up 37 sacks a year ago. Center Cedric Gagne-Marcoux is the best
of the bunch, and he could earn 1st team All-CUSA accolades this
The UCF defense didn’t scare anybody
last year when they surrendered 29 points and more than 420 total yards a
game. Expect some improvement,
especially against the pass where all four returning starters have all-league
potential. Johnell Neal, Joe
Burnett, Sha’reff Rashad, and Jason Venson are all sophomores who should improve
by volumes this year. The quartet
combined to defend 31 passes with nine interceptions in 2005, while Venson,
Neal, and Burnett finished one-two-three in
The key to defensive improvement will
be the front four. Whether this
group can put pressure on passers and stop runners (they gave up almost five
yards per rush last year) will determine if UCF will repeat as East champs. Tackles Keith Shologan and Bryan
Gabourel have the potential to stuff the run.
The trio of linebackers are another
area of concern. Ronnell Sandy and
Jordan Richards return, but to linebacker James Cook is
When he isn’t covering receivers,
Burnett is one of the top punt returners in the nation. Last year, he returned two of 28 punts
for touchdowns, averaging an eye-popping 16.5 yards per
Central Florida has an easier
conference schedule than Southern Mississippi, and that could be the deciding
factor in the East race. After
opening with Villanova, the Knights must play at Florida and at South
Florida. Then comes the big game in
Orlando against USM on a Tuesday night.
UCF could easily match last year’s win total and repeat as East
3. Memphis Tigers
National Ranking: 78 (t)
He’s gone. Memphis fans will have to tune in to the
tube on Sundays to watch DeAngelo Williams running down the sideline. Does this mean the Tigers are headed
down the tube on Saturdays? I don’t
When the starting quarterback goes out
on the field for the first play of a game, nobody is going to tell him to “break
a leg” for good luck. Memphis lost
two signal callers to fractured legs in the opening three
Both of those injured quarterbacks
return (Patrick Byrne/Will Hudgens), but former Southeast Louisiana star Martin
Hankins figures to be the main man this year. Don’t expect Memphis to look like a Hal
Mumme-coached offense, but expect the Tigers to throw the ball at least five and
maybe 10 more times per game.
Regardless of which of the
quarterbacks start, he will have a throng of talented receivers looking to catch
the ball. Start with Ryan Scott,
who led the Tigers last year with 37 receptions at 15.6 yards per catch. Add Mario Pratcher and Maurice Jones,
another two deep ball threats.
Add-in tight end Stacy Jones, who should contribute 20-30 receptions with
many of those coming to convert first downs.
The offensive line returns all five
starters. This group surrendered a
minuscule nine sacks last year, while opening holes for Williams to run
through. Center Stephen Schuh began
as a walk-on, but the grandson of the great Harry Schuh (an All-American at
Memphis State and later All-Pro lineman with the great Oakland Raiders teams of
the late 1960’s) not only starts for
the Tigers, he is on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy. Guard Blake Butler and tackle Brandon
Pearce both could earn post-season honors this year. Pearce made the All-CUSA freshman team
That brings us to running back. Obviously, this spot will be much weaker
than last year, with the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime superstar. However, Joseph Doss could still rush
for 1,000 yards. In limited action
last year, he ran for 440 yards at a 5.2 average per
You never know what the Memphis
defense is going to do next.
Unorthodox coordinator Joe Lee Dunn is known for throwing more unique
blitzes, dogs, and stunts than any other coach. Memphis actually used a two-man
defensive line at times last year with about six players lined up in the normal
linebacker areas. What’s next—an
Dunn can afford to continue to gamble
this year thanks to having one of the best secondary quartets around. Cornerbacks Brandon McDonald and Jamaal
Rufus and safety Wesley Smith combined for 25 defended passes. Backup Dustin Lopez contributed seven
Among the players scampering across
the line into enemy backfields are linebackers Greg Hinds and Quinton
McCrary. They must carry the load
this year because the defensive line is green.
Michael Gibson is the best punter in
the league. Last year, he averaged
44.6 yards per punt with solid hang time.
Memphis may not start the season as
the strongest or weakest team in the East, but the Tigers could end up anywhere
from first to last. If the rebuilt
defensive wall matures quickly enough, UM could take advantage of a favoring
schedule and win the East. If the
line proves to be very vulnerable, the all-of-a-sudden winnable home games could
go the other way, sending UM to last place. I think Memphis will lose their opener
at Ole Miss and beat Chattanooga to start 1-1. The third game is at East Carolina. The Tigers have the talent to win that
one and go into a bye week preparing for war with Tennessee. If Memphis starts 2-1 and then upsets
Tennessee, they are off to the races and will finish 9-3 or better. Even if they start 2-2, they should
return to a bowl. If they lose to
ECU, call it the season right there—they are headed to a 4-8 or worse
4. Marshall Thundering Herd
National Ranking: 88 (t)
The glory years for this program are
gone. Marshall is now an also-ran
in a bigger league. A difficult
schedule promises to make this year another long one in Huntington,
The Herd saw its offense collapse last
year, scoring less than 21 points seven times. Nine starters return to offense, so the
scoring should improve this year.
Two players who shared quarterbacking
duties return to the fold this year.
Bernard Morris and Jimmy Skinner both tossed for just over 1,100
yards. Skinner completed 62% of his
passes, while Morris completed 52.8%.
Morris is a much better runner, and he will probably get the
The four principal receivers from last
year are back this year. Hiram
Moore, Marcus Fitzgerald, tailback Ahmad Bradshaw, and Shawn Lauzon combined for
181 catches, but the quartet averaged a paltry 9.7 yards between
Bradshaw narrowly missed rushing for
1,000 yards and still led the Herd in receptions with 56. The output earned him 2nd
team All-CUSA honors.
Center Doug Legursky, guard John
Inman, and tackle Seth Cook lead an improved offensive
On the stop side, Marshall has two
superb linebackers. Dennis Thornton
and Matt Couch led the Herd with 201 combined tackles with 15 behind the
line. They also defended eight
passes. Throw in Georgia transfer
Josh Johnson, and this trio will help lower both the rushing and passing yardage
allowed from last year.
Up front, end Albert McClellan and
tackle Juan Underwood can possibly both register 10 tackles behind the line this
The secondary was not all that bad
last year, but only one starter returns.
Safety Curtis Keyes failed to intercept a pass and only broke up
two. He did finish third on the
team with 88 tackles.
Marshall opens up at West Virginia,
then gets Hofstra at home before going back on the road to Kansas State and
Tennessee. They will be 1-3 unless
Hofstra’s wide-open passing attack pulls off a big upset. Once conference play starts, I expect
the Herd to lose to UCF, UTEP, and Southern Miss. The other five games should be
competitive. I figure a 3-5 or 4-4
conference record which should result in a 4-8 or 5-7 overall mark.
5. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers
National Ranking: 91
Former Vanderbilt coach Watson Brown’s
Blazers failed to live up to expectations last season, finishing 5-6. Narrow losses to Tennessee, SMU,
Marshall, and UCF prevented UAB from possibly earning a share of the East
Division title. With big losses on
both sides of the ball, expect another losing season in steel
Offense could be a major problem this
season. Projected starter Chris
Williams will not come close to matching departed Darrell Hackney’s
numbers. Six of UAB’s top seven
receivers are gone, as only Norris Drinkard (41 catches, 9.5 avg.)
Corey White and Dan Burks return to
share carries at running back, and this duo could produce 1,500 yards
rushing. They will benefit from
having an exceptional quintet of blockers in front of them. Guards Adam Truitt and Quinton Harris
and tackles Julius Wilson and Cornelius Rogers will open
UAB will need their defense to improve
if they have any chance of winning six games this year. Last year, the Blazers surrendered 24
points and 372 yards per game. The
Blazers have two fine ends in Jermaine McElveen and Larry McSwain. Linebackers Orlandus King, Mastaki
Smith, and Marcus Monk give UAB a fine trio in the second line of defense.
The secondary must do better than 61%
completions allowed at 11.8 yards per reception. Cornerback Will Evans and safety Chris
Felder return as starters.
UAB opens the season at Oklahoma. If they get too banged up in that game,
they will have troubles in week two at home against East Carolina. They then must go to Georgia and host
Mississippi State. That four-game
struggle should tell the story. If they beat ECU and Mississippi State, they
have a shot at bowl eligibility. If
they start 1-3, they could still win five games once again. If they should start 0-4, it’s going to
be ugly in Birmingham. My guess is
a 1-3 start and 5-7 overall record.
6. East Carolina Pirates
National Ranking: 93
Skip Holtz almost turned the Pirates
into a winning team in his first year in Greenville. What can he do for an encore? He has the talent for another middle of
the pack finish, but the schedule is not friendly.
James Pinkney returns to pilot the
Pirates’ ship after completing 60.7% of his 2005 passes for 2,773 yards. ECU was consistent last year, as they
passed for 200 or more yards in every game.
When Pinkney throws, he will know the
receivers on the other end of those passes. The top four yardage gainers return, led
by potential All-American Aundrae Allison.
Last year, Allison grabbed 83 passes for 1,024 yards. He ran the reverse and even passed off
that play last year.
Speaking of running, ECU returns most
of the key contributors from last year.
Chris Johnson, Brandon Fractious, and Dominique Lindsey combined for
1,155 yards at a 4.4 aggregate average.
Tackle Eric Graham returns where he
averaged almost six knockdown blocks per game last year. The rest of the line is a question
Defensively, ECU allowed 28.8 points
and 403 yards per game last year, but that was quite an improvement over 2004’s
40 points and more than 450 yards allowed.
The front four will be the strength of the team. Ends Shauntae Hunt and Marcus Hands
combined for 16.5 stops for loss last year. Brandon Setzer added another 6.5 stops
behind the line from his tackle position.
There are no returning starters in the
linebacker corps. Holtz has
multiple JUCO players to try here, but this unit should be a weakness this
Cornerback Kasey Ross defended 11
passes last year. He will team up
with 2004 standout Jamar Flournoy to give the Pirates a better than average
ECU kicker Robert Lee narrowly missed
a perfect season in 2005. He
connected on all 30 of his PAT’s and hit on 17 of 19 field goal
East Carolina has more talent this
year than last, but the record may head south. The schedule is set up for a
disappointing season. Road games at
Navy, UAB, Southern Mississippi, Central Florida, Rice, and North Carolina State
point to a 1-5 record away from home.
Memphis, West Virginia, Virginia, Tulsa, SMU, and Marshall make it look
like a 3-3 or 2-4 record. It all
adds up to a 3-9 or 4-8 season.
1. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
National Ranking: 45 (t)
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for
Tulsa since Coach Dave Kragthorpe arrived.
Taking over a 1-10 team in 2003, he guided the Golden Hurricane to eight
surprising wins and a bowl bid. In
2004, with 16 starters returning and expecting to contend for the WAC title,
Tulsa dropped to 8-4. Last year,
Tulsa won eight games once again.
So, with 16 starters returning once again, does 2006 mean a 4-8 record is
in the offing? No way! In fact, if Tulsa shores up a few
problem areas, they could possibly make a run for a BCS at-large
Quarterback Paul Smith completed 62.4%
of his passes last year for 2,847 yards and 20 touchdowns. When Smith was injured in the opening
game last year, backup David Johnson came in and connected on 20 of 30 passes
The receiving corps was decimated by
graduation. Five of the top seven
receivers are gone. Leading
returning receiver Idris Moss caught 22 passes for 236
Brandon Diles, Tarrion Adams, and
Courtney Tennial will share the load at running back. All three possess different
running styles. Diles is a
bulldozer who runs through the line creating his own holes. Adams is speedy quick with excellent
receiver skills (he caught 24 passes for 273 yards). Tennial, an Oklahoma transfer, blends a
little power with some speed.
The offensive line could be the best
in the conference. Tackles Jeff
Perrett and Mike Mengers are top-rate.
Guard Jon Hameister-Ries could challenge for all-league honors.
As good as Tulsa could be on the
attack side, the defense could be better.
The secondary has been a strength the last three years, but this year
could be the best yet. Cornerbacks
Nick Graham and Julian McGowan and safeties Bobby Blackshire and Anthony Germany
return after teaming for 39 defended passes, 13 of them interceptions.
All three starting linebackers return,
and this unit could be even stronger than the secondary. Nick Bunting made 9.5 stops for
loss. Nelson Coleman led the team
with 117 tackles with 6.5 for loss.
Chris Chamberlain contributed 11 tackles for loss and three defended
The front three are not in the class
with the back eight, but they are no slouches either. End Chadd Evans should be one of the
league’s top pass rushers.
Nose tackle Terrel Nemons is a playmaker.
Tulsa plays Stephen F. Austin to begin
the season. They must travel the
following week to Brigham Young.
After a home game against North Texas, they wind up the out-of-conference
part of their schedule at Navy. If
they can win all four of these games, and it won’t be that easy, they have an
outside chance to run the table.
They get Southern Miss. and UTEP at home. One more tough road game is at Houston,
which comes immediately after the UTEP game. If they are 9-0 on November 5, they
should win the final three against Rice, SMU, and Tulane. At 12-0, the Golden Hurricane would more
than likely earn a BCS Bowl trip.
My guess is they will finish 11-2 or 12-1 and return to the Liberty Bowl
as CUSA Champs.
2. Texas El Paso Miners
National Ranking: 63 (t)
UTEP should be a force to be reckoned
with this season. Unfortunately,
the Miners must play at both Houston and Tulsa (in back-to-back games no less),
so they have a tougher go of it than their two principal division
The Miners averaged over 300 passing
yards per game last year, and the man who threw for 292 of those yards each week
returns. Jordan Palmer has NFL
potential. Last season, he
completed nearly 60% of his passes.
Additionally, he was one of the few quarterbacks to average better than
eight yards per attempt.
UTEP had two consistent deep threats
last year, and one of them returns.
Johnnie Lee Higgins snatched 49 balls at a 17.1 yard rate in 2005. Joe West and Chris Marrow could be the
pieces of the puzzle that will keep UTEP near the top in passing yardage. Tight end Jamar Hunt catches everything
thrown at him.
Running back Marcus Thomas led UTEP
with 791 yards rushing last year, while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He could top 1,000 yards this year and
move higher onto the 2008 NFL draft list.
If Palmer is to threaten 4,000 passing
yards and Thomas 1,000 rushing yards, the offensive line is going to have to
show improvement. Center Robby
Felix made the All-CUSA freshman team.
Tackle Tyler Ribitzki has greatly improved since coming to El
UTEP was generous defensively last
year. Taking away a shutout over
Texas Southern, the Miners gave up more than 28 points and 394 yards per
The strength of the stop side is the
line. Tackle Zach West and End Alex
Obomese combined for 22 stops for loss.
Obomese is a first-rate pass rusher who will command double
Last year’s top two tacklers return to
their linebacker spots. Jeremy
Jones and Troy Collavo registered 242 combined tackles, 29 for
The secondary was torched by Toledo in
the GMAC Bowl. Three returning
starters, Nate Draughon, Joe Fleskoskie, and Quintin Demps recorded 25 passes
UTEP has a tougher schedule than Tulsa
and should pay with a lower finish.
Out of league play, they travel to improved San Diego State and New
Mexico, while hosting Texas Tech and New Mexico State. They could go 3-1 in those games, but
2-2 is likely. The Miners must play
at Houston and Tulsa, so they could lose both of those contests. Call it at eight wins and another bowl
3. Houston Cougars
National Ranking: 69 (t)
Here’s some interesting trivia. Houston is the last Division I-A team to
score 100 points in a game. That
came in 1968 against Tulsa. So,
since that time, who is the only team to threaten to score 100 points in a
game? Houston again! They defeated SMU 95-21 in 1989. Ironically, the Cougars are now division
rivals with both schools. The once
mighty Cougars have finished in the Top 10 in the past with multiple New Year’s
Day bowl trips. This program is on
the rise once again.
The 2006 Cougars will not remind
people of the great 1979 team, but Houston has enough talent to return to a bowl
game for the third time in four seasons.
Let’s start with defense, where most
of the key contributors from last year return, including 13 of the top 14
tacklers. Next to Tulsa, Houston
has the best pass defense in the CUSA.
Last year, they held opponents to 52.8%.
Houston has four linebackers who could
find themselves on NFL rosters after they graduate. Wade Koehl, Brendan Pahulu, Cody
Lubojasky, and Trent Allen combined for 328 tackles with 32 for losses. They quartet defended 12
The four spoke secondary has three
competent returnees in Willie Gaston, Rocky Schwartz, and Will Gulley. Gulley missed all of last year due to
injury, while Gaston and Schwartz combined for 21 defended
The front three has some good
returning talent. End Cody Pree and
tackle Marquay Love return and should increase their total tackle
Leading the offense is the top
quarterback in CUSA. Kevin Kolb can
run as ably as a wishbone quarterback, but he passes more like an NFL
quarterback. Last year, he
completed 60.5% of his passes for 3,258 yards.
Kolb has two star receivers
returning. Vincent Marshall and
Donnie Avery could both challenge the 1,000 receiving yard mark this year. Both are deep threats. Anthony Alridge figures to be the third
starter after he caught 13 passes at a 22.7 average. Jeron Harvey gives Houston yet another
The running game took a blow when Ryan
Gilbert and his 1,037 yards used up his eligibility. Jackie Battle inherits the job, but he
rushed for only 3.8 yards per carry.
Expect the speedy receiver Marshall to get numerous touches on the
reverse. Last year, he carried
seven times for 85 yards.
The offensive line is not a major
force, but two players stand out.
Center Sterling Doty and tackle Sirvincent Rogers lead the
When Marshall isn’t catching passes or
running reverses, he is one of the top punt returners in the land. Last year, he averaged 14.6 yards per
return including taking one to the house.
Houston should open 3-0 with Rice,
Tulane, and Grambling to kick off the season. Game four finds the Cougars hosting
Oklahoma State, and that could mean 4-0.
After a probable trouncing at Miami (Fla), they host UL-Lafayette. The 5-1 start should give the Cougars
confidence. Houston hosts both
Tulsa and UTEP, so it isn’t out of the realm that they will win both games and
take the West Division title. All
told, expect Houston to win at least eight games and possibly as many as 10 in
the regular season, which adds up to another bowl.
4. S M U Mustangs
National Ranking: 94 (t)
SMU narrowly missed out on their first
winning season since 1997 and what would have been their second since suffering
the death penalty back in the mid 1980’s.
The Mustangs finished 5-6 with narrow losses to Baylor, Marshall, East
Carolina, and Tulsa; they upset Houston and UTEP to conclude the season. The Mustangs lost some key talent, but
they should be the best of the non-contending West Division teams and if the
ball bounces just right, SMU could squeeze out six or seven
Redshirt freshman Justin Willis takes
over at quarterback, He has a
strong arm, but he won’t match the stats produced by Jerad Romo. Romo’s job may be easier thanks to
running back DeMyron Martin, who returns after running for 854 yards in
All four starting receivers return
from last year. Tight end Ryan
Kennedy and wide outs Bobby Chase, Reynaldo Pellerin, and Zack Sledge will give
Willis excellent targets. Chase is
the leader of this group.
The offensive line lacks any stars and
could be the reason why SMU fails to score enough points to win six
Defensively, the line is the strong
point. Tackle Adrian Haywood and
end Justin Rogers combined for 22.5 tackles behind the
The back eight will struggle at times,
and teams with highly-skilled passers could torch the Mustangs. Safety Joe Sturdivant is the lone
exception here. Last year, he
earned 2nd team All-CUSA honors after leading SMU with 112 tackles
and defending 14 passes.
The schedule gives SMU a chance to win
eight times this year, but I believe they will win only four times. Those four will most likely be at North
Texas, Sam Houston State, Arkansas State, and Marshall. Games at Tulane, East Carolina, and Rice
plus at home against UAB gives SMU an outside chance at bowl eligibility.
5. Rice Owls
National Ranking: 105
After falling off to a 1-10 season,
Rice begins anew with a different coach and different coaching style. Taking over for Ken Hatfield is Todd
Graham, who most recently was the defensive coordinator at Tulsa.
Rice will switch from the option
offense to a pro offense this year, but they do not have the proper talent to
make a go of it as a passing team.
It is going to take a few recruiting classes to make this offense
Quarterbacks Chase Clement and Joel
Armstrong both return this year, but neither is likely to make a spread passing
game go. Both passers completed
less than 43% of their 2005 passes.
Clement is supposed to be a better passer than his stats indicate, but if
he cannot run the offense, look for top freshman recruit Pierre Beasley to take
The Owls will still have a running
presence. Quinton Smith ran for 902
yards in the option scheme. As the
feature runner, he could challenge for 1,000 yards.
The top three receivers return, but
Jarrett Dillard, Mike Falco, and Tommy Henderson only caught 65 combined
passes. Falco averaged 26 yards on
his eight receptions.
Four of the starting five linemen from
2005 return. The 2006 quintet will
have a rough time blocking for the pass, as Rice gave up 21 sacks (and they only
passed 19 times a game) last year.
The defense gave up 40.6 and 455 yards
per game in 2005. Against the pass,
the Owls allowed enemy passers 65.5% completions, and a slow secondary was too
generous getting to the receivers after they caught the
None of the projected 2006 starters
figure to earn even honorable mention All-CUSA. The best of the bunch are safeties Chad
Price and Andray Downs, the two leading returning tacklers. Price is excellent on the safety blitz,
as his 9.5 tackles for loss attest.
Linebacker Omeke Alikor registered 49
tackles. Nose guard George Chukwu
and end Jonathan Cary are the two best linemen.
Perhaps the best defensive weapon the
Owls have is punter Jared Scruggs.
Last year, he averaged 42.8 yards per boot.
Rice faces a brutal non-conference
schedule. They play at UCLA, get
Texas at Reliant Stadium in Houston, venture to Florida State, and play at
Army. That’s four losses right
there. Unfortunately, the weakest
conference foe on the schedule, Tulane, must be played in New Orleans. Home games against UAB, East Carolina,
and SMU offer the only remote chances for a win in 2006. I believe chances are 50-50 that Rice
fails to win in 2006. At best, the
Owls can hope to win one game.
6. Tulane Green Wave
National Ranking: 111
What is there to say about this
program that hasn’t been said?
Tulane still faces a tough go of it trying to get back to normal. After winning only two games last year,
the Green Wave may find themselves hard-pressed to equal that in
Tulane returns talented players at
quarterback, tailback, and wide receiver, but the offensive line was devastated
by graduation. Guard Michael
Parenton earned a spot on the freshman All-CUSA
Quarterback Lester Ricard slumped
badly last year, completing 51.4% of his passes. Top receiver Preston Brown caught 47
throws for 720 yards and six touchdowns.
Top running back Matt Forte made the freshman All-CUSA team after running
for 655 yards.
The defense lost its top five
tacklers, and 2006 could see the Wave surrender much more points and yardage
than last season (they gave up 31.6 points and 373 yards
Four players with starting experience
return to the front line. End
Antonio Harris recorded six tackles for loss.
The entire linebacking corps must be
rebuilt. Two sophomores and a true
freshman are likely to start.
The secondary returns just one
starter, and that is cornerback Israel Route.
Tulane will finally get to host a home
game, when SMU comes to the Superdome on September 30. By that time, the Green Wave will be 0-3
after losing at Houston, Mississippi State, and LSU. Road games at UTEP, Auburn, and Tulsa
guarantee three more blowout losses.
A home game against Rice should provide the Green Wave with a chance for
a victory, while Army could be a second chance. Odds are, TU will go
Next Up: The Mountain West
Conference. Will the MWC produce a
BCS Bowl participant this year, and if so, which team will it
Sources: The official C-USA website plus the 12
official websites of the member teams.