PiRate Preview: Conference USA

One year ago, fans of the Central Florida Golden Knights were hoping their team would win three games after going 0-11 in 2004. Tulsa Golden Hurricane fans were hoping their team could eke out six wins and avoid another losing season. Memphis fans were expecting their All-American running back DeAngelo Williams to lead the Tigers to the C-USA title.

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 championship.

 

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.

 

East Division

 

1. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles

PiRate: 100             National Ranking: 60                   HFA: 4

 

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 1999. 

 

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 yards.

 

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 unit.

 

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 with.

 

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 Ray.

 

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 Division crown.

 

2. Central Florida Golden Knights

PiRate: 98               National Ranking: 66 (t)            HFA: 3

 

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 games!

 

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 Walker.

 

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 year.

 

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 tackles.

 

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 gone.

 

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 return.

 

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 champs.

 

3. Memphis Tigers

PiRate: 96               National Ranking: 78 (t)            HFA: 3

 

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 think so. 

 

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 weeks.

 

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 in 2005.

 

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 carry.

 

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 0-7-4 defense?

 

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 more.

 

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 record.

 

4. Marshall Thundering Herd

PiRate: 92               National Ranking: 88 (t)            HFA: 4

 

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, WV.

 

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 nod.

 

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 them.

 

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 line.

 

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 year.

 

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

PiRate: 91               National Ranking: 91                   HFA: 3

 

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 town.

 

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.) returns.

 

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 holes.

 

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

PiRate: 91               National Ranking: 93                   HFA: 3

 

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 mark.

 

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 year.

 

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 secondary.

 

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 attempts.

 

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.

 

West Division

 

1. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

PiRate: 105             National Ranking: 45 (t)            HFA: 4

 

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 spot.

 

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 against Minnesota.

 

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 yards

 

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 passes.

 

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

PiRate: 99               National Ranking: 63 (t)            HFA: 4

 

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 rivals.

 

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 Paso.

 

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 game.

 

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 teams.

 

Last year's top two tacklers return to their linebacker spots.  Jeremy Jones and Troy Collavo registered 242 combined tackles, 29 for loss.

 

The secondary was torched by Toledo in the GMAC Bowl.  Three returning starters, Nate Draughon, Joe Fleskoskie, and Quintin Demps recorded 25 passes defended.

 

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 bid.

 

3. Houston Cougars

PiRate: 98               National Ranking: 69 (t)            HFA: 3

 

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 passes.

 

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 passes.

 

The front three has some good returning talent.  End Cody Pree and tackle Marquay Love return and should increase their total tackle numbers.

 

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 deep threat.

 

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 way.

 

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

PiRate: 90               National Ranking: 94 (t)            HFA: 3

 

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 wins.

 

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 2005. 

 

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 games.

 

Defensively, the line is the strong point.  Tackle Adrian Haywood and end Justin Rogers combined for 22.5 tackles behind the line.

 

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

PiRate: 85               National Ranking: 105                 HFA: 3

 

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 successful.

 

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 over.

 

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 ball.

 

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

PiRate: 82               National Ranking: 111                 HFA: 3

 

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 2006.

 

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 team.

 

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 then).

 

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 1-11.

 

Next Up: The Mountain West Conference.  Will the MWC produce a BCS Bowl participant this year, and if so, which team will it be?

 

Sources:  The official C-USA website plus the 12 official websites of the member teams.