Since joining Conference USA before the 2005 season, the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa have played in two of three conference title games. They’ve split those two meetings with UCF (winning in 2005, losing last season), and the year in which they didn’t play in the title game they finished one game out of first place. But even with the loss of exceptional quarterback Paul Smith, Todd Graham’s squad looks poised to win their second C-USA crown. Whoever gets the starting nod at quarterback out of three capable candidates (David Johnson, Clark Harrell and Jacob Bower) will have a full stable of athletes to get the ball to.
Running backs Tarrion Adams and Jamad Williams are back, along with three wide receivers that finished 2007 with at least 1,000 receiving yards. The issue that could sprout up in their quest for the Conference USA could be the lack of starting experience in the front seven, with just one returning starter (DE Moton Hopkins and LB George Clinkscale) on each of those levels. However, a number of returnees saw action on the line last season, so the linebackers will be the area that needs the most attention heading into the season. And overall improvement is needed from a unit that ranked 108th in total defense last season.
As for who can challenge Tulsa in the West, it would be unfair to start with anyone other than Houston, even with the departure of head coach Art Briles, who took the Baylor job. Taking over is Kevin Sumlin, who previously held offensive coordinator positions at both Texas A&M and Oklahoma. Conference USA Freshman of the Year Case Keenum is back for his sophomore campaign, and you’d have to expect him to improve upon his numbers from last season. Eight starters are back on defense, including all four members of the secondary, which will also be making the switch to a 4-3 scheme from the previously used 3-4.
UTEP has been the pick of many to finish third in the West, with Trevor Vittahoe back in the saddle at quarterback. The Miners will be counting heavily on a group of sophomore wide receivers, and the defense returns seven starters. But they also have to visit both Tulsa and Houston, along with a season-ending trip to ECU. SMU may be the most intriguing story in the league, thanks to the arrival of June Jones from Hawaii.
In his first season at UH, all Coach Jones did was take a winless team and win nine games. It may take some time to get the ball rolling in Dallas, but don’t be surprised if the Mustangs pull an upset in conference play. Tulane is looking to replace RB Matt Forte in year two under Bob Toledo but does return eighteen starters. And despite having one of the nation’s best wide receivers in Jarrett Dillard, Rice could once again struggle thanks to a defense that ranked 118th nationally last season.
The East looks to be more wide-open at the top, with four teams having a chance at winning the division. East Carolina returns seventeen starters, and quarterbacks Rob Kass and Patrick Pinkney will share the job once again. And the Pirates also have the league’s toughest non-conference slate with Virginia Tech (in Charlotte) and West Virginia as home games with road games against NC State and Virginia. Don’t be surprised if ECU splits these four games.
After the controversial decision to get rid of long-time head coach Jeff Bower, who had put together fourteen straight winning seasons, Southern Miss looks to add some spice to its offense with the hiring of offensive guru Larry Fedora. Damion Fletcher is back to run the football, but they lack experience at quarterback and have to replace all four starters on the defensive line. Defending champion Central Florida should also be in the running, but they’ve got to fill in the gaping hole left by the departure of RB Kevin Smith. But with nine returning starters back on defense, whoever replaces Smith and departed QB Kyle Israel should have a little time to get their bearings.
Memphis may be the darkhorse in the East, with head coach Tommy West welcoming back a capable corps of wide receivers, but the quarterback job is wide open. Nine starters also return on defense, led by linebacker Jake Kasser and free safety Brandon Patterson. But the unit needs to be better than their 100th ranking in total defense if they want to contend for the East Division title.
UAB and Marshall look to be doomed to the bottom of the division once again. However, while Neil Calloway is in his second season at UAB and should have some time to build his program, Mark Snyder needs to end the Thundering Herd’s three-year losing record streak. Failure to do so could mean bad things for his job security, but the program does welcome new coordinators in Rick Minter (defense) and John Shannon (offense). Now here are some league honors heading into 2008.
Players of the Year: WR Jarrett Dillard (Rice) and LB Gerald McRath (Southern Miss)
Coach of the Year: Todd Graham (Tulsa)
Newcomers of the Year: WR DeAndre Brown (Southern Miss) and DB Rock Dennis (SMU)
Three Best Non-Conference Games
1. Virginia Tech vs. East Carolina (in Charlotte, August 30th): The Pirates put up a good fight in their emotional 2007 opener, and could pull the upset this season.
2. Boise State @ Southern Miss (October 11th): A mid-season clash between two of the better non-BCS programs in the last decade.
3. West Virginia @ East Carolina (September 6th): How ECU got a Top 10 program to visit Greenville is beyond me, but the Mountaineers could regret making this concession by game’s end.
Conference Games of the Year
East Division: East Carolina @ Southern Miss (November 15th): Not positive as to how the East race will play out, but I’m pretty sure that this game will go a long way in deciding who wins the division.
West Division: Tulsa @ Houston (November 15th): Tulsa won last year’s meeting 56-7, something that should be on the minds of the Houston players in the days leading up to the rematch.
How they’ll finish
East: 1. East Carolina West: 1. Tulsa
2. Memphis 2. Houston
3. Southern Miss 3. UTEP
4. Central Florida 4. SMU
5. UAB 5. Tulane
6. Marshall 6. Rice