The 2003 season could be a very interesting one in Conference USA. TCU, who tied with Cincinnati for the conference title last season, should again be at the top of the standings. Southern Miss should also make a return to the top few spots in the conference. Louisville, however, could see a drop-off this season after winning the title in 2000 and 2001 and finishing tied for third last year.
The Horned Frogs have only ten starters returning, four on offense and six on defense. One of those on offense is a possible all-conference selection. RB Lonta Hobbs rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2002 as well as a dozen TDs. The non-conference slate has only one tough game, at Arizona, but three of the toughest games for TCU on the conference schedule are on the road: at Tulane, at South Florida, and at Southern Miss. All of the Frogs' home games in CUSA play should be wins.
The Golden Eagles will again be led by an outstanding defensive unit. Eight starters from that side of the ball return, and five from the offense are back. As many as six or seven USM defensive players have a chance to be all-conference selections. The Eagles' out-of-conference schedule is one of the toughest in the league, with games at Alabama and California as well as a visit from Nebraska. The toughest road conference game is at Cincinnati, while tough league games against Memphis, South Florida, Tulane, and TCU are all at home. Thanks to this friendly conference schedule, Southern Miss should be at or near the top of CUSA in 2003.
The Tulane Green Wave is coming off of a huge 2002 season in which they went 8-5 overall, including an eight-point win over Hawaii in a bowl game in the Rainbow Warriors' home stadium. Chris Scelfo's team returns nine offensive starters but only three on defense. Of the Waves' four non-conference games, only two should be challenges: at Texas and at home against Mississippi State. Though the Green Wave must travel to Louisville and to Southern Miss, home games against TCU, Memphis, and East Carolina in league play should give Tulane a shot at possibly sharing the league title.
The South Florida Bulls are not only a new member of CUSA, but also of Division I. USF played their first football game in 1997 and then moved to D-I in 2001. In their two seasons at the top level, they've gone 8-3 in 2001 and 9-2 last season. Although fourteen starters return from last year's team that lost to only Arkansas and Oklahoma on the road while beating CUSA teams like Southern Miss, East Carolina, Memphis, and Houston, the overall record will probably suffer slightly this season. I'm still expecting a good year from USF, however. A road game at Alabama is the only game I can see the Bulls definitely struggling. Road contests in CUSA play at Southern Miss, ECU, and Memphis won't be easy, but the Bulls should respond nicely as the new guy in town and finish with winning overall and conference records.
The Cincinnati Bearcats are coming off of a 7-7 season that ended in disappointing fashion with a bowl loss to North Texas. Four defensive and five offensive starters return, including junior QB Gino Guidugli, one of the best at his position in the conference. Last year he completed almost 55% of his passes and threw for over 3,000 yards though his TD-to-INT ratio was not very good (22 to 21). The Bearcats travel to West Virginia and Miami (OH) for non-conference games that will be tough to win. The CUSA schedule isn't all that bad or good, with visits from Southern Miss and Louisville schedule as well as trips to TCU, USF, and Memphis.
The Louisville Cardinals will have to find a new QB this season after the departure of Dave Raggone, who threw for almost 3,000 yards last season. Seven offensive and five defensive starters return from 2002's team that went 7-6 overall, including a blowout loss to Marshall in the GMAC Bowl in Mobile. Two road out-of-conference games lead off the schedule (at Kentucky and at Syracuse) and both are likely losses. The conference road schedule is also a killer: at USF, at ECU, at TCU, at Cincy. This could be a very disappointing season for UL with a new coach and a tough schedule in 2003.
The East Carolina Pirates, after being near of the top of the league for several years, dipped down to 4-8 in 2002. John Thompson, who has been the defensive coordinator at Southern Miss, Arkansas, and Florida, takes over the head coaching job in Greenville. ECU's non-conference slate is one of the toughest in CUSA: WVU, at Miami, at Wake Forest, North Carolina. ECU's conference standing will be decided at home when three of the conference's powers (Louisville, South Florida, and USM) all come to Greenville in the second half of the season. I expect the Pirates to improve slightly from last season but still be a year or two away from contending in CUSA.
The Memphis Tigers are still stuck in the bottom half of CUSA. Last year, the Tigers were 3-9 with wins over only Murray State, Tulane, and Army. Four offensive and eight defensive starters return. QB Danny Wimprine will be a key to this team's success; in 2002, Wimprine completed 54% of his passes for 2,800 yards and 23 TDs while also throwing 18 INTs. Two SEC opponents are on the Tigers' schedule, Mississippi and at Mississippi State, while trips to USM, Tulane, and Louisville will also be tough.
The Houston Cougars could continue to see a little improvement in 2003 thanks to a favorable schedule. Two tough non-conference games are on the slate, but one is at home: Mississippi State. The other game is at Michigan. Memphis and UAB travel to Houston which should help the Cougars' chances to pick up a few conference wins. Another 5-7 season could take place in Houston.
UAB and Army could again see struggling seasons in CUSA. Although the Blazers return 16 starters, the schedule will be tough this season with out-of-conference road games at Baylor, South Carolina, and Georgia. Conference road contests are TCU and USF will also be tough to win. The Black Knights return 12 starters from last year's 1-11 team. The only chances for wins on Army's schedule are home games with Connecticut, Rutgers, and Houston, as well as the annual Army/Navy battle in Philadelphia.