...An additional look into the conference from a different perspective...
Plenty of starters come back from a team that barely made any noise last season. James Pinkney leads the offense, but he will need to be supported with a legitimate running game if the Pirates are to succeed. The defense was abysmal against the run as well, and those holes will need to be plugged. The schedule will make it tough to find bowl eligibility, as games at NC State and at home against West Virginia and Virginia will be tough to win.
Quarterback controversy makes teams bad, and last year's Thundering Herd was no exception. Bernie Morris and Jimmy Skinner will have to get better to lead this squad in 2006. Head coach Mark Snyder is bringing the I-Formation this season, and that should improve the running game. The defense brings back a group of good tackling linebackers. After a rough opener at in-state rival WVU, Marshall has a pretty easy league schedule and could definitely win the division or perhaps compete for a darkhorse BCS slot.
Usually a team trying to replace a running back as talented as DeAngelo Williams has a down year running the ball, but Joseph Doss is ready to step up and got quite a bit of experience last season. The receiving corps makes any quarterback look solid. If the offensive and defensive line replacements hold up, then Memphis can also be a serious threat to win the division. Games against Tennessee, Marshall, and UTEP will probably keep Memphis from BCS contention however.
A perennial contender, the Golden Eagles will probably remain in the mix again this season. Fifteen returning starters, including RB Larry Thomas and WR Shawn Nelson, will carry the team like they did last season. The defense has a lot of good players in tight competition for starting spots, so hopefully this depth will help keep opponents from scoring in bunches. The schedule is very unforgiving though, including road games at Florida, UCF, Tulsa, Virginia Tech, and Memphis. That alone will probably keep them out of the CUSA title game.
High hopes ended quickly last year for this squad, and a promising team ended up in the division cellar. Darrell Hackney has no apparent replacement, and an opener at Oklahoma will not be pleasant for trying out a new QB. Trips to Georgia, Southern Miss, and UCF will not help matters either. There are a few good players returning on both sides of the ball, but this year and this schedule is too much to handle. Expect UAB to struggle again in 2006.
It should come as no surprise that the surprise of last year is returning the most starters in the division this year (19). All the freshmen and sophomore starters last year have worked hard in the spring and will be trying to prove that last year's season was no fluke. The offense has many great weapons, including QB Steven Moffett and RB Kevin Smith. The defense lost their best player, but perhaps they will come together better this season. That unit will be the key if UCF is to make another title game, but do not expect George O'Leary's boys to be underestimated this season. Florida, Marshall, and Memphis are road games to worry about, but 6-2 might be enough in conference to make the title game. Expect another explosive season.
Returning more starters than UCF (20) is a great thing for the Cougars, but the team needs to get better to be a competitor. Kevin Kolb needs to improve behind center, but he should have enough talent at receiver and running back to keep the pressure off. The defense looked weak against a weak Kansas team in the bowl game last year, and hopefully the Cougars will really work on that side of the ball leading up to the season. They do travel to Miami, Southern Miss, and Memphis, but those games are in the mid- and late-season, so Houston might get on an early roll and become a division contender.
Hands down the worst team in the conference last season, the good news for the Owls is that they only lost one starter on offense. They do have a new coaching staff and a new offensive style (shotgun, not option), so this will be a year to make adjustments. Unfortunately for the Owls, 4 wins would probably be a successful season. Making steps in the right direction should happen by the end of the year, and hopefully they will learn from one of the hardest September schedules in the country (5 straight road games against powerhouses UCLA, Texas, and Florida State followed by Army and Tulane on the first weekend in October).
SMU might not have had a good season last year, but they did give TCU their only loss and kept the BCS from being truly controversial. Running backs Martin and Fitzgerald should keep defenses busy again this year. They finished strong last season and kept the best CUSA teams on their toes after starting very poorly (66-8 against Texas A&M). Even if Texas Tech runs them out of Lubbock like the Aggies did last season in the opener, the Mustangs must stay positive as the rest of their games are winnable. Perhaps a darkhorse contender, but probably will be satisfied with a bowl bid.
Unlike Rice, Tulane gets a free pass for last season. Any team that played 11 games in 11 different stadiums while losing their home to a hurricane would be hard pressed to compete as well as the Green Wave did last season. Tulane at LSU should be a great atmosphere for the state of Louisiana, as well as the home opener at the Superdome the following weekend. The running game and rushing defense will need to improve quickly this year, but you cannot help but see this team rebounding to a handful of wins this season. Not a contender, but certainly a threat to win every game on their schedule except for the two SEC opponents (LSU, Auburn).
The league champion last season actually loses very little from last year's team, but two big holes to fill are those left by RB Uril Parrish and WR Garrett Mills. They did get Courtney Tennial from Oklahoma to help out the running game, and QB Paul Smith is a proven leader. There is nobody scary in the nonconference schedule, and the only real road game worries in CUSA play are Memphis and Houston. Tulsa looks primed to repeat as division champions, and I think they will compete for a BCS slot.
The best threat to Tulsa last season will probably be the Miners' biggest competition again this season. Jordan Palmer was quite the QB last season, and Marcus Thomas looked even better as the tailback this spring. If Palmer has a better O-Line and makes fewer mistakes this season (19 INT in 2005), the Miners might even threaten to join the BCS. The schedule is kind of tough, and games at Tulsa and Marshall will probably determine how far UTEP goes this season.