Also See: Conference USA Preview In-Depth Extra
Coach Steve Kragthorpe, entering his fourth season on campus, appears to have the Tulsa program right where he wants it to be. After winning 8 games his first year, the Hurricane won just 4 in 2004 before bouncing back to claim 9 victories and the CUSA West title last fall. Sixteen total starters return, including nine on defense. Among those on the offense returning is QB Paul Smith, who threw for over 2800 yards and 20 TDs a year ago. However, RB Uril Parrish as well as Smith's top two targets, including star special teamer Ashlan Davis, will have to be replaced.
The opening four-game stretch features two tough but winnable road games at BYU and Navy. How Tulsa fares in those two matchups will be interesting to see before Southern Miss comes to town the first weekend in October. A two game stretch at home against UTEP and on the road at Houston will decide if this team goes to the title game again in '06.
Projected Wins: SFAustin, UNT, at ECU, at MEM, Rice, at SMU, Tulane
Few, if any, of the so-called experts projected the Knights to do much of anything a season ago, but all coach George O'Leary's squad did was go out and claim the CUSA East division title. And with seventeen starters back this fall, much of the same is expected in 2006. Among those returning is QB Steven Moffett, who threw for almost 3000 yards and 22 TDs a season ago. Also back is 1100-yard rusher Kevin Smith, as well as wideout Mike Walker. The defense, meanwhile, returns 9 starters from a year ago, including six of the team's top eight tacklers.
A road game at in-state rival Florida in week two will be interesting to watch, as will a home matchup with Southern Miss later in September. The Knights and Eagles appear to be the main two contenders in the East this fall, so the winner of that one will have the early advantage. Other games to keep an eye on include a home matchup with Pittsburgh in mid-October and a road trip to Houston later in the month. Luckily for UCF, they avoid both UTEP and Tulsa out of the West.
Projected Wins: Nova, at USF, at MAR, Rice, ECU, at MEM, at Tulane, UAB
Along with Tulsa and Houston, the Miners are expected to be right in the thick of things in the CUSA West race. UTEP finished a game out of first in the division last fall, but with sixteen starters back this season, including QB Jordan Palmer, many expect coach Mike Price's squad to come out on top in 2006. Palmer threw for over 3500 yards and 29 TDs last year but must cut down on the turnovers in '06. Marucs Thomas is back to tote the rock after dashing for almost 800 yards last fall, while top WR Johnnie Lee Higgins hopes to prove he's CUSA's best wideout.
A season-opening road trip to San Diego State won't be easy, nor will a home matchup with high-powered Texas Tech at home the following week. After that, though, the schedule settles down just a bit. Until road trips to West rivals Houston and Tulsa in consecutive weeks late in October, that is. UTEP's hopes for a division title likely ride on those two battles, both away from home.
Projected Wins: at SDSU, at NM, NMSU, SMU, Tulane, Rice, at UAB, at MAR, MEM
Much like Jordan Palmer at UTEP, UH QB Kevin Kolb is hoping to cut down on the turnovers this fall in an effort to lead his squad to a division title. The senior threw for over 3200 yards and 19 TDs in 2006, and his top two targets are back on the receiving end for another season. Among those returning is WR (and punt returner) Vincent Marshall, who had over 900 yards receiving and a half-dozen scores a season ago. The defensive unit, which played better in 2005 than they had in several years, returns nine starters of their own.
Three very winnable games get things started before a trio of non-conference matchups challenge the Cougars just a bit more. Home games with Oklahoma State and Sun Belt favorite LA-Lafayette are sandwiched around a road contest at powerhouse Miami. Combine that with the next four games on the schedule (at USM, vs UTEP, vs UCF, vs Tulsa), and you have perhaps one of the toughest stretches on the schedule that anyone in the country will see all year. The good news, though, is that both games against the West rivals are at home, keeping the Cougs in the race.
Projected Wins: at Rice, Tulane, Grambling, at SMU, at MEM
The Eagles have been perhaps the most steady team in CUSA over the past decade, in part because many of their competitors have departed for other leagues, but moreso because coach Jeff Bower always seems to put a quality product on the field. This year's squad returns fifteen starters from a season ago, including top RBs Larry Thomas and Cody Hull. That pair combined for about 1200 yards and 7 TDs in 2005. Jeremy Young looks to take over the QB spot after seeing limited action last fall, and he'll have the team's top three WRs from a season ago all back on campus in 2006.
USM's schedule is about as difficult as they come. Non-conference matchups at Florida, vs NC State, and at Virginia Tech make things tough enough. Then consider that the Eagles must also trip to UCF and Tulsa early in the season, and it becomes hard to project this squad to beat out the Knights for this year's division title.
Projected Wins: SELA, ECU, at MEM, at Tulane, UAB, MAR
Things didn't go quite as well as hoped last fall in Birmingham. Expected to contend for the conference title, the Blazers won just five times all year and finished a game under the .500 mark. With star QB Darrell Hackney now taking snaps in the NFL, things don't look all that promising for 2006 either. A dozen starters are back, though, including the team's top four running backs from a season ago. However, just one of the squad's top seven wideouts returns for this year's campaign.
Road trips to Oklahoma and Georgia early in the year likely won't be pretty, but there are winnable non-conference games with Mississippi State and in-state rival Troy on the schedule in late September. Wins in one or both of those games could spark a bit of confidence before the conference slate heats up in October, but still, a .500 record in 2006 will be hard to come by for coach Watson Brown.
Projected Wins: Troy, at Rice, MAR
After winning just three total games the previous two seasons, the Mustangs stepped into CUSA last fall and enjoyed themselves a bit more, winning four league contests and coming within a single game of bowl eligibility. Fourteen starters from last year's squad return this fall in hopes of leading SMU even closer to that six-win plateau. Among those back is RB DeMyron Martin, who ran for nearly 900 yards and 7 scores a season ago. Also back are the team's top three wideouts, though QB Jerad Romo will have to be replaced.
Road games at Texas Tech and at North Texas to open the season will tell where this team stands, as will a not-so-easy home matchup with Arkansas State later in September. Six wins is a real possibility for coach Phil Bennett's squad, but they can't afford to lose winnable games like they did in 2005.
Projected Wins: SHSU, at Tulane, MAR, at Rice
After several years of solid play in CUSA, the Pirates have taken a step back in recent years. They won just three total conference games the previous two seasons before moving back into the mix with a 4-4 league mark last fall. Thirteen starters are back this season, including QB James Pinkney who threw for nearly 2800 yards and 14 TDs a year ago. Also back are the team's top three RBs, as well as Pinkney's top four targets at WR. Senior Audrae Allison (1000 yards, 7 TD) is one of the best wideouts in the conference.
The non-conference schedule features road games at Navy and NC State as well as home battles with both Virginia and West Virginia. Winning even one of those games would be more than is expected from ECU this fall. Throw in conference road games at Southern Miss and UCF, and it appears a winning season is out of the question for the boys from Greenville.
Projected Wins: at Rice
The Tigers are on a recent string of success that has seen the squad average 8 wins per season over the last three years, and though thirteen starters are back from last fall's squad that went bowling for the third year in a row, unfortunately for UM, one of them is not named DeAngelo Williams. Memphis will have to replace their star tailback, as well as step-in QB Maurice Avery, who was also likely the team's best WR. RB Joseph Doss is back to help carry the load though after picking up almost 500 yards and a couple of his scores of his own last fall.
It's hard to count UM out of any of their non-conference games, but expecting the Tigers to win more than two of them is hard to project as well. Four of the team's five toughest conference games are at home, which could be good or bad depending on if the team takes care of business in the Liberty Bowl. A fourth consecutive winning season would require at least one or two upsets from coach Tommy West's squad in 2006.
Projected Wins: CHAT, ArkSt
The Herd had a great string of success in the MAC before joining CUSA last fall, and they found things just a bit tougher in their new league. The squad won only four times last season, though they were just a single victory away from the .500 mark in conference play. Fifteen starters return from last year's team, including 9 on the offensive side. Among those back is star RB Ahmad Bradshaw, who ran for almost 1000 yards and 9 scores in 2005. Also back are the team's top three wideouts, though the QB situation will have to be resolved heading into 2006.
September road games at West Virginia, Kansas State, and Tennessee will be tough to conquer, likely putting the Herd in a hole early in the season. The good news is that they avoid both Tulsa and Houston out of the West and get games with UCF and UTEP on their home field. If they can overcome the (likely) slow start and find a QB, a surprise run in the CUSA might be in order for second-year head coach Mark Snyder.
Projected Wins: HOFS, Tulane
The Owls' first season in CUSA was less than successful. They won just a single game all year long, but with 17 starters back and a new head coach (Todd Graham) on the scene, many are hoping for a more positive 2006 campaign. Ten of those returning starters are on the offensive side of the ball, including RB Quinton Smith (900 yards, 5 TD) and RB/QB Joel Armstrong. QB Chase Clement, as well as the team's top three wideouts, return to campus this fall as well.
The schedule offers no favors with non-conference games at UCLA, Texas, and Florida State. Throw in matchups vs Houston, at UCF, at UTEP, and at Tulsa, and it becomes clear that coach Graham's first year in charge won't be easy. Picking up two to three league wins would be a huge step in the right direction heading into 2007.
Projected Wins: (none)
Nothing has come easy for Tulane recently. Hurricane Katrina only challenged an already floundering athletic department that much more, and in turn, the Wave picked up just two victories in 2005. Eleven starters return this fall, including QB Lester Ricard. The senior threw for almost 2000 yards and 16 TDs last season but must cut down on the turnovers in 2006. Also back is top RB Matt Forte and the team's top wideout Preston Brown.
A three game road swing at Houston, Mississippi State, and LSU isn't the best way to get things started. Throw in road games later in the year at UTEP, Auburn, and Tulsa, and it becomes clear that finding victories will be tough for this year's squad.
Projected Wins: (none)
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