Conference USA stands for the proposition that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite Tulsa and UCF losing the anchors of their teams, both are expected to meet in a second-straight C-USA championship and the third time in four seasons. Still, there are a couple of other serious contenders and darkhorses to be found. Other squads like East Carolina, Houston, and Memphis look to field strong teams this fall, too, meaning it will be a battle right down to the finish this fall. Let's jump into the battles of the other southeastern conference.
1. Well if there's one thing about non-BCS conferences, it is coaching. There's always guys stepping up, guys stepping down, and guys looking over their shoulder at assistants. This season brings June Jones into the mix to join other greats like Mike Price and George O'Leary. There's a lot of talent, and one hopes the C-USA can keep it for as long as possible.
2. The second key will be how good the defenses are in the league as a whole. UCF will continue romping to more titles if they are the only competent defense in the league, as you cannot win every shootout, no matter how good your offense is. Look for defense to be what the conference focuses on this year and for a while.
3. The third key is SMU. Everybody knows East Carolina, Tulsa, Houston, and UCF are going to compete for the title, but one interesting team to watch is SMU. Sure, they were crappy last year and have not been good since the death penalty was lifted...but you have to believe June Jones can turn this program around. How long nobody knows, but watch out contenders because this is no gimme anymore.
OFFENSE: Last season both Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass split time almost equally in the quarterback job. This experience will help no matter who leads coming out of summer practice. Three returning offensive linemen will also help the offense move the ball while they break in new running backs.
DEFENSE: Nine starters return from last year's unit that really carried the team to its best finish in conference history. Some young guns will compete, especially at linebacker, but expect this unit to be the best defense in the East division. The only possible weakness is perhaps defending the short pass.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Ben Hartman should be better than his 13-22 numbers last season, and the punter and leading kick returner are back as well. Again, this unit will be good for the Pirates.
COACHING: Skip Holtz returns for his fourth season at the helm, and he has really turned around the East Carolina program. The Pirates consistently challenge the big boys from their region and it has started to pay off. With an experienced team this year, expectations are even higher, but Holtz can handle them.
SCHEDULE: The Pirates do not have an easy out-of-conference game, as they play Virginia Tech and West Virginia to start the season, at NC State and Virginia later. As for the conference schedule, the only possible roadbumps are a home game against Houston and a road game at UCF that should decide the Eastern division. Thankfully, ECU gets a bye before UCF.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... SS Van Eskridge had over 100 tackles last season, and this year he will continue to rack up the stops when ECU needs back-line defense. He will fully break out if he learns how to break up some passes in the middle this season.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... It's hard to imagine East Carolina beating Virginia Tech in the opener, but they certainly have a chance if Beamer's boys come out slow in 2008. All the other games are winnable, so the best case is 11-1 and a BCS bowl on the line in the conference title game.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Even if the Pirates stumble through September, it's hard to imagine them doing any worse than last season. 7-5 would be a bad season for these guys.
MAKE OR BREAK: No matter how the early part of the season goes, the only thing standing between this team and a first appearance in the C-USA title game is a road game at defending champion UCF. This will be the game that determines whether ECU is ready to become a real contender, even have BCS aspirations.
OFFENSE: The offense carried the team in 2007, but only 6 returning starters come back and most of them on the line. Terrance Ganaway will be the new running back, and he gained 550 yards as a backup last season. Look for some bumps in the road as QB Case Keenum adjusts to new receivers.
DEFENSE: The defense was statistically the best in the conference last season, and 8 starters return. The big playmaker DE Phillip Hunt will likely up his sack total, and all of the defensive backfield will intercept a lot of balls.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Chase Turner is the only returning starter for this unit, as Jonathan Gibson will take over the kicking duties and the return game will try out some new guys. This could be one area to really gameplan an attack against the Cougars.
COACHING: Kevin Sumlin becomes the first African-American head coach for a Texas Division I-A program, and he's well experienced from coordinating at Oklahoma and Texas A&M. He may go through some growing pains, but he's a good man to replace Art Briles and continue the upward swing of this program.
SCHEDULE: The schedule is tough early, as there's only one home game in each of the months of August, September, and October. Road games at Oklahoma State and East Carolina are the worst of it, although a November home game against Tulsa is probably the biggest game.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... RB Terrance Ganaway is set for an absolutely monster season, with the offensive line mostly intact and taking over the primary rushing duties. He will be the man when things get tough on offense, and that could lead to 1500+ yards.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... An upset on the road at Oklahoma State is not out of the question, and the Cougars get division favorite Tulsa in the middle of a three-game homestand in November. 7-1 and a division title are as good as it will get.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... If Houston's offense is not back to good this season and the defense begins to struggle, road games at Marshall, Colorado State, and Rice are all very possible losses. That would drop the cougars to 6-6 and 4-4, and probably home for the holidays.
MAKE OR BREAK: One make or break factor is how well the offense gets together, but the real key will be the November game hosting Tulsa. That one will likely decide the Western division.
OFFENSE: Eight starters return to a unit that had little trouble moving the ball. A new quarterback will need to be broken in, but the job should be easy with the interior linemen back and tons of receiving talent between TE Cody Slate, WR Darius Passmore, WR Emmanuel Spann, and WR E.J. Wynn.
DEFENSE: While this unit was nothing special last season, but 8 starters return and a couple JUCO transfers will join DE Albert McClellan (2006 conference player of the year, out by injury in 2007) will change that. As long as this unit can start getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and make some turnovers, this year could be a winner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A big loss in PK and P Anthony Binswanger will need to be filled, but there are two viable contenders at each position. The return game should be strong with C.J. Spillman and J.J. Johnson handling most of the duties.
COACHING: Since leaving Ohio State, Mark Snyder has had some serious problems turning around the Thundering Herd, only winning 12 games in 3 seasons. He's got the right defensive framework in place, and now he just needs players to step up and work the system.
SCHEDULE: The schedule is a nightmare for Thundering Herd fans hoping to turn things around. Other than the opener against D-IAA Illinois State, the out of conference schedule defines brutal: at Wisconsin, at West Virginia, vs. Cincinnati. All the really good conference teams other than ECU are home games, which means nothing will come easy in 2008.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... TE Cody Slate is just the kind of guy every quarterback wishes he had to go to in tough situations. Slate led the team in receiving last season and will likely have a chance at 1000+ yards this season, a monster year for a tight end.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... There's enough returning talent everywhere to think this team could make some serious noise. With the rough schedule, 7-5 would be a great year.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... There's no denying that this team has underahcieved under Snyder, and that trend could continue with this schedule if the players get discouraged. 2-10 and a lone win against UAB in C-USA could happen.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key for a team with a lot of experience will be can they build on it and maybe sneak a win away from a heavily favored opponent early. If that happens, then the confidence will be there in November when all the important conference opponents come into Huntington.
OFFENSE: Another new quarterback needs to be broken in, but things will be easier with all four leading receivers back in 2008. Look for WR Duke Calhoun and WR Carlos Singleton to eliminate the growing pains. If the running game gets going at all, this unit will make waves.
DEFENSE: Despite returning nine starters, there's a lot of unanswered questions and holes to fill. The defense needs to hope the offense keeps up the great play to support this unit. The defensive line is the strength of the unit, led by Clinton McDonald.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Reagan and P Brent Sutherland were excellent when called upon last season, and look for both to improve even more in 2008. The return game needs new leaders, but there's plenty of burners to fill the gaps.
COACHING: Tommy West has led the Tigers to nearly .500 overall in 7 seasons, and this year he may improve even more. Just when West appeared to be on the hot seat, he came up with a good 6-2 C-USA season last year. He could do it again, escaping job pressure.
SCHEDULE: Despite opening at Mississippi, the Tigers really have no tough games until Louisville comes to town October 10. A roadtrip to East Carolina follows, but every other game should be winnable.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... This is going to be a very strange pick, but I think P Brent Sutherland is the most important cog in the defensive framework. Sutherland will need to blast some big punts to keep the defense in favorable field position, and his 40 yard-per-punt average may improve and become one of the best in the country.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... This team could steal a home game against Central Florida and hold serve against all except ECU thanks to the easy West division schedule. 10-2 and a second-place division finish are possible if the defense becomes an average unit and the offense clicks.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The running game could struggle, making the offense inconsistent. The defense cannot carry this team, and Memphis could fall all the way to 3 or 4 wins.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key as evidenced above is definitely plugging someone into the running game who actually threatens opposing defenses, causing them to put more than 3 guys on the line to stop the run. If teams can drop 7 and 8 men routinely in heavy coverage, this offense and the Tigers overall will have a tough season.
OFFENSE: Best offense in the conference is not an understatement, at least statistically. The problem is that the team is very one-dimensional. With senior QB Chase Clement and top receivers back, the only key will be if RB Justin Hill and C.J. Ugokwe can make something happen in the rushing game.
DEFENSE: The lack of a rushing game did not stop Rice last season and likely will not again, but the defense is possibly the worst in the country. Some experience comes back, but it's not very talented experience. DE Scott Soloman is the only bright spot going into his sophomore year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Clark Fangmeier was not called upon much last season as placekicker, but he will get lots of extra points if nothing else. A new punter Mark Brundage will try his best and the return game is up in the air after spring practices.
COACHING: David Bailiff begins his second season after a 3-9 campaign, and he probably expects growth this season. Unless the defense surprises, Rice will again be a flash in the pan that might steal a win or two this season. A long rebuilding process continues.
SCHEDULE: At least Rice gets to open against the only team in their division they should beat, and SMU is coming to the Owls home no less. After that, it gets tough. Everything is winnable except for the road game at Texas, but this defense will lose a lot more games before it gets better.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... QB Chase Clement rushed for nearly 600 yards last year while passing for 29 TD and over 3300 yards. There could be even more this year. Hesiman candidates do not come from losing teams, but if they did, this would be a frontrunner.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Who knows, Rice could surprise and have a decent defense. That's all it would take to make it to 6-6 and continue the slow climb out of the C-USA cellar.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Things go like last year, except Rice chokes against the likes of SMU or North Texas. 1-11 is possible with no wins in conference.
MAKE OR BREAK: Nothing will determine how far this team goes like the defense. All it takes with this offense is a mediocre defense, but even that may be too much to ask. There's no doubt where the recruiting focus should be for the next five years.
OFFENSE: Here comes a new direction. The Mustangs have been bottom-of-the-barrel since coming back from the death penalty, but the final pieces of a comeback may come now that former Hawaii coach June Jones takes over. SMU will likely transform from a team like Rice into a team like Hawaii or Texas Tech very quickly, but maybe not this season as the cupboards are fairly bare. Still, there are enough good receivers to start the run and gun revolution.
DEFENSE: This unit was as bad as Rice last season, and really brought the demise of the team and its coach. Still, with the new look offense this unit needs to step up and help out if SMU is going to experience a quick turnaround. The best players are corners Bryan McCann and Derrius Bell.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter and Kicker Thomas Morstead was an all-conference punter last season, and the only thing stopping him from doing it again is the new-look improved offense. The return game should improve this season.
COACHING: What more can you say than June Jones took Hawaii from 0-12 to 9-4 in one season and to the BCS in a few short seasons. SMU should be an easier assignment, but maybe not as quickly.
SCHEDULE: The first two weeks should be wins against Rice and Texas State, but you may want to tune in for the Rice and Texas Tech games. Should be tons of points and passing in both. Expect SMU to steal a couple of games and be competitive, but no bowl with this schedule.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... WR Emmanuel Sanders gained almost 900 yards last season, and there will be more than enough oppotunities to bust out to a big year this year.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Really, a turnaround similar to 0-12 to 9-4 is possible. SMU could put it all together, overachieve and end up bowling in 2008. 7-5 could happen even with the relatively tough schedule.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... It's hard to imagine Jones staying down for long, but change does not happen at major programs overnight. 1-11 is the bottom possibility if the defense stays as bad as last year.
MAKE OR BREAK: The defense is important, but is the offense deep enough to run the Jones system in just one year? It seems doubtful, but the coach is a miracle worker and may just surprise everyone. This is the hardest team to predict in the conference for that reason.
OFFENSE: RB Damion Fletcher is the returning centerpiece of a new spread offense. Flethcer will need to take the pressure off a new quarterback, probably freshman Austin Davis. The offensive line also needs to reload.
DEFENSE: The defense had a special year last season, but the entire line, which was the anchor of the unit, is gone now. The back seven is still in good shape, but corner C.J. Bailey should break out and lead the coverages.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Britt Barefoot has the best kicker name in years, and he may take over the placekicking from returning starter Justin Estes as well as the punting Barefoot did last season. The return game is still up in the air but should be decent.
COACHING: Well this was a surprise change of direction. After 14 straight winning seasons, the school cans Jeff Bower and goes with Larry Fedora, an unknown. Nobody knows what to expect.
SCHEDULE: The home schedule is not that bad this season, but Boise State and ECU will be tough. The road schedule is pretty brutal though, and may hold Southern Miss to its first non-winning season since 1994.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... LB Gerald McRath is the true anchor in the center of the defense, and he will be called upon to help out in coverage as well as shore up an entirely new D-line. This could create a breakout situation for the talented McRath.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Southern Miss could keep on chugging, maybe get a little better than last year, but not quite enough to compete with East Carolina. Still, 7-1 and 9-3 is possible.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The Golden Eagles take a big step back adjusting to their new coach and new offense, and drop from bowl contention in October before the schedule gets rough. Southern Miss could be as bad as 3-9.
MAKE OR BREAK: How good the defensive front turns out to be could really determine the fate of the Golden Eagles in year one under a new head coach. Too many easy rushing yards and Southern Miss will break their bowl streak.
OFFENSE: Four returning starters on the O-line will help keep the offense afloat. A new quarterback will likely be necessary, and look for Scott Elliott to take the job. Andre Anderson is the new running back, but the pressure will not be on him.
DEFENSE: The defense was decent last year and almost turned a few close losses into wins. The run defense will suffer with the loss of both starting tackles, but the backfield is still pretty solid.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Ross Thevenot and Darren deRochemont split punting duties last year while Thevenot was the placekicker, but expect a reversal of duties after spring with de Rochemont kicking and Thevenot punting for the time being. While this uncertainty is worked out, things could be rocky.
COACHING: Bob Toledo is now entering his second year at the helm of the big Green Wave, and his first year was not too bad all things considered. Look for him to spin his wheels a little bit as he starts to fill the coffers with players to fit his system.
SCHEDULE: The schedule has a couple rough openers at Alabama and vs. ECU, but then every game is at least winnable until the November 1 showdown at LSU. Four out of five in November are on the road, so the hay better be made in the early part of the season or else there will be no improvement from last year.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... RB Andre Anderson replaces big shoes and a guy who ran for 2200 yards in 2007, but he gets the same line to run behind. Those shoes will not be so hard to fill after all.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The Green Wave has not been bowling for a little while, and it could happen in Bob Toledo's second year if the defense gets better than last year. 7-5 is not out of the question.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Other than home games against Rice and UAB, the rest of the schedule is very rough. This could lead to a 2-10 season.
MAKE OR BREAK: Although the ECU game is probably a loss, the four game stretch at home in September will require some good play to get Tulane off and running. If that does not happen, it will be another long season in Louisiana.
OFFENSE: The offense continues to lead the way this year, with nine returning starters back from last season's top offense in the conference and country. Senior guard Justin Morsey leads a dominant O-line that will keep a new quarterback off the turf for long enough to spread the ball to all the returning receiving talent.
DEFENSE: There are a lot of questions still on this side of the ball, but in this conference the best teams can sometimes outscore any problems the defense has. The defense must replace the top three tacklers from last season, so look for some underclassmen to step up.
SPECIAL TEAMS: No need to replace K Jarrod Tracy or P Michael Such this season, but some new returners need to breathe new life into the special teams. Could be a long season for these guys.
COACHING: Todd Graham is in his second full season now leading the Golden Hurricane, which is normally the year of improvement for most teams. That will be hard to do, unless Tulsa goes undefeated or wins the conference championship game. Expect them to get another shot under Graham.
SCHEDULE: The schedule never looks bad when you look down from the top of a division, and the only worrisome game until late October is a road trip to SMU, and only if SMU is resurgent. The key is the three game stretch of UCF, at Arkansas, and at Houston. Those will determine how far Tulsa goes this season.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... RB Charles Clay was a force in the receiving game last season, but look for him to become more balanced this season as a dual threat. This could mean trouble for opposing defenses.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... An undefeated season is within Tulsa's grasp, which would maybe put them into the Fiesta Bowl barring a Utah or BYU undefeated season. It will be tough to get by UCF twice or ECU in the championship though.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The good news is with all the talent back on offense, some growing pains might be avoided with a new quarterback and lots of new defensive starters. Still, those growing pains might cost Tulsa a game or two and allow Houston into the C-USA title game. 7-5 is the absolute worst case scenario.
MAKE OR BREAK: The new quarterback must progress enough by late October to deal with the critical three game stretch. As long as that happens, there is almost no doube Tulsa will be returning to avenge last year's championship loss.
OFFENSE: Although QB Sam Hunt is gone, junior Joseph Webb has a lot of upside and will be taking over the reins. He has plenty of receiving talent in Mike Jones, Mario Wright, and Frantrell Forrest. This unit should be better than last year.
DEFENSE: The defense was the Achilles' heel last season, and needs to develop than young nucleus into proven contenders. Safety Will Dunbar was the only bright spot last year, so there is a lot to shore up between now and November.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Swayze Waters hit 79% of his FG tries last season and did an admirable job punting for over 40 yards per kick. He should return after a spring injury and lead this unit. Look for Rashard Slaughter and Frantrell Forrest to kickstart the return game.
COACHING: It was not just Neil Callaway making his coaching debut last year, it was him and 14 freshman starters. This year all should improve from the experience and form a nucleus that should lead UAB back to being competitive in 2010 if not 2009. Callaway has time to develop this crop into winners.
SCHEDULE: Sometimes the schedule does not look good, and that happens when you are at the bottom looking up. UAB drew the worst possible West schedule with Tulsa and Houston on the docket. That will not help the Blazers improve on a 2-10 campaign.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... QB Joseph Webb is given the golden oppotunity to lead this young team from a tough start in 2007 to perhaps bowl eligibility in 2009. This is the bridge year, and progress has to happen. Webb needs to lead that process or nothing will happen.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... UAB has a chance to knock off Marshall and Memphis at home, but everything else outside of Alabama State will be very rough. Expect 4-8 to be a good season, 5-7 tops.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The Blazers could take a step back in record while still improving. 1-11 is possible and may not be a sign things are getting worse. Of course things could get worse and that's the worst case scenario with such a strong nucleus of now sophomore players.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be finding success or a silver lining even when the going gets rough. That may be hard to do, but development will come slowly with this tough schedule.
OFFENSE: The offense was pretty solid last year, but only five starters return and big losses on the line and the heart of the offense Kevin Smith are all gone. Phillip Smith should fill the RB role, and Mike Greco and Joe Weatherford will fight over the open QB position. Still, the key will be replacing the openings on the line so that these new guys have the time they need to make reads and play well.
DEFENSE: The defense is what gave this team a good chance three years ago and a solid league title last year. Nine starters return and this unit should hold the team together. LB Derrick Hallman leads the crew.
SPECIAL TEAMS: An excellent placekicker needs replaced, but Jordan Dodds appears ready to take the job. Blake Clingan will be back trying to improve on his punting, and leading kick returners Khymest Williams and Joe Burnett are back. This should be a strength in comparison to many C-USA special teams units.
COACHING: George O'Leary is still not back to .500 at UCF total in four seasons, but it will not be too long after reviving the program to a ten win season last year and a conference title. Things will stay good under this coach.
SCHEDULE: Ten wins out of 12 might be tough with USF, Boston College, Miami, and East Carolina all in the first 8 weeks of the season. But even if this team is 4-4 at that point, 8-4 should happen and another bowl will be expected.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... WR Kamar Aiken did not have as many receptions as Rocky Ross last season, but expect the explosiveness of Aiken to come in more handy this season when a new QB needs a big playmaker. This should be a big year for this receiver.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The game at Boston College will be really tough to win, but other than that everything is winnable. The key will be surviving Tulsa and East Carolina in a 8 day stretch. Still, split those and UCF has a chance to go back to the title game.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... UCF should not drop below 7-5 this season, even if that puts them a few games behind the ECU Pirates. This defense will not drop to .500 or less, no matter the offensive growing pains.
MAKE OR BREAK: The offense in all likelihood just needs to be productive enough to keep the defense off the field. If that does not happen, the defense will wear down as the season goes along and 7-5 might become a grim reality. At least a bowl should be in the mix no matter what.
OFFENSE: RB Terrell Jackson takes over for Marcus Thomas, who ran the show last season. QB Trevor Vittatoe did an admirable job starting last season and will need to step it up to keep the offense running this year.
DEFENSE: The Miners gave up over 300 yards per game passing last season, and S Quintin Demps is now gone. The Miner defense must find a new leader in a hurry or else there will be no hope for any improvement this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jose Martinez hit 17/20 in field goals last season and will be looking to lead the special teams. With the defensive struggles, special teams will be critical this year with a replaced punter.
COACHING: Mike Price found new life at UTEP and revitalized the program, but now he is at risk of a third straight losing season. Even that might be enough to rid Price of a job, so he needs to step it up this year.
SCHEDULE: The opening two games are rough at Buffalo and vs. Texas, but then things let up a bit. The easiest stretch are three games in early November sandwiched by tough road games at Tulsa, Houston, and ECU.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... K Jose Martinez was the best statistical kicker in the league last season, and he'll need to be even better if UTEP is going to get back to a bowl. This could be an outside Groza award finalist.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... UTEP could put it all back together. If they do, expect a 7-5 or 8-4 record and a surprising return to bowl season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... UTEP will continue to struggle on defense so much that the offense cannot find its rhythm under new leadership. If this happens, expect a 2-10 season.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key will be the defense. If they can improve dramatically against the pass, that might protect them from the demoralizing blowouts that are possible with all the solid spread offenses in the conference.
Well it could be deja vu all over again with UCF and Tulsa, or Houston and East Carolina could get in the mix. Who knows, maybe even dark horses such as Southern Miss or SMU could get in the competition. This should be a avery competitive year outside of Rice and UAB, and East Carolina has a serious shot at the BCS slot if the MWC beats each other up as expected. The Pirates could get it done with a 12-1 record. There's plenty of good storylines to follow down south this year.