For those of you who have come to appreciate Conference USA in its current configuration (and we know there are some of you out there), enjoy the 2012 season because the league is due for a makeover come 2013.
The new-look for CUSA next year will not include current members UCF, Memphis, Houston and SMU, all moving to the Big East. It will include North Texas, Florida International, Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio, airlifted in from the Sun Belt and WAC, respectively.
The “movable parts” feature of CUSA figures to continue for the next couple of years, as rumors continue to float about other current members being targeted (or seeking to move) elsewhere, and a queue forming for new schools to join. The scuttlebutt is that UTEP (perhaps to the Mountain West), East Carolina (trying hard to get into the Big East) and/or Marshall (also perhaps on Big East radar) could be the next ones to jump from CUSA, which in turn reportedly has current Sun Belt entries Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee targeted whenever the need arises to fill more gaps. Stay tuned for further developments.
Most college football insiders suspect that CUSA might be taking a step backwards this fall as it prepares to reconfigure for 2013. The league lost a lot of firepower from a year ago, especially several record-setting QBs (Houston’s Case Keenum, Southern Miss’ Austin Davis, Tulsa’s G.J. Kinne, East Carolina’s Dominique Davis) who have graduated.
Moreover, what appeared to be the consensus favorite to win the league, UCF, was hit with a one-year bowl ban in mid-summer. If there were ever a wide-open looking conference, it’s CUSA, circa 2012. Filling the conference’s six allotted bowl slots could be a chore this fall.
In addition, almost half of the schools (Southern Miss, UAB, Memphis, Houston and Tulane) will have new coaches this fall. Many of the remaining coaches are sitting on hot seats of various degrees this fall.
Following, we’ll provide a quick handicap of the 2012 races in CUSA East and West, highlight key players and coaches on the hot seat, and include pertinent pointspread and technical notes for each school. Conference win odds are included next to each team’s name.
Though record-breaking QB G.J. Kinne has graduated, head coach Bill Blankenship believes that Nebraska transfer Cody Green (who started a handful of games for the Cornhuskers) will eventually prove a worthy successor. While the QB situation settles, expect the Golden Hurricane to rely a bit more than usual on an experienced RB crops featuring last year’s top two rushers (Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas), while versatile slot-back Willie Carter also returns. A rebuilt OL and a defense that ranked a poor 117th nationally vs. the pass are concerns, but the non-conference portion of the schedule is much more forgiving than a year ago, and the thought is that by the time October rolls around, Green and the QB spot will have smoothed out the rough edges, and Tulsa will be bowl-bound again.
Lots of changes, with Kevin Sumlin and much of his coaching staff off to Texas A&M, and record-setting QB Case Keenum having graduated. New Cougar head coach Tony Levine got a test-run in his new job in last January’s Ticket City Bowl win over Penn State, and QB David Piland has experience, having stepped in when Keenum was injured in 2010 and throwing for better than 300 ypg. Levine won’t alter the Air-Raid offense, although four new wideouts must be plugged into the lineup. The “D” switches to a traditional 4-3 under new coordinator Jamie Bryant after employing 3-4 looks a year ago, with the hope being the new alignments better slow opposing infantries after UH was a bit ginger vs. the rush a year ago. But without Keenum and an almost completely-new staff from 2011, the Cougs could regress significantly from last year’s 13-1 mark.
Head coach June Jones flirted with Arizona State after last season but remains (for the moment) in Dallas as the Ponies gun for a first-ever fourth-straight bowl appearance. The new pilot for Jones’ Red Gun will likely be Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert, who flamed out in Austin but gets another shot at SMU. He has an established group of receiving targets led by WR Darius Johnson, and slamming RB Zach Line returns after gaining nearly 2,700 yards rushing the past two seasons, thought a brand-new OL is cause for concern. The defense, which finished a surprisingly-stout 27th overall nationally a year ago and features the conference’s top LB crew (all four starters return), might need to carry the load while the strike force adjusts to a new QB and OL.
The war drums are beating in El Paso for Mike Price, who hasn’t finished with a winning record at UTEP since 2005. The veteran coach has yet to have his contract extended beyond this fall, and the 2012 campaign is likely to get off to a slow start with an opener vs. top 10 Oklahoma at the Sun Bowl and road games at Ole Miss and Wisconsin before September is complete. With the early portion of the CUSA slate also menacing (at East Carolina, SMU and at Tulsa by mid-October), Price's fate could be sealed by midseason. Keeping lively QB Nick Lamaison healthy might give the Miners a puncher's chance in some of those early games, but unless the defense makes big strides from last season, it is going to be difficult for UTEP to keep pace.
Here’s another CUSA coach on the hot seat, as Rice’s fortunes under David Bailiff have dipped considerably since the 10-3 breakout season and Texas Bowl win in 2008. Bailiff would like to turn junior QB Taylor McHargue into an updated version of Chase Clement, who led the Owls to the bowl win four years ago, but McHargue’s run-first instincts out of the pocket do not necessarily translate in Bailiff’s version of the spread. Not to mention bigger problems experienced by the Rice "D" in pass coverage, where the Owlies ranked 112th nationally and allowed a whopping 32 TD passes. The lack of a consistent rush, and the necessity to blitz to harass opposing QBs, creates a dangerous scenario in the secondary which too often had to fend for themselves as they often become stranded on the proverbial island. Bailiff might need to get to a bowl to save his job.
Yet another rebuilding job for the Green Wave under new head coach Curtis Johnson, who moves from the hometown NFL Saints. Unfortunately, Johnson didn’t bring Drew Brees with him, instead inheriting QB Ryan Griffin who will pilot an offense that has junked Bob Toledo’s West Coast schemes for a more pro-style look often featuring two backs, which should feature junior RB Orleans Darkwa. That’s mostly designed to better control the ball and keep what looks like another undermanned defense off the field. Don’t expect the decade-long bowl drought to end.
Good enough to beat eventual league champ Southern Miss last fall, Doc Holliday’s Thundering Herd returns all of its skill-position components from a squad that closed 2011 with a rush and won the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Pete over FIU. With so many top CUSA signal-callers from a year ago having graduated, Marshall’s soph QB Rakeem Cato might be the best in the conference. If the Herd “D” can compensate for the departure of playmaking DE Vinny Curry (Philadelphia Eagles draftee) and tighten up the secondary after ranking 96th in pass defense last fall, Marshall can make it to the league title game.
2-SOUTHERN MISS (5/1)
The defending league champ lost four-year starting QB Austin Davis to graduation (he’s in the St. Louis Rams camp this summer) and head coach Larry Fedora, plus much of last year’s staff, to North Carolina. Respected defensive tactician Ellis Johnson, most recently Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at South Carolina, replaces Fedora, although Johnson’s past head coaching exploits at Gardner-Webb and The Citadel (admittedly a while ago) were not successful. Johnson won’t alter Fedora’s spread looks on offense but might be going with a true frosh at QB, Anthony Alford, and only four starters return from a stop unit that must also re-stock the interior of its defensive line. The Golden Eagles should get back to another bowl but also figure to take a big dip from last year’s 12-2 mark.
3-UCF (bowl ineligible)
George O’Leary was already on the hot seat in Orlando after last year’s collapse to 4-8, complete with six losses by seven points or fewer. Now ineligible for a bowl game due to recruiting infractions, O’Leary’s job just got that much harder. The pieces seem to be in place for a rebound, especially if soph QB Blake Bortles picks up where he left off late last season, and the “D” returns most of the components from last year’s 9th-ranked stop unit (although defensive coordinator John Skladany was thrown under the bus by O’Leary). Also working under a new AD (Todd Stansbury), O’Leary is under the gun, and we wonder about team chemistry that ran afoul last year, but keep in mind that O’Leary has bounced back with winning marks after each of his three previous Knights teams finished below .500.
4-EAST CAROLINA (15/2)
Coach Ruffin McNeill is under fire as the program missed a bowl game last season after a defensive collapse at the end of 2010. McNeill’s switch to 3-4 looks helped upgrade the “D” in 2011 but now he must find a QB to take the place of the decorated Dominique Davis, and spring work was inconclusive as none from among four candidates emerged as the clear number one. Considering that the Pirates’ Air Raid needs a capable pilot, that development is hardly encouraging.
New head coach Garrick McGee arrives from Arkansas, where he served as offensive coordinator under Bobby Petrino and was briefly mentioned as a possible replacement in Fayetteville after Petrino was dismissed in April. McGee imports the spread from Arkansas, but whether holdover QB Jonathan Perry can detonate the new-look offense remains to be seen. But the real concerns at Legion Field are on defense, where the Blazers ranked a poor 114th and were strafed by graduation, especially in a completely rebuilt secondary. At least no one expects much from UAB.
The Larry Porter experiment lasted for all of a disastrous two seasons at the Liberty Bowl, as the Tigers won just three games on his watch before he walked the plank and was replaced by TCU offensive coordinator Justin Fuente. Unfortunately, Fuente inherits a bare-bones program with only 50 scholarship players returning, and one that ranked near the bottom nationally in total offense and total defense stats a year ago. Perhaps Texas Tech transfer QB Jacob Karam provides some relief, but this season is more about regaining some footing in Memphis before the move to the Big East next year.
COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT: George O'Leary, UCF; Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina; David Bailiff, Rice; Mike Price, UTEP.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
David Piland, QB, Houston: Big shoes to fill after Case Keenum’s graduation, but remember that Piland passed for more than 300 ypg as Keenum’s replacement during the 2010 season.
Zach Line, RB, SMU: After gaining almost 2,700 yards rushing the past two years, might have to do even more heavy-lifting for the offense with new QB Garrett Gilbert adjusting to June Jones’ Red Gun.
Willie Carter, slot-back, Tulsa: The versatile Carter is perhaps the best dual-threat in CUSA and will help ease the transition to new QB Cody Green, a Nebraska transfer.
Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall: With almost all of the top CUSA QBs having graduated from last season, Cato has a chance to emerge as the best of the conference lot.
POINTSPREAD TRENDS TO WATCH
EAST CAROLINA: ECU has dropped 12 of his last 19 decisions since late in the 2010 campaign. Although it is worth noting that upgraded defensive efforts a year ago curbed the 'over' tendencies of 2010 (10-2-1); the Pirates were in fact 'under' in seven of 12 a year ago.
HOUSTON: The Cougars were a force a year ago when covering 11 of 14 games, many with hefty imposts. Keep on mind, however, that UH covered only 2-of-10 minus Keenum two years ago, when new QB David Piland was thrown into the fire for eight of those battles.
MARSHALL: Doc Holliday's Herd has fallen into a familiar home/road pattern the past two seasons, covering 7-of-11 on the board as host, but dropping 9-of-13 vs. the line as a visitor.
MEMPHIS: Proceed with caution, as Memphis is a pitiful 11-25 vs. the number the past three seasons under Tommy West and Larry Porter, who at least didn't set the bar too high for new head coach Justin Fuente.
RICE: The Owls have been burning its backers lately when on the road, dropping nine of their last 11 spread decisions away from home. Rice also began to reverse its extended 'over' trends a year ago; after going 'over' in 47-of-60 decisions between 2006-10, the Owlies were 'under' 8-4 a year ago.
SMU: June Jones has not proven as reliable as he was at Hawaii, when his teams routinely overachieved vs. the number; SMU is only 11-16 vs. the number the past two seasons, and had a four-game spread losing streak in each of the last two campaigns. Reflecting the solid defense, note the Mustangs' 11-4 'under' mark in their last 15 games entering 2012.
SOUTHERN MISS: New head coach Ellis Johnson might be hard-pressed to match recent spread marks posted by predecessor Larry Fedora, who covered eight of his last 11 on the board with USM last fall.
TULANE: The Wave hasn't had a winning pointspread mark since Bob Toledo's first season of 2007; since late in the 2008 campaign, Tulane has posted a sorry 12-27-1 spread mark its last 40 games on the board.
TULSA: Note that Bill Blankenship's first team in 2011 covered its last five games as a visitor after the opening loss at Oklahoma. In fact, Tulsa enters 2012 having covered 10 of its last 11 as a visitor, including seven straight on the CUSA trail.
UAB: The Blazers covered seven of their last 10 on the board (and six of the last eight as an underdog) a year ago. Remember, however, that UAB has also historically provided very poor value as chalk, covering only 19-of-54 chances as a favorite since 2000 (and only 2-7 laying points the past two seasons).
UCF: From late in the 2008 campaign thru the first two games last season, the Knights covered an eye-opening 24-of-31 games on the board, only to drop seven of their last 10 vs. the number a year ago when UCF also covered only one of six away from Orlando. Note, however, that O'Leary has continued to offer good value as an underdog, reflected by his 15-8 spread mark receiving points since 2007.
UTEP: Mike Price's Miner teams have recently been able to slightly reverse an extended subpar mark as a favorite; UTEP is 5-4 as chalk the past two years after a woeful 8-21 spread record laying points the previous five seasons. But late-season fades have been an unfortunate trademark of recent Miner teams, who dropped four of their last five vs. the number a year ago and six of their last eight in 2010. Since 2005, Price's Miners are 12-23 vs. the spread in their last five games of each season.
Follow Don Best throughout the preseason as we preview each and every football conference: ACC ... Big 12 ... Big East ... Big Ten ... Conference USA ...