Aug. 6, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

The formula hasn't changed in Conference USA: You win with offense.

The league's top teams all do one thing exceptionally well and that's score points. A lot of points. Teams like Houston and Tulsa in the West Division were among the nation's leading point producers last season and both seem poised to be among the country's best yet again.

But there are a few teams that like to play defense, like East Carolina and Memphis of the East Division.

Will offense or defense win out in the end? Last year it was defense.

East Division

East Carolina
2008 Record:  9-5 (6-2), C-USA Champions, Liberty Bowl
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: Patrick Pinkney will be back under center for the experienced Pirates. Pinkney had asked the NCAA for sixth year of eligibility and was granted the request helping make the Pirates one of the teams to beat in the conference. He'll have some excellent playmakers to work with at wide out and a seasoned offensive line to protect him. The backfield presents the biggest puzzle for the Pirates. They're waiting for one name to emerge as their go-to back, but they like the potential of the group.
Defensive Keys: The Pirates could showcase one of the better units in C-USA this fall with an experienced linebacking corps led by Nick Johnson. DE C.J. Wilson is one of the better pass rushers in the conference after tallying 10.5 sacks last year. The Pirates allowed just 21.1 points per game in 2008 and considering the quality opponents they faced, in conference and out, that's quite a feat. The pieces seem to be in place for similar results.
Keep An Eye On: WR Dwayne Harris, LB Jeremy Chambliss, FS Van Eskridge
All In The Numbers: 17, games ECU has won over the past two seasons.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Southern Miss
Outlook: The Pirates are coming off a C-USA championship and will be considered one of the favorites to win it all again. With a very balanced team - good offense and good defense - the Pirates present something you don't always see in C-USA: a team that can hold its own on both sides of the ball. With games against West Virginia and North Carolina on the road back-to-back weeks, the schedule presents some tough challenges. But the Pirates did a pretty good job against the BCS boys last year, knocking off West Virginia and Virginia Tech on consecutive weeks. Skip Holtz turned down overtures from other schools because he likes what's going on at ECU. And who can argue with him, especially after last season.

2008 Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: Head coach Mark Snyder feels optimistic about the offense, but he's going to go into 2009 with a quarterback dilemma. There are several players to choose from. Last year's 11-game starter Mark Cann and Brian Anderson are two who figure to really fight it out for the right to start. The strength of this team, however, won't be the passing game but rather the running game. Darius Marshall will be back with an experienced front five to run behind. Marshall rushed for 1,099 yards in his sophomore season. Expect to see a distinct commitment to the running game when the season starts.
Defensive Keys: The defense had some holes last season, especially against the pass. But early indications are those could be plugged and 2008's numbers improved upon with a line that brings back three starters. Albert McClellan is the name to watch. The DE has shown he can be one of the top pass rushers in the conference when he's healthy. He hasn't been for the last two seasons. He should be this fall.
Keep An Eye On: TE Cody Slate, LB Mario Harvey, CB DeQuan Bembry
All In The Numbers: 1.08, sacks allowed per game by Marshall last year, 11th best in the nation
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 at UCF
Outlook: Things are looking up for Snyder as he enters his fifth season. Quarterback play will be critical, of course, as the Thundering Herd look to find some sort of consistency under center. If they can get that then there's no reason why Marshall can't make a legitimate run at qualifying for a bowl game. The schedule features a few bumps, but it's nothing insurmountable.

2008 Record: 6-7 (4-4), St. Petersburg Bowl
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: There will be a lot of new faces for the Tigers, having to replace seven starters. But fortunately, three of the returners happen to be the Memphis' top playmakers. QB Arkelon Hall, RB Curtis Steele and WR Carlos Singleton headline the unit. Don't forget about WR Duke Calhoun either. Singleton and Calhoun probably present the best wide out combo in the conference. Steele was the 2008 C-USA Newcomer of the Year and the senior will look to top the 1,223 yard performance he gave the Tigers last season. Memphis presented a very balanced attack last year and there's no reason why they won't be again this season. The big question, however, comes up front. Inserting four new starters into the line will make things very interesting.
Defensive Keys: The Tigers like what they have on defense and for good reason. With seven starters back, there's experience all over the field and the linebacking unit returns everyone from last year. And considering Memphis was one of the conference's better units last season, there's no reason to think they won't be again after finishing third in the conference in total defense. Especially if a few transfers from the SEC and JUCO ranks make immediate impacts.
Keep An Eye On: LB Greg Jackson, CB D.A. Griffin, SS Alton Starr
All In The Numbers: 194.8, yards per game rushing for the Tigers last season, 22nd in the nation.
Deciding Game: Oct. 27 vs. ECU
Outlook: The offensive line is the big concern for the Tigers entering the fall. With the talent behind it, if the front five can gel quickly the Tigers could be a very good - and potentially explosive - offense. Defensively, much will depend on the secondary in the pass-happy C-USA. Tommy West has guided the Tigers to bowl games each of the last two seasons. And there doesn't appear to be any reason why they can't get there again. But fighting for that division title will be a grind.

Southern Miss
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-4), New Orleans Bowl 
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The suspension that was holding down Damion Fletcher is over and Southern Miss' top offensive player will be ready to tear up C-USA opponents once again. Fletcher was the conference's leading rusher last year, running for 1,313 yards for a third straight season of running for over 1,000 yards. The new look offense that Larry Fedora introduced last season definitely did the job as the Golden Eagles finished in the top four in total offense in the conference last season - no easy task in C-USA. They should be similarly explosive this year, especially with DeAndre Brown back at wide out.
Defensive Keys: The entire secondary returns meaning the Golden Eagles will have a leg up on just about every other team in the league. But linebacker is where Southern Miss has the most concern after losing Gerald McRath to the NFL. The front four has three starters back for a unit that did a very good job at forcing turnovers. Southern Miss was among the league's top teams in interceptions and fumble recoveries.
Keep An Eye On: QB Austin Davis, LB Martez Smith, CB C.J. Bailey
All In The Numbers: 36, number of offensive school records Southern Miss broke last season.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 at East Carolina
Outlook: The Golden Eagles, in year two of Fedora's regime, seem poised to make a big run at the East title. With a solid defense and an offense that feature two of the better playmakers in the conference, Southern Miss will be taking aim at their first league title since 2003. The schedule isn't easy with road games against Kansas, Houston and ECU, but the Golden Eagles should see marked improvements in their record this fall. Another six loss season would be a disappointment.

2008 Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 11 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: If you didn't know, QB Joe Webb just may have had the best season of any signal caller in the conference after he rushed for over 1,000 yards and threw for over 3,000 yards in 2008. He's a big-time athlete, even at 6-foot-4. Be he's prone to turning the ball over. Webb must do a better job of limiting the miscues for an offense that has the potential to be a good one. He's got some playmakers at wide receiver and an offensive line that returns everyone from last season. The thing that bears watching is how RB Rashaud Slaughter will hold up this season. Webb led the team in rushing last fall. Successful teams rarely have their QB lead them in rushing.
Defensive Keys: Things were a struggle last season as the Blazers finished the year ranked 106th in total defense. Based on the personnel back, there should be improvement with three starters returning on the front four. The secondary, however, will be a major concern. The Blazers had big problems defending the pass last fall and with three new starters ready to settle in, the coaching staff will be anxious to see how they hold up.
Keep An Eye On: WR Frantrell Forrest, LB Daniel White, SS Chase Daniel
All In The Numbers: 282.3, total offense per game average for Webb last season, 15th best in the nation.
Deciding Game: Oct. 24 at Marshall
Outlook: The Blazers will score points on offense. It's just a matter of what the defense gives them. If it can make some key stops and tighten up its pass defense then there's no reason why the Blazers shouldn't be able to improve on their four wins from 2008. The schedule features some tough matchups on road with visits to Troy, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and East Carolina.

2008 Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: To say things were a struggle last year for the Golden Knights would be an understatement. It was painful at times last year for UCF to put points on the board. After a great 2007, UCF regressed mightily. This fall, things are expected to be better with an experienced offensive line making for a solid foundation. The quarterback duties will once again fall to Rob Calabrese, unless he gets beat out by transfer Brett Hodges, former of Wake Forest. The wide receiving corps dealt with a number of injuries last year that should not carry over into the fall. Improvement is needed all around, but after enduring last year's disappointment there's no where to go but up. 
Defensive Keys: Holes are abundant in the secondary with four new starters. Derrick Hallman is moving from linebacker to free safety, but other than the last line of defense, this unit is shaping up to be a good one. The front seven have plenty of experience and the line is clearly the unit's strength. Those very respectable numbers from last year should be just as respectable this year
Keep An Eye On: RB Brynn Harvey, DT Torrell Troup, DE Bruce Miller
All In The Numbers: 229.5, yards per game in total offense for UCF last season, 119th in the nation.
Deciding Game: Oct. 3 vs. Memphis
Outlook: The defense will help the offense come along early but eventually the offense is going to have pick up the slack. And they should be able to this year down the road. The schedule is not overly difficult, although a uniquely scheduled game with Texas kicks off in November. Head coach George O'Leary and his Knights are taking aim at .500 or better.  And that is certainly more than a realistic goal.


West Division

2008 Record: 8-5 (6-2), Armed Forces Bowl 
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Can you say stacked? The Cougars are going to be one of the best offensive teams in the nation yet again after finishing 2008 No. 2 in total offense and passing. Case Keenum is back under center, after throwing for 5,000+ yards last year. And he'll have plenty of talented and speedy targets to destroy the numbers he put up. It's no secret how the Cougars are going to win. By passing it up until defenses break down and can't keep up.
Defensive Keys: Houston had a bend but not break kind of defense last season and they hope to have much of the same this year. The defensive line is the big question mark having to replace three starters. The progress of the front four will bear the most watching this season. The secondary is well stocked, however, even with one starter returning.
Keep An Eye On: WR Tyron Carrier, RB Bryce Beall, LB Marcus McGraw
All In The Numbers: 12, number of games Keenum threw for 300 yards or more last season.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 at Tulsa
Outlook: The Cougars are going to score a lot of points this season after averaging 40.6 points per game last fall. Keenum is a Heisman Trophy candidate and chances are he's going to rack up huge numbers again with the personnel surrounding him. The defense was able to make some plays last season and the feeling around the program is it should be able to do the same. But improving on that -6 turnover margin will be important. Bottom line: Houston will be among the favorites to win the conference and will have a fun battle with Tulsa when the two meet in what could ultimately determine who wins the division.

2008 Record: 10-3 (7-1), Texas Bowl 
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The contrast will be stark - to say the least - for the Owls this year compared to last. Rice must replace the most prolific QB-WR combination in NCAA history. QB Chase Clement and WR Jarett Dillard are gone. So too is TE James Casey, who finished last season with over 1,000 yards receiving. Who will head coach David Bailiff turn to? The competition to replace Clement figures to continue well into the summer. Alabama transfer Nick Fanuzzi is a name college football fans might recognize. He could end up winning the QB job. And as for Dillard and Casey, that will fall on Patrick Randolph and Toren Dixon.
Defensive Keys: The numbers last year were not pretty. Rice won games with that very potent offense, not with a defense that finished no better than No. 99 in any of the four major statistical defensive categories. But there are a number of quality starters returning and Rice did finish with an impressive +15 turnover margin last season. The defense has the ability to make some plays. Can they make them consistently? 
Keep An Eye On: WR Corbin Smiter, DE Cheta Ozougwu, FS Andrew Sendejo
All In The Numbers: 59, years between 10 win seasons for Rice.
Deciding Game: Nov. 26 at Houston
Outlook: The Owls increased their win total by seven last season from 2007, a remarkable turn around that earned Bailiff C-USA Coach of the Year honors. Unfortunately, based on the pieces that must be replaced on offense, a repeat performance appears to be too much to ask. Tough three game stretch that sees the Owls play Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt in September will severely test the confidence of that revamped offense, let alone the defense.

2008 Record: 1-11 (0-8)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: The rushing offense was anemic last year, but considering that June Jones is running the show in Dallas that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Jones wants to throw the ball as much as possible and they'll do that again this season. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell was just a freshman last year so those 23 interceptions figures to be reduced this fall. And he also figures to have a much better grasp of the offense. Expect the Mustangs scoring average to bump up a few points after posting a 21.3 per game average in '08.
Defensive Keys: Statistically speaking, SMU was bad last year. They allowed far too many yards on the ground and in the air and it lead to a lot of points being score. That's the reason behind the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4. The Mustangs want to be more athletic on defense and getting and extra linebacker on the field over a lineman will go a long way towards accomplishing that, especially in the spread-heavy C-USA. Three new starters will line up in the trenches as pair of former ends switched to outside linebacker.
Keep An Eye On: WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Aldrick Robinson, LB Youri Yenga
All In The Numbers: 21, losses SMU has endured over its last 22 games.
Deciding Game: Nov. 4 vs. UTEP
Outlook: Last year's numbers and results leave much room for improvement and there should be a good amount from Jones' second team. By all accounts, he's been able to bring in some talented and athletic recruiting classes over the past two off-seasons that will eventually reap rewards. But it might be too soon to expect a big turnaround from the Mustangs. The offense should be solid, it's just a matter of how that defense deals with the new scheme. It doesn't help, however, that three of their first four games come on the road.

2008 Record:  2-10 (1-7)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: Sophomore Joe Kemp appears to be the Green Wave's quarterback after a spring practice competition with Kevin Moore. Kemp will work with RB Andre Anderson and WR Jeremy Williams who happen to be two of the better playmakers in the conference at their respective positions. They just have to stay on the field after both missed time due to injury last season. Starting experience won't be a problem up front. Tulane will be featuring the West Coast Offense, but don't be surprised if you see the Wildcat every once in a while.
Defensive Keys: Without a doubt the strength of the defense lies up front. The line returns two starters and features all upperclassmen. So expect those numbers against the run to improve after Tulane allowed 218.4 yards per game last year. However, the linebacking corps will be a huge concern with limited depth. But maybe a philosophy change will do the trick in propping up those 2008 numbers as the Green Wave will forgo their previous blitz happy ways for much more conventional schemes.
Keep An Eye On: DE Adam Kwentua, LB David Kirksey, P Ross Thevenot
All In The Numbers: 2, categories Anderson led C-USA in last season, rushing ypg and all-purpose ypg.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 at SMU
Outlook: Ending 2008 on an eight-game losing streak wasn't how Bob Toldeo envisioned his second year playing out. But injuries played a role, especially on offense where the Green Wave managed to score 20 points just twice during that eight-game slide. If they can stay healthy this year expect Tulane to be in more games. Can they make the necessary plays - especially on defense - down the stretch to win a game or two they're not expected to? The schedule isn't overly kind, however. Tulane gets Tulsa right off the bat and faces BYU and LSU before ending the season on a three-game road trip.

2008 Record:  11-3 (7-1), C-USA West Champions, GMAC Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: Tulsa has put up some incredible numbers the past few seasons, but can they continue the trend with a new quarterback under center? That's one of the biggest questions in the conference this summer as the Golden Hurricane must replace of David Johnson who broke a few records during his time. The race for a new starter figures to run through fall camp. But whoever ends up winning the battle will have a great wide receiving corps to throw to. Another big loss is at running back where Tarrion Adams is no longer around to carry the load.
Defensive Keys: Will Tulsa play enough defense to support that offense? The Golden Hurricane employ a 3-3-5 scheme and this year there will be more pressure on them than in years past to help secure wins. The offense won't change much, but to expect similar numbers will be asking too much of the new quarterback so Tulsa could very well find itself in some close games where defense will be the real key. Simply out-scoring opponents may not be there right off the bat. But there is experience on this unit and the secondary should be a distinct strength.
Keep An Eye On: WR Trae Johnson, WR Damaris Johnson, CB Kenny D. Sims
All In The Numbers: 7,978, yards for Tulsa on offense last season, a school record.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 vs. Houston
Outlook: Last season was bittersweet for the Golden Hurricane. Sure the 11 wins, a school record, were great, but they finished the year 3-3. The offense will have some new faces but should be very good nonetheless. However, equaling the 11 wins from last year might be too much to ask considering how much has been lost. Just don't get fooled into thinking that automatically disqualifies them for another trip to the conference championship game. It doesn't. Especially with home games against Houston and ECU. An intriguing matchup with Boise State comes calling in mid-October.

2008 Record:  5-7 (4-4)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: An experienced group is back for the Miners, led by quarterback Trevor Vittatoe who quietly had himself a very fine season in 2008. Vittatoe threw for 3,274 yards, a school-record 33 scores and only 9 picks. He's got his top receivers back and four starters on the offensive line. And in the backfield, expect to see a few names get carries, but don't be surprised if Vernon Frazier becomes to man. Considering this is a Mike Price coached team, it's no surprise that it will be a very good offensive team.
Defensive Keys: The last two years have been not been kind to the Miners after finishing among the nation's worst in total defense. Will it be a third straight season of ugly numbers? This is the second season that the Miners will feature the 3-3-5 and some injuries last year surely played a role in the struggles. The most experience can be found in the secondary where three starters are back. Price feels like under second year coordinator Osia Lewis that this unit will turn the corner and start making stops. But there figures to be more than a few doubters out there who will only believe it when they see it.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jeff Moturi, WR Kris Adams, S Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith
All In The Numbers: 6, times the Miners allowed 42 points or more last season
Deciding Game:  Oct. 21 vs. Tulsa
Outlook: The offense will be just short of prolific. Can the defense pull its own weight? It's the same question asked of the Miners every year Price has been in El Paso. Bad luck played a role in those bad numbers so as long as injuries don't ravage the defense they're going to be a little bit better. Price says he's intent on getting the Miners to a bowl game for the first time since 2005. The schedule, however, won't make things easy with games against Buffalo, Kansas and Texas in the season's first four weeks. But their toughest division games against Tulsa and Houston do come at home.