Conference-USA ended the season on a great note with both Tulsa and UCF ranked in the final AP poll, something the conference has never had in its 15-year existence. (Be honest here, raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember the formation of the C-USA. Hell, raise it if you’re old enough to remember Randy Moss playing at Marshall, in the MAC. Did I just really date myself there?) If you want a conference that will feature veteran QB play, than the “little SEC” will be the place to be. The top eight quarterbacks in passing efficiency return this season along with former Heisman dark horse Case Keenum coming back from an ACL tear to try to break Timmy Chang’s career yardage mark. The conference as a whole could and should continue its momentum from last season.
Teams to Watch:
This is a team on a mission. First, they’d like to recover from their first losing season since 2004. The bigger chase will be to see if Case Keenum’s knee holds up and allows him to break the all-time yardage and touchdown records. Even without Keenum, this was still the best passing offense in the CUSA, averaging 327 ypg and ranking 5th in the country behind the arm of David Piland. Should Keenum go down again, Piland is more than capable of carrying this team. Top rusher Bryce Beall returns off his breakout season and 1,100-yard receiver Patrick Edwards is looking to repeat his 13 touchdown performance of a season ago. On top of that, the best linebacking corps in the conference stars on a defense that will need to improve from last season’s 103rd ranking in total defense. That’s the only weak spot on an offensively dominant Cougar squad.
I include the Pirates here because they could turn out to be the most exciting team to watch in the East division this season. Dominique Davis is back for his senior season after a 2010 campaign that saw him throw for almost 4,000 yards and find the end zone 46 times (37 pass, 9 rush). They have to replace EC’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards in Dwayne Harris, but 1,100-yard receiver Lance Lewis returns along with speedster Michael Bowman. This will be a team that has to get into shootouts to win, as the defense is still young (6 starters return, 3 seniors) and the front seven will be a serious weakness (226 rushing ypg allowed, 117th in NCAA).
Players to Watch:
QB Austin Davis, Southern Mississippi
Davis lead an offense that put up thirty or more points in ten of last season’s twelve games and broke the Golden Eagles career touchdown mark and is only about three hundred yards away from topping the school’s yardage record. Both of those were held by some guy called Favre. Wonder what happened to that guy? Davis aired it out for 3,100 yards and 20 TDS and added another 600 yards and 10 scores on the ground. He may be one of the most underrated dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. He has the size, speed and field vision to succeed at the next level and is looking to add some more hardware to his trophy case before he graduates.
QB Jeff Godfrey, UCF
Another QB? Yup, especially when you look at what Godfrey lead UCF to as a true freshman. Stepping in for Rob Calabrese, Godfrey threw for 2,159 yards and 13 scores on a team that was loving the run. UCF had three running backs score ten or more touchdowns. Godfrey lead all FBS freshmen in completion percentage (66.8%) and passing efficiency (154.3 – 1st in C-USA). He’ll have a new set of starters on the wings, but it is an experienced corps that will be able to help the youngster along. He was a large part of the reason the Knights finished the season ranked for the first time, won the C-USA and upset Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.
Conference Title Game:
This was a tough one to call. As I see it, the West is Houston’s plain and simple. Whatever the lack on defense, they more than make up for in offense. The East is a lot harder to call with two legit contenders and another team that has the potential to make waves in the standings. However, this looks like Southern Mississippi’s division to lose. Their schedule is the most advantageous with winnable road games at Marshall, UTEP, East Carolina and UAB. The big advantage is getting most of the tough conference games at home (SMU and UCF) with some upset potential in the non-conference schedule (Virginia and Navy). When the dust settles on Championship Saturday, I’ll call Houston to claim the Conference USA title.
Conference USA has six automatic bowl bids this year and the champion heads to a heritage bowl. That will be Houston playing in the Liberty Bowl against an SEC squad. I’d look for runner-up Southern Miss in the Ticketcity Bowl on January 2, a pick-up from the Big 12 against a Big 10 team. By the way, that will make 9 straight bowl games and 18 straight winning seasons for the Golden Eagles. UCF will go bowling again, against BYU in the Armed Forces Bowl. East Carolina gets a vacation for Christmas when they get sent to the Hawaii Bowl against a member of the WAC. A recovering Tulsa and SMU round out the C-USA’s bowl berths. Tulsa will get the call to the New Orleans Bowl against a member of the Sun Belt, while the Mustangs will head to St. Petersburg for the Beef O’Brady Bowl against a Big East team. SMU should make their 3rd straight bowl, something they haven’t done since 1982-84.