C-USA preview: Houston early front runner

In Conference USA, it’s Houston and everyone else — at least that’s the way it seems in the offseason.

There’s little doubt that the Cougars are the league’s cover boy. They’ve got a legitimate Heisman contender in QB Case Keenum and enough firepower surrounding him to lead the country in scoring and total offense for a second straight year. Is it enough, however, to win a championship? Late last year, Houston got exposed on defense, capping a very strange season by getting throttled, 47-20, by Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. While the fireworks will keep coming this fall, the Cougs still need to prove they’re no duds when the stakes get higher in November and December.

Houston’s stiffest competition in the West Division will come from resurgent SMU, which has begun building a bridge to the 1980s, with June Jones as the chief architect. Behind the emergence of freshman QB Kyle Padron, the Mustangs finished in a first-place divisional tie and torched Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. They are surging and are a team to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. Can Tulsa rebound? The West champs in 2007 and 2008 unexpectedly slumped to 5-7 a year ago. While the Hurricane possesses the requisite skill position talent, it lacks physicality on both sides of the ball. Out of UTEP, Rice and Tulane, the division will be hard-pressed to produce another bowl-eligible team this year.

In the East Division, the contenders are eagerly lining up now that back-to-back conference champ East Carolina is under construction. Not only did the Pirates lose head coach Skip Holtz to South Florida, but also 15 starters must be replaced and entirely new systems are being installed. The most likely successors to the throne are UCF and Southern Miss. The Knights have the league’s best defense, but their cup will only be half full until a capable quarterback steps up.

Is this the year for the Golden Eagles? As Larry Fedora enters his third season in Hattiesburg, he sees playmakers on both sides of the ball and an opportunity to bring the program a long-awaited outright championship. It could happenthis year. Marshall and Memphis are breaking the seal on new coaches, Doc Holliday in Huntington and Larry Porter in the River City. Of the pair, the Herd is far more ready to compete for the postseason than the Tigers, who are undergoing an extreme makeover. In Birmingham, Neil Callaway has UAB pointed in the right direction, but filling the shoes of QB Joe Webb will be next to impossible.

Houston is the heavy favorite to win the league title and even compete for a BCS bowl game if the defense does an about-face. Still, there’s a lot to prove in a conference that’s been won by the more conservative and physical team out of the East over the last three years. In other words, it’d be foolish to dismiss the other half of the bracket, likely to be filled out by the winner of the Nov. 13 game between UCF and Southern Miss.

Team That’ll Surprise

Marshall. All things considered, rookie head coach Doc Holliday didn’t inherit such a bad situation in Huntington. The Herd, despite firing Mark Snyder, actually is coming off a bowl victory over Ohio and has some key parts back on both sides of the ball. By Conference USA standards, the Mario Harvey-led defense is above average, and Clemson import Willy Korn could be the program’s best option at quarterback since Byron Leftwich graduated seven years ago. The skill position talent is improving, lending hope that the offense will be a little more consistent. After getting battle-tested versus Ohio State and West Virginia, Marshall has enough experienced talent to get hot as the season develops.

Team That’ll Disappoint

UCF. It’s an even year, which means odd things often happen to the Knights. Look it up. In the last three odd-numbered years, the program went 26-14 with three bowl invites. The last three even-numbered years? Try 8-27. Oh boy. The epitome of an inconsistent program, UCF should once again be fine on defense, but putting points on the board might be an issue. The team needs to replace steady Brett Hodges at quarterback, already has lost star RB Brynn Harvey for an undetermined amount of time, and has issues in pass protection. If the Knights revert to their futility of 2008, they’re liable to slip back in the Eastern Division pecking order.

Game of the Year

Houston at SMU, Oct. 23. If you crave snot-knocking defense, don’t go anywhere near Dallas on this weekend. Putting the Cougars and the Mustangs in the same building is a sure-fire recipe for one of the more wide-open and entertaining games of the season. The visitors led the nation in passing last year while the hosts finished No. 2 in Conference USA. Of greater importance, June Jones and SMU are the pair most likely to keep Houston from putting a bow on the West Division before Halloween.

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight …

1. LB Korey Williams, Jr., Southern Miss
2. RB Donald Buckram, Sr., UTEP
3. WR/PR/KR Damaris Johnson, Jr., Tulsa
4. LT Kelvin Beachum, Jr., SMU
5. LB Jamon Hughes, Sr., Memphis

Coach on the Hot Seat

Bob Toledo, Tulane. Feel free to insert UTEP’s Mike Price in this space, though even he has far more job security than Toledo, who’s compiled a 9-27 mark over three years. After going 1-7 in conference play, the Green Wave will once again contend for the league cellar. Factor in poor attendance and a general lack of interest surrounding the program, and it’s clear why the coach might need a miracle to be back on the sideline in 2011. Worst of all, Tulane hasn’t even been compelling, averaging just 16 points last season.

5 Non-Conference Games to Take Very, Very Seriously

1. Southern Miss at Louisiana Tech, Sept. 25
2. UCF at Buffalo, Sept. 18
3. Rice at North Texas, Sept. 11
4. Central Arkansas at Tulsa, Sept. 25
5. Florida Atlantic at UAB, Sept. 4

Bold Prediction

Houston won’t win the Conference USA championship. Pay close attention to what’s taken place over the last three seasons. In each year, the more physical and conservative teams from the East, UCF and East Carolina twice, have knocked off their fancy, high-flying opponent from the West. Why should this season be any different? Sure, the Cougars will ring up points like a pinball machine, but are they truly a championship team? They may have displayed their true personality late last fall, finishing 2-3 and getting bullied by anyone willing to flex its muscles. In those three losses to UCF, East Carolina, and especially Air Force, Houston allowed 122 points and got manhandled at the point of attack. Whoever wins the East will know the blueprint to success long before kickoff of the December title game.

5 Best Pro Prospects

1. WR DeAndre Brown, Jr., Southern Miss
2. WR Dwayne Harris, Sr., East Carolina
3. DE Scott Solomon, Sr., Rice
4. DE Bruce Miller, Sr., UCF
5. LB Mario Harvey, Sr., Marshall

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill

1. QB David Isabelle for Joe Webb, UAB
2. WR Terrance Wilkerson for Emmanuel Sanders, SMU
3. RB V.J. Floyd for Damion Fletcher, Southern Miss
4. RB Gregory Ray for Curtis Steele, Memphis
5. DT Antonio Allison for Linval Joseph, East Carolina