2008 Conference USA Predictions
by Matt Severance - 08/26/2008
So you may not have noticed, but suddenly Conference USA has morphed into the old WAC. That's right, some of the nation's most pass-happy, high-flying offenses now reside in C-USA, and all that conference did during the offseason was import three more offensive-minded head coaches in June Jones at SMU, Larry Fedora at Southern Miss and Kevin Sumlin at Houston.
What does that mean for bettors? Plenty of 'over' totals, certainly, but also the chance for some of these gimmicky offenses to pull a few non-conference upsets. C-USA sent a record six teams to bowls last season, and that's what should happen again.
Here's a quick breakdown of each of the division and bowl contenders and my Conference USA predictions:
C-USA EAST/BOWL CONTENDERS
East Carolina can make a national splash right off the bat, as the Pirates have a neutral-field game Saturday in Charlotte against Virginia Tech and then host West Virginia on Sept. 6. ECU is also at Virginia and N.C. State and must go on the road to take on its biggest challengers in the East Division, Southern Miss and UCF. So perhaps reaching eight wins, as the Pirates did last year, will be tough. But this team was the only club in the conference to beat 2007 champ Central Florida and 16 starters return. Expect ECU to upset at least one of those BCS conference clubs (that 9.5-point spread against Virginia Tech looks like good value) and to finish no worse than second in the East Division.
Southern Miss' offense should get a boost with new head coach Fedora, the former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Fedora's no-huddle almost ensures the Golden Eagles offense will be better than last season's unit - only two teams in C-USA gained fewer yards. Still, that's not to say that star running back Damion Fletcher won't get the ball often, as he is the nation's third-leading returning rusher. The schedule is manageable, with the toughest road conference game not coming until early November at UCF followed by a home game against fellow East contender East Carolina. Southern Miss' Oct. 11 non-conference home game with Boise State could be a value play for bettors.
All Central Florida has to do this season is replace the player who put up the second-most rushing yards in a season in college football history. Kevin Smith is now with the Detroit Lions, and no back on UCF's campus has had a collegiate carry after expected replacement Phillip Smith was booted from the team. Still, George O'Leary has this program headed in the right direction, and the defense returns nine starters, so this will be a rare club in this conference to try and win on that side of the ball. The key stretch in conference will be early November when East Carolina and Southern Miss visit Orlando on back-to-back weeks. Also, watch for UCF to pull a possible upset at Boston College on Sept. 20, especially with the Knights having an extra week to prepare.
Better luck next year: Marshall, Memphis, UAB
C-USA WEST/BOWL CONTENDERS
There may have been no team more fun to watch last season than Tulsa, which had a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers (the first NCAA team to ever do so). The Golden Hurricane's 2007 season ended on a down note, however, getting beaten by UCF in the C-USA title game and then being routed in record fashion by Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl. QB Paul Smith is gone, but nine other starters return from the nation's top offense (by yards) last year. I won't even mention the defense, because Tulsa really doesn't play any. A game to keep on your radar is Nov. 15 at Houston, where the 'over/under' total could approach triple digits.
Speaking of Houston, the Cougars lost coach Art Briles to Baylor, but new coach Sumlin has brought with him offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who led the offense at Texas Tech. That should tell you all you need to know about how the Cougars will attempt to move the ball. QB Case Keenum could put up Graham Harrell-type numbers. Houston's defense is very solid, led by DE Philip Hunt, one of C-USA's top players. That Nov. 15 game with Tulsa should decide the C-USA West title.
Rice is another prolific offensive team, having set school records with 377 points and 4,848 yards in 2007. In QB Chase Clement and All-American WR Jarrett Dillard, expect around 50 pass attempts per game. Yes, this team was only 3-9 last year, but those three wins did come in conference. The defense was awful in 2007 (finishing 118th in the nation) and will need marked improvement to reach a bowl game. This pick is probably the biggest underdog play of the six C-USA contenders, but the upside is there. And the Owls could easily pull an upset win at Vanderbilt on Sept. 13.
Better luck next year: UTEP, SMU, Tulane