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Conference USA Preview

Price' UTEP Miners the pride of a now-depleted league

Posted: Friday August 19, 2005 12:37PM; Updated: Friday August 19, 2005 4:07PM
The Skinny
Team on the rise UAB
Team on the decline Marshall
Toughest schedule Tulsa
Most favorable schedule Tulane
Coach on the hot seat Phil Bennett, SMU
Newcomer to watch Kevin Smith, RB, UCF
Game of the Year Southern Miss at UAB, Sept. 21

It was fun while it lasted. Last season provided the unquestioned high point to date in the 10-year history of Conference USA, with Louisville finishing sixth in the country, Memphis and DeAngelo Williams garnering national exposure and the conference earning five bowl berths. The Cardinals have bid adieu, however, as have two of the league's most consistent teams recently, Cincinnati and TCU, rising program South Florida and nationally followed Army. In their place arrive one semi-hot program, Mike Price-led UTEP, struggling Marshall and an assortment of various bottom-of-the-barrel commodities (SMU, Tulsa, Rice and UCF).

Those weeknight Conference USA games won't be as fun without the usually high-flying Cardinals and Horned Frogs, but there are a few remaining attractions. Superstar running back Williams returns for his senior season at Memphis, though the Tigers as a whole might not be as strong. Price's resurgent Miners look to follow up on last year's breakthrough eight-win season. UAB, fresh off the first bowl appearance in school history, has an electrifying quarterback in Darrell Hackney. And Southern Miss is a C-USA staple that consistently contends for the title and should do so again this season.

   Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings
   (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
1   UAB
Watson Brown's upstart program figures to take another step this season. Though he'll miss first-round receiver Roddy White, veteran QB Hackney has one of the strongest arms in the country, and he's complemented by a veteran O-line and a dynamic RB tandem of Dan Burks and Corey White. Defense isn't the Blazers' strong suit, though they do boast a quality line led by DE Larry McSwain, who had 13 sacks last season.
2   Southern Miss
The Eagles suffered a severe roster blow last month when two players were dismissed and two others quit over an off-the-field incident. Head coach Jeff Bower should still be able to continue his streak of 11 straight winning seasons, though, thanks to veteran QB Dustin Almond and a defense that, while it will miss departed All-America LB Michael Boley, should still be strong, particularly in the secondary.
3   Memphis
There's no question Williams, who gained 1,948 yards last season, is a dangerous runner, but he loses the help of four-year QB Danny Wimprine, four experienced blockers and four of last year's top five receivers. With the offense likely to experience growing pains, the defense needs to improve dramatically from last season's No. 90 national ranking. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the nation's most reliable kickers.
4   Marshall
The Herd haven't posted a losing record since 1983 but are in the midst of an awkward transition, with new coach Mark Snyder (formerly Ohio State's defensive coordinator) not arriving until the end of spring practice. He inherits a squad with just six returning starters and no experienced quarterback. He'll likely lean heavily on touted sophomore RB Ahmad Bradshaw along with a strong O-line and secondary.
5   UCF
It can't get any worse for George O'Leary following an 0-11 debut season. Six juco or prep school transfers arrived in the spring to help the cause, and several freshman should contribute immediately. Much will depend on the progress of junior QB Steven Moffet, who learned on the job last season. All five offensive line starters return and should be better. The defense is young across the board and will continue to struggle.
6   East Carolina
The Pirates, one of C-USA's top programs just a few years ago, have been in football purgatory since letting longtime coach Steve Logan go in 2002, winning just three games the past two seasons. New coach Skip Holtz has been brought in on a rescue mission, but he faces an uphill climb. He did receive one piece of good news recently: QB James Pinkney, who had flunked out at one point, got the grades to return.
1   UTEP
After engineering a six-win improvement, Price looks to continue the Miners' momentum in a new conference. QB Jordan Palmer brings back his top seven receivers, and UCLA transfer Tyler Ebell should have an immediate impact in the backfield. The defense returns key players up front (DTs Chris Mineo and Zach West) and in the secondary (S Quintin Demps) but needs to develop some new linebackers.
2   Tulane
After reaching the Hawaii Bowl in 2002, the Green Wave have been stuck at the five-win plateau for two years. After winning four of their last six in '04 and having 16 starters returning, Tulane figures to get over the hump this year. The offense should be powerful behind budding star QB Lester Ricard, versatile RB Matt Forte and an experienced line. The defense was brutal last year and could be a sore spot again.
3   Houston
An inexperienced O-line and a porous defense contributed to the Cougars' puzzling slide from seven wins to three last season. With more experience along the line, and with the return of third-year QB Kevin Kolb, a healthier Anthony Evans at running back and electrifying receiver Vincent Marshall, the offense should be more explosive. Coaches are hoping a switch to the 3-4 will improve the defense.
4   Tulsa
After a stunning 8-5 debut season, Steve Kragthorpe's Golden Hurricane slipped back to 4-7 last year, but they did knock off bowl-bound UTEP to end the season and nearly did the same to WAC champ Boise State. The offense will be paced by 1,064-yard rusher Uril Parrish and explosive receiver/return man Ashlan Davis. The defensive line is in disarray, however, and the secondary is depleted.
5   SMU
Fans are growing impatient with Phil Bennett's long, slow rebuilding process (6-29 his first three years), but the Mustangs did progress last season by winning three WAC games, and they return nearly their entire starting lineup. Injuries ravaged the defense last season, but Bennett now feels good enough about his incumbent personnel that he recently declared he may redshirt his entire freshman class.
6   Rice
Longtime coach Ken Hatfield may be on his last legs in Houston. His wishbone offense continues to pile up some of the nation's most gaudy rushing stats, but the Owls can't pass to save their lives, and their defense routinely allowed five or more touchdowns last season. Hatfield will go with more shotgun plays this season in hopes that sophomore QB Joel Armstrong can become a better passing threat.