I figured it would be beneficial to throw together conference-specific Summer Vacation pages as I wrap up a given conference. For a long time there, only the Sun Belt was done, but now we can add two more to the 'finished' pile: Conference USA and the MAC.
Say this much for Conference USA: it's a pretty fun place. The offensive upside dwarfs the defensive upside, and with programs like Tulsa, Southern Miss, Houston, East Carolina, UAB and, of course, SMU, you are guaranteed some high-scoring affairs this fall. Of course, if any of these teams are going to dethrone UCF, it will be because they figured out how to play a little defense. SMU and Southern Miss are the closest to being able to play solid 'D', and that's why I'm giving them the nod.
Five Predictions for Conference USA in 2011:
1. Southern Miss breaks through and wins the conference crown.
2. This is Mike Price's last season in El Paso.
3. At least two games finish with both teams in the 50s.
4. Tulane upsets either Tulsa or Houston at home.
5. UCF's Jeff Godfrey suffers through a sophomore slump of sorts.
I do get the sneaking suspicion that UCF might be in for a slight step backwards this season. If the new-look receiving corps cannot quickly find its way, then teams will find themselves more capable of focusing on and containing UCF's impressive run game. The slide would be subtle; second-and-5's turn into second-and-7's, third-and-3's turn into third-and-5's, and at the end of the season, people are trying to figure out why Godfrey suffered a sophomore slump. UCF's YPP margin was eighth-lowest in the country, meaning their efficiency (and their opponents' inefficiency) was perhaps unsustainable, and a regression in both efficiency and luck could be occurring soon. In all, I am a lot more confident in UCF's two-, three-, and five-year prospects than I am in their ability to win a second straight Conference USA title this year. It's quite possible that FO projections give them the nod, but I'm almost leaning toward Southern Miss in the CUSA East.
Then again, maybe Jeff Godfrey doesn't need protection from the play-calling anymore, and maybe he's about to unleash utter hell on the conference (and FIU, BYU and Boston College in non-conference). I've certainly been wrong before...
I'm throwing my hands up on this one. ECU's probably going to be a perfectly decent team this year, but how much of that is based on which side of the ball ... I have no idea. Virginia Tech and North Carolina come to Greenville this fall, following a meeting with South Carolina in Charlotte. Seven of 12 games are within the state of North Carolina, and if East Carolina proved anything in 2010, it's that they are capable of winning or losing just about any game on the slate. Go ahead and re-up on that Toprol prescription, ECU fans. It could be another interesting fall.
There is a decent level of experience -- and Case Keenum -- returning (again, the offensive line and secondary are the keys). But whether or not we are supposed to take Houston seriously as a candidate for either moving to a major conference (TCU needs a primary Big East rival, right?) or simply a candidate for taking the Mid-Major Leap, will be determined by defensive improvement. Houston plays exciting football -- no single game made me long for the SWC more than the '09 Houston-Texas Tech game (Can you imagine a regular 9pm SWC game? Houston-Tech, Houston-Baylor, SMU-Tech, A&M-TCU, etc., to finish off your Saturday of football?) -- but the defense holds the key to shifting from "exciting" to "really good."
Unfortunately for Marshall moving forward, they're in the wrong division. UCF and Southern Miss both appear built for long-term success, and East Carolina has been a very steady program in recent years. Their overall potential is at least solid, but it is dinged in part by the company they keep in the East Division. Bowl bids should not be too much to ask for this program, however, and I expect Marshall to be bowling (albeit in a semi-unattractive venue) this coming December.
There's no guarantee that their overall quality will improve much in 2011, not with what appears to be a second rebuilding effort in as many years in the works, but they should be at least a little bit luckier. That alone isn't enough to get them back into the Big East discussion, but it's something.
To Memphis fans wondering what the hell happened to their football program, realize two things: 1) I, too, share your befuddlement, and 2) Really, you don't deserve a good football team. You've already got Dyer's, barbecue, Beale Street, barbecue, Silky's, barbecue, the Beale Street Music Festival (the lineup this year: outstanding), barbecue, Graceland, barbecue, barbecue, and barbecue. To ask for a good football team on top of that is just plain greedy.
The 2008 season bought David Bailiff a lovely contract extension, but at some point he will certainly have to start producing something again. With solid returnees and a little more luck, Rice should see decent improvement, especially if the defense ascends back toward the mean as the Stat Nerd Tidbit suggests. At the very least, even if Rice is still a bad team, their offensive potential should make them a rather enjoyable bad team. I fear that their lack of any sort of stretch-the-field threat, however, will handcuff the new offensive coordinator.
The overall experience of the squad, though, will be strong. SMU returns 18 starters, and while the lack of big-play potential on offense could be a concern, the ceiling for the defense is pretty high.
You will likely see Phil Steele mentioning SMU in part of his "Turnovers = Turnaround" bit this summer, and he could be right. But the Mustangs' TO margin in 2010 was very INT-heavy, which is less likely to turn around. If Kyle Padron can make better decisions on standard downs, it could lead to improvement, but we'll see.
In all, SMU very nearly won the Conference USA title last year with poor luck, little big-play ability, and a downright poor turnover margin. If they can replace, they will have a damn good chance of contending again in 2011. Maybe not in the theoretical Southwest Conference, but definitely in Conference USA.
In a way, this is like saying the same thing about Clemson, but ... I really like this Southern Miss team's potential. Any improvement in big-play prevention last year could have meant 10-11 wins, and with solid starters returning, a semi-maintainable turnover margin (because it was based on picks, not fumbles, and their pick-proof quarterback returns), a stellar recruiting average, and a young stud at running back, this team definitely has the tools to make a run at Central Florida for the CUSA crown. It's almost boring to predict Southern Miss to just be pretty good -- at some point, you just have to figure they turn great or fall apart; of those two options, give me the former. Southern Miss is closer to being great than terrible, and if they're ever going to break through in a big way, it's going to be in Davis' senior season.
So Tulane has a good, young running back, a couple of good defensive ends, a decent secondary, and a 2010 YPP Margin that screams "They were unlucky!" But it's been a long time since they were even decent -- their best F/+ finish from 2005-10: minus-13.7% and 98th place in 2006 -- and circumstance just has not been kind to the university's athletic program recently. Even with much better luck, how far do we see this team rising?
Bob Toledo is still the head coach at Tulane despite almost no success, primarily because of what he started with in 2006. ...
Be it because of the location, the Katrina damage, the color scheme, the '87 Independence Bowl ... it's easy to find reasons to root for Tulane, and I guess it would be somewhat poetic if a back named Orleans led them to just their third bowl sinceleft in the 1980s.
I said "poetic." I didn't say "likely."
Tulsa returns as much proven talent on offense as anybody in Conference USA; Damaris Johnson is a star, G.J. Kinne appears to be a strong leader and the offensive line is strong and experienced. The defense lags behind a bit, but the front seven should be solid and Shawn Jackson's ceiling is extremely high. There's a lot to like here, so I'm going to assume Tulsa would be pretty good in 2011 no matter who happened to be head coach...
...as long as they survive September. The best Tulsa squad ever would probably still start 1-3 this season, with road trips to Oklahoma and Boise State and a visit from Oklahoma State. If they make it to October 1 with their spirit intact, however, they could get rolling just like they did last year.
We'll see if they can avoid a complete crater in the run defense with the turnover on the defensive line; if they do, there are plenty of interesting cogs. Pat Shed is a lovely run-catch threat, the receiving corps still seems semi-deep, and the back seven of the defense isn't bad. With all the downfield passing, it will be hard for UAB to win turnover battles (though Bryan Ellis' 25-12 TD-to-INT ratio despite the downfield throws was encouraging), but the YPP margin suggests they're due for a good amount of luck, and the overall experience certainly seems to be in place. Being a single touchdown better in 2010 would have resulted in eight or nine wins; can they improve that much despite the losses in the trenches? And will improvement matter with a schedule that includes visits from Mississippi State, Central Florida and Southern Miss and their most winnable games (Marshall, Memphis, Florida Atlantic) on the road?
Looking at the F/+ Progression above, UTEP has not played at an "average Conference USA team" level since 2007. Last year, Mike Price fielded his worst team in El Paso, and now a good number of offensive playmakers were gone. With the same schedule as they had last year, the Miners could make another run at bowl eligibility, but ... the 2011 schedule is not the 2010 schedule. Six opponents saw bowls in 2010, and UTEP gets most of the worst teams on the schedule -- New Mexico State, Tulane, Rice -- on the road. If bigger really does equal better for the defense, and the offense can at least approximate last year's levels, then there are certainly some potential wins (Stony Brook, Colorado State, and the three road games above), but ... yikes. Mike Price has accomplished a lot in his career (not all of it good), but I really struggle to find too many positives in next year's team. Travaun Nixon and Joe Banyard are potential stars, and Marlon McClure is explosive, but ... this was an iffy-at-best team with those players and Trevor Vittatoe, Kris Adams, etc. Without them? Yikes.
Predicted Order Of Finish
NOTE: These predictions have nothing to do with the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 predictions that will soon be released -- these are just based on my own impressions of each team as I was writing up the previews. It is intended to be more of a power poll than a set of predictions based on a lengthy look at the schedules. And it will change 17 times between now and when the season starts.
1. Southern Miss
2. Central Florida
4. East Carolina
Conference Title Game: Southern Miss > SMU.