Saturday, August 09, 2008

2008 Conference USA Preview


Southern Miss
It’s the dawning of a new era in Hattiesburg. For the first time in 17 years, the Golden Eagles will not be led into action by Jeff Bower. Bower was forced to resign prior to the bowl game last season, and though he had a very good run, it can be argued a change was due. The new head coach is Larry Fedora, most recently employed as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Fedora has a decent rep as an offensive guru and that is exactly what Southern Miss needs to return to the top of the conference. In a league that definitely skews toward offense, Fedora could be just what the doctor ordered.
The Golden Eagle offense was severely lacking last season, particularly in league play. Only 2 teams gained fewer yards in Conference USA action—East Carolina! and UAB. The passing game was particularly poor. Senior quarterbacks Jeremy Young and Stephen Reaves helped the Golden eagles post a passer rating of only 114.90—88th in the nation. Young and Reaves have matriculated and the projected starter is Martevious Young, who broke his leg against Rice after throwing only 1 pass. The nouveau Young will be aided by the return of the team’s best player, running back Damion Fletcher. Fletcher gained nearly 1586 yards last season while averaging 5.38 yards per rush. He topped 100 yards in 9 of the team’s 13 games and with 2974 rushing yards in only 2 seasons, he stands a great chance at toppling Ben Garry (3595 yards) as the team’s all-time leading rusher. The team does lose 3 starters along the offensive line, so Fletcher’s numbers may decline a bit. Elsewhere on the offensive side, the Golden Eagles return their top-2 receivers from last season—receiver Torris Magee and tight end Shawn Nelson. The running game may not be as productive as last season, but Fedora should open up the offense and allow the unit to post much better overall numbers.

The Golden Eagles were their usual stingy selves on defense last season. Only Central Florida allowed fewer yards against Conference USA foes. The defense will be hard-pressed to repeat last season’s performance as they lose 4 of their top-7 tacklers including all 4 starting defensive linemen. The Golden Eagles do return their best defender, linebacker Gerald McRath. McRath led the team and was 12th in the nation with 139 tackles last season. The Golden Eagles should decline defensively, but it should be mentioned that they have not allowed more than 24.8 point per game in the past decade.

Prediction: Outside the league, the Golden Eagles play 2 Sun Belt squads (Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State), an SEC school (Auburn), and a WAC team (Boise State). Unless they can upset Boise State in Hattiesburg, that looks like break even schedule. In league play, the Golden Eagles have the good fortune of missing the 2 strongest teams from Conference USA West (Houston and Tulsa). For that reason, I’ll peg them as the champion of the East.

The end could be drawing near for head coach Mark Snyder. His 3 Herd teams have gone 12-23 (10-14 in Conference USA) and have yet to qualify for a bowl game. It doesn’t help matters that the man Snyder replaced, Bob Pruett, is a legend in Huntington. The good news for Snyder is that this is certainly his best team yet, and could easily make its way to a bowl game or even the Conference USA Championship Game.

Last season, Marshall featured an offense that was below average by Conference USA standards. In league play, only Southern Miss, East Carolina, and UAB gained fewer yards. Unlike Southern Miss, Marshall got solid play from the quarterback position. Bernard Morris posted a passer rating of 139.09 (27th in the nation) and also rushed for 488 yards. But like his brethren in Hattiesburg, Morris has exhausted his eligibility and must be replaced. His likely replacement is redshirt freshman Mark Cann. Cann has the good fortune of a solid running back to hand off to in sophomore running back Darius Marshall. Marshall gained 631 yards on the ground last season (led team) and averaged 5.13 yards per rush. With 3 starting offensive linemen returning, Marshall could be one of the league’s best running backs in 2008. Elsewhere, the Herd also return their 4-leading receivers from last season. That unit is highlighted by one of the best tight ends you’ve never heard of—Cody Slate. Slate has led the team in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns in both of his seasons as a member of the Herd. The Herd will also welcome the services of South Carolina transfer OJ Murdock to their already steady receiving corps. The Marshall offense, despite the loss of Morris, should improve in 2008.

Marshall’s defense was average by conference standards last season. They finished 6th in yards allowed in league play. They should be substantially improved in 2008 thanks to the addition (return) of one player. Albert McClellan accumulated 11.5 sacks in 2006 and was named the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. McClellan tore his ACL last summer and missed the entire 2007 season. His return, along with 8 other starters should make the Herd one of the most improved defenses in 2008. In addition, the defense should fare much better at forcing turnovers. They forced a puny 7 last season (worst in the nation), and a few more forced turnovers will put the offense in better position to score.

Prediction: The Herd have a difficult non-conference slate. After opening the season against Illinois State (IAA), they must travel to Wisconsin and West Virginia before hosting Cincinnati. The best chance for a win against that triumvirate would be against the Bearcats, but even that is a long-shot. In conference play, the Herd must travel to Southern Miss and also face Tulsa and Houston from the West (albeit at home). For those reasons, the improvement won’t be quite enough to get the Herd to the top of the league standings.

Central Florida
For the 2nd time in 3 seasons, the Knights advanced to the Conference USA Championship Game last year. Their nemesis in the title game was Tulsa (same opponent in 2005). The Knights exacted some revenge for their loss 2 years before and won their first conference title in school history. Though the team went on to lose the Liberty Bowl to Mississippi State, a 10-4 record is nothing to sneeze at considering they were 0-11 in 2004. Can the Knights defend their division and conference title in 2008?

Last season the Knights’ offense was led by a player you may have heard of. Kevin Smith led the nation in rushing (2567 yards) and rushing touchdowns (29). In a wise decision, Smith opted to forego his senior season and was selected in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft. The running attack will certainly not attain 2007’s levels as 3 starting offensive linemen also depart. The team also loses quarterback Kyle Israel who posted solid passing numbers last season (quarterback rating of 128.73 ranked 57th in the nation). Israel’s likely replacement is junior Michael Greco. Greco saw significant action in only 2 games last season, torching Memphis (11 of 12 for 151 yards) while struggling against South Florida (6 of 16 for 71 yards). The 3 leading receivers from last year’s team are back so Greco should post decent numbers. Last season the Knights gained the 3rd most yards in league play. With so much attrition, particularly at running back, quarterback, and along the offensive line, the offense will take a tumble.

Know who had the best defense in Conference USA play last season? That’s right, it was Central Florida. The Knights edged out Southern Miss by allowing about a yard less per conference game in 2008. Despite all the praise and adoration heaped upon Kevin Smith, it was the defense that carried the team. Consider this: The Knights held Tulsa (tops in the nation and Conference USA in total offense) to their lowest output of the season (379 yards) in their regular season encounter. The Golden Hurricane were able to rack up 470 yards in the rematch in the Conference USA Championship Game, but that was their 4th lowest yardage total on the season. All told, Central Florida allowed only 4 of their opponents to top 400 yards—Texas, South Florida, SMU, and Tulsa. 9 starters return for 2008, including the top-7 tacklers. The Knights will miss Leger Douzable, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last season, but with so many returning starters, the Knights should remain one of the league’s top defenses.

Prediction: The Knights face 3 BCS foes in their non-conference schedule (South Florida, Boston College, and Miami). The Knights could conceivably steal one of those 3 and adding that to the South Carolina State win would give them 2 outside the league. In conference play, the Knights host SMU, Southern Miss, East Carolina, and UAB but have dangerous road games at UTEP, Tulsa, Marshall, and Memphis. 4-4 in conference play seems about right, and a bowl game is a definite possibility depending on how the non-conference games turn out.

East Carolina
The Pirates are the chic pick by many to win the East, and possibly the whole shebang in 2008. On the surface, this seems to be a pretty logical selection. In the 3 seasons Skip Holtz has been at the helm, the Pirates have improved their win total (5, 7, and 8) and conference win total (4, 5, and 6) each season. Fresh off a bowl win over the most consistent mid-major program over the past decade, it makes sense to anoint them as the favorites, doesn’t it?

As previously mentioned in the Southern Miss section, the Pirates actually had one of the league’s worst offenses on a down-to-down basis. Only a solitary team (UAB) gained fewer yards than the Pirates in Conference USA play. That’s not to say the Pirates didn’t post some good offensive showings, but the majority of those came against poor defenses. The chart below lists the yardage gained by East Carolina in their 8 conference games as well as their conference opponent. Their opponents’ conference ranking in yards allowed is in parentheses. The foes who were average to above-average are on the left, and the below average foes are on the right. That’s pretty telling. The Pirates were unable to move the ball against the league’s better teams, but absolutely shredded their weaker opponents. So how were the Pirates able to score the 4th most points in conference play with such poor offensive showings? Turnovers. In 8 conference games, the Pirates posted a turnover margin of +11 (easily tops in the league). Overall they were even better at +17 (4th in the nation). They lost only 14 turnovers all season (4th in the nation). That’s a number that is likely to trend upward in 2008. So if it’s reasonable to expect the offense to turn the ball over more in 2008, can they improve enough to make up for that? The answer is likely ‘No’. The Pirates best player, running back Chris Johnson, has exhausted his eligibility after a fantastic senior season. Johnson rushed for 1423 yards while averaging 6.03 yards per rush and scoring 17 touchdowns. Despite the return of 4 starters along the offensive line, the running game should take a step back with the absence of a player the caliber of Johnson. And the passing game? Quarterbacks Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass split time almost evenly last season and helped the team post a passer rating of 125.68 (62nd in the nation). Those 2 gentlemen should remain serviceable passers, but won’t be making any extreme jumps in performance. The offense should be better in 2008, in that they gain more yards, but with the turnovers bound to even themselves out, the scoring output should decrease.

Defensively, the Pirates were pretty good in 2007, finishing 4th in yards allowed in conference play. However, there was a big drop off from the top-3 defenses (Central Florida, Southern Miss, and Houston). The Pirates allowed about 63 more yards per game in conference play than Houston. That’s more than the difference between East Carolina and the 9th best defense (SMU). The Pirates do bring back 9 starters in 2008, with the only losses coming at linebacker (Fred Wilson) and corner (Travis Williams). Wilson and Williams will be missed, but on the whole, the defense should be even better in 2008.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule is nightmarish in 2008. The Pirates play Virginia Tech in Charlotte, host West Virginia, and travel to NC State and Virginia. Winning one of those games will be a chore. In league play, the Pirates have to travel to Southern Miss and Central Florida within the division. The do have the good fortune of only facing one of the superpowers from the West (Houston), but also face a tough sandwich game at Tulane (between the West Virginia and NC State games). The Pirates should also see a downturn in their good fortune—previously mentioned turnover margin and 4-1 record in one-score games in 2007. It’s hard to envision this team ending with a winning record.

In 2007, the Memphis Tigers could rightly be dubbed the ‘Cardiac Cats’. 7 of the Tigers 13 games were decided by 4 points or less. The Tigers won 5 of those games, a major reason they went bowling despite being outscored by 39 points on the year. Can the Tigers qualify for their 5th bowl game in 6 seasons or are will they be relegated to the bottom of the division?

The Memphis offense was the team’s strength in 2007. Overall, they gained 446 yards per game (23rd in the nation) and in league play they finished 4th in yards gained. Unfortunately, the Tigers’ 2 biggest offensive contributors are no longer with the team. Quarterback Martin Hankins posted a passer rating of 137.84 (29th in the nation) and running back Joseph Doss gained over 800 yards on the ground. How capable their replacements are will go a long way in determining if Memphis plays in the postseason. The projected starter at quarterback is Washington State transfer Arkelon Hall. Hall played junior college ball last season, but he has yet to throw a pass against a Division IA opponent. The good news for Hall is that the Tigers return their entire receiving arsenal. The top-7 receivers from last year’s team all return. The projected starter at running back is TJ Pitts. Pitts was second on the team with 480 yards on the ground last season. With 3 starters retuning on the offensive line, Pitts could approach and even surpass the numbers Doss posted last season. The overall offense should decline with the loss of Hankins, but the Tigers should remain at least average by Conference USA standards.

The Tigers defense had its share of problems in 2007. The team allowed 442 yards per game (110th in the nation), and were only 8th in yards allowed in conference play. That’s not to say the Tigers didn’t have some good games. They held Southern Miss to 306 yards and Ole Miss to 275 yards. Of course, they made up for that by allowing 641 yards to East Carolina and 601 yards to Central Florida. The defense was bad against both the pass (allowed a passer rating of 139.63—96th in the nation) and the run (allowed 5.09 yards per rush—112th in the nation). With 8 starters back, the defense should show some moderate improvement. With 5 starters back among the front 7, the defense should improve upon the paltry 15 sacks they accumulated in 2007 (107th in the nation).

Prediction: The non-conference slate has several opportunities for wins. The Tigers host both Nicholls State and Arkansas State. However, the Tigers did lose to Arkansas State last season so a win should not be assumed. The remaining 2 non-conference games are road trips to what should be improved BCS squads—Ole Miss and Louisville. In league play, the Tigers avoid both Houston and Tulsa from the West, but a road game against an improved SMU team is on the schedule. The Tigers not only had a superb record in one score games last year (5-2), they also posted a splendid turnover margin of +10 (15th in the nation). Both those areas are likely to trend downward in 2008, and the Tigers’ record will follow suit.

The first season of the Neil Callaway era was a lesson in humility. The Blazers defeated only a single IA team (Tulane) and of their 10 losses, only 2 came by fewer than 10 points. Will progress be made in Year 2, or will the Blazers be playing the waiting game?

UAB was bad on both sides of the ball in 2007. They finished last in conference play in yards gained and second to last (11th) in yards allowed. The primary problem for the offense was an inability to run the ball (110 rush yards per game—104th in the nation) and complete a high number of passes (completed 49.1% of passes—115th in the nation). The good news is that quarterback Joseph Webb, who returns, put up much better numbers (116.70 passer rating versus 96.68 passer rating) than Sam Hunt who departs. Webb is an athlete who spent time at wide receiver, catching 30 passes for 459 yards (both 2nd on the team). The Blazers also return 2 starting receivers, 3 starting offensive linemen, and add a host of talented running backs. The Blazers off should improve enough to remove the label of ‘worst in the conference’.

The defense should see some improvement as well. 9 starters, including 5 of the top-6 tacklers return. The Blazers bring back their entire starting defensive line and 2/3rds of their starting linebackers, so they should improve upon their atrocious sack numbers from last season (17 sacks—102nd in the nation). With a little bit of luck, the Blazers could field a respectable defense in 2008.

Prediction: The Blazers non-conference slate features 3 very tough road games—Florida Atlantic, Tennessee, and South Carolina. The other game comes against Alabama State and is the Blazers best chance for a win outside of the league. In conference play, the Blazers have the misfortune of drawing both Tulsa and Houston from the West. The Blazers should improve in Callaway’s 2nd season, but it may not show in the final record as nearly every team in the division is improved as well.


In the past 2 seasons, the Cougars have gone 18-9 (13-3 in Conference USA play) and captured a league title (2006). All that success led Baylor to poach head coach Art Briles. Can the Cougars continue their dominance over Conference USA foes under new head man Kevin Sumlin?

Under Briles, it seemed the Cougars developed a reputation for implementing a sort of run-and-shoot attack. A perfunctory glance at the statistics proves that was not the case. The Cougars achieved an awesome balance under Briles, always running more than they passed, but doing both very efficiently. And this is where it starts to get interesting. Kevin Sumlin was the co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma the past 2 seasons, but his offensive coordinator at Houston will be Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech the past 3 years. This may finally be the year reality catches up with perception in Houston. And it couldn’t happen at a better time. A more passing-centric offensive approach will likely be needed in 2008 since the Cougars will be without the services of their star running back Anthony Aldridge. Aldridge began his college career as a wide receiver, but was given a shot to play running back in 2006. He did not disappoint. Aldridge nearly gained 1000 yards on just 95 carries, averaging a mind-boggling 10.09 yards per rush. He was made the feature back in 2007, and gained 1597 yards while averaging a still robust 6.17 yards per rush. Aldridge was a dynamic player who will certainly be missed. Elsewhere on offense, the Cougars also lose their number one receiver, Donnie Avery. Avery caught 91 balls for 1456 yards last season. Despite the loss of those 2 playmakers, the Houston offense should remain quite good. The quarterback duo of Case Keenum and Blake Joseph helped the Cougars compile a passer rating of 147.32 last season (11th in the nation). Both players return in 2008 with Keenum slated to be the starter. Keenum is more of a running threat than Joseph (3rd on the team with 412 rushing yards last season), and is also a year younger. The Houston offense also returns 3 starting offensive linemen and features 4 seniors, so they should improve upon the 32 sacks they allowed last season (97th in the nation). The offense may be slightly worse, but should remain one of the best in the conference.

Defensively, the Cougars allowed the 3rd fewest yards in conference play last season. Only Central Florida and Southern Miss were better against Conference USA foes. The Cougars return 7 starters in 2008, led by defensive end Phillip Hunt who had 10.5 sacks last season and 18 tackles for loss (16th in the nation). The Cougars do have some holes at linebacker where they lose 3 starters including last season’s leading tackler, Rocky Schwartz. The Cougar defense should also be a little worse in 2008, but not appreciably so.

Prediction: Besides the road game at Oklahoma State, the remainder of the non-conference slate is imminently winnable. Southern (IAA) and Air Force come to Houston, while the Cougars must travel to Fort Collins to take on Colorado State. 3-1 is very doable, and 2-2 appears to be the worst case scenario before league play. In conference play, the Cougars received a monumental gift from the scheduling gods in the form of a home game against UAB for one of the intra-division games. The Cougars also avoid Southern Miss and Central Florida from the East. They also host their biggest threat from the West, Tulsa. Another appearance in the Conference USA Championship Game appears to be in the cards for Houston.

Last season the Golden Hurricanes won 10 games and faced Central Florida in the Conference USA Championship Game. Though they fell to the Knights, they rebounded to wallop Bowling Green 63-7 in the GMAC Bowl, the largest margin of victory ever in a bowl game. Can the Hurricanes return to the title game for the 3rd time in 4 seasons?

Last season, under the tutelage of Gus Malzahn, the Golden Hurricanes put up points and yardage by the bushel. The former Arkansas offensive coordinator brought his fast-paced spread attack further west to Oklahoma and the results were fantastic. Tulsa averaged 544 yards (1st in the nation) and 41.1 points (6th in the nation) per game. It goes without saying, that they had the strongest offense in Conference USA. Tulsa returns 9 starters from that elite unit, but they do lose their point-man, quarterback Paul Smith. Smith posted an efficiency rating of 159.84 (4th in the nation) and threw 47 touchdowns (2nd in the nation). The loss of Smith will certainly sting as his heir apparent, David Johnson, has thrown only 63 passes in his 3 year career. Besides Smith, the only other loss is a solitary offensive tackle. Perhaps the most unique statistical player from last year’s team is senior wide receiver Brennan Marion. Marion averaged an absurd 31.90 yards per reception last season, topping 1200 yards on only 39 catches. The Tulsa offense should once again be one of the best in the conference, but they may slip a notch or two with the departure of Smith.

The defensive rankings for Tulsa are a little skewed by the fact that they played in Conference USA. The Golden Hurricanes allowed 452 yards per game overall (108th in the nation), but in conference games they were only slightly below average (7th in yards allowed). Still, the defense was by no means ‘good’ in 2007, and doesn’t seem likely to improve considerably in 2008. The top-4 tacklers from last year’s team, including leading sack man Alain Karatepeyah (9 sacks in 2007) are gone. Tulsa does return perhaps their best defender, bandit defensive back Roy Roberts who led the team with 12 pass break-ups last season.

Prediction: The Golden Hurricanes have the potential for a great start in 2008. They open with league whipping-boy UAB, before traveling to North Texas, and hosting 3 straight against New Mexico, Central Arkansas, and Rice. They follow that up with a road game against SMU before coming home to host UTEP and Central Florida. It’s not likely, but indeed possible for Tulsa to stand 8-0 before heading to Fayetteville to take on Arkansas. Unfortunately, Tulsa must face their biggest divisional threat, Houston, on the road. They have a real shot at winning 10 games again, but probably won’t take the division.

After beginning the 2006 season 4-2, the Miners have won only 5 of their last 18 games. Could Mike Price be on the hot seat in his 5th season in the West Texas town of El Paso?

Last season, the Miners had to replace their all-time passing leader in quarterback Jordan Palmer. They did so with a player who may one day take that mantra from Mr. Palmer. True freshman Trevor Vittatoe posted a passer rating of 135.87 (32nd in the nation) and led all freshman quarterbacks in passing yards per game (258). As a unit, the Miners were average offensively in Conference USA (6th in yards gained). They do lose a number of pieces in 2008, including 1000-yard rusher Marcus Thomas, and a pair of receivers with over 40 catches—Joe West and Lorne Sam. Fortunately for Vittatoe his best receiver, Jeff Moturi (891 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2007) is back as are 3 starting offensive lineman. If Vittatoe doesn’t undergo a Colt McCoy-esque sophomore slump, the UTEP offense should be just as strong in 2008.

The defense is what really let the Miners down last season. Opponents shredded the Miners for 505 yards per game (117th in the nation) and among Conference USA teams, no one was worse in league play. The Miners primary deficiency was an inability to get to the quarterback. UTEP posted only 16 sacks in 2007 (105th in the nation), and no individual player netted more than 2. The Miners bring back 7 starters in 2008, but do lose their leading tackler, safety/linebacker hybrid Braxton Amy. It would be quite an accomplishment if the Miners got worse on defense. The laws of extreme performances say they are do for at least a subtle rebound on that side of the ball.

Prediction: Outside the league, UTEP faces Buffalo, Texas, New Mexico State, and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Miners have a real shot at winning 3 of those 4. In conference play, the Miners have 3 very winnable home games—Tulane, Rice, and SMU. The other comes against Central Florida. If the Miners can steal a roadie against Southern Miss, Tulsa, Houston, or East Carolina, they could top 8 wins.

In the 5-season span from 1980-1984 the Mustangs went to 4 bowl games. They’ve been to none since their Aloha Bowl win over Notre Dame in 1984. Can June Jones, having already resurrected one downtrodden program, raise the Pony Express back up?

Last season, despite the presence of quarterback Justin Willis, the Mustangs were slightly below average offensively. In conference play, they were 7th in yards gained. Willis struggled somewhat in his second season in Dallas, throwing 18 interceptions and posting a passer rating of 129.41 (55th in the nation) after throwing only 6 with a passer rating of 158.43 (10th in the nation) as a freshman. His completion percentage also dropped significantly, from 67.4% to 58.5%. Still, Willis was the offenses’ best player, as he added 713 yards on the ground. With a quarterback guru like June Jones, chances are good Willis will improve upon his 2007 numbers. While he may never reach the heights he set in 2006, his 2007 numbers seem to be the ground floor for his performance. Elsewhere on offense, the Mustangs return last year’s leading receiver (Emmanuel Sanders), 3 starting offensive linemen, and the running back duo of DeMyron Martin and James Mapps (combined for nearly 1000 yards last season). As long as Willis is with the team come opening night (he was suspended for the spring), the Mustangs will be one of the top offensive units in the league.

Defensively, the Mustangs were bad last season, but far from the worst in the conference. Rice, UAB, and UTEP all allowed more yards to conference foes last season. The Mustangs bring back 7 starters in 2008, including 4 of the top-5 tacklers. Like UTEP, the Mustangs also struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks, posting only 20 sacks all season (89th in the nation). Defensive end Cory Muse led the team with 5 sacks. He has departed, but the returning players, including 3 of 4 starters in the secondary, should help the defense improve their play.

Prediction: Texas State, Texas Tech, and TCU dot the non-conference slate, as well as a date with Navy in Annapolis. The Mustangs desperately need to win the Navy game to set themselves up with a 2-2 record outside the league. In conference play, the Mustangs have the good fortune of hosting both divisional powers Houston and Tulsa, so a breakthrough there is possible. The Mustangs also have 2 very winnable road games—Rice and Tulane, so the potential for a bowl bid is there. The Mustangs should also see their luck improve as they were a poor 0-5 in one-score games in 2007, and also posted a turnover margin of -9. Bowl eligibility is in their future, but a bowl bid is not.

Since finishing the 1998 season undefeated and pawning Tommy Bowden off on Clemson, the Green Wave have but one bowl appearance (2002 Hawaii Bowl). Can Bob Toledo lead the Green Wave back to postseason play for the only the second time in a decade?

Last season the Tulane offense was built around one man—running back Matt Forte. Forte topped 2000 yards on the ground and finished second to Kevin Smith in rushing yards per game. He also averaged 5.89 yards per rush and scored 23 touchdowns. Unfortunately, the quarterback play was shaky at best (team passer rating of 108.18—105th in the nation), so the team was actually below average offensively. They finished 8th in yards gained in league play. Now Forte is gone and anyone of a trio of milquetoast quarterbacks (Kevin Moore, Anthony Scelfo, or Scott Elliott) will likely be forced to bare more of the offensive load. Forte’s replacement is Andre Anderson, a junior with only 129 career rushing yards. However, 4 starting offensive linemen return which should mean a sizeable number of holes for Anderson to run through. The Green Wave also return their two leading receivers from last season (Jeremy Williams and Brian King). Despite the loss of Forte, the offense should not be appreciably worse and could be better if one of the 3 quarterbacks emerges and improves.

Defensively, Tulane was surprisingly vigorous, at least by Conference USA standards. The Green Wave finished 5th in yards allowed in league play. They even held eventual MNC LSU to only 391 yards of offense. 7 starters return for the 2008 season, with linebacker Evan Lee chief among them. Lee led the team in tackles last season and looks to do the same this year. Talent-wise, the Tulane defense probably played a bit over their heads last season and should decline despite returning a sizable number of starters.

Prediction: The non-conference slate does Tulane no favors with road trips to SEC foes Alabama and LSU. The Green Wave also have easier contests against Louisiana-Monroe and Army. If they intend to go bowling, they must win both those games. Easier said than done. In league play, Tulane has the misfortune of traveling to both Houston and Tulsa, giving them 2 almost assured conference losses. Normally a team with the statistics of Tulane (SDPI ranks them 6th in yardage for 2007) could make some noise. However, with the exception of Rice, everyone in the division appears to be improved. Looks like a second consecutive 3 win conference season for Tulane.

In 2006, Rice won 7 games and qualified for their first bowl game since 1961. The success, as it inevitably does at a school like Rice, cost the teams its coach who saw the writing (difficulty of consistently winning) on the wall and hightailed it to Tulsa. Predictably, the Owls struggled in 2007, finishing only 3-9. However, all 3 of their wins actually came in conference play, which was good enough for a tie for 3rd in Conference USA West. Can the Owls, with significant returnees, especially on offense, return to a bowl game in 2008?

Last season the Rice offense was moderately proficient. In Conference USA play, they were 5th in yards gained. The strength of the team was the passing attack which averaged 293 yards per game (15th in the nation). Quarterback Chase Clement enjoyed another solid season, posting a passer rating of 127.44 (58th in the nation). Clement returns for his senior season and should enjoy another fine campaign. In fact after 2 games he could very well pass Tommy Kramer as the school’s all-time leading passer. Joining Clement on offense are 8 other starters. The Owls lose the left side of their line (guard and tackle), but everyone else is back. The skill position playmakers are highlighted by wide receiver Jarett Dillard. As a sophomore in 2006, Dillard led the NCAA in touchdown catches with 21. He slipped a little last season, catching only 14 touchdowns (3rd in the nation), but topped 1000 yards for the second straight season. Dillard should post another All-American caliber season, and if the running game can improve a little (111 yards per game in 2007—103rd in the nation), the offense could be one of the league’s best.

The Rice defense was another story. They finished 118th in the nation in total defense, permitting opponents to roll over them to the tune of 511 yards per game. In conference play they finished a little better, allowing the 10th most yards in the league. UAB and UTEP were worse, so they can take solace in that fact. The defense should be a little better in 2008 with 7 starters, including the top-5 tacklers, back. Still, Rice will not be winning games with defense. The defense will be improved, but should still remain one of the worst units in the league.

Prediction: Rice faces road games against BCS foes Vanderbilt and Texas in what should be 2 sure losses. Their other non-conference games come at home against North Texas and Army. Both those games are winnable, and if Rice harbors any bowl hopes, they must win both of those. In conference play, Rice has winnable home games against SMU and Marshall. However, every other team in the division appears to be improved, so despite the fact that this may the best Rice team in sometime, a finish in the cellar is likely.

Predicted Records:

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