Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fab Five: Week I

It's that time of year again. The college football season is just mere hours away. That means tailgates, pageantry, hard-hitting action, and most importantly spreads. That's right degenerates, the Fab 5 is back again. Each week I'll give you 5 dogs and 5 favorites I like for the coming weekend. So here we go (home teams in Bold).

5 Dogs I Like

UTEP +3 Buffalo
The Buffalo Bulls are probably getting a little too much love after going 5-7 and finishing alone in 3rd place in the MAC East last season. It was a great story for a program with little to cheer about before Turner Gill was hired in 2006. However, as Bill James astutely pointed out with the Plexiglass Principle, teams that come from out of nowhere often fall back to Earth very quickly. UTEP is a solid Conference USA squad, and their offense should give the Bulls fits in an upset win.

SMU +3.5 Rice
The June Jones era begins on Friday night. If anyone is going to resurrect the Pony Express, its the man who took Hawaii from winless to undefeated in less than a decade. SMU was much better than their 1-11 record last season, losing 5 games by 7 points or fewer, including a 1-point loss to these Rice Owls. This game is a toss up, and as such, you should take the team getting the points.

+19.5 Southern Cal
This spread seems abnormally large considering the Trojans must replace 7 starters on offense, including the quarterback, running back, top wide receiver, and 4 offensive linemen. That's not to say I believe Virginia has any shot whatsoever to win this game, as they have a multitude of issues as well, but giving nearly 3 touchdowns on the road is not a proposition I'd be inclined to take.

Louisiana Tech +8 Mississippi State
Last season, Mississippi State won 8 games and played in the postseason for the first time since 2000. They did this despite featuring an offense that gained under 300 yards per game (297 to be exact). The Bulldogs were exceptionally fortunate, going 4-0 in one-score games. Their saving grace was a defense that permitted only 332 yards per game and a penchant for their opponents to fall on their own swords. The defense should remain reasonably strong, and the offense should remain anemic. The big difference this season will likely be lady luck. And Mississippi State is walking right into a beartrap in their opener. Louisiana Tech has been a competitive team for the better part of a decade, and while they may not knock off the Bulldogs from the SEC, they will make this one very interesting.

UCLA +7.5 Tennessee
Speaking of walking into a beartrap. Remember what happened last time the Vols opened the season in the great state of California? It wasn't pretty. Now they head to Los Angeles without quarterback Erik Ainge, who matriculated, and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who left for bluer pastures at Duke. While UCLA is far from a complete team, the homefield advantage should propel them to a Labor Day upset.

Five Faves I Like

Oregon State -3 Stanford
The Beavers lost their entire starting front 7 from last season. However, that does not mean there is a dearth of talent. 2 players, Victor Butler and Slade Norris, who didn't start, actually totalled 19.5 sacks between them in 2007. Both gentlemen are back, and with the return of wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who missed most of last season with an injury, the inept passing attack should improve. Meanwhile, Stanford avoided the Pac-10 basement in 2007, but remained the worst team in the league according to both point and yardage differential.

Northwestern -11.5 Syracuse
Looking for a sleeper in the Big 10? Look no further than Evanston, Illinois. With 7 senior starters on offense (quarterback, running back, 3 wide receivers, and 2 offensive linemen), the Wildcats will sport the best offense of the Pat Fitzgerald era. The defense also returns 8 starters and should show some improvement. Syracuse on the other hand, as been like a rudderless ship since Paul Pasqualoni was canned following the 2004 season. The Orange have defeated 3 BCS-conference opponents in 3 seasons under Greg Robinson and are 2-14 on the road.

Mississippi -7.5 Memphis
This is a classic case of 2 teams headed in opposite directions. Ole Miss facilitated a serious upgrade in coaching acumen by hiring Houston Nutt to replace the departed Ed Orgeron. By most accounts, Orgeron was a good recruiter, so the cupboard is far from empty in Oxford. The biggest addition to the team in 2008 is quarterback and Texas transfer Jevan Snead, who failed to beat out Colt McCoy in Austin in 2006. Meanwhile, Memphis still has a solid coach with a track record of success at the school (4 bowl games in the past 5 seasons) in Tommy West, but must replace the starting quarterback and running back from last year's team. The last 4 games in this series have been decided by 7 points or less, with Ole Miss winning 3 of 4. However, this one should not be very close.

Louisville -3.5 Kentucky
Last season, the game against Middle Tennessee State was an early sign that things might not be well, but the loss to Kentucky is what really sounded the alarms in Louisville. Louisville loses its quarterback, Brian Brohm, but has a capable replacement in Hunter Cantwell. Kentucky on the other hand, loses its quarterback, Andre Woodson, and does not have a proven player to take his place. That, plus the homefield advantage makes Louisville the pick.

Rutgers -5.5 Fresno State
Fresno State is a classic case of an over-valued stock. Many pundits believe the Bulldogs will win the WAC despite the fact that they were outgained in conference play by an average of 55 yards per game. That number ranked 6th of 9 WAC teams. If this game were in Fresno, the Bulldogs would have a chance, but travelling cross country to face a BCS program, they will falter.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Dana Carvey All-Stars: Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Our final look at underappreciated skill position players will focus on wide receivers and tight ends. Here's the link to last year's post to see who I highlighted then.

Cody Slate Marshall

By the nation at large, Cody Slate is underappreciated. However, in Conference USA, he is a known commodity. He has made the Conference USA 1st team in both seasons he has played college football. He led the Thundering Herd in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in both 2006 and 2007. Last season he caught 66 balls for 818 yards and 5 touchdowns. His best game came against New Hampshire when he nabbed 11 passes for 177 and a touchdown. Don't be surprised if Slate is once again the top tight end in Conference USA.

Casey Fitzgerald North Texas

Prior to 2007, Casey Fitzgerald had caught 5 passes in his first 2 seasons playing college football. No one enjoyed the arrival of Todd Dodge and his high octane pass attack more than Fitzgerald. He hauled in 111 passes for 1322 yards and 12 touchdowns. He caught 10 passes or more 5 times and gained over 100 yards 6 times. His best game came against SMU when he caught an amazing 18 balls for 327 yards and 2 touchdowns. With another season under Dodge's system, Fitzgerald has a good shot at catching 100 passes once again.

Kevin Jurovich San Jose State

Kevin Jurovich had zero receptions before the 2007 season. Of course, that's because he was a defensive back in 2005 and 2006. Jurovich made Dick Tomey and his San Jose State assistants look like geniuses as he caught a team-high 85 balls for 1183 yards and 9 touchdowns. Jurovich topped 100 yards receiving 5 times, peaking with a 10 catch 233 yard performance against New Mexico State. Not bad for a safety.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Dana Carvey All-Stars: Running Backs

Yesterday we examined the unheralded quarterbacks who play Division IA football. Today we'll take a look at a few running backs you may not have heard of, but who are quite talented nonetheless. Here's last season's article in case you were wondering who I spotlighted then.

Deonte Jackson Idaho

If you looked at Deonte's surname, noticed he played out west and thought, 'Hmmm. I wonder if he's related to Steven Jackson?' Well, you, my friend, are a genius. He is in fact related to the running back for the St. Louis Rams. He's his nephew. And he's got game. Despite playing for a team that won only a single game a season ago, Jackson was able to shine in his freshman season. He rushed for 1175 yards and 7 touchdowns while averaging 4.90 yards per carry. Jackson topped 100 yards on the ground 5 times, setting a season high with 214 yards against Cal Poly. However, Jackson clearly slowed down over the season's final trimester. In the first 8 games, Jackson averaged 5.60 yards per carry. Over the final 4, his average slipped to 3.32. If Jackson can regain his early season form, the Vandals could triple or even quadrupled their win total.

Luke Lippincott Nevada

Luke Lippincott is the rarest of all breeds--a white feature back. Lippincott led the Wolfpack in rushing last season with 1420 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 5.32 yards per rush and also hauled in 26 passes for 295 yards and an additional 3 touchdowns. Lippincott opened the 2007 season rather inauspiciously, rushing 4 times for (-)5 yards against Nebraska. From then on out, he never averaged under 4 yards per carry in any game and topped the century mark 8 times, including a run of 5 in a row and 6 out of 7 beginning against Boise State on October 14th. Barring injury, Lippincott should once again be the featured runner, and with super soph quarterback Colin Kaepernick under center (or a few yards behind center in the 'Pistol'), the Wolfpack have a realistic chance at a WAC title.

Justin Anderson Northern Illinois

Following in the footsteps of Garrett Wolfe and Michael Turner before him, Justin Anderson exploded onto the scene in his first season as a starter. Anderson rushed for 1245 yards and 8 touchdowns while averaging 4.54 yards per carry for a team with no other offensive threats. Anderson topped 100 yards in 8 games and eclipsed 150 yards 4 times. Anderson was also the 'King of the Dumpoff' coming out of the backfield, catching 45 passes for 263 yards (paltry 5.84 yards per catch). With a new coach and 21 of 22 starters back in 2008, Anderson could become a little more well known if the Huskies can land a bowl bid.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Dana Carvey All-Stars: Quarterbacks

With the beginning of the season just around the corner, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce my faithful readers to some of the more unheralded skill position players in the nation. We did this last season. Some of those players enjoyed outstanding seasons. Others, not so much. I'll begin with the quarterbacks today, then run down the running backs on Tuesday, and tackle the receivers/tight ends on Wednesday.

Trevor Vittatoe UTEP

Trevor Vittatoe had some sizeable shoes to fill in his freshman season. He replaced Jordan Palmer (Carson's little brother), who depearted as the Miners' all-time leading passer following the 2006 season. All Vittatoe did last season was throw for 3101 yards and 25 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions. After a rough start to his college career (completed just 18 of his first 47 throws in his first 2 games), Vittatoe got it going. He threw at least 1 touchdown pass in every game from that point, and threw at least 3 touchdowns 4 times (peaking with a 5 touchdown game against Rice). Vittatoe is a true pocket passer, putting up negative rushing numbers and failing to score a touchdown on the ground. With the tuteluge of a passing guru like Mike Price, Vittatoe should leave UTEP as the number 1 passer in school history.

Michael Desormeaux Louisiana-Lafayette

He may not be Tim Tebow, but Michael Desormeaux was one of only 3 quarterbacks to rush for over 1000 yards last season (Pat White and Dan LeFevour were the others). Desormeaux was much more effective as a runner than he was as a passer. He threw for only 1405 yards on the season with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He topped 200 yards though the air in only a single game. However, on the ground Desormeaux rushed for 1141 yards and 7 touchdowns while averaging over 6 yards per rush. He topped 100 yards on the ground 6 times, peaking against Middle Tennessee State with 175 yards at more than 9 yards per rush. Going into his senior campaign, Desormeaux is once again a threat to top 1000 yards in both categories.

Aaron Opelt Toledo

Seeking to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Gradkowski, Aaron Opelt stepped up his game at the end of 2007. In 2006, Opelt split time with Clint Cochran and neither established themselves as legitimate quarterbacks. With their subpar passing, 2006 was the first year Toledo failed to average over 30 points per game under head coach Tom Amstutz. Opelt didn't exactly set the world on fire to start the 2007 campaign either. In his first 5 games, Opelt completed just a shade over half his passes (53.7%), averaged only 5.58 yards per attempt, and had a touchdown to interception ratio of 4:6. The Rockets were 1-4 in those games. He missed the next 2 with an injury and came back a new man. Over his next 4 games (he missed the finale with another injury), he completed 61.9% of his passes, averaged 8.49 yards per attempts, and had a touchdown to interception ratio of 8:1. Not surprisingly, Toledo was 3-1 in those games. The Rockets hope for their first winning season since 2005 rests on the arm of Aaron Opelt.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

2008 Sun Belt Preview

Florida Atlantic
The Owls, in only their 3rd season of play in the Sun Belt, won the conference title last year and ran roughshod over Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl. Can Howard Schnellenberger lead the Owls to another conference title, and perhaps upset a few BCS-conference foes along the way?

The Owls emergence into a legitimate threat to win the conference coincided with the rise of quarterback Rusty Smith who improved substantially from his freshman to sophomore years. His passer rating last season was tops in the Sun Belt and 21st in the nation. In fact, as the following table shows, you can accurately say that Smith was the second best amateur quarterback in the state of Florida last season. Smith’s improvement helped the Owls more than double their point total from 15.1 points per game in 2006 to 31.2 points per game in 2007. Smith returns in 2008 along with 10 other starters on the offensive unit. The lone loss is at guard where four-year starter Jarrid Smith has departed. Still, with 4 starters back along the line, running back Charles Pierre stands a good chance at topping 1000 yards on the ground (775 last year) for the first time in his career and that would give the Owls their first ever 1000-yard back. Elsewhere on offense, every receiver who caught at least 5 passes is back, headlined by Cortez Gent who led the team with 1082 yards last season. The Owls were second in the Sun Belt to Troy in yards gained in conference play, and should make the leap to numero uno this season.

The Florida Atlantic defense was not nearly as heralded as the offense last season (primarily because they allowed over 33 points per game), but among Sun Belt teams they were quite solid. In conference play, they finished 3rd in yards allowed (behind Troy and Arkansas State). The Owls bring back 8 starters in 2008, but do lose 3 of their top-6 tacklers, including both starting safeties (Taheem Acevedo and Kris Bartels). However, the entire defensive line returns, so the Owls should improve upon the paltry 13 sacks they amassed in 2007 (111th in the nation). The defense will once again fail to match the elite level of the offense, but should remain one of the best in the Sun Belt.

Prediction: As is usually the case for Sun Belt teams, the non-conference slate is nightmarish. The Owls take road trips to Texas, Michigan State, and Minnesota in the season’s first 4 weeks. They also travel to Western Kentucky (Sun Belt member in 2009) in the middle of the year and host UAB. The Owls can certainly hope to beat the Hilltoppers and Blazers, and did knock off the Gophers last season. However, Minnesota should be much improved and the game is in the Metrodome, making an upset unlikely. Many are predicting a cakewalk for Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt, but the road to another league title will not be easy. The Owls were 4-1 in one-score games last season so they could be in for a reversal of fortune in that department. They also boasted an outstanding turnover margin of +18 (3rd in the nation), thanks to the fact that they only lost 4 of their 17 fumbles (fumble recoveries are random events) while also intercepting 19 passes (14th in the nation). With both starting safeties gone, those picks will likely fall and the lost fumbles should also rise. Still, no other team has as much offensive talent as the Owls, so while the road will be tough, a second league title should be their reward at the end.

Arkansas State
The newly christened Red Wolves have consistently fielded a competitive team under head coach Steve Roberts. In his 6 seasons at the helm, the Red Wolves have won 6 games 3 times, and at least 5 games 5 times. Before his arrival, Arkansas State had won 6 games just once since 1990. Can his charges attain bowl eligibility for the 3rd time in 4 seasons?

Against their Sun Belt brethren, Arkansas State was a bit below average offensively in 2007 (6th in yards gained in conference play). However, there is reason to expect them to improve in 2008. The quarterback, Corey Leonard, is a 3rd year starter who has shown steady improvement since his freshman season. Leonard completed less than half his passes as a freshman (49.1%), but improved that number to 52.1% last season. Leonard is also a threat on the ground, gaining over 300 yards as a freshman and over 500 yards last season. Leonard does lose his go-to receiver from last year (Levi Dejohnette had 701 yards through the air in 2007), but every other player who caught at least 10 balls is back (5 guys). Some more minor improvements could make Leonard second in the Sun Belt quarterback pecking order. Joining Leonard in the backfield is junior running back and fellow 3rd year starter Reggie Arnold. Arnold has topped 1000 yards on the ground in each of his first 2 seasons and averaged a robust 6.50 yards per carry last season. The only cause for concern is that the offense must replace 4 starters along the offensive line. However, 2 of the new starters are seniors, so the losses may not be as pronounced. All together, I would be very surprised if Arkansas State did not improve offensively in 2008.

Last season, Arkansas State had the 2nd best defensive unit in the Sun Belt, behind only league overlord Troy. Amazingly, they were a solid defense despite being totally incompetent at getting to the opposing quarterback, totaling only 13 sacks all season (111th in the nation). Arkansas State returns only 5 starters in 2008 and loses 4 of their top-5 tacklers. The majority of the losses (4) are in the secondary. Thus it would stand to reason that with another year of seasoning, the front 7 should get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks to take at least a portion of the heat off the inexperienced secondary. The Arkansas State defense should be in for a bit of a tumble in 2008, but should be far from the worst unit in the conference.

Prediction: Arkansas State’s non-conference slate includes Texas A&M, Texas Southern, Southern Miss, Memphis, and Alabama. The 2 BCS-conference foes should light up the Red Wolves and the Red Wolves should in turn light up Texas Southern (IAA). The games against Southern Miss and Memphis are very intriguing. Arkansas State only lost by 6 at Southern Miss last season and the game is in Jonesboro this year. The Red Wolves have also beaten Memphis 2 straight years, so although the game is in the Liberty Bowl, Arkansas State has a chance. Inside the league, Arkansas State hosts likely champion Florida Atlantic, as well as Middle Tennessee and Louisina-Monroe. The road trips are manageable with Troy the only certain loss (Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida International, and North Texas are the others). The Red Wolves have never won fewer than 3 games in conference play under Roberts and that trend should continue in 2008.

A host of playmakers that formed the base of a team that won 12 of 14 Sun Belt games over the past 2 seasons is gone. Can the Trojans reload and remain at the top of the league or is this a rebuilding year?

Omar Haugabook, the maestro of an offense that led the Sun Belt on yards gained in conference play last season is gone. Haugabook was a JUCO transfer in 2006 and in his 2 years at quarterback, he threw for over 5000 yards and 39 touchdowns. He also rushed for over 900 yards and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground. Departing with Haugabook is the team’s leading rusher from last season, Kenny Cattouse (791 yards on the ground), as well as the top-2 receivers (Gary Banks and Josh Allen). The lone good news for the offense is that all 5 offensive linemen return and should provide solid protection for Haugabook’s replacement (likely sophomore Jamie Hampton) and generous holes for Cattouse’s understudy (likely JUCO transfer Maurice Greer). The offense will certainly concede their title as the Sun Belt’s most proficient unit, but with all 5 linemen back, they should still be respectable.

Troy was also the Sun Belt’s number one defense in 2007. They lose only 4 starters from last season’s unit, but they are heavy losses. Their dynamic cornerback tandem of Leodis McKelvin (1st round NFL Draft pick) and Elbert Mack (tied for the national lead with 8 interceptions) are both gone. Also matriculating is defensive end Shawn Todd who led the team with 5.5 sacks last season. Some regression is also in order for the defense in 2008, but like the offense, they should remain respectable.

Prediction: Troy has a rough go of it outside the Sun Belt. They must travel to both of last season’s title game participants (LSU and Ohio State) as well as Oklahoma State. They also host Alcorn State (IAA) and Western Kentucky, so they could have 2 wins waiting for them outside the league. In conference play, Troy begins the season with a road trip to Middle Tennessee (very tough with so many new skill players on offense) and must travel to Florida Atlantic. However, if Larry Blakeney has proven anything over his 17 seasons at Troy, it’s that he’s a winner (just 4 losing seasons). I can’t imagine Troy winning the league this year, but I also can’t picture them falling past the middle of the conference either.

Upon his arrival in Lafayette, Ricky Bustle’s teams steadily improved each season, peaking in 2005 as co-champs of the Sun Belt. The Ragin’ Cajuns slipped a bit in 2006, but still won 6 games. Then in 2007, the defense took the year off and the team won only 3 games, their lowest win total since Bustle’s first season in 2002. Can the defense show enough improvement to get the Cajuns back in the Sun Belt race?

How fitting is it that the Cajuns are quarterbacked by the very bayou-sounding Michael Desormeaux. Desormeaux was one of 2 Lafayette players to top 1000 yards on the ground last season as they averaged 252 rushing yards per game (7th in the nation). Desormeaux was also a competent passer in his first season as a starter, posting a passer rating of 109.11 (not in the top-100, but better than the 103.31 rating Jerry Babb posted as a starter in 2006). The other 1000-yard rusher was Tyrell Fenroy. He returns as do 4 starters along the offensive line. The running game should once again be one of the best in the nation. And while the passing game is not the focal point of the offense, it should improve as well with both starting wide receivers (Derrick Smith and Jason Cherry) back in the fold. Lafayette finished 3rd yards gained in conference play last season, behind Troy and Florida Atlantic. With the losses at Troy, the Cajuns may well have the second best offense on the league this season.

While Florida International and North Texas were worse overall in total defense, no team allowed more yards to Sun Belt foes than did Lafayette. 3 of their Sun Belt foes topped 500 yards (Troy, North Texas, and Arkansas State) and only 2 (Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Monroe) were held under 300 yards. Not surprisingly, that was their undoing. The Cajuns lose 5 starters from last season, including defensive end Rodney Hardeway, who led the team with 7 sacks last season. However, the top-3 tacklers from last year’s team are back and the Cajuns should see better luck in forcing turnovers (only 17 forced last season—106th in the nation). They won’t be world beaters on defense, but they should show some slight improvement.

Prediction: The non-conference slate is treacherous to say the least. Southern Miss, Illinois, Kent State, Kansas State, and UTEP are their 5 opponents outside the league. Their best chance for a win looks to be in the home-opener against Kent State, in a game that could feature 600 combined yards on the ground. However, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Cajuns lose each non-conference game. In Sun Belt action, the Cajuns have only 3 home games, but with the slight defensive improvements and continuity on offense, they should move up in the standings.

The upset of Alabama was certainly the highlight of the year, but Louisiana-Monroe has quietly been a solid Sun Belt program for the past 4 seasons. Charlie Weatherbie has already taken 2 other perennial doormats (Utah State and Navy) to bowl wins, and will look to do the same with the Warhawks in 2008.

The Warhawks were 4th in yards gained in conference play last season. The bulk of those yards were accumulated by the now departed Calvin Dawson. Dawson topped 1400 yards rushing last season and also scored 12 touchdowns on the ground. He will be sorely missed. The offensive line also loses 3 starters, so the running game may struggle in 2008, especially in the early going. The passing game on the other hand, should be better. Quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster returns for his senior season and 3rd year as a starter. Lancaster threw only 7 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2006, but improved those numbers to 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. With his top-3 pass catchers from last season back, he should post even better numbers in 2008.

The Warhawks were 5th in yards allowed in Sun Belt play last season. The defense should now be the strength of the team in 2008 as 8 starters, including the top-4 tacklers are back. 6 starters in the front 7 are back so the run defense should be especially strong.

Prediction: No, it only seems like Monroe is in the SEC West, They face road trips to Auburn, Arkansas, and Ole Miss this season. They also host Alabama A&M and travel to Tulane in their other non-conference games. The Warhawks should beat A&M (IAA) and have a real shot at knocking off Tulane. In conference play, the Warhawks do have 4 home games, but unfortunately 2 of them are against Florida Atlantic and Troy. They will once again be a solid team, capable of beating any Sun Belt foe. However, they don’t appear to be strong enough on either side of the ball to contend for the Sun Belt title.

North Texas
High school coaching legend Todd Dodge made his debut in Denton, Texas last season, and while the won/loss record did not improve (it actually got worse), the team may be set up for good things in the near future. How much improvement will there be in 2008; enough to get the Mean Green bowl eligible?

Last season, with neither the personnel nor time to implement his desired passing attack, Dodge insisted on trying anyway. The results were decent. The Mean Green were 5th in Sun Belt play in yards gained, and the passing attack improved from piss-poor to below average (see table below). While both of last season’s starting quarterbacks return (Giovanni Vizza and Daniel Meager), the reigns to the offense will likely be handed to Dodge’s son Riley. He ran the exact same offense in high school and was named Texas Offensive Player of the Year twice. Whomever wins the starting quarterback job should have improved protection in 2008 (allowed 36 sacks in 2007—108th in the nation) as 4 starting offensive linemen return. The Mean Green also return last season’s leading receiver, Casey Fitzgerald. In his first 2 seasons in Denton, Fitzgerald caught a whopping 5 passes for 92 yards. In 2007, he hauled in 111 passes for 1322 yards. He may not match those sensational numbers, but the offense, with another year in Dodge’s system, should see substantial gains.

Defense was hardly a strength for the Mean Green last season, but they were also far from the worst unit in the Sun Belt. Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette both allowed more yards in conference play. The Mean Green bring back 6 starters in 2008, but unfortunately the 5 players they lose were also their leading tacklers. Losses are pretty evenly spaced out. The defensive line loses 2 starters as do the linebackers, while the secondary has only a single loss. The defense may take a step back in 2008, and could conceivably fall to the bottom of the conference.

Prediction: 4 non-conference road games (Kansas State, LSU, Rice, and Western Kentucky) is not a recipe for a healthy start. While the games against Rice and Western Kentucky are winnable, the odds would be much better if those games were in Denton. The lone home game comes against Tulsa, in a likely shootout that could see over 100 combined points and 1000 combined yards. The Mean Green fare a little better in conference play where they host 4 of 7 games. North Texas had a turnover margin of -11 last season (110th in the nation) and should see that number trend upward. Combine that with improvement in the second year of Dodge’s offensive system, and the team could triple last season’s conference win total.

Middle Tennessee State
In his 2 seasons at the helm of the Blue Raiders, Rick Stockstill has guided Middle Tennessee to its first ever bowl game, won 12 games overall (outstanding 10-4 in Sun Belt play), and shared a conference title. Can Stockstill keep it going in Year 3, and get the Blue Raiders back to a bowl game?

Despite the presence of a pair of solid quarterbacks (Dwight Dasher and Joe Craddock helped the Blue Raiders tally a team passer rating of 136.42—27th in the nation), the Blue Raiders were actually below average offensively in 2007. Only lowly Florida International gained fewer yards in Sun Belt play. The major issue for the Blue Raiders was their lack of a running game. The Blue Raiders averaged only 3.50 yards per rush (90th in the nation). The aptly named Dwight Dasher led the team in rushing with 530 yards. However, the fact that a quarterback led the team with only 530 yards on the ground highlights the point that the running attack was stuck in neutral. Quarterbacks Dasher and Craddock return in 2008, but the team loses 2 starting offensive linemen, their top running back (DeMarco McNair), and top receiver (Taron Henry). The offense will have a tough time surpassing last year’s numbers and should again be near the bottom of the league.

The defense was relatively solid last season, finishing 4th in yards allowed in Sun Belt play. However, that unit loses 5 starters in 2008, including defensive end Tavares Jones. Jones led the Blue Raiders in tackles and sacks last season and will be sorely missed. The Blue Raiders will also be without their top-cornerback, Bradley Robinson, who led the team with 5 interceptions last season. Middle Tennessee should see their defense take a step back in 2008.

Prediction: 4 of the 5 non-conference games are against BCS-conference foes (Maryland, Kentucky, Louisville, and Mississippi State). The Blue Raiders should be heavy underdogs in all those games. The final non-conference clash is against future Sun Belt member Western Kentucky. In conference play, Middle Tennessee has 4 home games, but 2 of those are against the league’s power players—Florida Atlantic and Troy. The Blue Raiders were very fortunate to finish with a winning record in conference play based on their performance last season. The 30 turnovers they forced in 2007 (16th in the nation) is unlikely to be recreated in 2008, and with their declining turnover fortunes, their record should follow suit.

Florida International
Is it possible to get worse after going 0-12? The Golden Panthers may have answered that question with a resounding ‘Yes’ in 2007. Despite winning a game for the first time since the 2005 finale, Florida International was outgained by 177 yards per game last season. That’s nearly 110 yards worse than their numbers for their winless campaign in 2006 (outgained by 68 yards per game). Scoring margin also reflects this fact. In 2006, Florida International lost 5 games by 5 points or fewer, including a pair of 1-point defeats and an overtime loss. The other 7 losses all game by double digits. In 2007, only one of their 11 defeats was by fewer than 10 points. Can the program regain some traction in 2008 or are the Panthers once again destined for the cellar?

Despite nearly doubling their scoring output in 2007 (averaged 15.1 points per game versus 9.6 per game in 2006), the Panthers still fielded the worst offense in the Sun Belt. They gained the fewest yards in conference play, averaging a measly 308 yards per game against Sun Belt foes. The good news is that 9 starters are back in 2008. The likely starter at quarterback is Paul McCall, who did not see significant action until the final 2 games when Wayne Younger went down with an injury. Beware the small sample size (only 63 pass attempts all year), but McCall’s passer rating of 133.65 was much higher than Younger’s 87.06. Whomever is tabbed the starter will have last season’s leading rusher (A’mod Ned) and all of last season’s receivers back. The lone losses on offense are along the offensive line (one guard and one tackle). The offense should improve, but it’s hard to envision them climbing very high in the league’s offensive hierarchy.

Only Louisiana-Lafayette allowed more yards to Sun Belt foes than Florida International did last season. The Golden Panthers bring back 9 starters in 2008, including 8 of their top-9 tacklers. However, one of the losses is defensive end Audric Adger who led the team in sacks last season with 6. The defense should also see some improvement and could actually become a mediocre unit.

Prediction: Very few opportunities exist for wins outside the league (Kansas, Iowa, South Florida, Toledo, and Western Kentucky dot the schedule), so their fortune will rest on how they perform in the Sun Belt. If recent history is any indication, that does not bode well for the Panthers. Florida International has a long way to go to catch up to their Sun Belt brethren.

Predicted Records:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

2008 MAC Preview


Miami (Ohio)
The Redhawks won the MAC East last season, but missed out on a bowl game thanks to their loss in the MAC Championship Game to Central Michigan. Miami finished 6-7, but 4 of their 7 losses were to BCS-conference foes (Minnesota, Cincinnati, Colorado, and Vanderbilt). With a multitude of returning talent, the Redhawks look to put 2 seasons of disappointment behind them and qualify for their first bowl game under Shane Montgomery.

Last season there was a large disconnect between the Redhawk offense on a down-to-down basis and their scoring proficiency. Miami gained 367 yards per game (81st in the nation), but scored only 19.2 points per game (108th in the nation). That trend held true in conference games too where the Redhawks finished 6th in yards per game against conference foes, but only 10th in points. Part of it had to with field position—the Redhawks finished 80th in the nation in average kickoff return, and part of it was turnovers—thy turned the ball over 28 times on the year (90th in the nation). The Miami quarterbacks, Mike Kokal and Daniel Raudabaugh, combined to throw 19 interceptions. Kokal was especially heinous in his senior season, throwing 7 in only 99 pass attempts. Raudabaugh added 12, but his came in 382 attempts. Kokal is gone and Raudabaugh returns for his junior season, but he will be challenged by redshirt freshman Clay Belton, a highly ranked recruit. Whomever wins the starting job will have every player who caught at least 15 passes last season back. The offensive line also returns 3 starters and the only significant loss is at running back where the Redhawks must replace their top-3 rushers. Miami should be much improved on the offensive side of the ball in 2008.

Defensively, the Redhawks were tops in the MAC by a wide margin in 2007. The table below lists MAC foes based on the yards they allowed per game in conference play. As you can see, Miami was nearly 50 yards per game better than the second best defense. That unit should once again be stout as 9 starters, including the top-6 tacklers, return. Last season, Miami led all MAC schools with 32 sacks (31st in the nation), and with all but 2 of last year’s sacks accounted for on this team, they should once again terrorize opposing quarterbacks.

Prediction: Miami opens with a very intriguing and winnable home game against Vanderbilt. They then sandwich a home game with Charleston Southern between likely road whippings at Michigan and Cincinnati. The Redhawks have a fighting chance of emerging from the non-conference slate at 2-2. In conference play, they avoid the 2 likely strongest teams from the West (Central Michigan and Western Michigan), but they must face divisional rival Bowling Green on the road. Still, even if they fall in that game, the pieces are in place for another division title.

Bowling Green
Despite their blowout loss in the GMAC Bowl, the Falcons did win 8 games in 2007. That was their highest win total since 2004. Can they build last upon season and get back to the MAC Championship Game for the first time since 2003?

Credit head coach Gregg Brandon with getting his 2 best players onto the field in 2007. The quarterback from 2006, Anthony Turner, was replaced in 2007 by Tyler Sheehan. Turner didn’t sulk and was instead moved to running back where he led the team with 519 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns. Turner was emphasized much more down the stretch, gaining 364 of his rushing yards and getting the bulk of his 106 carries (72) in the final 5 games. Meanwhile, Sheehan performed quite well in his first season as a starter. His passer rating of 132.59 ranked 45th in the nation and 4th in the MAC. The Falcons return both Turner and Sheehan, as well as the team’s second leading rusher (Willie Geter) and every receiver who caught at least 12 passes. The only potential area of concern on the offense is along the line, where only 2 starters (both guards) return. The Falcons allowed 32 sacks last season (97th in the nation) and could continue to struggle protecting Sheehan.

The Falcons defense was in the lower half of the MAC last season (8th in yards allowed per game in league play) and kept them from winning the division. In the game that eventually cost them the division title, they permitted Miami to roll up 499 yards in a 47-14 whitewashing. They were again exposed in the bowl game, giving up 562 yards and 63 points to Tulsa. The good news for the Falcons is that the defense should be better in 2008. 9 starters are back, with the entire secondary returning intact. They must improve their pass defense that allowed opposing passers to post an efficiency rating of 138.49 (93rd in the nation) last season.

Prediction: The first part of the schedule is quite treacherous. The Falcons open with a road trip at Pittsburgh before hosting Minnesota (who will be out for revenge after last year’s defeat) and traveling to Boise State and Wyoming. An 0-4 start is a real possibility for the Falcons. In league play, they do avoid Central Michigan from the West, and also host their biggest division threat in Miami. However, they do face road tests at Toledo (41-6 last 8 years at home) and Ohio. The Falcons finished 6-2 in MAC play last year despite only being an average team as measured by SDPI. They outgained their conference foes by only about 1 and half yards per game last year. Those are hardly numbers befitting a team that won 75% of their conference games. Bowling Green should be better on both offense and defense in 2008, but their luck and schedule will keep them from winning the division and will likely keep them out of a bowl game.

Kent State
Under head coach Doug Martin, the Golden Flashes seem to post respectable records in even years and horrendous records in odd years. In 2004 and 2006, Kent State posted a combined 11-12 record (9-7 in MAC play) and in 2005 and 2007 they went a collective 4-19 (1-15 in MAC play). That trend should continue in 2008 as the Golden Flashes are poised to be one of the MAC’s breakout teams.

Last season Kent State struggled offensively, finishing 10th in yards per game in MAC play. However, those numbers are pulled down by the final 4 games which quarterback Julian Edelman missed with a broken arm. The table below lists Kent State’s offensive splits with and without Edelman, first in all games and then in conference games only. As you can see, without Edelman, the offense struggled. Edelman does most of his damage on the ground (412 yards rushing in 2007). He posted a passer rating of only 113.13 last season (95th in the nation) after having a 124.45 rating in 2006 (53rd in the nation). Joining Edelman in the backfield is lilliputian running back Eugene Jarvis. The 5’5” Jarvis gained 1669 yards on the ground last season and averaged a robust 5.98 yards per rush. Jarvis also led the team with 306 receiving yards. That dynamic duo along with 3 starting offensive linemen return, so if Edelman can remain healthy, the Golden Flashes could top the 200 yards per game they gained on the ground last season (22nd in the nation). 2 starting wide receivers also return, led by Phil Garner (no, not that Phil Garner) and his team-high 27 catches. Kent State should be one of the most improved offenses in the country and should average their most points per game since 2004 (30.5 per game).

The Kent State defense was just a shade below average for MAC teams last season. They were 7th among MAC teams in yards allowed per game n conference play. In 2008, they return 8 starters including 5 of their top-6 tacklers. The Kent State defense should also fare better at forcing turnovers in 2008. They forced only 15 all season (111th in the nation). A few more turnovers will not only make the defense look better, but it will also set the offense up in more favorable scoring positions.

Prediction: The Golden Flashes open the year against a pair of BCS-conference foes—Boston College and Iowa State. The Boston College game is in Cleveland, and Kent State did beat Iowa State last season. The Golden Flashes probably won’t beat either team, but an upset is within the realm of possibility. Following those 2 stiff tests, the Golden Flashes host Delaware State (IAA) and travel to take on Sun Belt foe Louisiana-Lafayette. They should beat the Hornets from Delaware State and will definitely be in contention to knock off the Ragin’ Cajuns. In conference play, Kent State only faces two foes from the MAC West (thanks to the quirky schedule required for a 13-team conference) and neither of them is Central Michigan or Western Michigan. Kent State has a lot of positive indicators for success in 2008. They were 1-4 in one-score games last year, had a pitiful turnover margin (-11), and lost their quarterback for the final 3rd of the season. Kent State should finish bowl eligible and could participate in their first bowl game since 1972.

The culture has certainly changed in Athens, Ohio. Last year’s 6-6 campaign was seen as somewhat of a disappointment. This despite the fact that it was the second most wins the Bobcats have produced since 2000. Can Frank Solich lead the Bobcats to another division title in 2008?

Last year’s Ohio team was built around the running attack of Kalvin McRae. McRae gained over 1400 yards on the ground and rushed for 19 touchdowns last season. He departs as the school’s all-time leading rusher, having topped 1000 yards rushing in each season of the Solich regime. McRae’s departure, as well as that of quarterback Brad Bower leaves a big void in the Bobcat backfield. Theo Scott will replace Bower under center. Scott saw action in 10 games last season, posting decent numbers (passer rating of 124.70 would have 70th in the nation with enough attempts to qualify). Scott should adequately replace Bower, but there will be no replacing McRae. Chris Garrett will do his best, but with only 196 career rushing yards, the running attack will take a step back. The Bobcats do bring back their top-2 receivers (tight end Andrew Mooney and wideout Taylor Price), so the passing attack should pick up some of the slack left by the running game. On the whole though, the offense should decline from last year’s production.

Ohio was in the middle of the MAC pack defensively last season. They were 6th in yards allowed per game in conference play. They return 7 starters in 2008, but do lose 3 of their top-5 tacklers, including leading tackler Todd Koenig. Koenig is the lone departure from the secondary, but the defensive line loses both of its interior players—Landon Cohen and Brett Sykes. Cohen led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss in 2007 and Sykes was 4th with 6.5. The Ohio defense should be about the same as last season; neither appreciably worse nor better.

Prediction: Ohio faces 3 very tough non-conference road games (Wyoming, Ohio State, and Northwestern) and a home date with VMI (IAA). An eternal optimist would see the Wyoming game as winnable, but the Bobcats will be facing what should be an improved offensive team in Laramie. 1-3 seems like a better guess at the non-conference record. In league play, the Bobcats have the misfortune of playing both Central Michigan and Western Michigan from the West, but playing in a division that includes Buffalo, Temple, and Akron, the Bobcats should find themselves in the middle of the MAC East once again.

The Bulls, not Bills mind you, resurgence under Turner Gill from laughingstock to competent MAC team nearly got the former Nebraska star a job at his alma mater. Will Gill continue to raise the Buffalo program or are they destined to take a step back in 2008?

Despite the presence of a competent quarterback (Drew Willy posted a passer rating of 135.69 in 2007—33rd in the nation) and a 1000-yards running back (James Starks), the Bulls were decidedly below average offensively. In MAC play, only 2 teams gained fewer yards per game (Akron and Temple). The good news for Buffalo is that they should see marked improvement in 2008. 10 starters return, with the only loss being center Jamey Richard (7th round NFL draft pick). Richard will certainly be missed, but with everyone else back, both aspects of the offense should be better in 2008.

Defensively, the Bulls were very solid in 2008. In MAC play, they ranked 5th in yards allowed per game. That unit returns 8 starters, but does lose perhaps its 2 best players in defensive end Trevor Scott (team-leading 10 sacks in 2007) and linebacker Larry Hutchinson (team-leading 19 tackles for loss in 2007). The 8 returning starters are certainly a positive indicatior of continued success under Gill, but losing 2 players the caliber of Scott and Hutchinson should keep the defense from improving this year.

Prediction: Outside the MAC, Buffalo has the unenviable task of traveling to Pittsburgh and Missouri. Their other non-conference clashes offer a much better opportunity for wins—UTEP and Army. If a bowl bid is the goal for 2008, they must win both of those. In MAC play, the Bulls face the daunting task of taking on both Central Michigan and Western Michigan from the MAC West. That alone is reason to predict a slight regression for the team in 2008. Couple that with the fact that the Bulls were better than their record in 2007 (8th in SDPI for yardage, but tied for the 2nd most wins in the league), and it stands to reason that 2009, at the earliest, will be the year the Bulls qualify for their first bowl game.

In 2007, the Owls won as many games (4) as they did between 2003 and 2006. Are they close to rounding the proverbial corner and becoming a yearly contender in the MAC?

Temple was the antithesis of balance in 2007. In MAC play, they gained the fewest yards per game, but also managed to allow the second fewest. The offense was a little more than 58 yards per game worse than Akron (the second least efficient offense). The difference between Akron and Western Michigan (the 4th best offense) was only 63 yards per game. The Temple quarterbacks, Adam DiMichele and Vaughn Charlton, helped the team post a solid passer rating of 124.24 (69th in the nation), but were sacked 45 times (113th in the nation). Those sack numbers contributed to the Owls atrocious rushing numbers—2.65 yards per rush (114th in the nation). Of course, that’s still much better than the numbers they put up in 2006 when they only gained 1.87 yards per rush (119th or dead last in the nation). The Owls return an incredible 11 starters on offense in 2007. DiMichele clearly established himself as the starting quarterback until he was injured in the team’s 8th game against Miami (Ohio) and missed the remainder of the season. The following table lists Temple’s offensive performance with and without DiMichele in 2007. DiMichele threw only 4 passes against Miami before leaving so that game is included in the missed section. As you can see, the offense was substantially better with him at the controls. His return, combined with that of every other offensive starter should mean Temple is one of the MAC’s most improved offensive squads.

Temple’s defense was what allowed them to win 4 conference games in 2007. In their finest performance on the season, they held Kent State to a mere 124 yards. Like the offense, the Temple defense also returns 11 starters in 2008. Every significant player returns, highlighted by defensive end Junior Galette, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last season. Despite the numbers, Temple probably played a little above their talent level last season and may actually see their defensive performance dip somewhat.

Prediction: Temple faces 2 service academies (Army and Navy), Connecticut, and Penn State in their non-conference schedule. Temple faced those same 4 teams in 2007, and lost to each one. However, if not for a blown call, they could very well have beaten Connecticut. Temple also has the potential to knock off Army. 2 wins outside the league may be a stretch, but the Owls should at least get one. In conference play, the Owls draw both Central Michigan and Western Michigan from the MAC West, a sure-fire way to kill any championship aspirations. In addition, the Owls were also a bit lucky in 2007. 3 of their 4 wins were by 7 points or less, and they had a stellar 3-1 mark in one-score games. The Owls are in much better shape than they were just a season ago, but the MAC as a whole is also improved and that will keep Temple near the basement in the MAC East.

After winning their first ever conference title in 2005, the Zips have gone just 9-15 (6-10 in MAC play) and could be in for their 3rd straight losing season in 2008. Can JD Brookhart right the ship or is it sinking fast?

Despite their 3 conference wins last season, the Zips were arguably one of the league’s worst teams last season. On offense, only Temple gained fewer yards per game in MAC play. The major problem for the offense was a limited aerial attack. As a team, the Zips averaged a meager 5.9 yards per pass (106th in the nation) and completed only 53.7% of their passes (101st in the nation). The bad news for Akron is that despite 8 returning starters on the offensive unit, they do lose leading receiver Jabari Arthur. Arthur caught 86 passes for 1171 yards last season. That yardage total represented over half (53.1%) of the teams total yardage through the air (2206 yards). With Arthur gone, quarterback Chris Jacquemain will have a hard time improving in his junior season. The Zips also lose their leading rusher from last season, Bryan Williams, who has moved to safety. Replacing him in the backfield is Miami (Florida) transfer Andrew Johnson. Johnson carried the ball only 35 times in his Hurricane career, so he is somewhat of an unknown quantity. However, with 4 starting offensive linemen back, he should post solid numbers at worst. The offense may be a little better in 2008, but the absence of Arthur will keep the unit from improving significantly.

Akron was also pretty bad on defense in 2007. In MAC play they were 10th in yards allowed per game. Only Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Toledo allowed more yards in conference play. The Zips return only 5 starters in 2008 (which may be a good thing depending on your point of view). The most significant loss is at linebacker where Brion Stokes, who led the team in tackles and sacks in 2007, has exhausted his eligibility. The defense may improve, but should remain at about the same level as its predecessor.

Prediction: The Zips face Wisconsin, Syracuse, Army, and Cincinnati outside the league. Wisconsin and Cincinnati are likely losses, but the other 2 are winnable. In conference play, the Zips avoid Central Michigan and Western Michigan from the MAC West, but do face potent offenses in Ball State and Toledo. The Zips should be very similar to last year’s team, but worse luck should send them to the basement.


Central Michigan
Is a three-peat in the works for the Chippewas? The past 2 seasons, the Chips have lost only twice in conference play. Can they continue their dominance in 2008?

I doubt most college football observers would be shocked to learn that Central Michigan possessed the MAC’s most potent offense in 2007. Behind the running and passing of Dan LeFevour (the MAC’s version Tim Tebow), the offense did not miss a beat under head coach Butch Jones who took over for the departed Brian Kelly. LeFevour rushed for over 1100 yards and scored 19 touchdowns to go along with over 3600 passing yards and an additional 27 touchdowns. Returning along with LeFevour in 2008 are 4 starting offensive linemen, running back Justin Hoskins (second leading rusher in 2007) and a pair of 1000+ yard receivers (Bryan Anderson and Antonio Brown). The offense should remain among the elite in the MAC even if LeFevour does not quite match his numbers from last season.

The defense, on the other hand, was another story. One season after finishing a solid 67th in total defense (343 yards allowed per game), the Chips became a sieve. They allowed 460 yards per game (109th in the nation) and in MAC play were 9th in yards allowed per game. The defense returns 8 starters in 2008, but loses its top-2 tacklers in linebackers Red Keith and Ike Brown. Both had over 100 tackles last season and Keith was 5th in the nation with 148 stops. With the majority of the starters back, the unit could see some minor improvement, but the loss of Keith and Brown should curb expectations for the defense.

Prediction: Central Michigan opens with Eastern Illinois in what will likely be their lone victory outside the league. Their other non-conference games are at Georgia, at Purdue, and at Indiana. While the Chips certainly gave Purdue a game in the Motor City Bowl (lost 51-48 on a last second field goal), they were still outgained by 150 yards and can thank Purdue’s 3 turnovers (to their none) for keeping it close. It’s conceivable the Chips could beat either the Boilermakers or Hoosiers, but it would likely require the opponent to significantly shoot themselves in the foot. In MAC play, the Chips get to host their 2 biggest divisional threats (Western Michigan and Ball State) and have a favorable slate of MAC East foes (Ohio, Buffalo, and Temple). A 3rd straight title game appearance is in their future.

Western Michigan
After a combined 15-9 record (11-5 in MAC play) and a bowl appearance in his first 2 seasons as coach, Bill Cubit suffered a bit of a slump in 2007 as the Broncos fell to 5-7. Still, 3 of their losses came to BCS conference foes (West Virginia, Indiana, and Missouri); 2 of which played in BCS games. The Broncos also defeated Iowa which kept the Hawkeyes out of a bowl game. With some better luck in 2008, the Broncos will be back in contention for the league title.

While the offense was somewhat disappointing in 2007, it was still 4th in yard per game in MAC play. Quarterback Tim Hiller returned after missing the entire 2006 season with a knee injury. He was unable to reach the meteoric heights he glimpsed in 2005. His 2005 passer rating of 180.03 would have been tops in the nation if he had enough pass attempts to qualify. But alas, small sample size and extreme performances have a way of bottoming out. Hiller posted a passer rating of 132.25 in 2007 (47th in the nation). That’s still not bad for a guy who missed an entire year. Hiller should improve upon his 2007 numbers, but shouldn’t approach his amazing numbers from his freshman season. Along with Hiller, the Broncos also return their starting running back (Brandon West) and two leading receivers (Jamarko Simmons and tight end Branden Ledbetter). The team does lose 3 starting offensive linemen so protection could be a concern. Still, with another year of seasoning, Hiller should lead the Broncos to near the top of the league in offensive production.

The Broncos were also reasonably tough defensively in 2007. In conference play they ranked 4th in yards allowed per game. Only Miami, Temple, and Ball State allowed fewer yards per game to MAC foes. The defense has an amazing 10 starters set to return in 2008. The only loss is linebacker Anthony Gebhart, who finished 2nd on the team in tackles in 2007. The Broncos should be one of, and possibly, the best defensive units in the MAC in 2008.

Prediction: Nebraska, Idaho, Tennessee Tech, and Illinois dot the non-conference schedule. The Broncos should definitely win 2 of those, and the Illinois game is in Kalamazoo, so who knows? In conference play, the Broncos must travel to Central Michigan and Ball State, which will severely hamper their chances to win the division. Still, the Broncos were beset by poor luck last season (-6 turnover margin in league play ranked 11th among 13 teams and 1-3 record in one-score games), and should be one of the most improved teams record-wise in the MAC.

For a while Tom Amstutz could do no wrong at Toledo. In his first 5 seasons, his teams went a collective 45-18, with the lowest win total an 8-win campaign in 2002. His team’s were also 31-8 in MAC play and participated in 4 bowl games, winning 2. However, the past 2 seasons have produced identical 5-7 records (3-5 in MAC play both seasons). Can Amstutz right the ship and get the Rockets back into bowl contention?

Last season, Toledo was a lot like eventual league champ Central Michigan. They had a proficient offense (2nd in the MAC in yards per game in conference play) and a bad defense (13th or last in the MAC in yards allowed per game in conference play). Unlike Central Michigan, their defense was too atrocious for their dynamic offense to bail it out. Still, the Rockets did outgain their conference brethren by about 50 yards per game (4th in the league), so they could have finished much better than 3-5 in conference play. The offense should once again be strong in 2008. 6 starters return, including quarterback Aaron Opelt who improved substantially from his freshman to sophomore years. As a freshman in 2006, Opelt produced a grotesque passer rating of 98.56 (not in the top-100 nationally). That number improved to 127.35 in 2007 (59th in the nation). Opelt will not see quite as big an increase in 2008, but his numbers should continue to improve. Joining Opelt on the offensive unit are 3 returning starters on the offensive line and last season’s top-2 receivers, Stephen Williams and Nick Moore. The major loss for the offense is running back Jalen Parmele. Parmele topped 1500 yards on the ground last season and his production will be missed. The Toledo running game should drop off some in 2008, but with the improvements in the passing attack Toledo should remain near the top of the conference in offensive proficiency.

As mentioned earlier, defense was the major crutch of the team in 2007. They held only a single opponent, Liberty (IAA) to under 300 yards of total offense. 9 of their 12 opponents topped 400 yards, with Iowa State coming within an eyelash of hitting the mark (397 yards). The good news is that the defense is bound to improve in 2008. 9 starters, including 5 of the top-6 tacklers return. The Rockets sacked opposing quarterbacks a nationwide low 9 times in 2007, but should improve upon the number with 5 members of the front 7 back.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule features 2 road trips against BCS-conference foes—Arizona and Michigan. The Rockets will be underdogs in both those games, but could pose a threat if their offense is clicking. The other 2 non-conference games are at home against Fresno State and Florida International. The game against Florida International should be a gimme, and despite the preseason love for Fresno State, the Rockets have a very good chance of knocking off the Bulldogs. In conference play, the Rockets have the benefit of hosting league favorite Central Michigan, but unfortunately draw two of the stronger squads from the MAC East—Miami and Bowling Green. Toledo’s defense won’t be good enough for them to win the division, but they should attain bowl eligibility.

Ball State
Led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, the Ball State Cardinals made it to a bowl game for the first time in 11 years this past season. Can they get to another bowl game and perhaps challenge for the conference crown?

The Ball State offense was led by their sensational quarterback, Nate Davis. In his sophomore season, Davis posted a passer rating of 139.13 (26th in the nation) and led all MAC quarterbacks with 30 touchdown passes. His favorite target was receiver Dante Love who hauled in 100 passes for 1398 yards. Tight end Darius Hill was also a frequent recipient of Davis’ passes, catching 65 balls for 926 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns. Those 3 players and the rest of the starting offense return in 2008. The Cardinals should once again boast one of the league’s best offensive units.

The Cardinals were also pretty proficient on defense (at least against MAC foes). They were 3rd in yards allowed per game in conference play. Against more talented, or better scheming foes, they were undone. Against 4 BCS-conference foes (Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, and Rutgers) and Navy, the Cardinals allowed an average of 533 yards per game (compared to 364 per game against MAC foes). Fortunately for Ball State, they still reside in the MAC, and they bring back 7 starters, including 5 of their top-6 tacklers. The Cardinals may drop a notch defensively, but that has more to do with the improvement elsewhere in the league. Returning 7 starters is a relatively low number in 2008.

Prediction: Ball State faces Northeastern (IAA), Navy, Indiana, and Western Kentucky outside the league in 2008. That’s a recipe for a .500 finish outside the league at worst. The potential is there for a 3-1 or with some good fortune, a 4-0 record in non-conference play. Inside the MAC, the Cardinals must travel to Central Michigan and Toledo in the West and Miami in one of their games against the MAC East. Couple that tough schedule with some regression in the turnover department (+17 turnover margin ranked 4th in the nation last year) and the Cardinals won’t win the division this season.

Northern Illinois
The Joe Novak era ended with a whimper. It was an unfortunate end to the most sustained run of success the Huskies have known. From 2000-2006, the Huskies posted 7 straight winning seasons and appeared in 2 bowl games. The Huskies endured injuries and poor luck (-17 turnover margin and a 2-5 record in one-score games) to finish 2-10 in Novak’s final season. Novak’s replacement is Jerry Kill, the former head coach at Southern Illinois. Kill coached the Salukis for 7 seasons, and the team made the playoffs in each of the last 5 years. Can he return the Huskies to prominence or is this a rebuilding year in DeKalb?

If there is one thing the Huskies could always count on under Novak, it was producing a quality rushing attack. Last season, running back Justin Anderson gained 1245 yards. Before that, Garrett Wolfe gained over 1500 yards in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Michael Turner topped 1500 yards in 2002 and 2003. And Thomas Hammock broke the 1000-yard barrier in 2000 and 2001. Anderson should continue upon this outstanding recent history as the Huskies return 10 of 11 offensive starters. The lone loss is at left tackle. However, to contend for the league title, they need to get better play out of the quarterback position. Dan Nicholson posted a passer rating of only 116.89 (88th in the nation) after posting a rating of 103.42 (would have ranked 97th in the nation if he had enough attempts to qualify) in limited action in 2006. Nicholson must show he is more than an adequate passer for the offense to really take off.

In MAC play last season, the Huskies only fared better than Toledo in terms of yards allowed per game. The good news is that the Huskies bring back all their defensive starters in 2008. The best player is defensive end Larry English, who led the team with 10.5 sacks last season. The defense should improve and be at least an average MAC squad in 2008.

Prediction: The Huskies non-conference slate includes Minnesota, Indiana State (IAA), Tennessee, and Navy. The Huskies should beat the Sycamores and could beat the Midshipmen. Asking them to win in the Metrodome may be too much, but 2-2 outside the league is a real possibility. In conference play, the Huskies have a shot at pulling some upsets as they host Central Michigan and Toledo. Unfortunately, they draw the likely 3 strongest teams from the MAC East—Bowling Green, Miami, and Kent State. With a proven coach, better health, better turnover margin, and better luck, the Huskies should see last season’s win total triple at minimum.

Eastern Michigan
Last season the Eagles quadrupled their win total from 2006 and likely saved head coach Jeff Genyk’s job. Can they continue to improve and post their first winning season since 1995?

Eastern Michigan actually swept their directional brethren last season (Central Michigan and Western Michigan) en route to a 3rd place finish in the division. However, Eastern Michigan was statistically much worse than every team in the MAC West save Northern Illinois. The Eagles were slightly below average offensively, finishing 7th in yards per game in conference play. However, they did receive quality quarterback play. Andy Schmitt posted a passer rating of 129.57 (54th in the nation) and the team’s efficiency rating of 116.78 was a substantial improvement upon the numbers they produced in 2006 (102.69 rating). Schmitt is only a junior and with 4 starting offensive linemen back in the fold as well as the team’s three leading receivers from last season, he could post even better numbers. The Eagles do lose their leading rusher (Pierre Walker), but the 4 returning starters on the line should nullify that effect. The offense in 2008 is likely the best the Eagles have employed since 2004 (428 yards per game ranked 21st in the nation).

On the other side of the ball, Eastern Michigan had one of the worst defenses in the MAC. Only Northern Illinois and Toledo allowed more yards per game to conference opponents. They were especially poor against the run, allowing 196 yards per game (97th in the nation). The Eagles bring back 8 starters in 2008, but lose 2 of their top-4 tacklers. All the losses are up front (2 linemen and a linebacker), so the secondary returns entirely intact. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the run was their main weakness in 2008. The defense may improve slightly with so many starters back, but they should still be near the bottom of the league.

Prediction: Eastern Michigan plays Indiana Stats (IAA), Michigan State, Maryland, and Army outside the league. 2 of those games are very winnable and 2 are sure to be blowouts. If the Eagles stumble to either Army or Indiana State, they stand a real shot at incurring double digit losses. Eastern Michigan is improved, but so is everyone else in the MAC West. The Eagles were only better than Northern Illinois last season, and while the Huskies have ton of positive indicators, the Eagles conversely have an especially negative indicator (+11 turnover margin in MAC play was the second best in the league). Eastern Michigan should fall back to the basement of the MAC West.

Predicted Records:

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: