Monday, August 16, 2010

CUSA Preview

The home stretch is officially here. College football will be kicking off in only 17 days! To get you set for all the conference races, here now is the Conference USA Preview. If you want some background on what these projections are based on, here's the link to the ACC Preview that provides a little more explanation. Check back in a few days when we preview the Independents. That will be a short one, as there are only 3 left in all of major college football.

Conference USA Projections

East Carolina
Kings of Clutch
In the 5 years since Conference USA expanded to 12 teams, the Pirates from East Carolina have had quite a knack for winning the close ones.

The Thundering Herd laid a couple of eggs in the 2009 season. In their second game, Virginia Tech destroyed them 52-10, and in their regular season finale, a UTEP team playing only for pride beat them 52-21. Marshall was one of just 14 teams to give up at least 50 points multiple times in 2009.The Herd kept even rarer company in that they were one of only 4 teams (Idaho, Fresno State, and Troy were the others) to give up at least 50 multiple times yet still post a winning record.

Let's Kick It
On the whole, Memphis has been a pretty nondescript team the last two seasons. They went 6-7 in 2008, then 2-10 this past season. While they were average in 2008 and then bad in 2009, they weren't historically bad. There were no essays crowning them the worst team in football. They may not have even been the worst team in Conference USA (Rice certainly gave them a run for their money). They were just another bad team with dwindling attendance that made a coaching change. However, Memphis fans can point to one factor that made the team unique. Opposing kickers almost never missed field goals against the Tigers the past two seasons.Teams have very little control (if any) to make opposing kickers miss if they don't outright block the kick. Thus, most of this kicking misfortune can be chalked up to just that, bad luck. By some regression to the mean, opposing kickers should miss a few more field goals against the Tigers in 2010, and who knows, maybe that will mean an extra game or two in the win column.

Southern Miss
Missed It By that Much
If you didn't look closely, you might have thought Southern Miss was a pretty average team in 2009. They went 7-6, 5-3 versus Conference USA foes, and seemed to be the very definition of mediocrity. However, the Golden Eagles were amazing at one often overlooked aspect of football--kicking extra points. The Golden Eagles missed 10 extra point attempts in 2010, the most of any team since 2005.Obviously, missing extra points does not make you a bad team. In fact, it usually means you are pretty good, at least offensively. In order to miss a lot of extra points, you have to attempt a lot of extra points, which means you have to score a lot of touchdowns. Every team on this list averaged at least 30 points per game, and only New Mexico State finished with a losing record (combined record of 58-31). Heck, Texas even won the national title in 2005. So there you go, by recent standards, Southern Miss had a pretty incredible season in 2009.

Ummm.... Maybe We Should Have Kicked
UAB just missed out on a bowl game in 2009, finishing 5-7. They were led by do-it-all quarterback Joe Webb, who finished among the national leaders in passer rating (9th) and led all quarterbacks in rushing yards with 1424. However, one thing Webb could not help the Blazers do was convert on 4th down. UAB did not convert a single 4th down attempt in 2009. Obviously, this makes them easily the worst 4th down converting team since 2006.On the whole, defenses must have really buckled down in 2009, as 4 of the 6 worst conversion rates occurred this past season.

An Evening with Kevin Smith
UCF has been a contender from the moment they joined Conference USA in 2005. They have won the East division twice (2005 and 2007) and finished a strong second to East Carolina this past season. The Knights won the conference in 2007 on the broad shoulders of running back Kevin Smith. Smith racked up over 2500 yards on the ground and scored 29 rushing touchdowns, eclipsing 200 yards rushing in a single game 5 times. Smith left college early for the NFL Draft after the season, and the UCF offense has not been the same. The table below lists UCF's offensive and defensive SDPI numbers for each season since 2005, with rank within the conference (out of 12 teams) in parentheses. If you don't know what SDPI is, just have a stroll through the archives. I have written extensively about it, and it is the primary statistic the projection system is based around.UCF boasted pretty good offensive teams in their first 3 years in Conference USA. That was a good thing because it took their defense a few years to catch up. However, the defense has consistently been one of the best in the league the past 3 seasons, but with the loss of Smith and an inability to find an efficient quarterback, the offense has been the weak link of the team. If the offense can get just a little better, the Knights could make the Eastern half of Conference USA their stomping ground in 2010.

Screwy Splits
Houston had a very helter-skelter season in 2009. Against BCS-conference teams they went a combined 3-0. They won 2 of those games on the road, against Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. They also beat Texas Tech at home for good measure. However, against teams from the East Division of Conference USA (Southern Miss, Memphis, UCF, and East Carolina) and against a team from the Mountain West (Air Force) in their bowl game, the Cougars managed only a 2-3 record. How did this happen? Check the splits and the answer is easy to see.The yardage splits are almost identical versus both groups, but the big difference is turnovers. In their final 2 games (losses to East Carolina in the CUSA Championship Game and to Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl), the Cougars committed 10 turnovers (with quarterback Case Keenum throwing 9 of his 15 interceptions) and forced only 1 for a margin of -9. Turnovers truly are The Great Equalizer.

No D in Rice
The past decade was relatively successful for the Rice Owls. They played in 2 bowl games (and qualified for another in 2001). In 2008, they won their first bowl game since the 1953 Cotton Bowl. However, one thing Rice did not do well this past decade was play defense.

Ponies Jump High, But How do They Land?
2009 was a special year to say the least for SMU Mustangs. The Ponies won 8 games, including 6 within the league to tie Houston for the CUSA West title, and participated in the postseason for the first time since 1984. In a nice twist, SMU won the Hawaii Bowl against Nevada in the same place they won their last bowl game (1984 Aloha Bowl versus Notre Dame). All the more impressive, the Mustangs did all this despite not winning a conference game in 2008. Their 6-game conference win improvement is one of the highest in recent memory. But what happens in the year after such a big jump? To answer that question, we need to look at other teams that experienced similar upticks in their conference performance. The table below lists the 9 teams (along with SMU) that improved their conference record by at least 5 games since 2004. It also lists their conference record in the season after their 'Jump Year'.
Before we delve into the results, I want to do some housekeeping. If you didn't notice, UCF has an asterisk in the table. That's because their records occurred in different conferences. In their first year under former disgraced Notre Dame coach George O'Leary, the Knights failed to win a single game (in the conference or otherwise) in 2004. That season, they played in the MAC. In 2005, they joined Conference USA and won 7 of their 8 league games. They won the East division, but fell to Tulsa in the CUSA Championship Game. Alright so with that out of the way, what does the table tell us? It's not necessarily good news for SMU. While 5 of the 9 teams posted at least a .500 conference record the following season, only one team (Western Michigan in 2006) actually improved. Taking the average of the performances the following season, SMU can expect to lose about 2.3 conference wins in 2010. That would put them back around .500 in the league. Now, I'm not saying SMU is predestined to finish with fewer league wins in 2010, but the odds are against them improving upon their 2009 performance. Look no further than Ole Miss, the ubiquitous 2009 preseason darling after their out of nowhere rise in 2008. The Rebels were solid in 2009, particularly when compared against the debacle that was the Ed Orgeron era, but they still lost as many as they won in conference play.

Stuck in the Dark Ages
Since Conference USA began its present incarnation in 2005, the Green Wave have had the worst record within the league by far. Their 8-32 conference record is 5 games worse than the record posted by UAB. A big reason for this is the fact that Tulane plays in one of the most offensive divisions in college football. The other 5 teams that make up the western half of Conference USA are usually pretty formidable throwing the football. The table below lists the passing touchdowns thrown by each team's top quarterback for each season since 2005.As you can see, Tulane is well below the other schools when it comes to 21st Century offenses. In the 5 seasons from 2005-2009, their top seasonal passers have combined to throw 57 touchdowns. Meanwhile, 3 quarterbacks within their own division have thrown at least 44 touchdown passes in a single season (Case Keenum with Houston in 2008 and 2009, Paul Smith with Tulsa in 2007, and David Johnson with Tulsa in2008).

Home Ain't What it Used to Be
In 2009, Tulsa suffered through their first losing season since 2004 (last season in the WAC before joining CUSA). A big culprit was the Golden Hurricanes inability to win at home against their conference foes. In their first 4 seasons in the league, Tulsa was 14-2 against league opponents (excluding their loss to East Carolina in the 2008 CUSA Championship Game). They outscored their home opponents by 20 points per game. Their 2 losses in that span came against Houston in 2005 by 7 points and Rice in 2006 by 3 points in overtime. In 2009, Tulsa lost to SMU and East Carolina by a combined 41 points. They did play eventual West champ Houston tough, losing by only a single point. However, their lone home win came against Memphis, a team that won only a single game against IA competition, by 3 points. Methinks Tulsa's 2009 campaign will prove to be an aberration and their 2010 season will be more in line with what they accomplished between 2005-2008.

Nothing Lasts Forever, Even Cold November Rain
Historically speaking, the Mike Price era at UTEP has been pretty successful. The Miners are 34-38 in 6 seasons under Price and have a pair of bowl appearances to their credit. However, after going 16-8 in his first 2 seasons, the Miners have yet to post a record better than 5-7 in any of the previous 4 seasons. A primary culprit for this has been the complete inability to win games in the month of November.Their November struggles have been even more pronounced the last 4 seasons, as they have gone just 4-13 in November since 2006. There is some good news for the Miners though, as they do not have a bye week in 2010, and thus play only 3 November games.

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