Conference USA — A fan’s predictions

West Division

Southern Methodist (SMU) Remember Garrett Gilbert? He’s the kid who burst onto the scene as the starting quarterback at Texas as a freshman. He’s back as a starting QB and he’s leading the Mustangs and June Jones’, high flying offense.  Also back is Zach Line, the big bruiser who rushed for 1,256 yards and 17 TDs last year and Darius Johnson who caught 79 balls for 1,118 yards. The only problem appears to be an offensive line that graduated all 5 starters! I have a hunch; they’ll find the right guys up front and put up monster numbers. Defensively seven starters return and I expect improvement from a team that allowed 23.1 PPG last year!

Big Game: October 18 host Houston    My prediction – 8-4

Houston. Tony Levine moves from special teams coach to head coach, replacing Kevin Sumlin.  Even though he is familiar with the staff and the players and many think the Cougars will not miss a beat, I don’t share that optimism. Replacing Case Keenum will be a daunting task, and three of the top four receivers left the program. Even with running back Charles Sims and four offensive linemen returning, I expect a double-digit drop from the 49.3 PPG they put up last year. The defense should be solid as seven starters return, including three in the secondary.

Big Game: October 18 at SMU     My prediction – 8-4

Tulsa This may be the most intriguing team in the conference. If things break right, they could make a run at the division title. The key will be the play of Nebraska transfer Cody Green, a  multi-talented QB. Tulsa also returns running backs Trey Watts and Ja Terian Douglas who combined for over 1,800 yards on the ground. They also get back the top two receivers!  The defense looks solid, featuring possibly the best safety duo in the conference in Dexter McCoil and Marco Nelson. Cory Dorris another all-conference player anchors the defensive line.  Expect better numbers than last year’s 27.3 allowed.

Big Game: November 17 host UCF      My prediction – 6-6

Texas – El Paso (UTEP). On offense, the Miners are led by Quarterback Nick Lamaison, and an experienced line that features four returning starters. Defensively, the Miners get return just five starters.  The Miners will be a much better football team than a year ago, but it may not be noticeable in the win/loss column.  A brutal schedule includes games against Oklahoma and Wisconsin

Big Game:  October 20 host Tulane     My prediction 3-9

Tulane New head coach Curtis Johnson comes from the NFL, where he was the Saints Wide Receivers coach. He will bring excitement to an anemic offense.  Quarterback Ryan Griffin returns for his senior season, along with Running Back Orleans Darkwa who rushed for 964 yards last year. I look for better numbers from an offense that averaged 21.1 PPG last year. I also expect the defense to improve, besting the 37.5 PPG allowed last year, as seven starters return including All-Conference Linebacker Trent Mackey.

Big Game: November 17 host East Carolina    My prediction – 2-10

Rice The Owls only have 10 returning starters and will start many under classmen!  On offense, with four starting lineman and the leading rusher lost to graduation, it will be tough to duplicate last year’s 23.3 PPG.  The secondary is the strength of the defense. Losses to line and linebackers leave big holes to fill.

Big Game:  October 13 host UTSA         My prediction 1-11

East Division

Central Florida (UCF)   The Knights return 16 starters from last year’s squad, and that experience will make them tough to beat in conference play.  On offense, four linemen, the top three receivers, and a loaded running back core will be led by Junior Quarterback Blake Bortles. I expect big improvement over last year’s 27.1 PPG.   Eight return for a defense that allowed only 18.3 PPG, and I expect even better numbers.   The Non-conference slate is tough as they travel to Ohio St and host Missouri.  Under NCAA probation, the Knights are ineligible for post-season play.

Big Game: October 13, host Southern Miss     My prediction – 8-4

East Carolina I really like where this program is headed under Ruffin McNeill.  The Pirates play a fun, all out type of game.   Last year, the offense averaged 26.3 PPG, and I expect the Pirates to easily surpass that this year!  Eight starters return on offense, including four linemen, four of the top receivers and the three top rushers, and Rio Johnson, steps into the void at quarterback.  The defense allowed 32.3 PPG last year, down from 44 PPG the year before.   Expect more improvement as six of the front seven return.

Big game:  Thursday, October 4 at UCF              My prediction – 9-3

Marshall  Another team, where the offense should put up much bigger numbers this year. Rakeem Cato returns at quarterback and he should me much more comfortable running the offense.   Also returning are probably the best trio of running backs in the conference, an improved offensive line, and the top two receivers!   To compete for conference honors, The Herd must make big strides on the defensive side, where only five starters are back.  If they do find defensive replacements, I expect them to get bowl eligible.

Big game:  November 17 host Houston.   My prediction – 8-4

Southern Miss That’s right, I have the Golden Eagles picked fourth in the division, because they have too many question marks for me!   Let’s start with a new coach, Ellis Johnson, who comes over from South Carolina.   He is considered a defensive minded coach.   On offense, four-year starter at quarterback Austin Davis has departed, along with the top two receivers and offensive linemen.  I expect a big decrease from last year’s 36.9 PPG.    The defense also takes a huge hit losing five of the top eight tacklers, including the entire line.    Good thing Johnson knows how to coach up a defense.  A significant loss to the talent level on both sides of the ball, and a schedule that includes Nebraska, Louisville and Boise State have me calling for the Golden Eagles to stay home this bowl season.

Big game:  October 6 host Boise State        My prediction 6-6

Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) The Blazers also have a new first year coach in Garrick McGee, who was the Offensive Coordinator at Arkansas.   They will need his expertise, as the Blazers have struggled mightily the last few years.   Topping last year’s 20.2 PPG should be attainable.   Quarterback Jonathan Perry is back for his second year under center, and the skill positions look solid as all key starters are back.   However the offensive line is in shambles as four starters from last year’s squad departed.   An even bigger issue is a defense that returns only four starters.  They gave up a whopping 36.8 PPG last year and I don’t see that getting any better!

Big game: November 17 host Memphis              My prediction – 3-9

Memphis The Tigers also have a new first year coach in 35 year-old Justin Fuente, who was the offensive coordinator at TCU.   He hopes to bring a swagger and enthusiasm to a program that has long struggled.   He inherits 14 returning starters, including seven on each side of the ball.   The strength of the offense will be an offensive line that returns four.  The news is better on the defensive side of the ball.   The entire secondary returns, along with two linebackers who led the team in tackling.    They should improve from last year’s 35.1 PPG

Big game: November 17 at Memphis                       My prediction 3-9.

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