BY MICHAEL LEESE
RICE Head coach David Bailiff has his best squad in his seven-year tenure, as the Owls return nine starters return on offense. They’ll be led by dual-threat quarterback Taylor McHargue who passed for 2,209 yards last season and rushed for an additional 860. The entire offensive line returns, as do the top seven rushers from last season. Tailback Charles Ross should easily top his 829 yards from last season. Leading receiver Jordan Taylor also returns. The Owls offense really hit its stride the last six games of last season and should easily continue that trend! The defense return an amazing 10 starters! The only loss is a big one as Jared Williams led the team in sacks with six. The glaring hole last year was the 4.9 yards per carry they allowed. I expect big improvement over last years 30 PPG. For the season opener, the Owls travel to Texas A&M, then the conference schedule sets-up perfectly, as they miss both East Carolina and Marshall. I look for a double-digit win season and a division title.
- KEY GAME…..10/5 AT TULSA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Mario Hall, TE Connor Cellla, DE Tanner Leland
- MY PREDICTION – 10-2 OVERALL, 7-1 CONFERENCE
TULANE That’s right — I have the Green Wave finishing second in the division, coming off a 2-10 season. Curtis Johnson enters his second season at the helm, after taking over a team that had 11 straight losing seasons. Ryan Griffin, a four-year starting quarterback is gone, opening the door for Nick Montana. Montana was a “SUPER” recruit out of high school who signed with Washington. The entire receiving corps is back from a year ago, featuring Ryan Grant and his 1,149 yards. Four out of five offensive linemen also return! Finding a feature back maybe Johnson’s biggest task. Last season, the Green Wave used a running back by committee approach. I really believe in Montana — I think he will spark an offense that should improve on last years 26.4 PPG. The defense also looks stronger this season. They did allow 38.4 PPG last season, but have the personnel to substantially lower that number. The front seven should be the strength of the defense. They lose arguably their best lineman Austin Jacks and his five sacks. Replacing him will be big-time transfer from LSU, Chris Davenport, a monster at 6-4 330! The Defense allowed a whooping 5.1 per carry last season, I expect that number to come down significantly. They do need to replace two starters in the secondary, but seem to have capable athletes to fill in. Tulane has one of the best kickers in the country in Cairo Santos. The schedule also looks manageable, as they get both Tulsa and East Carolina at home. I’m going out on a limb and calling for Tulane to go to a bowl for the first time since 2002.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 26, HOSTING TULSA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Nick Montana, DT Chris Davenport, DB Jordan Batiste
- MY PREDICTION – 7-5 OVERALL, 5-3 CONFERENCE
TULSA The Golden Hurricane enter the 2013 campaign off an impressive 11-3 season which included a Liberty Bowl win. Head coach Bill Blankenship has done an outstanding job as he continues to bring in tremendous skill players. Quarterback Cody Green is one of seven returning starters. Green looks to build on a solid season that saw him throw for 2,592 yards and 17 scores. He also chipped in with 383 rushing yards. Running back Trey Watts and his 1,132 yards rushing and receiver Keyarris Garrett and his 845 yards receiving return. The concern on the offense is replacing three All-Conference linemen! Overall the offense should come close to the 34.7 PPG from last season. The concern for me is the defense — last year the Golden Hurricane were ranked third in the country with 53 sacks last season and allowed only 3.2 yards per carry. This season, they lose three of four in the secondary and the entire defensive line! Overall, the defense loses eight starters, including four All-Conference performers. The Hurricane face a very tough schedule, featuring non-conference games with an improved Colorado State team and Iowa State at home, with road trips to Bowling Green and Oklahoma. They must also face East Carolina and Marshall from the east! Overall this is a good team, but with the losses on defense and the tough schedule, I see regression in the win column.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 5, HOSTING RICE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..LB Trent Martin, DE Derrick Alexander, DT Jack Jewell
- MY PREDICTION – 6-6 OVERALL, 5-3 CONFERENCE
NORTH TEXAS The Mean Green enter their first year of play in CUSA, after finishing 4-8 in the Sun Belt Conference last year. North Texas is led by Dan McCarney, who returns for his third season as head coach. His first goal was to establish home field advantage and he has begun to do that, as they are 7-4 at home in the past two seasons. Winning on the road is the next goal, and with nine returning starters, that goal seems attainable. The quarterback battle will b hard-fought between returning starter Derek Thompson and Kansas transfer Brock Berglund. Four out of five offensive linemen return to lead a rushing attack that features both Brandon Byrd and Antoinne Jimmerson. who combined for more than 1,500 yards last season. The receiving corp welcomes in Brady Brown, a transfer from Vanderbilt. I expect bigger numbers than last years 20.9 PPG. Eight starters return from a defense that allowed 27.8 PPG, including the top six tacklers and the entire secondary. Despite a move to a tougher conference, I look for a solid defense. The schedule gives them a shot to reach six wins and possible bowl eligibility.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 31, HOSTING RICE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Brock Berglund, WR Brady Brown, LB Will Wright
- MY PREDICTION 5-7 OVERALL, 3-5 CONFERENCE
LOUISIANA TECH Skip Holtz returns to CUSA where he led East Carolina to back-to-back titles in 2008-2009. He takes over a 9-3 team from Sonny Dykes who left to take the job at Cal. His first season figures to be a year of transition, as the Bulldogs not only make the move from the Sun Belt, but also lose 15 starters. The offense suffers major blows, losing quarterback Colby Cameron, who simply had amazing stats, throwing for 4,147 yards and 31 TDs last year, and setting an NCAA record by throwing 445 passes without an interception! Leading rusher Kenneth Dixon does return. He led the team with 1,228 yards and 27 touchdowns as a freshman! He will be running behind a rebuilt offensive line that features just one returning starter. The Bulldogs averaged 51 PPG last year. I think that production might be cut in half with the personnel losses and improved conference! The defense also suffers a similar fate. They must replace seven starters and they were the seven leading tacklers! This was a defense that allowed 38.5 PPG a year ago. They have the softest conference schedule of all teams, avoiding East Carolina and Marshall and getting Tulsa at home. Even so, this figures to be a long season in Ruston as Holtz will need a few years to restock the cupboard.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 12, HOSTING TULANE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Scotty Young, WR Hunter Lee LB Mitch Villemez
- MY PREDICTION – 3-9 OVERALL, 3-5 CONFERENCE
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS – EL PASO (UTEP) The Mike Price era in El Paso is over. He retires second on the all-time wins list here, after leading the Miners for nine seasons. Sean Kugler takes over, having spent most of his coaching career in the NFL, the last few years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first order of business will be deciding who wins the QB job. A three-way battle between Blaire Sullivan, Garrett Simpson and Jameill Showers a Texas A&M transfer who lost the starting QB battle at A&M when Johnny Manziel beat him out. He welcomes back seven starters on offense, including the top five running backs, led by Nathan Jeffrey who paced the team with 920 yards, seven touchdowns and 4.9 YPC. The defense suffered some big losses, as seven of the top eight tacklers departed. The secondary was hit particularly hard as three starters graduated. The Miners allowed 29.8 PPG last year, and I expect that number will go due north with the departures. The schedule is soft early and it’s possible they could start the season 3-3. They close with a brutal five of six on the road!
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 7 HOSTING NEW MEXICO
- THREE PLAYERS TO WWATCH…..QB Jamiell Showers, WR Jim Jones, DE Adam Ayala
- MY PREDICTION – 3-9 OVERALL, 3-5 CONFERENCE
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS – SAN ANTONIO (UTSA) The Roadrunners started their football program just three years ago, hiring Larry Coker, who won a BCS National Championship at Miami, to build the program. They started out playing in the WAC, and move to CUSA this season. They’ll have a veteran team, as 10 starters return on offense, led by quarterback Eric Soza who had a solid season throwing for 2,085 yards and 20 touchdowns. He had an impressive 20/3 TD-to-interception ratio. The entire offensive line returns as does the top four rushers from last year. They defense loses only three starters, and gets two big-time transfers in DT Ashaad Mabry (Oklahoma State) and DL Robert Singletary (Baylor). The Roadrunners were 8-4 last year but four of those wins came against FCS opponents. They play a full FBS schedule this year, as well as moving to a better conference. They also have three tough non-conference games, at Arizona and Oklahoma State and Houston in the Alamodome.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 12, HOSTING RICE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..DL Robert Singletary, DL Ashaad Mabry, LB Blake Terry
- My PREDICTION 1-11 OVERALL, 1-7 CONFERENCE