Realigned For Success: Conference USA Counters Realignment Issue with Expansion
Below is an excerpt from the College Football America 2013 Yearbook Encyclopedia, available now. College Football America features 919 college football teams in 454 full-color pages, including every NCAA Division I FBS, FCS, Division II, Division III, NAIA and junior college program. CFA also features Canada Interuniversity Sport, club football programs, one-year postgraduate prep academies and Mexico’s college football scene. You can own the College Football America 2013 Yearbook Encyclopedia for just $5.99 as a beautiful digital PDF eBook that looks great on your kindle, your iPad or your regular computer and we recommend viewing it in Adobe Reader to enjoy the full-color capabilities. Purchase the College Football America 2013 Yearbook Encyclopedia today.
By Kendall Webb/College Football America publisher
With Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF set to leave for the American Athletic Conference this year, the league’s revolving door continues, and there’s more to come with East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa all set to move to the AAC next year as well.
But Conference USA has handled this round of realignment with an aggressive strategy of its own choosing to expand to 14 teams for the long haul. It starts with former Sun Belt members FAU, FIU, Middle Tennessee and North Texas joining this year along with former Western Athletic Conference foes Louisiana Tech and UTSA. And next year Old Dominion and Western Kentucky will come on board before Charlotte joins in 2015. It’s realignment and expansion all at once, and it’s bound to yield some new powers to replace the old ones.
The East figures to be the most competitive race as East Carolina and Marshall join newcomer Middle Tennessee in what could turn out to be a spirited battle for one of the spots in the league championship game.
We’re leaning toward East Carolina eventually laying claim to the division title. Virtually every important player from last season’s 8-5 squad returns led by quarterback Shane Carden who lit up opposing defenses for 3,116 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2012. Running back Vintavious Cooper, meanwhile, was the C-USA Newcomer of the Year with 1,049 yards and seven scores, and Carden also has his top target back in receiver Justin Hardy (88-1,105 yards, 11 TD’s). In all, eight starters return on both sides of the ball, although the defense was often torched by opposing quarterbacks while finishing No. 87 in the country in total defense.
The East title could come down to the final weekend when Marshall hosts East Carolina on November 30. And if the Pirates’ defense is struggling through another tough season, then Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato could be their worst nightmare. Cato threw for 4,201 yards in 2012 with 37 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. He was one of the nation’s best, and he’s got a top receiver in Tommy Shuler (110 -1,138 yards, 6 TD’s) returning, too, among seven total starters back on offense.
But Marshall’s defense was no better than East Carolina’s unit last year. Seven starters are back on that side of the ball as well, but the Thundering Herd defenders had the second-worst scoring defense in the country. Suffice it to say, there could be a ton of points on the board come November 30, and the winner might be the last team with the ball.
Middle Tennessee is one of the newcomers, and it should have an offense capable of keeping up with the favorites. Senior quarterback Logan Kilgore is solid, and running back Jordan Parker can be explosive (851 yards, 5.13 avg.). Again it’s defense where they could struggle with six starters back on a unit that ranked No. 92 in the country in total defense.
There was no more surprising result last year than Southern Miss’s 0-12 season on the heels of a 12-win season the year before. It’s the only time in college football history that a team has dropped 12 games from one season to the next, and the good news is, there is nowhere to go but up. It might actually be good news then that only two starters return on offense where the biggest addition might be head coach Todd Monken, the former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.
The bottom line is, Monken will have more time than former coach Ellis Johnson, who was fired after one year.
The good news for Southern Miss is that UAB, FAU and FIU are in the East Division. UAB showed signs of growth under first-year coach Garrick McGee, but still has a long way to go to join the league’s top programs. FAU and FIU were two of the worst teams in the Sun Belt a year ago, and both have to travel to Hattiesburg this fall.
The West appears to be a little easier to predict where defending C-USA champion Tulsa still appears to be the class of the league. That’s despite the fact they lose all but two starters from their attacking defense, but in a league mostly devoid of even average defenses, the Golden Hurricane should be good enough to be one of the league’s top units.
The offense will most certainly be. Senior running backs Trey Watts (1,108 yards) and Ja’Terian Douglas (936 yards) form one of the nation’s best tandems, and fellow senior Cody Green provides a steady hand at quarterback. With an entire corps of receivers back, the Hurricane offense will be potent.
Rice and newcomer Louisiana Tech provide the biggest threats to Tulsa’s title reign. As usual, Rice will depend on a potent running game with Charles Ross (800 yards) getting the most opportunities while senior quarterback Taylor McHargue provides dependable leadership. Ten starters are back on defense, but like much of the C-USA, it wasn’t a very good unit.
It’s probably enough to hold off Louisiana Tech, however, which was even worse at No. 120 in total defense. With only a couple of starters back on offense, the Bulldogs will depend heavily on running back Kenneth Dixon who set the FBS freshman record for rushing touchdowns with 27.
The rest of the west features Sun Belt newcomer North Texas and former WAC member UTSA joining old guard members Tulane and UTEP. North Texas and UTEP appear to be a step above the rest heading into the fall while Tulane should be good enough to stay ahead of UTSA in just its second year in the FBS.