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August 14, 2010

Keenum, Houston seek C-USA perfection

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

Conference USA still is trying to match the non-Big Six leagues -- the Mountain West and Western Athletic -- that have had teams qualify for the BCS.

The league had contenders in each of the past two seasons -- Tulsa started 8-0 in 2008 and Houston made it to No. 12 early last season -- before each faded away.

This season, behind Heisman candidate Case Keenum at quarterback, Houston will try again. But no matter how productive Keenum and his receivers are going to be -- 6,000 passing yards isn't out of reach -- the Cougars are going to lose a few games unless a porous defense shows great improvement. Houston was 111th in total defense and 95th in scoring defense last season, and new coordinator Brian Stewart, who spent last season as a defensive assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles after two seasons as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator, has a tough job ahead of him.

Tulsa, which was a disappointment last season, and SMU, which was a surprise, should be Houston's toughest competition. Tulsa needs steady play from quarterback G.J. Kinne, who started strong, then faded last season. SMU must find a capable replacement for 1,000-yard rusher Shawnbrey McNeal.

In the East, it looks like a three-team race among UCF, Southern Miss and East Carolina. If UCF can find a competent quarterback and upgrade its passing attack, it should find itself atop the division when the season ends. The back seven on defense will be strong, and while the line must be rebuilt, coach George O'Leary takes great pride in his defense. Southern Miss has some issues in its secondary, and ECU has had a talent drain.

Houston, though, is the only league team with a chance to get into the BCS -- and that's going to take yeoman work from Stewart.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Houston QB Case Keenum. He passed for 5,020 yards in 2008 and 5,671 yards in '09. He had four 500-yard games in 2009, with his best effort being a 559-yard effort against Southern Miss. He has thrown 102 touchdown passes in the past three seasons. He seems to have a legitimate chance to become the first 6,000-yard single-season passer in FBS history. He should graduate with NCAA career records in passing yards, passing TDs and completions.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Southern Miss LB Korey Williams. Williams burst on the scene last season. He redshirted as a freshman in 2007, then played just four games in 2008 before suffering a season-ending broken jaw. He stayed healthy last season and made 121 tackles and added 8.5 sacks, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles. He had six games with double-figure tackle totals.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: UTEP QB Trevor Vittatoe. UTEP underachieved in going 4-8 last season, and five of the Miners' losses were by seven or fewer points. Had Vittatoe shown more consistency, some of those closes losses could've been narrow wins. Despite the presence of 1,594-yard rusher Donald Buckram, Vittatoe struggled. He had thrown 58 passes and 16 picks combined in the previous two seasons, but he regressed as a junior last season, with 17 TD passes and 13 interceptions; five TD passes came in the season finale against Marshall. For UTEP to contend in the West Division, Vittatoe must play better.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: UCF E Bruce Miller. Miller has 27 career sacks, the most of any active player in the nation. But UCF has to rebuild its line, so Miller is going to have to do more than ever. Both tackles will be starting for the first time, and how much help they can give Miller remains to be seen. UCF is our pick to win the East Division, and the defense will have to lead the way. Miller is the leader of that defense and must be productive.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: SMU QB Kyle Padron. Last season, we picked SMU QB Bo Levi Mitchell as the breakout offensive star. Well, Mitchell played well until he got hurt in Game 6. Padron, a true freshman at the time, stepped in -- and Mitchell transferred after the season. Padron threw for 1,922 yards in seven games, and 3,000 yards is an eminently reachable goal this season. Padron is the latest quarterback off the assembly line at powerhouse Southlake Carroll High, in the Dallas suburbs.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Tulsa FS Dexter McCoil. The rangy McCoil (6 feet 4/175 pounds) started seven games last season as a true freshman and was highly productive (85 tackles, six pass breakups, one pick). He should be even better this season with more strength and a better understanding of the defense.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Rice RB Sam McGuffie. Rice coaches have been ebullient about what McGuffie, a Michigan transfer, can mean for their offense. Rice runs the spread, and McGuffie will play running back and in the slot. He ran for 486 yards and three TDs as a true freshman at Michigan in 2008 before sitting out last season. Two others to watch are East Carolina QB Dominique Davis, who began his career at Boston College before running into academic issues and transferring to a junior college, and SMU true freshman RB Darryl Fields.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: UTEP CB Travaun Nixon. Nixon, a junior college transfer, should step right into the starting lineup for the Miners, who are in desperate need of playmakers in the secondary. Well, he won't step right in, as he has been suspended for the opener. That means Nixon's first taste of major college football comes in Week 2 -- at Houston. We bet he handles himself just fine.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: UTEP's Mike Price. In each of Price's first two seasons, the Miners won eight games and went bowling. But the Miners have won a combined 18 games in the past four seasons and haven't been back to the postseason. The defense has been rancid of late, and unless that changes this season, it seems likely Price will be without a job.

BEST COACHING STAFF: SMU. SMU was a joke when June Jones arrived after the 2007 season -- a season in which he had led Hawaii to a BCS berth. The Mustangs last season went to a bowl, their first since 1984.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: UTEP's Aaron Price. Price, entering his third season in the role, shares coordinator duties with Bob Connelly. UTEP was second in the league and 18th nationally in total offense last season and 31st nationally in '08. Price, the son of coach Mike Price, strikes a nice balance between the run and the pass. UTEP was horrible on the ground in 2008, but Donald Buckram emerged as the feature back last season and Price rode him to the tune of a 1,594-yard season.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: SMU's Tom Mason. Mason, who was Fresno State's linebacker coach when June Jones hired him after the 2007 season, has developed an aggressive, opportunistic group. Last season, the Mustangs allowed 397.1 yards per game, which was just 84th nationally. But that was an 80-yard improvement over 2008 and almost a 100-yard improvement over 2007.

THE OTHER STUFF

NC State at UCF, Sept. 11

Kansas at Southern Miss, Sept. 17

Houston at UCLA, Sept. 18

Mississippi State at Houston, Oct. 9

Tulsa at SMU, Oct. 9

Houston at SMU, Oct. 23

UCF at Houston, Nov. 5

Southern Miss at UCF, Nov. 13

Tulsa at Houston, Nov. 13

Houston at Texas Tech, Nov. 27

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: East Carolina. The Pirates lost their coach, most of their defensive line, their best linebacker, their best defensive back and their starting quarterback. But don't be surprised if they're in the hunt for the East Division title. Former coach Skip Holtz recruited well, and new coach Ruffin McNeill should reap the benefits -- as long as he finds a competent quarterback. The offensive line should be the best in the league, providing McNeill with a good building block.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: SMU. "Disappoint" is relative. SMU won eight games, tied for the West Division title and went bowling last season. But expect the Mustangs to slide a bit this season -- and not because of anything they're going to do. Rather, Houston and Tulsa should be better than they were last season, which is going to make it harder on the Mustangs. Last season, they sort of snuck up on people. That won't happen this season -- and that's a sign that third-year coach June Jones has done a phenomenal job.

GAME OF THE YEAR: UCF at Houston, Nov. 5. This easily could be a preview of the league title game. UCF won 37-32 last season. This is one of three non-Saturday games for the Knights this season.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: East Carolina. Welcome home, Ruffin McNeill. The new coach, who is an ECU alum, faces a treacherous schedule. The Pirates play at Virginia Tech and North Carolina and play host to Navy, all of whom are in the Rivals.com preseason top 25. The other non-conference foe is NC State. In addition, ECU travels to Southern miss and UCF, which look to be the two best teams in the East Division of C-USA. While West Division favorite Houston isn't on the schedule, the Pirates open with West contender Tulsa and close with West contender SMU; at least both of those are at home.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: UTEP. Unlike each of its league brethren, which play at least two tough non-conference games, the Miners play just one, at Arkansas. The other non-conference foes are FCS member Arkansas-Pine Bluff and New Mexico and New Mexico State, which won a combined four games last season. Still, the two toughest league games are on the road (Tulsa and Houston), and a case can be made that no C-USA team plays an "easy" schedule.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBCase Keenum, Houston (6-2/210, Sr.)
RBDonald Buckram, UTEP (5-10/195, Sr.)
RBCharles Clay, Tulsa (6-3/234, Sr.)
WRDeAndre Brown, Southern Miss (6-6/231, Jr.)
WRJames Cleveland, Houston (6-2/205, Sr.)
WRDwayne Harris, East Carolina (6-0/205, Sr.)
TMatt McCants, UAB (6-7/295, Jr.)
TWillie Smith, East Carolina (6-8/290, Sr.)
GDominik Riley, Memphis (6-5/310, Sr.)
GChris Thompson, Houston (6-2/285, Jr.)
CCameron Zipp, Southern Miss (6-1/282, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EBruce Miller, UCF (6-2/255, Sr.)
TAnthony Gray, Southern Miss (6-0/314, Sr.)
TScott Solomon, Rice (6-3/265, Sr.)
ETaylor Thompson, SMU (6-6/276, Jr.)
LBMario Harvey, Marshall (6-0/250, Sr.)
LBMarcus McGraw, Houston (6-0/210, Jr.)
LBKorey Williams, Southern Miss (6-2/233, Jr.)
CBEmanuel Davis, East Carolina (5-11/190, Jr.)
CBJosh Robinson, UCF (5-10/186, Soph.)
FSOmar Brown, Marshall (5-11/194, Jr.)
SSTravis Bradshaw, Rice (6-1/200, Jr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KKevin Fitzpatrick, Tulsa (6-2/188, Jr.)
PKyle Martens, Rice (6-6/200, Jr.)
KRTyron Carrier, Houston (5-8/163, Jr.)
PRTracy Lampley, Southern Miss (5-9/170, Soph.)

Offensive backfield

1. Houston: Senior QB Case Keenum could become the first player to throw for 6,000 yards in a season; he is a perfect fit for the Cougars' pass-happy spread attack. RB Bryce Beall has run for 1,917 yards and 20 TDs in his first two seasons, and he's also a prolific receiver.

2. UTEP

3. Southern Miss

4. Tulsa

5. SMU

6. Marshall

7. East Carolina

8. UCF

9. Rice

10. Tulane

11. Memphis

12. UAB

Receivers

1. Houston: This should be the most productive receiving group in the nation. The Cougars had three 1,000-yard receivers last season, and all three - Tyron Carrier, James Cleveland and Patrick Edwards - are back. The trio combined for 280 receptions and 27 TDs.

2. East Carolina

3. Southern Miss

4. UCF

5. Tulsa

6. SMU

7. UTEP

8. Marshall

9. UAB

10. Rice

11. Tulane

12. Memphis

Offensive line

1. Houston: The Cougars have a lot of firepower, and it is well-protected. Three starters return; in addition, former starting T Jacolby Ashworth is back after missing the final three-fourths of the season with an ankle injury.

2. East Carolina

3. Memphis

4. UTEP

5. UAB

6. Tulsa

7. UCF

8. SMU

9. Marshall

10. Southern Miss

11. Rice

12. Tulane

Defensive line

1. Southern Miss: Squatty NT Anthony Gray is a load in the middle of the line, and Cordarro Law should be one of the league's sack leaders.

2. Tulsa

3. UCF

4. Memphis

5. Marshall

6. UAB

7. SMU

8. East Carolina

9. Rice

10. Houston

11. UTEP

12. Tulane

Linebackers

1. Southern Miss: Korey Williams, Ronnie Thornton and Martez Smith combined for 317 tackles last season, and all three are back. It wouldn't be a surprise if Williams is the best defensive player in the league this season.

2. Marshall

3. UCF

4. SMU

5. Memphis

6. Tulsa

7. UAB

8. Houston

9. East Carolina

10. UTEP

11. Rice

12. Tulane

Secondary

1. UCF: Sophomore CB Josh Robinson is a rising star, and teams with senior Justin Boddie to give the Knights the best pair of corners in the league. Sophomore FS Kemal Ishmael has all-league potential.

2. Tulsa

3. East Carolina

4. Southern Miss

5. SMU

6. Rice

7. Marshall

8. Houston

9. UAB

10. Memphis

11. UTEP

12. Tulane

Special teams

1. Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane could have the all-league kicker (Kevin Fitzpatrick), punter (Michael Such) and punt returner (Damaris Johnson). Their coverage units were good last season, too.

2. UCF

3. Southern Miss

4. Houston

5. UAB

6. Rice

7. Marshall

8. SMU

9. East Carolina

10. UTEP

11. Memphis

12. Tulane

Coaching staff

1. SMU: It only took June Jones two seasons to change SMU from laughing-stock to bowl team. His offense might be unorthodox to some, but you know what? It works.

2. Houston

3. UCF

4. Tulsa

5. Southern Miss

6. UTEP

7. Rice

8. UAB

9. East Carolina

10. Marshall

11. Tulane

12. Memphis

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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