With 18 starters returning, SMU is the favorite to claim the Conference USA crown.
Conference USA might not be home to some of the elite teams in college football, but you can’t deny that the league plays a pretty exciting brand of ball — that is, if you like watching a lot of scoring. Last season, Conference USA had four of the top 16 teams in the nation in scoring offense. Only one other league had more than two teams among the top 16 — the WAC with three.
The most offensive C-USA teams were No. 6 Tulsa (41.4 ppg), No. 13 Houston (37.7), No. 15 Southern Miss (36.9) and No. 16 East Carolina (36.8). And while defense is still important, the aforementioned schools did prove that you can win a bunch of games simply by putting up gaudy numbers on the scoreboard. Tulsa, Houston, Southern Miss and East Carolina combined to post a 20–12 record in league play. It is worth noting, however, that the two teams that played for the league title, UCF and SMU, ranked fifth and ninth in the conference in scoring.
What can we expect in 2011? More of the same: A bunch of potent offenses and the usual list of contenders in both divisions.
UCF and Southern Miss figure to wage an exciting two-team race in the East. The Knights’ offense will be led by quarterback Jeff Godfrey, the 2010 C-USA Freshman of the Year, and a host of talented tailbacks. Junior Latavius Murray is the incumbent, but UCF regains the services of Brynn Harvey, a first-team all-conference pick in 2009 who missed last season with a knee injury.
Southern Miss is almost a lock to play in a 10th straight bowl game, but the Golden Eagles’ first goal is to win the C-USA East title, something they have failed to do since the league split into divisions in 2005. Southern Miss will be explosive on offense once again but must improve on the defensive end.
The West should be wild with three teams able to make a legitimate argument that they should be No. 1 in the preseason. Our pick is SMU, which shared the West crown with Tulsa last year and played in its second bowl game under June Jones. The Mustangs have a tough slate — they play both UCF and Southern Miss — but they welcome back 18 starters, and unlike some of the other top teams in the league, they are strong defensively.
Houston slumped to 4–4 last year and did not play in a bowl game for the first time since 2004. But the Cougars will be back, due in large part to the return of quarterback Case Keenum, who was granted a sixth season by the NCAA after he missed all but three games a year ago with a torn ACL. The Cougars will be aided by a kind schedule — they don’t play Southern Miss or UCF out of the East, and host SMU.
Tulsa has a new coach — Bill Blankenship takes over for Todd Graham — but the talent level remains high. The Golden Hurricane outgained C-USA foes by an average of 77.7 yards per game en route to a 6–2 record in league play.
Athlon's 2011 C-USA Previews
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