Editor's Note: Athlon's 2012 predictions were completed before UCF's postseason ban was announced.
After eight seasons of stability, Conference USA will be ripped apart in 2013 when Memphis, UCF, Houston and SMU bolt for the Big East. There will still be some solid programs in the league — Southern Miss, Tulsa and East Carolina stand out — but the conference will never be the same.
So who takes the title in the final season of the current 12-team, two-division format? UCF and East Carolina are the teams to beat in the East Division, while Houston and Tulsa appear to be the class of the West.
UCF slumped to 3–5 in the league last season after winning the East with a 7–1 mark in 2010. The ’11 record, however, was a bit deceiving; the Knights lost four league games by seven points or less and actually outgained C-USA foes by an average of 39.7 yards per game. UCF boasts a solid quarterback in sophomore Blake Bortles, but George O’Leary’s team will lean on the running game with a deep corps of tailbacks (Latavius Murray, Storm Johnson and Brynn Harvey) and a veteran offensive line. Although the Knights should be improved in 2012, the NCAA has placed a one-year postseason ban on the program.
East Carolina made a dramatic improvement on defense last season, jumping 64 spots in the national rankings from 120th in 2010 to 56th in ’11. The Pirates will have to be solid on D once again, because they must replace standout quarterback Dominique Davis, who threw for over 7,000 yards in two seasons at ECU.
Defending C-USA champ Southern Miss is under new leadership, as former South Carolina assistant Ellis Johnson steps in for Larry Fedora, now the head coach at North Carolina. Johnson inherits a team that is losing a three-year starter at quarterback (Austin Davis) and several key pieces on defense.
Marshall continues to take small steps forward under third-year coach Doc Holliday. The Thundering Herd have the personnel to finish in the top half of the East, but a tough schedule — they play both Houston and Tulsa from the West — will be difficult to overcome. UAB and Memphis both made coaching moves. Garrick McGee, the former offensive coordinator at Arkansas, is the new boss in Birmingham, while Justin Fuente, the co-offensive coordinator at TCU the past three seasons, takes over at Memphis.
Houston will attempt to defend its C-USA West crown with a new quarterback (David Piland takes over for Case Keenum) and a new coach (Tony Levine replaces his former boss, Kevin Sumlin). The Cougars, who were 12–0 in 2011 before a loss to Southern Miss in the C-USA title game, still have a ton of talent at the skill positions and will be tough to beat.
Bill Blakenship guided Tulsa to an impressive 7–1 record in the league in his first season as a collegiate head coach. Quarterback G.J. Kinne is no longer around, but the Golden Hurricane have a quality replacement, former Nebraska Cornhusker Cody Green.
SMU went 5–3 last year, but the Mustangs lost three league games by at least 24 points and didn’t beat a C-USA team that had a winning conference record. With major concerns on both the offensive and defensive line, it might be tough for June Jones’ club to contend in 2012.
UTEP, Rice and Tulane will battle for the final three spots in the West. The Miners welcome back quarterback Nick Lamaison and four starters on the offensive line, but they have a very tough C-USA slate (at ECU, at Southern Miss, vs. UCF). Rice has struggled on the offensive end since its breakthrough 2008 season that ended with a win in the Texas Bowl. David Bailiff is under to pressure to win. Tulane is under new leadership, with former Saints assistant coach Curtis Johnson taking over for Bob Toledo. Johnson will lean on senior quarterback Ryan Griffin and junior tailback Orleans Darkwa.
Athlon's 2012 Conference USA Team Previews