Conference USA always offers wide-open football and this year is going to be no different with a load of talented quarterbacks in the fold. Case Keenum is healthy again in Houston, Offensive Player of the Year G.J. Kinne is back at Tulsa, explosive Dominique Davis returns to East Carolina and Austin Davis is on hand at Southern Miss. All are capable of being the league’s MVP and transforming the conference race. But when you talk about the passing game in C-USA the first name you bring up is a backup quarterback. That’s what June Jones used to be for the Atlanta Falcons before going into coaching and his wide-open system is now the rule at SMU. And it’s the Mustangs who are the team to beat heading into 2011.
It goes without saying Jones has a quarterback, with Kyle Padron back at the helm. The Mustangs have everything else, from a veteran offensive line, running back Zach Line, the defensive front and the secondary. Jones has had this program gaining steam for a few years now and it’s time to win a conference title. The key—as it often is for aggressive passing games—is matching up against teams that know how to tackle. SMU won the C-USA West Division last year, but was held to seven points against Central Florida in the championship game and 14 points against Army in a bowl game.
Houston and Tulsa are the principal challengers to SMU in the West. I like Tulsa’s chances better, as Kinne has a more experience offensive line and a secondary that uses five starters and has four of them back. Houston has two freshman on the right side of the line—not what you want when an injured quarterback returns and has to look over his shoulder.
Central Florida not only won last year’s title, but they knocked off Georgia in the Liberty Bowl and brought pride to their conference. George O’Leary’s team is still the team to beat in the East based on that, but the need to rebuild the defense leaves them a little vulnerable. And I like Southern Miss a lot. The Golden Eagles have been one of the quietly consistent programs in college football, consistently posting winning seasons and making bowl games. Austin Davis, back for his senior year, has broken some of Brett Favre’s school records and is loaded with talent at the skill positions. A 1-2 punch at running back with Desmond Johnson and Kendrick Hardy, along with Kelvin Bolden leading up a very deep receivers corps should be enough to get Southern Miss into the conference championship game this December.
These five teams—SMU, Houston, Tulsa in the West and Central Florida, Southern Miss in the East are the boundaries of the championship race. East Carolina has 10 underclassmen in starting spots, leaving too little support for Dominique Davis and UTEP has a lot of people to replace after a bowl season in 2010. Marshall and Tulane likely end up under .500, while Memphis is perhaps the worst D-I program in the country. Teams to watch for a surprise bowl run are UAB and Rice, both improving teams with good offensive lines and the experience at defensive back you need to survive in a pass-happy league like this.
When it comes time to settle the league championship, SMU gets the nod. They’ve surely made themselves some enemies in Conference USA with this past week’s public overtures to the Big 12, and they’ll make a few more when they take home the trophy and the league’s Liberty Bowl bid.
The Notebook already gave Notre Dame a look when the preseason writeups began, so I won’t do a separate post in the independents. But it is a good group of teams, with BYU now joining the Irish, Army and Navy. The Cougars bring back 10 offensive starters and have a soft schedule, save a trip to Texas and a home date with TCU. The academies will be competitive. Navy has been the best of the independents in recent years, and if they can successfully move upperclassmen into vacated starting jobs on defense, they’ll be an eight-win team again. As mentioned above, Army beat SMU in a bowl game and brings back Trent Steelman to run the triple option. Like the Middies, the Cadets success in retooling the defense determines if another bowl trip arrives.
The bottom line—the independent should go 4-for-4 in making bowl games, with Notre Dame being a Top 10 threat and BYU a possibility to win 10 games.
ATLANTA FALCONS PREVIEW
It was a magic ride for Atlanta for the 2010 regular season as they won 13 games, captured the NFC’s toughest division in the South and earned the #1 seed for the playoffs. Then it all came crashing down against Green Bay in the playoffs, as they fell apart late in the second quarter and lost 48-21 in the divisional round. Now the question surrounding this team is whether they can win playoff games under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan.
I give the benefit of the doubt to the team when it comes to questions like this. While Atlanta has lost its first game in the two years Smith and Ryan have gone to the playoffs (2008 & 2010), the team they have lost to went on the Super Bowl both times (a loss to Arizona in ’08). While the Falcons were favored in both games, it was less than a field goal in both instances, so we aren’t talking about choke jobs. The fact the Falcons got a bye in the playoffs last year should also be noted, as they could’ve clearly beaten any of the teams playing in the first round. We should also consider that by rights, as the #1 seed Atlanta should’ve gotten a crack at 7-9 Seattle in the divisional round, while #2 seed Chicago drew Green Bay. But the Seahawks’ status as a division winner left them the higher seed and steered them away from the Georgia Dome. A change in matchups wouldn’t have made Atlanta better than Green Bay, but reaching the NFC Championship Game would’ve left a better taste in everyone’s mouth.
Now the Falcons start over in a division where the Saints and Buccaneers aren’t going anywhere quietly. The skill position talent in Atlanta remains outstanding. Michael Turner may be starting to slow a little bit at running back, but he’s still reliable, and wide receiver Roddy White is among the elite at his position. Rookie Julio Jones, a tall, athletic wideout is a trendy Rookie of the Year pick and veteran Tony Gonzalez is still a productive tight end. The offensive line is not great, but it’s good enough to let talent like this make its plays and was spared from free agent upheaval when three starters were re-signed.
The defensive front was good last year and will be better this year. The interior of the four-man front is ably manned by Justin Babineaux and Corey Peters. At end, John Abraham is a sack artist and the Falcons signed Ray Edwards from Minnesota to join him. The issue is going to be in the back seven, which was exposed by Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs and had its share of problems against Drew Brees in a late season loss the Falcons can’t afford again if they want another NFC South title.
Overall, Atlanta is a playoff-caliber team, but as long as the problems in the back end of the defense persist, they aren’t going to be a Super Bowl team and early exits in the playoffs are going to continue. For a team that’s given up 78 points in the two postseason losses referenced, it’s odd to wonder about the coaching staff and quarterback. They just need some better personnel in the defensive backfield and maybe solid veteran leadership at linebacker. This franchise is on good footing and will still be good again in 2011.
*It was a big day at Saratoga on Saturday, as Stay Thirsty overtook Shackleford to win the Travers Stakes, the prestigious race known as the Midsummer Derby, and giving trainer Todd Pletcher another big win. Sunday, Del Mar hosts the Pac-Classic, the biggest event of the year on the prestigious SoCal circuit. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.