Conference USA is the kind of league where nothing ever seems to certain, but as our college football coverage focuses on the Western Division it seems pretty safe to believe the winner will be either Tulsa or Rice. There are some interesting new teams coming into the division, courtesy of realignment, but the Golden Hurricane and Owls each finished the 2012 season on a good note and have enough in the cupboard to make a title run in 2013.
THE BIG TWO
Tulsa: They won the conference championship last season and they beat Iowa State in a bowl game. Trey Watts is the best running back in the league, good enough to at least partially compensate for a rebuilt offensive line. There are serious youth issues on defense as well, including two freshmen at the cornerback spots, but with a steady senior quarterback in Cody Green, Tulsa can at least score enough to mask some of the rebuilding.
Tulsa is certainly not locked and loaded, but this is a program that’s been consistent, they have a senior at quarterback and one of the league’s more exciting skill players. That’s enough to at least put them in the title conversation.
Rice: The Owls came barreling down the stretch in 2012, winning five of their last regular season games and then smoking Air Force in a bowl. All five offensive linemen are back, as is senior quarterback Taylor McHargue, who can both run and throw. Backup quarterback Driphus Jackson also got his share of playing time.
Whomever is at a quarterback has all the receivers back in the fold, starting with Jordan Taylor. And the defense has ten starters back.
Championship Conclusion: When you put Rice and Tulsa on paper, it’s impossible not to like the Owls, but when you compare the programs and ask who has a championship pedigree, it becomes impossible not to at least have a few doubts. But for me, the doubts don’t add up to a reason not to pick Rice to advance to the C-USA Championship Game on December 7.
FIVE OTHER HOPEFULS
Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs had a solid 9-3 year in the WAC and only an idiotic bowl structure that leaves good WAC teams out in favor of .500 MAC programs (i.e. Central Michigan) kept Louisiana Tech from a bowl spot. But head coach Sonny Dykes left town, prolific quarterback Colby Cameron graduated and a complete rebuilding project must be undertaken on both sides of the ball.
UTEP: They haven’t seen bowl season since 2005 in El Paso, and former Pittsburgh Steeler offensive line coach Sean Kugler has taken over the program. Kugler can start with Texas A&M transfer Jameill Showers at quarterback, but we have no idea how good Showers can be at the midmajor level and we have a very good idea that the defense will be awful.
North Texas: Dan McCarney took over the Mean Green two years ago when they were literally at rock bottom. North Texas has gone 9-15 the past two years, which represents progress and now they leave the Sun Belt to come to C-USA. McCarney has an experienced secondary, which helps in a pass-happy league. And a decent offensive line combined with senior quarterback Derek Thompson could enable the coach to manage games and steal a few more wins.
UT-San Antonio: It’ s only UTSA’s second year at the FBS level, but they landed former Miami coach Larry Coker, who won the national title in 2001 and played for it in 2002 to run the program and won eight games as a member of the WAC last season. Eric Soza is a versatile and productive quarterback, there’s a veteran line and seven defensive starters back.
You might wonder why I don’t have them on the list of title contenders, but I’m skeptical that a program this young can get deep enough to win a division title. If UTSA pulls it off, it’s a massive indictment of the rest of the West.
Tulane: We know for certain the quarterback situation will draw some national attention. Nick Montana is a junior college transfer, and more importantly, he’s the son of San Francisco 49er legend Joe Montana. The Green Wave has a veteran offensive line and experienced secondary, and making a run at bowl eligibility isn’t out of the question. But unless the son resembles the father a lot more than anyone thinks, Tulane isn’t doing any more than that.