Conference USA Football & Other Independents

Conference USA is always good for an interesting conference race, and so long as you don’t place too high a value on defense and tackling, the individual games can be as interesting and wide-open as the league race itself. Today TheSportsNotebook previews both C-USA, along with three independents who operate on a similar level within FBS, those being BYU, Navy & Army.

Houston and Southern Miss won division titles in Conference USA a year ago and both would have a case to be the favorites this year, if not for coaching changes. Kevin Sumlin left UH to take the job at Texas A&M and Larry Fedora, whose Golden Eagles upset Houston in the championship game, is off to Chapel Hill to coach North Carolina.

Both coaches leave behind programs in good shape. Houston has to replace quarterback Case Keenum, but new starter David Piland started several games in 2010 when Keenum was hurt and was productive when he had the opportunity. The Cougar defense has experience and there’s three offensive lineman returning, so as long as rookie head coach Tony Levine can get new skill people in place—something that’s usually not a problem in a program with a good offensive system, then Houston can again be the team to beat in the Western Division.

I don’t know if Southern Miss’ talent would make them the team to beat in the East, but they have a veteran offensive line, a good secondary and a steady tradition of consistent winning to build around. I suspect adding a coaching change into the mix is just too much, and rookie boss Ellis Johnson’s best chance at a title will come in a future season.

Marshall’s got the best chance of stepping into the vacuum at the top of the division. Sophomore quarterback Rakeem Cato got a year’s experience under his belt, his key weapons are back, as are three offensive lineman. The Thundering Herd bring back a good front seven. Rebuilding the secondary is going to be important, especially in this league where games can take on a flag-football quality in a hurry, but the Marshall program has momentum, coming off a bowl win over Florida International and they’re as well-positioned as anyone to take the East.

Central Florida stumbled to a disappointing 5-7 season after winning the league in 2010 and while George O’Leary’s program is in good enough shape not to be counted out, I can’t say they’re better than Marshall, or even Southern Miss at this point. East Carolina loses dynamic quarterback Dominique Davis, but has a good offensive line back and an experienced front seven defensively. Head coach Ruffin McNeil has had two years in charge since Skip Holtz left for South Florida after winning consecutive C-USA titles in 2008-09 and McNeil needs to show he can win. UAB’s got a puncher’s chance at improving, with Jonathan Berry at quarterback and a good group of receivers, but the Blazers were 3-9 last year and still establishing their program at this level of competition. Memphis is the worst program in FBS and just trying to pick up the pieces.

In the West, SMU is who first comes to mind when looking for challengers to Houston. The Mustangs won the division in 2010 prior to losing the championship game to Central Florida, they’ve got a steadily improving program under June Jones, they finished second in the West last year and they beat Pitt badly in a bowl game. Then mix in seven returning starters, a quality running back in Zach Line and intriguing quarterback in Garrett Gilbert. You may remember Gilbert as the kid who took over from Colt McCoy at Texas when the latter got hurt against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in 2009. After early jitters, Gilbert nearly led a Texas comeback, but an injured shoulder set his career back. Now he’s on the comeback trail.

Tulsa has been another fairly consistent program, though they lost quarterback G.J. Kinne and I still haven’t gotten over how they spit the bit in a 48-16 Black Friday loss to Houston last November that settled the division. But the defense and skill positions are in good shape and the Golden Hurricane have to be respected. Rice could show some improvement, but Taylor McHargue has to cut back on the mistakes at quarterback. Tulane will also be better, but after a 2-11 season it’s a long way to contention.

The team I find really interesting in the C-USA West is UTEP. They’ve got a senior quarterback in Nick Lamaison, some experience on the offensive line and they went a respectable 5-7 last year. If Mike Price can get the defense rebuilt, he can make a run at the division title and at the very least a bowl bid, which the Miners have not earned since 2005.

Shifting over to the independents, BYU is clearly the class of the group and that probably includes Notre Dame, whom TheSportsNotebook previewed in conjunction with the Big East. The Cougars return senior quarterback Riley Nelson, three offensive lineman and key players throughout the defensive lineup. They also went 9-3 last regular season, including a one-point loss at Texas and a bowl win over Tulsa.

Army will make strides this year, with senior quarterback Trent Steelman running the triple option and four seniors on the offensive line. But the strides are coming from a three-win campaign in 2011 and anything more than bowl eligibility would be wishing on a star. Navy went 5-7 last year and has a lot of rebuilding to do across the board.

PREDICTIONS: BYU is the best team covered here, and they have real chances to win noteworthy road games at Boise State, Notre Dame & Georgia Tech. The strength of the schedule would make a 10-win regular season a huge accomplishment. In C-USA, I’m taking SMU to move past Houston in the West and join Marshall in the conference championship game, but the Thundering Herd will bring home the league title.