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Marc Lawrence’s 2009 Conference USA Football Preview

CONFERENCE USA 2009 FOOTBALL PREVIEW

Marc Lawrence • PLAYBOOK.com

The CONFERENCE USA is 12 years old and like a youngster about to enter puberty, they are breaking out all over.

Four teams from the league reached the 70-point scoring plateau in a game last year. That represented twice as many that had scored that many points in CUSA history.

Teams in the league gained an average 401.8 YPG for the season, second only to the BIG 12 CONFERENCE in total yardage production in 2008. Leading the charge was Houston QB Case Keenum, the nation’s leader in total offense, who tossed for nearly 3 miles and 44 TD’s.

The CUSA was home to the most improved team in the land last year when Rice went from 3-9 to 10-3. Yes, it was a breakout year for this conference in 2008.

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Here is my take on the CONFERENCE USA for 2009.

Returning starters are listed alongside each team’s name (returning QB’s designated with an *).

Coming up next: the INDEPENDENTS. Enjoy…

CUSA

ALABAMA BIRMINGHAM – *11 / 7

Team Theme – NO LONGER HAM STRUNG

Head coach Neil Callaway enters his 3rd year on the sidelines in Birmingham with promise aplenty for this season and the future ahead. That’s because his Blazers enjoy the fruits of more than 68 scholarship players (82) for the first time in three years. They also welcome back 51 lettermen, including 18 returning starters (all 11 on offense) and versatile QB Joe Webb who passed for over 2300 yards and rushed for over 1000 yards last season. Holding the most promise for Callaway, though, is a defense that improved dramatically at the end of the season in 2008. In the first three games of last year’s campaign UAB’s stop unit allowed 129 points and 1703 total yards, including 702 rushing. Over the final three games, those numbers ratcheted down to 41 points, 848 yards and 258 rushing. We like the turn of events. PLAY ON: vs. Memphis (11/14)

CENTRAL FLORIDA – *10 / 6

Team Theme – OFFENSIVELY CHALLENGED

The defense we lauded on this page last year more than lived up to it’s billing when they improved its stats for the 3rd straight year. The good news is that 6 of the 7 starters from the front 7 are back in 2009. That same unit led the CUSA in rush defense and pass efficiency. To top it off, an already strong LB corps returns Cory Hogue and Jordan Richards, who missed most of last season with injuries. On the other side of the ball is an offense that shriveled almost 200 YPG in 2008. Part of the reason is the Knights were one of four teams to start a true freshman QB (Rob Calabrese) in the majority of games last season. With 10 starters back from last year’s shrunken offense here’s hoping they accept the challenge and show up this year. PASS

EAST CAROLINA – *8 / 8

Team Theme – DEPP THROAT

When it comes to weighing the strength of a nine-win season, there is no better barometer than putting a team’s opponents on the scale. That being the case, the Pirates’ victories against the ACC champion (Virginia Tech) and the Big East runner-up (West Virginia) last year validated Skip Holtz as a heavyweight in the world of non-BCS coaches. Not only did Holtz continue his climb up the win-ladder – ECU has increased its victory total every year since he arrived – his troops went 3-0 against ranked opponents in 2008. Hence, its no surprise that Skippy is creamy-smooth when it comes to covering the spread (31-20 ATS with the Pirates). The defending CUSA champs welcome 16 starters back, including four all-conference players. Johnny Depp’s favorite team will need to fight their way successfully past 7 bowlers and a Division 1AA playoff foe and keep its strangle hold on the CUSA to continue raising the bar. All hands on deck! PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Memphis (10/27)

HOUSTON – *8 / 5

Team Theme – CASE IN POINT

When you are a second-year head coach, off a bowl-winning debut season, there is no better feeling than knowing the Conference Player of the Year will be calling signals in your huddle. That’s what having QB Case Keenum means to Kevin Sumlin. Keenum tossed for almost 3 miles and 44 TD’s while leading the nation in total offense last year. Points aplenty come from super-sophomores. RB Bryce Beall rushed for 1247 yards and led CUSA in scoring with 102 points and WR Tyron Carrier posted 80 receptions good for 1026 yards and 9 TD’s. In fact, 86% of the offense is back and anxious to at repeat last year’s feat. The season-ending loss to Rice, in which Keenum put up 42 points while competing an NCAA record 25 straight passes, will certainly be a game the Cougars will point for in 2009. PLAY ON: vs. Rice (11/28) – *KEY

MARSHALL – *7 / 8

Team Theme –PLOP, PLOP, FIZZ, FIZZ

Like college basketball teams that find themselves “on the bubble” before the start of the NCAA Tournament, Mark Snyder is there, too. The likeable coach knows that if he is to avoid a visit by the Grim Reaper, he’ll need to post his first winning season since taking over the Thundering Herd program four years ago. It all starts with a defense that returns 8 starters, including all-1st team CUSA DL Albert McClellan. The former CUSA Defensive Player of the Year joins a line that returns intact. The stop-troops will be under the tutelage of new DC Rick Minter, former Cincinnati head coach. On the offensive front, Marshall returns 7 starters, including QB Mark Cann, RB Darius Marshall (a 2nd team all-CUSA performer) and TE Cody Slate. The players are in place. Snyder and his effervescent personality will be looking for relief. PASS

MEMPHIS – *4 / 7

Team Theme – WILL HE OR WON’T HE?

With 5 JUCO transfers and 7 transfers from other Division-1 schools, competition will be fierce for starting spots on the Tigers’ roster in 2009. That’s good news for head coach Tommy West, who took his squad bowling last year for the fourth time in the last five seasons. It was even better news when the NCAA granted a 6th year of eligibility for oft-injured QB Will Hudgens. Regardless, Memphis shook an 0-3 start to make it to the St. Petersburg Bowl behind the services of QB Akelon Hall. He’s back to battle Hudgens, along with SR RB Curtis Steele, a 2nd team all-CUSA member, who rushed for 1223 yards last season. Rest assured, West won’t lose any sleep worrying about Hudgens’ status. A defense that made huge strides last year finds him sleeping like a baby these days. PLAY ON: vs. Central Florida (10/3)

RICE – 4 / 8

Team Theme – CHASED OUT

What can improving a team’s defense 59 YPG over the course of one season mean to a team? Plenty, if you’re the Rice Owls. The outcome of the 2008 upgrade speaks for itself. The Owls allowed 10 less PPG, scored 10 PPG more than they did and saw its win total ratchet to 10, for the first time since 1949. As a result, they were the most improved FBS team last season. Unfortunately, the rags-to-riches story may be a one-verse chapter for the Owls, who lose CUSA Player of the Year QB Chase Clement to graduation. Clement filled the air for 4119 yards and 44 TD’s during last year’s remarkable turnaround effort. This year, the Owls loses lose 97% of its passing and 93% of their running attack. To make matters worse, the first three games of the season are on the road. Ouch. PLAY AGAINST: vs. UAB (9/5)

SMU – *8 / 8

Team Theme – JONESIN’ FOR WINS

Some things in life are expensive, while others are flat out costly. It depends on the size of your checkbook. The regents at SMU have determined the $2 million dollars per victory paid to June Jones last season is merely a down payment on what’s in store. The problem is, at this rate, he could be working for minimum wage by the time his contract expires in 2012. We understand the Ponies were the youngest team in the country last year when 13 true freshmen found their names on the season opening two-deep roster. But the fact of the matter is the mega-dollars being showered upon Jones should buy more than one win against a Division 1-AA team (Texas State). The good news is the aforementioned freshmen are now sophomores. That, and the fact there are only four years remaining on June-bug’s contract. PASS

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI – *8 / 8

Team Theme – HAT TIP

A tip of the hat is in order for the fine job by rookie head coach Larry Fedora last year. He stepped in and filled big shoes left by former coach Jeff Bower. As a result, the Eagles will be riding a 15-year win streak and 7-game bowl win streak this season. Better yet, Fedora welcomes back a plethora of talent from last year’s squad, including QB Austin Davis, who set school freshmen records for passing yards (3128) and TD’s (23). Joining Davis are first-team CUSA performers, RB Damion Fletcher and WR DeAndre Brown. On the defensive side of the ball, USM welcomes back three All-CUSA members from last year’s team. Best of all, a schedule loaded with seven teams that ended the season with sub .500 records has Fedora brimming with confidence. PLAY ON: vs. Virginia (9/19)

TEXAS EL PASO – *8 / 7

Team Theme – TOE MAIN POISON

Slowly but surely, Mike Price is getting it right. After falling eight points short of bowl-eligibility in 2007, his team finished one-game light of making weight last year. A strong returning cast this year is led by the powerful arm of JR QB Trevor Vittatoe, who has tossed for 6375 yards and 58 TD’s in two seasons with UTEP. He’s joined in the backfield with the Miners’ top two RB’s from 2008 and WR Kris Adams, a CUSA honorable team member. If Price can somehow get past a troublesome trend of losing games during the 2nd half of the season (the Miners are just 3-15 the final six games of the campaign the last three years), he just may have this team bowling again at season’s end. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. New Mexico State (9/19)

TULANE – *7 / 6

Team Theme – WAVE RUNNER

An anticipated crash by the Waves occurred on call last season when the loss of star RB Matt Forte to the NFL proved too much for Tulane to overcome. Not only did the ground game take a hit, rushing for 83 YPG less than it did in 2007, so did the point production. An 0-8 conclusion to the season left Tulane with only two wins for the season. As a result, head coach Bob Toledo finds himself on the hot seat, where the view is never good. The good news is RB Andre Anderson returns. Anderson rushed for 864 yards and 7 TD’s in the first seven games of the season before suffering a season-ending injury in the 2Q against Rice last year. If the defense does its job, Toledo could keep his. PLAY ON: vs. Army (10/3)

TULSA – 6 / 8

Team Theme – YARDMASTER

Mark it down. It’s only a matter of time before Golden Hurricane head coach Todd Graham takes over a major program. In two seasons with Tulsa, his teams have averaged 553.5 YPG, while scoring 44 PPG. It’s why Graham owns 21 wins. Another reason was his call to attention on the defensive front in 2008. That’s where his team improved 74 YPG, thus giving the offense more touches. It’s also a contributing reason why Tulsa scored a mind-boggling 45 times with less than two minutes remaining in games last year. We love the fact that eight starters from last year’s stop-troops are back. The biggest negative comes in having to break in a new starting QB (Jacob Bower) for a third straight season. Then again, it didn’t phase Graham in the least last year, did it? Let the bidding begin as the Tulsa Train tolls on. PLAY ON: vs. East Carolina (11/5) – *KEY

In all, 4 starters on this year’s squad bypassed the NFL to return for another year. It’s no wonder Bob Stoops has joined the legendary likes of legendary coaches Bernie Owen, Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer as the only four coaches in school history to win 100 games. He’s a winner and so are his teams. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Baylor (10/10)

Note: Marc Lawrence is a 30-year veteran handicapper. He finished No.1 in the nation (88-63 +25.7 Net Units) in MLB during the 2007 season as documented by Sports Watch in Las Vegas.

Comments are Welcome!!!

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Marc Lawrence Has Been Handicapping Sports Professionally Since 1975 – Check Out His Weekly Picks & His DAILY MLB PlAYS Today Here at Capperspicks.com >>>

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