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Fargo’s Conference USA Football Preview

Conference USA Preview

Matt Fargo

Matt Fargo

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Matt Fargo of Sharp Sports Advisors weighs in every year his previews for all NCAA Division 1 Football teams and conferences. It’s nearing the end of August and efore you know the games on Saturday will be here.

Conference USA is another non-BCS conference that does not get the respect it deserves. There have been five ten-win teams over the least three seasons and there are five teams with the potential to win double-digit games this year. Not all five can do it but there is a lot of power at the top.

In the East Division, the title will most likely come down to Southern Mississippi and East Carolina and it just so happens that these two meet in the final regular season game of the year. After that we have Marshall and Memphis with both having opportunities to make it to a bowl game. Central Florida and UAB are bringing up the rear as both are in rebuilding mode once again.

Conference USA has seen five ten-win teams over the least three seasons and there are five teams with the potential to win double-digit games this year. Three of those come out of the West Division which is slightly stronger than its counterpart from the East. Last year it was Tulsa that won the division title with a 7-1 record which earned a trip to the C-USA Championship. Rice also had a 7-1 record but lost the tiebreaker and Houston came in third with a 6-2 mark. Rice will take a fall this season but Houston and Tulsa remain in the mix along with UTEP.

East Carolina Pirates 9-5 SU, 5-9 ATS, 7-7 O/U

Summary: East Carolina was the surprise of the conference last season as not many saw the type of season that was coming. The Pirates started the season with two big upsets over Virginia Tech and West Virginia and they made it to 14th in the nation. A three-game losing streak halted a really big year but East Carolina was able to keep things together despite losing a ton of players and numerous starts due to injuries. This year they bring back 16 starters and I give them the nod to repeat based on the more favorable schedule. It won’t be easy by any stretch especially now that no one will be looking past East Carolina.

Schedule: The Pirates have games against West Virginia and Virginia Tech once again and they add a game at North Carolina so the non-conference portion is not easy. East Carolina should be 4-0 in the conference once it faces the Tigers at Memphis and the Golden Hurricane at Tulsa. It closes C-USA action with back-to-back home games, the final being the showdown with Southern Miss.

Bottom Line: It is that final game which should propel the Pirates to the top as it is at home and that is a huge edge after losing at Southern Miss last season. East Carolina also doesn’t have to play Houston and UTEP, two power teams from the West. Since C-USA split into two divisions in 2005-06, there has never been a team to win consecutive East Division titles. That could change this year.

Betting Forecast: Despite a great record, the Pirates went just 5-9 ATS. That included a 0-5 ATS mark as a road chalk, something that will likely continue this year.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles 7-6 SU, 8-5 ATS, 7-6 O/U

Summary: Southern Miss has never had a losing season in C-USA but last season came close to being the first. The Golden Eagles started 0-4 in the conference before rallying to win their last four games and earn a .500 record as well as secure a bowl berth for the 11th straight season. With 18 starters coming back this season, it likely will not be as difficult to become bowl eligible but nothing is easy in the conference. Southern Miss is part of the class of the East Division along with East Carolina and the title very could come down to the final game of the season. The Golden Eagles are vying for their 5th C-USA Championship.

Schedule: Southern Miss starts the season with three straight home games with Virginia being the only test of the trio. It then hits the road for three straight games including contests at Kansas and at Louisville. Conference action then fully takes over and five of the final six games are against teams that should be going after bowl bids. This includes games at Houston, Marshall and East Carolina.

Bottom Line: Southern Miss arguably has the best talent in the conference but that does not always mean automatic victories and championships. The schedule is tough from all angles and that could be the main reason the Golden Eagles are kept out of the C-USA Championship game. They cannot be counted out however which is what is said just about every year when it comes to Southern Miss football.

Betting Forecast: Southern Miss is 14-4 ATS as a road favorite over the last six years. They will be limited in that role this year but look for those moneymaking chances.

Memphis Tigers 6-7 SU, 5-6-1 ATS, 6-6 O/U

Summary: Memphis has had a losing record in C-USA play only once in the last six years and has made it to a bowl game in all but that one year. It failed to win the division or conference championship however and the Tigers are the only team of all the original members to have never won either of those. This should be one of the more talented teams that head coach Tommy West has assembled in his nine years at Memphis but the problem is there are teams that are better than his. It will take some upsets along the way in order for Memphis to contend and while possible, it isn’t likely to happen. The Tigers will however be in a third straight bowl game.

Schedule: Upsets are one thing but the schedule is a tough one. The Tigers get Mississippi and Tennessee in non-conference action but it is the C-USA schedule that is daunting. Memphis faces UTEP, Southern Miss and East Carolina in consecutive weeks in October and then closes the season with back-to-back road games at Houston and Tulsa. With those tough games bunched, it is hard to keep up momentum.

Bottom Line: Memphis returns only five players on offense but four of those are at the skill positions and all are above average. The problem is that only one starter is back on the offensive line and that will hurt both the running and passing games to start the year. Offsetting that could be the best defense in the league and that is huge since the conference is loaded with potent offensive attacks.

Betting Forecast: Memphis is 14-28-1 ATS when coming off a win under West. That means plenty more letdowns this season so do not ignore these spots.

Marshall Thundering Herd 4-8 SU, 4-7 ATS, 4-7 O/U

Summary: Marshall has not been to a bowl game since it was affiliated with the MAC back in 2004. This is the fifth year in C-USA and it is also the fifth year for head coach Mark Snyder who may starting to feel the heat to bring this program back to life and this will likely be his final chance to get it done. To his credit, the Thundering Herd have played very tough non-conference schedules and because of that, getting bowl eligible meant needing to win the conference. In his four years, Marshall is 13-19 in C-USA which isn’t horrible and the worst record in those years was 3-5. The problem is that the best was 4-4 and that is what it looks like will happen again.

Schedule: The non-conference schedule should see a 2-2 record and that would be the best in the Snyder era. The conference schedule is far from impossible but it will take some road wins along the way to be successful. Marshall catches both Southern Miss and East Carolina at home while its toughest road games are at Memphis and UTEP. It misses Houston and Tulsa from the West.

Bottom Line: Marshall is 3-21 on the road under Snyder and it needs to go 2-2 in the conference to have any chance for a winning record. That also means it is going to have to pull off an upset at home against either the Golden Eagles or the Pirates. It is more than possible but still unlikely. A 6-6 record could mean a bowl game but that still might not be enough to save Snyder’s job.

Betting Forecast: Marshall is 0-8-1 ATS in non-conference action the last three seasons. It will have three chances to get break that string which it will definitely do.

Central Florida Knights 4-8 SU, 5-5-1 ATS, 5-5-1 O/U

Summary: Central Florida won the East Division in both 2005 and 2007 but it stumbled the following years to repeat. It is likely going to struggle again unless the offense can quickly get a grasp of the new spread offense put into place by new offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe who was imported from the CFL. Central Florida finished deal last in the nation in total offense last season, averaging a mere 229.5 ypg. 10 starters are back on the unit so things should get better. How much better it gets will determine if the Knights are the sleeper team in the conference or if they are in for another long season. I say it will be somewhere in-between.

Schedule: The good news is that the first two non-conference games are against Samford and Buffalo. The bad news is that the last two are against Miami, Florida and Texas. As for C-USA action, the Knights’ first two games are on the road at Southern Miss and at East Carolina. They do get Rice, UAB and Tulane so the potential for some wins are there.

Bottom Line: The defense was decent last season and six starters are back but the problem is that the entire secondary needs to be replaced and that is an issue because of the offenses the Knights will be facing. This team is still young as only six of the projected 22 starters are seniors. That means we may not see much improvement from the 4-8 record from last season but this is going to be a much better team in 2010.

Betting Forecast: Because of the horrible offense last season, the totals were kept low and resulted in a 5-5 year. I see low totals again but we should see higher scoring games.

UAB Blazers 4-8 SU, 6-4-1 ATS, 4-6-1 O/U

Summary: UAB closed last season by winning three of its final five games to bring some solid momentum and confidence into this season. Offensively, the Blazers bring back all 11 starters to a unit that finished a respectable 56th in the country in total offense last season. Scoring will certainly not be an issue. The problem is allowing too many points will. The defense actually improved from 2007 but still finished 106th overall and 95th in scoring and it will take a big effort to make a drastic improvement. That will be what it takes to get the Blazers out of the basement but it may be too much to ask this season.

Schedule: UAB faces an odd schedule as it starts the year with consecutive conference games. Both are at home and against Rice and SMU so a 2-0 start is definitely feasible. Two non-conference games are against Texas A&M and Mississippi while the other two are against Sun Belt teams but they are against two of the best in Troy and FAU. Tulsa and Houston are not on the schedule.

Bottom Line: An upset here or there and the Blazers could be staring at a possible bowl bid. The problem is that five of the final seven games are on the road and UAB will be sizable underdogs in all of them. Like Central Florida, the Blazers are still a very young team so while they may put a scare into some teams, they are not quite in position to make a serious move.

Betting Forecast: This is another team where we need to look at totals to start the season as we should see points all over the place with this potent offense and below average defense.

Houston Cougars 8-5 SU, 5-7 ATS, 7-5 O/U

Summary: I think the Cougars are the team to beat in the West. The schedule is not in their favor but they have the most talent out of the top three teams and that is what counts the most. Houston is going to score and score often as eight players are back from a unit that finished second in the country in total offense and 10th in scoring offense. Case Keenum is back at quarterback as are running back Bryce Beall and receiver Tyron Carrier, both 1,000-yard producers at their respective positions. The defense is the biggest question mark after finishing 100th overall last season but there should be enough improvement to carry the Cougars over the top.

Schedule: The schedule is the most difficult challenge. Houston plays at Oklahoma St. and Mississippi St. while hosting Texas Tech so the non-conference portion should give us an idea of how good this team is. The C-USA opener is at UTEP and later in the year, Houston also has to travel to Tulsa. Its two tough games from the East, against Southern Miss and Memphis, are both at home.

Bottom Line: If Houston can go into El Paso and take care of the Miners, it will have the inside track early. A loss means there is work to do so that conference opener is a big one. The Cougars gained at least 415 total yards in every game last season and went over 600 yards six times. Moving the ball will not be an issue but stopping the opposition could be. The game at Oklahoma St. will be entertaining to say the least.

Betting Forecast: Houston went 0-4 ATS as a road favorite last season and it will be in that spot a bunch this year. Tread lightly as there will be no value backing Houston.

UTEP Miners 5-7 SU, 5-7 ATS, 8-4 O/U

Summary: UTEP has had three straight losing seasons but that should change in 2009. The offense finished 31st and 25th in total offense ands scoring offense respectively last season and will be better as eight players are back led by quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, who had a monster sophomore campaign. The problem is the defense as UTEP was dreadful last season, finishing 115th in the country in total defense. They allowed fewer than 30 points only four times but with seven starters coming back, things should be better. The problem is that how much of a jump forward can it make? If the stop unit can leapfrog Houston then the Miners have a great shot at winning the division.

Schedule: The best part of the schedule is that the Miners get both Houston and Tulsa at home. There is not much good news after that however. Six of the first seven games are against teams that were in bowl games last season including a home game against Kansas and a road game at Texas. Three of the final four games are on the road including three straight. Not good for a team that is 12-35 on the road the last eight years.

Bottom Line: UTEP is right there with Houston but a weaker defense and a tougher early season schedule make it tough to take the Miners in the top spot of the West. The big game is the conference opener at home against the Cougars and a loss there could mean an early end to the division quest. The Miners will go bowling nonetheless and they will be out to win their first bowl game since 1967.

Betting Forecast: The Miners are 6-2 ATS at home underdog under head coach Mike Price. They will likely be dogs against Kansas in Week Two and should be a take.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane 11-3 SU, 8-5 ATS, 6-5-2 O/U

Summary: Tulsa has been on a great run with four straight winning seasons and it has gone 50-29 since going 2-21 combined in 2001 and 2002. The winning will continue in 2009 but vying for the division will get tougher. The Golden Hurricane were the top ranked offense in the country last season, averaging a staggering 569.9 ypg. The issue now is finding a replacement for record setting quarterback David Johnson, 1,523-yard rusher Tarrion Adams and 1,112-yard receiver Brennan Marion. There is talent in the likely replacements but keeping up with Houston and UTEP will be a challenge. The defense needs to make huge strides to offset the offensive backstep.

Schedule: Tulsa opens the season with three straight road games including the conference opener in Week One at Tulane. Non-conference games include a game at state rival Oklahoma as well as a home game against Boise St. The Golden Hurricane do get Houston at home but they must travel to UTEP and Southern Miss. The final four games are all against teams likely to be in their respective division races. Fargo’s Conference USA Football Preview

Bottom Line: With a 21-7 record and two bowl wins the last two seasons, expectations will be high once again for head coach Todd Graham who wins wherever he goes. It will be tough to get to that double-digit win mark this season but it cannot be counted out. Winning on the road will be a must especially early on with four of the first five games being away from home.

Betting Forecast: Tulsa went 5-1 ATS as a home favorite last season and the public will likely follow that trend again this year. It will not be as easy in 2009.

SMU Mustangs 1-11 SU, 3-6-2 ATS, 4-7 O/U

Summary: Expectations were pretty high at SMU last season when June Jones took over as head football coach. Those expectations were shattered as the Mustangs went 1-11 for a second straight season. Now with the Jones system heading into its second season, things should get better. The complex offense sputtered at times last year but with eight players back on that unit, we should see major improvements. SMU lost four games by a touchdown or less last season so it was definitely competitive at times. It finished 113th in the nation in turnover margin and even a slight improvement of that means more games in the win column.

Schedule: Even though the Mustangs first two FBS games are on the road, don’t be surprised to see them 3-0 heading into TCU. Stephen F. Austin starts the season followed by very winnable games at UAB and Washington St. Playing Houston and Tulsa on the road in consecutive weeks to end October is not good but the Mustangs close the season with three home contests in their final four games.

Bottom Line: SMU was making progress with head coach Phil Bennett as it increased its win totals for three straight years before the dreaded 1-11 2007 season. Jones brought in a new attitude, new systems and a better recruiting background. Six wins and a bowl game for the first time since 1984 are not out of the question although the real turnaround likely begins next season.

Betting Forecast: Since Bennett took over, SMU is 34-45-1 ATS and has had five of seven losing ATS seasons. SMU could turn into one of the best cover teams this year.

Tulane Green Wave 2-10 SU, 5-7 ATS, 4-8 O/U

Summary: Tulane last had a winning season in 2002 when it went 8-5 and earned a trip to the Hawaii Bowl. Another winning season is unlikely but it is out there for the taking if the Green Wave remain healthy. They lost an amazing 17 players to season-ending injuries last year and a great start turned into a season that ended with eight straight losses. Any improvement starts with the offense that averaged a mere 16.7 ppg last year and scored more than 24 points only once. That obviously needs to get better because the defense is not good enough to carry the load, especially in this conference. This team is very young still with only 15 seniors on the 44-man two-deep chart and that could give head coach Bob Toledo one more year to work with.

Schedule: The schedule is almost unfair to the Green Wave and not because of the difficulty. Five of their first six games are at home and then five of their final six games are on the road and that means travel in every one of those finals weeks. The goods news is that Tulane gets Houston, UTEP and Tulsa all at home so an upset is there for the taking. BYU and LSU are part of the non-conference slate.

Bottom Line: Toledo should be given a mulligan for last season and the 2-10 record that Tulane registered. Injuries played a key role in that and it is difficult for any team to find any chemistry when there is so much turnover taking place. The schedule setup does it no favors this season even though the final three games on the season, all on the road, are winnable games.

Betting Forecast: Tulane is 8-23-1 ATS within the conference over the last four years. The spread record will be better this season since expectations are so low.

Rice Owls 10-3 SU, 9-4 ATS, 9-4 O/U

Summary: It looks like a first to worst season for the Owls. Although they did not win the West Division last season, they tied Tulsa for first with a 7-1 record but lost the tiebreaker due to getting thumped by the Golden Hurricane. Gone is one of the most prolific quarterback/wide receiver connections college football has ever seen as Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard have moved on. Because the entire offense is going to take a step back, the defense will need to pick up some of the slack and that may be an issue. Rice finished 111th in total defense last season and while that unit was young, it is still rather green and inexperienced. Last year was not an aberration but more of what’s to come for this program. It just won’t happen this season.

Schedule: Rice begins the season with three straight road games starting with the conference opener at UAB followed by games at Texas Tech and Oklahoma St. It then comes back home for three in a row but all are tough as it faces Vanderbilt, Tulsa and Navy. The remainder of the schedule is tough as well as it gets UTEP at home but catches East Carolina and Houston on the road.

Bottom Line: Expectations were not very high last season and Rice was the surprise of C-USA and one of the biggest surprises in the entire country. The Owls won their first bowl game in 54 years and with that comes hope. However, it also comes with higher expectations but everyone realizes the talent that was lost was no regular talent. It will take Rice a year to recover.

Betting Forecast: Rice is 7-1 ATS as a home underdog over the last three years and it will see that role a lot this year. I do not expect similar results in 2009 however.

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  1. I like East Carolina’s chances to repeat as well. This program has been moving in the right direction over the past few seasons and it all came together last season. It will be interesting to see how they can do against West Virginia, a team they have a chance to beat.

  2. I just graduated from ECU, and I havent missed a home game in 5 years. They really have been in the right direction since picking up Skip Holtz, they just can’t seem to win the games they shouldn’t have a problem with. The 5 games they lost last season they should have never lost, and if they wouldn’t have lost them, they would have had a real chance at making a BCS bowl. I look forward to another strong season this year, but I still see ECU having a couple of those fluke games, as they can’t ever seem to get them out of their system…..but they usually win the big ones! GO PIRATES!