2013-08-02

FBS - Preview - CUSA

Let's talk about a conference which did (and will) change dramatically.

Conference USA
If you lose 4 teams and add 6 from one season to another, things do change.
And the process is not finished yet.
Next season 3 additional teams will leave and 2 will join in football.
And another team will join 2015 in football.
And i'm still not convinced that this is the end of this process.
This season or the next one might bring another change, for sure.
Why? Because I’m not convinced the “bigger” conferences are done yet and the CUSA is a conference with still some quality teams left. And when the domino effect might start again at the TOP, like the Big 12 is adding teams, the CUSA will get raided again.

Teams added 2013:
Florida International (from SBC)
Florida Atlantic (from SBC)
North Texas (from SBC)
Middle Tennessee State (from the SBC)
Louisiana Tech (from WAC)
UTSA (from WAC)

Teams lost 2013:
UCF (to American Athletic Conference (former Big East))
Houston (to American Athletic Conference (former Big East))
SMU (to American Athletic Conference (former Big East))
Memphis (to American Athletic Conference (former Big East))

I think the conference will survive all those realignments, but the quality probably will drop for the next few seasons. In fact I think the overall quality will drop already that much this season that this will probably be the worst conference in FBS football.

The 14 teams are:

East Division:
University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Blazers
East Carolina University (ECU) Pirates
Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Owls
Florida International University (FIU) Panthers
Marshall University Thundering Herd
Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) Blue Raiders
University of Southern Mississippi (Southern Miss) Golden Eagles

West Division:
Louisiana Tech University (LT) Bulldogs
University of North Texas Mean Green
Rice University Owls
University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Miners
University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Roadrunners
Tulane University Green Wave
University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Now let's get a bit into the details:
East Division

UAB Blazers
Garrick McGee got 3 wins last season from his first year team.
That's not much, but not worse than the guy he succeeded.
This season will show if the Blazers might get more wins and maybe lose that loser image they have.
Chances are good; they might get some more wins, since the added teams might be worse enough to overcome them.
Yes, you read it the right way, I think the quality of the program will not raise that fast, but the competition in the conference might get easier so they might get some wins.
The problem with that theory is that those additional teams are not THAT bad in comparison and it can easily happen that the Blazers will find themselves at the bottom of the division.

Non-Conference games are against: @Troy, @LSU, Northwestern State (FCS), @Vanderbilt
Troy will be manageable, but the win will not be given without a fight, LSU and Vandy are way too much and the FCS game should be a win.
So potentially 1-3 to 2-2 record here.

The rest looks OK, but I can't see them winning in total more than 4-5 games.
The team will probably be in the middle of the division at the end of the season, with a tendency to the bottom.
The key will be the FAU game for a benchmark.
If they lose THIS, say hello to the bottom of the CUSA.

East Carolina Pirates
It seems like Skip Holtz did coach here only 2 years ago and did win with the Pirates in a big way.
But Ruffin McNeill is now in his fourth year as headcoach and did win a share of the Division Title last season, but did not play in the Conference title game.
So he did not manage to win the conference yet (as did Holtz 2 times in a row, which landed him the USF gig where he sucked to bad) but his processor did win the conference in his 4th year, so he can still bring the Pirates back to the TOP as good as the last coach.
And it will be his last chance, since the Pirates will leave the conference for next season to play in the Amercian Athletic Conference (formerly known as Big East).

Non-Conference games are against: Old Dominion (FCS), Virginia Tech, @North Carolina and @North Carolina State.
That will be tough. The FCS game will be probably easy, but the rest might be losses already sealed.
Those ACC teams will be good.

The rest of the schedule looks very much manageable and since the biggest fishes did already leave for the Amercian (former Big East) , it looks like the Pirates are destined to win the division, if not the conference.

Florida Atlantic Owls
Carl Pelini (Brother of Bo Pelini, Headcoach of Nebraska) did take over that very bad program and started to build it from the ground.
They had a 3-9 season.
Biggest win last season was against Western Kentucky and Troy, and there were also some very close games at the end of the season.
Signs are pointing towards a better team this season, but it will be tough to cash in on the winning side of the game.

Non-Conference games are against: @Miami, @South Florida, @Auburn, New Mexico State
That will result in a 1-3 record, I’m sure. New Mexico State will probably not be good enough and the rest will be way too good.

Unfortunately the supposed to be easy games are in their majority away games, so that won't help.
I think the Owls will find themselves at the bottom of the division, battling UAB and Southern Miss for the last spot.

Florida International Panthers
Last season was supposed to be the year of the Panthers.
Mario Cristobal had built a team, getting stronger every season, and with an 8-5 season a year before (2011) the expectations were towards conference championship.
At the end they had a 3-9 season and the coach got fired.
The team shifted from the Sun Belt Conference to the Conference USA and will start here with a new Headcoach.
Ron Turner (brother of Norv Turner) did serve some seasons ago as Headcoach of the Illinois Fighting Illini where he got fired.
After that he went for the NFL as assistant coach, coaching the QBs of the Buccaneers last season.
Now he has the chance to lead a team again.
The first season won't be easy.

Non-Conference games are against: @Maryland, UCF, Bethune-Cookman (FCS) and @Louisville
Except the FCS game, this will probably be tough. I would expect them to be able to at least compete with Maryland, unfortunately it's the first game and also an away game.
So I'm expecting a 1-3 result of those games.

Inside the conference they will probably be a bit better than the other expected weak teams and they will manage to get a midfield position. But they might easily drop dead.
But I'm not expecting a Bowl-season here.

Marshall Thundering Herd
Last season was a down year for Marshall with 5-7 and no Bowl participation.
John "Doc" Holliday is now in his fourth season, means this is all his team.
No excuse possible, the expectations are high.
Almost all big fishes are gone, so this should be a positive season, right?

Non-Conference games are against: Miami (OH), Gardner-Webb (FCS), @Ohio and @Virginia Tech.
That's a nice schedule, and if the team GOT better, this should be at least a 2-2 record from the start, maybe even more.

The conference games are quite easy, only East Carolina could be a problem and Tulsa.
The rest should be manageable, if all signs do point in the right direction.

I think they will play for the division title.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
The Headcoach Rick Stockstill did lead them for 7 seasons on a successful path and except the 2-10 season in 2011 he managed at least 5 wins and did bring the team into 3 Bowls (as a SBC-team, don't forget that).
Now they are in the Conference USA and Stockstill will have to manage a bit better competition.
With an 8-4 season in their back, they will probably come out strong and confident, but will not advance further that the 8-4 record of last season.

Non-Conference games are against: Western Carolina (FCS), @North Carolina, Memphis and @BYU
I give them the FCS game and even that Memphis game, but the away games will be too much.
But 2-2 is not a bad start for a former SBC team.

The key to the season will be the games inside the conference and there are some nice matchups.
I think they can win 6 or even more of those games, and probably will end up in a Bowl.

When the regular season is over, this will be not enough to compete for the division title, but close.
A Mid-Field position with a tendency for more.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles
The Golden Eagles had it all 2 seasons ago.
Larry Fedora (now HC of North Carolina) did lead them in his final season to a 12-2 record and a conference championship.
The Eagles were on an 18 consecutive winning season record, were invited to 14 Bowls in that timeframe and won 8 of them.
Fedora did get an invitation by North Carolina and left.
Ellis Johnson (former assistant HC of South Carolina) was named as his successor and he basically sucked major balls, excuse my language.
He drove that very good team into the ground for a ... 0-12 season! ZERO wins. Worst record in school history EVER!
After a CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON!
And not only did they lose, they did lose BIG!
No wonder he was fired.
New Headcoach is Todd Monken, last season he was the OC of Oklahoma State and this is his first head coaching gig.
We will see, what will happen now.
This could be a rebound season you do not see very often or a slow crawl back to the top over seasons.
Probably the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Non-Conference games are against: Texas State, @at Nebraska, @Arkansas and Boise State.
That's tough and probably will end in a 1-3 record.

More fun will be the conference games.
They did not get many supposed to be bottom feeders, so they WILL have to fight hard to get back on track.
I expect them to lose more games than they might win and at the end they will find themselves in the middle of the conference.

West Division

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
This will be interesting.
LT was in the WAC one of the hottest team the last 2 seasons.
They won the Conference in 2011 and were on title repeat mode last season until Utah State did emerge and won it all.
Coach Sonny Dykes had 3 seasons with the Dogs and his success landed him a gig at the California Golden Bears.
The Bulldogs did not search for long and selected the just fired from South Florida Skip Holtz, who now, since the Bulldogs did shift the conference does return to the CUSA (he was the HC of East Carolina).
We will see if he can succeed here, or does suck as with the Bulls.
All signs are pointing at least for this season in the right direction.
He gets a strong team, with not much competition, if all those mid-level teams do not emerge as contenders.

Non-Conference games are against: @North Carolina State, Lamar (FCS), @Kansas and Army.
If this wouldn't be a LT-Team under new management I would expect a 3-1 record here at least, but it could happen that this Kansas team does a bit more than playing awful (as they did last season) and it also might happen that LT is not that good as last season, so I go with a 2-2 record.
Army and Lamar should be beaten any day.

The rest looks good enough to bring the team in reach for the division title.
Key game will probably be the Tulsa game at home.

This is a title contender.

North Texas Mean Green
I think the expectations on Dan McCarney, the Headcoach of the Mean Green (terrific nick name by the way), are high.
He is in his third year and so far there were only losing seasons.
That's not why you look for a new coach.
Now they are in a new conference and the games starts new.
Lucky for them there are not many contenders in their division.
Unfortunately that includes North Texas as well.

Non-Conference games are against: Idaho, @Ohio, Ball State and @Georgia.
Say hallo to a 1-3 start at best.
That's not how you want to start a season, but I can't see them beating Ohio or Ball State.
Georgia could beat them with the backups ...
This leaves the Idaho game as the last winning chance.

The remaining schedule is OK, but when all games are played I think they will even have to fight against the supposed to be cupcakes of the league.
Maybe I'm wrong, but this season they won't break the winning barrier.
Mid field will probably the season result.

Rice Owls
Rice (RICE!) did win 7-6 games last season, including the Bowl match against Air Force.
David Bailiff did well with this program and it could be a very successful season this year.
The schedule is nice and they might play for the conference in December.

Non-Conference games are against: @Texas A&M, Kansas, @Houston and @New Mexico State.
Interesting schedule and this could be a 3-1 record!
Texas A&M is too much, but Kansas sucked last season (also against Rice), Houston might still be in rebuilding mode and New Mexico State should be awful.

The rest of the games inside the conference are not that tough, Tulsa as away games is a downer, but they play LT at home. All signs are as promising as they can be.

This will probably be a mid-field team with strong tendencies for the TOP. It all depends on the Tulsa and LT games.

UTEP Miners
The Miners got a new Headcoach in Sean Kugler.
Last season he was the OL coach of the Steelers in the NFL.
This is his first Head coaching chance, we will see, how this will turn out.
The program couldn't be in more trouble, it finished 3-9 last season and the program was not really good in the last decade.
They made barely the last Bowl in 2010 with a 6-6 record (and lost).

Non-Conference games are against: New Mexico, @New Mexico State, @Colorado State and @Texas A&M.
They might get 2 wins out of this, but not more.

Now have a look inside the conference and you can't find many contenders on the schedule.
But also not many for sure wins.
For me it is hard to see more than 3-4 wins on that schedule, but we might get surprised.
I'm expecting many close games, and many close losses.
A Bowl season would be a surprise.
They have to settle with the mid field, probably with a tendency for the bottom.

UTSA Roadrunners
This was a new team last season and they did quite good, but they had a very easy schedule.
They came from the WAC this season and they will probably have a hard time to adjust.
Larry Coker is in his 3rd year (2nd as HC in the FBS) and he managed to win 8! games last season.
Most impressive were wins against Idaho and New Mexico State.
But this season they have NO FCS team on the schedule and lots of big names.

Non-Conference games are against: @New Mexico, Oklahoma State, @Arizona and Houston
That's probably a 0-4 in that part of the season.

They have as winnable games at home UAB and Tulane, the rest looks like losses, some might get close, some are probably a mile apart, but more than 2 wins would be a huge success.

They will fight for the bottom.

Tulane Green Wave
I have to admit I don't like Tulane.
They don't seem to get it done since ages.
Last Bowl season was 2002 with an 8-5 season.
Since then never more than 5 wins, more 4-win, 3-win or even 2-win seasons.
Curtis Johnson is in his 2nd year and he is supposed to turn things around, but I don't think that will happen fast.
Tulane will probably be better this season (2-10 last season) but that will probably be the result of hard training and a big portion of the fact that the big guns did move to the American Athletic Conference and lots of weaker teams got into the CUSA.

Non-Conference games are against: Jackson State (FCS), South Alabama, @Syracuse and @Louisianaâ€"Monroe.
You cannot go much softer ...
A FCS team, a 2nd Year team, a so-so AAC-team and a better SBC team.
Still probably only 2-2 if they are lucky.

What else? Some big names from the CUSA and a few games they have to win to get better than last season.
FAU is an away game, UTSA also, UTEP at home. If they want to win those three, they better start playing.

They will probably fight for the bottom and the UTSA game might be the deciding game between last place and the next better one.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Well, that's a team I like .. no … respect!
Bill Blankenship did take over a good team and I think he made them better.
Steve Kragthorpe formed a team out of Tulsa which won the conference 2005, first year in the CUSA.
He left for Louisville (where he did suck) and Todd Graham took over to win the Division 3 times out of 4, but never won the conference.
He left for Pitt (which he left 1 year later for Arizona State) and Bill Blankenship got the job.
Last year he won the conference.
So expectations are high in Oklahoma and they should be.

Non-Conference games are against: @Bowling Green, Colorado State, @Oklahoma and Iowa State
That's a schedule I like to see. They might get by this with a 3-1 record.
I'm not sure about Iowa State but I can see Tulsa win against Bowling Green and Colorado State.
Oklahoma will probably be way too much. It's in Norman, where Sooners are very very good.

Key games from here are against East Carolina and Louisiana Tech. Both away games, so this means probably that they will come up short for the division title.

They are again contender but probably not champion worthy.

So my TIP is:

East Division:
East Carolina Pirates
Marshall Thundering Herd
Florida International Panthers
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Florida Atlantic Owls
UAB Blazers

West Division:
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Rice Owls
North Texas Mean Green
UTEP Miners
Tulane Green Wave
UTSA Roadrunners

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