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There will be a different feel in the Conference-USA West division this year. In 2010 SMU reached the top, but mostly due to Houston going down because of QB Case Keenum's absence. Well, Keenum is back and so are the Cougars. Can anyone compete with them? Let's find out.
Houston Cougars - Last year was a tough pill to swallow as the Cougars were 5-7 and lost their star player. Well, HC Sumlin has Keenum back for his senior year and that means this team will surge back to the top. Keenum leads all Houston QBs with 13,586 yards. The RBs will be much tougher with Bryce Beall back and the WRs have top man Patrick Edwards back as well. The defense returns its top 6 tacklers. A weak schedule means Houston could head into an end of the season showdown with Tulsa undefeated. All in all we can expect big things from this team in 2011.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane - This team went 10-3 in 2010 and gets b ck 10 offensive starters and 8 on defense. Bill Blankenship takes over as HC as Todd Graham left for Pittsburgh. They begin the year with brutal games against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State, but the conference schedule is quite manageable. There is no reason this team wont be just as good in 2011 as it was in 2010 thanks to players like QB GJ Kinne (31-10 ratio) and Curneilius Arnick (115 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 INTS) returning. Most will probably back the Cougars in preseason betting, but Tulsa is every bit as good if not better.
SMU Mustangs -The 2010 Conference USA champ gets back 10 offensive starters and 8 on defense. They play a brutal schedule with road trips to Southern Miss, Tulsa and Hosuton. TB Zach Line will power the offense. He racked up 1,494 yards and 10 TDs last year. The defense will be helped by MLB Taylor Reed who had a whopping 145 tackles in 2010. They can and will have a winning record, but will need some lucky breaks to repeat as West champions.
Rice Owls - They didn't fare too well 4-8 last year, but get back 9 and 8 starters, respectively. For that reason they could win more games in 2011. The RB tandem of McGuffie and Eddington combined for 16 TDs last year. If they can get more production from the new QB Taylor McHargue who knows what might happen for them.
Tulane Green Wave - With a record of 4-8 last year this team really let fans down. Bob Toledo gets back 6 offensive starters and 8 on defense including top tackler Trent Mackey. Dezman Moses is back after getting 5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss a year ago. The schedule sends them to SMU and they get Houston at home. The talent is there to improve on last year's record. They could compete for the top spot within the next few years.
UTEP Miners - Mike Price did well to guide this bunch to a 6-7 record in 2010, but will have problems this year. He gets back just 2 offense starters. The offensive line could be terrible with all new starters. This is going to be a rebuilding year without doubt. Bright spots include 9 back on defense and the return of Travun Nixon who had 4 INTs a year ago.
The Conference USA East division was taken by Central Florida last year. UCF is the largest college in the nation and thus they have a large talent pool. They will have competition from Southern Miss as well as a bevy of other teams in the East. Let's take a look at this tough division.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles -HC Larry Fedora is in fourth year with this team and the 2011 could be the best yet. Fedora and the Golden Eagles get back 7 starters on both sides of the ball including versatile QB Austin Davis who passed for 3,103 yards with a 20-6 ratio. He also rushed for 452 yards and 10 TDs. This team has two reliable RBs thanks to Kendrick Hardy and Desmond Johnson. They combined for 1,565 yards and 15 TDs a year ago. Clearly, this offense is loaded for bear. The defense gets back 5 of his top 6 tacklers and will benefit greatly from DE Cordarro Law who is great off the edge and had 6 sacks in 2010. They will play UCF at home. Wouldn't be a surprise to see Southern Miss end the year undefeated and they are the team to beat in the East.
UCF Knights - HC George O'Leary returns 6 offensive starters and 4 defensive starters from his C-USA East champion team. This offense is all about the running game. They had a total of 35 rushing TDs in 2010. Latavius Murray and Ronnie Weaver combined to reach the end zone 22 times and rush for 1,606 yards. Sophomore Jeff Godfrey will be better as a sophomore and that is saying something considering he led C-USA in passing efficiency as a freshman while racking up 2,158 yards and a 13-8 ratio. He also rushed for 566 yards and 10 TDs. These skills players will work behind what is one of the best offensive lines in the conference. Where things get shaky is on defense. There are holes in the secondary and it is likely the Knights will have to go score for score with just about anyone they play in 2011. UCF is a contender in the conference, but matching last year's 11-3 mark will be next to impossible.
East Carolina Pirates - Ruffin McNeil held this group together well in his debut season as they were 7-7. He returns 6 starters on both sides of the ball. QB Dominique Davis will lead the team as he passed for 3,967 yards and a 37-16 ratio a year ago. He also racked up 141 yards and 9 TDs with his legs.He's a one man show so they will need him to play his brains out every game. His top WR Lance Lewis is back after catching 89 passes for 1,116 yards and 14 TDs a year ago. The defense is growing, but has a strong line and a top CB in Emanuel Davis. A tough schedule sends them to Houston and they get UCF and Southern Miss at home. Tough call on this team, but we will lean against them taking this division
UAB Blazers - This is a sneaky good squad with 7 offensive and 9 defensive starters back from last year's 4-8 team. QB Bryan Ellis is back after tossing for 2,940 yards and a 25-12 ratio. DE Elliott Henigan got 2.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss last year as well as an INT. The Blazers get Southern Miss and Houston at home. Look for a return to bowl play.
Marshall Thundering Herd - Doc Holliday has got his work cut out for him this year. After going 5-7 last year this team gets back 5 and 9 starters, respectively. They open the season against West Virginia and then have road games against Houston, UCF and Tulsa. This will be a rebuilding year.
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