C-USA West Preview
JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK
HOUSTON, SMU READY TO SOAR OVER REST OF CUSA WEST
The Houston Cougars ranked first in the nation in total offense last year, and return Heisman Trophy candidate Case Keenum to the fold. SMU is playing winning football again under June Jones, and also has an experienced offense in position to thrive in this division.
Everyone else? Well....
Conference USA has largely fallen on hard times in recent years. The East looks to be taking the brunt of that as we discussed yesterday (please check our archives for that preview, and all the others that have run recently for both major and mid major conferences). The West is still kind of recovering from previous hits. Tulsa and Rice in particular have fallen off the map. Tulane hasn't recovered from the hurricane that blew them off the map. UTEP's occasional forays into quality under coach Mike Price have mostly been an illusion.
Houston starts 2010 with a big edge...and SMU is best poised to give them a run for their money. Let's crunch some numbers and take a closer look.
Athlon Ranking: 42
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 1 on offense, 111 on defense
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Things started out great for Houston last year. They scored outright victories over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech of the Big 12 South (which ultimately became an indictment of the Big 12 South rather than a credit to Houston). Unfortunately, the Cougars turned into a classic spread offense team that could run the score up on patsies but couldn't win vs. quality. The cougars would lose at Central Florida in mid November 37-32. They'd lose the CUSA championship game to East Carolina. They got routed by Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, suggesting a growing divide amongst the mid majors between the Mountain West and CUSA.
It's fairly typical for up-tempo teams to start great then fade from fatigue late in the season. That's worth remembering this year when Houston visits UCLA on September 18th. We wouldn't be surprised if the Cougars look awesome early...then become fade material vs. quality in the second half of the season.
Note also that the defense will be rebuilding, at a time the offense won't be doing them many favors with tempo. If there were any real threats in this division, that might mean something. SMU is still pretty far behind Houston...and everyone else is much worse. Houston is the class of a fading conference.
Athlon Ranking: 69
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 51 on offense, 84 on defense
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: We love it whenever a new attitude takes hold of a traditional doormat. June Jones got the players to drink the kool-aid, and they responded with an 8-5 season that was capped off by an amazing 45-10 rout of Nevada as a big underdog. June Jones and the program deserved that win.
Unfortunately, the team's not quite as good as the numbers make it look. They played a soft schedule last year...and scored several nailbiter wins over bad teams. They beat UAB by 3, Rice by 3, UTEP by 4, and Tulane by 5. The Mustangs actually lost to Washington State! So...the attitude is there...but quality and depth aren't. Jones likely helped his cause with another good recruiting year though.
September brings a road game at new look Texas Tech, and a home game against national contender TCU. We're looking forward to seeing what quarterback Kyle Padron does with more seasoning under his belt. He showed a lot of maturity as a freshman in the bowl win.
Athlon Ranking: 82
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 18 on offense, 110 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: The world finally caught on to what we were pretty much saying from the get-go about Mike Price's Miners. There's not much here. And, they're much more likely to break your heart as a legal sports bettor than to make you any money. They are capable of flashes of glory, like they showed in a 58-41 upset of Houston last year. They also lost at home to Buffalo, and UAB. Texas beat them 64-7 and let up in the second half.
Trevor Vittatoe returns for his final year at quarterback. That will give the Miners a puncher's chance in a shootout. They're likely to play a lot of those with an experienced defense that was horrible when it was inexperienced! Price has lost his touch on that side of the ball. He's just not in a conference where you can be undersized and slow footed.
We already have a September 10th game at Houston circled because the experienced Cougars could make a run at 100 points in revenge mode.
Athlon Ranking: 88
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 35 on offense, 85 on defense
Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Some pundits are looking for a turnaround season for Tulsa. If you look at their best games from last year, this seems very logical. They only lost to Boise State by 7. They lost a heartbreaker to Houston 46-45 (a win that they should have had in the bag). A lot of experience and QB G.J. Kinne return for a unit that ranked top 40 last year. The problem is...defense is still an issue...and the team dropped six of its last seven games straight up last year. That's not a team dripping with confidence.
We'll watch the first three games very closely. That's at East Carolina, vs. Bowling Green, and at Oklahoma State. Those will provide a very good read heading into CUSA play. It's very likely that SOMEBODY from off the radar will make a move in the league this year. We agree that Tulsa is a pretty good nominee for that role. Todd Graham is a head coach that gets things done.
Athlon Ranking: 100
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 111 on offense, 117 on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: David Bailiff on the other hand, the man who replaced Todd Graham at Rice, has a history of failure. Most expected him to be in way over his head at this program. It's been an even bigger disaster!
Rice went 2-10 last year. To their credit, they didn't schedule any patsies for automatic wins. North Texas is the closest thing to that this year, with Texas, Baylor, and Northwestern also on the non-conference slate. There just isn't anything here. Respect the kids who try as had as they can at an academic institution. Just don't invest in them under this head coach until you start seeing some results on the scoreboard.
Athlon Ranking: 116
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 105 on offense, 102 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 3 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: You know Tulane has to be bad if they grade out worse than Rice in most projection systems. They have more experience at QB than Rice, but got hit hard by graduation in several other spots. It's another disaster waiting to happen, with Ole Miss, Houston, and Rutgers ready to happily oblige in September.
That leaves us with:
- Probably not as good as you think over a full 12 games: Houston
- Improving, but not as good as their record suggests: SMU
- Possible threats but we'll have to see it to believe it: UTEP and Tulsa
- Truly horrible: Rice and Tulane
You can probably tell we don't think much of this conference. But, we actually believe there's GREAT opportunity to make money here in 2010. Whenever teams are better or worse than is realized, that typically means they're better or worse than the Vegas line is giving them credit for. We have myriad ways to take advantage of that. That's been our bread and butter for more than 20 years!
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Back tomorrow with the Mid American Conference. Before the week is through, we'll touch on the Sun Belt and Independents as well. Our NFL Divisional previews will begin with the start of the exhibition slate.
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