Conference USA West Preview

IS THIS THE YEAR SMU WINS CUSA WEST?

It's been a long time since SMU really mattered in college football. Discussions about the death penalty and Penn State this summer harken back to the devastating demise of the SMU program a couple of decades ago. Right now...the stage is at least set for the Mustangs to make a move in their division, and maybe even win their conference...becoming truly relevant for the first time in the new millennium.

Why is that?

  • June Jones is the head coach

  • Garrett Gilbert has transferred from Texas to take over at quarterback

  • Houston and Tulsa are both dealing with question marks at quarterback in the West

  • The East is topsy turvy given the turnover at the quarterback and head coach positions

  • SMU has been trending upward under Jones, and beat Pittsburgh 28-6 in a bowl last year

We want to emphasize again that the stage is set. That doesn't mean it's going to happen. There are some potential problems that we'll get to in a moment (Athlon ranks SMU third in the West, so they're not even one of the first two teams in our rotation). Gilbert may just have been all hype and no superstar talent in high school. Houston and Tulsa may be ready to reload with minimal headache.

We talked yesterday about the volatile potential over in the East Division. Let's look at the challenges facing the teams in the West.

CONFERENCE USA WEST

HOUSTON
Athlon Ranking: 70th
2011 Total Offense: 1st
2011 Total Defense: 62nd
Strength: Pass Offense (1st)
Weakness: Rush Defense (80th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Tony Levine
Notebook: Houston was as loaded as they were ever going to be last year. They carried a 13-0 record into the CUSA Championship game against Southern Miss where arrogance and poor preparation cost them the title in 49-28 shellacking on their home field. The Cougars did bounce back though with a 30-14 bowl win over Penn State. Gone from that team are the head coach (Texas A&M), the quarterback (NFL) multiple receivers, and a couple of guys who ran the ball threw openings when the defense was spread out to stop the pass. If this team is more "system" than talent...then the Cougars can pick up where they left off with fresh legs and plenty of energy. But, if last year's peak represented the high end of what's possible....then things could get really messy in '12. Athlon is guessing 70th in the nation. It might be 40th. It might be 90th if new coach Levine is in over his head. The schedule starts relatively slowly...but Game Two against Louisiana Tech brings the WAC favorite to town, then a visit to UCLA will provide the toughest road test of the year. What we learn in September will determine how we bet October and November with this team and many others in the league.

TULSA
Athlon Ranking: 74th
2011 Total Offense: 27th
2011 Total Defense: 87th
Strength: Rush Offense (26th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (117th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Bill Blankenship
Notebook: A lot of similarities with Houston. Last year's high powered Tulsa team was undefeated in conference play, until arrogance and poor preparation led to a 48-16 home loss to Houston in the regular season finale. Unlike Houston, they couldn't win their bowl game (a 24-21 loss to BYU). But, unlike Houston, they didn't lose their head coach in the offseason. You just never know when new quarterbacks take over up-tempo offenses. Within our own proprietary rankings, we're giving Blankenship more respect than Levine until results suggest otherwise. 

SMU
Athlon Ranking: 93rd
2011 Total Offense: 58th
2011 Total Defense: 27th
Strength: Rush Defense (23rd)
Weakness: Rush Offense (101st)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: June Jones
Notebook: The biggest strike against SMU is the lack of experience back on offense. Only three starters are returning, and that's usually a horrible indicator for spread teams. But, there was a time when new quarterback Gilbert was supposed to be the second coming of Colt McCoy at Texas. Maybe he was in over his head at Texas (well, a very STRONG maybe). But...moving down in class could definitely end up making him the Colt McCoy of SMU...which means huge numbers against CUSA defenses. This is one of the biggest sleeper stories of the year in college football. How will Gilbert perform under the guidance of June Jones...away from the pressure of fans who expect national championship contenders every year? The season opener at Baylor will be very interesting (as Baylor has to replace a Heisman Trophy winner). Home games vs. Texas A&M and TCU will be trials by fire later in September.

UTEP
Athlon Ranking: 105th
2011 Total Offense: 64th
2011 Total Defense: 104th
Strength: Rush Offense (61st)
Weakness: Rush Defense (95th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Mike Price
Notebook: Even though things are wide open in the West this year...there's still a pretty dramatic drop-off just three teams into the six-team circuit. UTEP was 2-6 last year in conference play, and had to win nailbiters against Stony Brook and New Mexico State to avoid a true disaster. Every year we ask what it might take to get Mike Price fired from this job. Apparently, nothing! He used to coach in the big time...and the UTEP administration is happy to hang their hats on that while Price has stopped sending his resume's out. The good news for Miners fans is that this is the first team in the division to return the quarterback who played the prior season. This gives them a chance to improve on last year's Power Ratings at the very least. September meetings with Oklahoma and Wisconsin are going to leave a mark.

RICE
Athlon Ranking: 107th
2011 Total Offense: 91st
2011 Total Defense: 111th
Strength: Rush Offense (67th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (112th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: David Bailiff
Notebook: You want to be optimistic about undersized programs that try as hard as they can. But we're looking at a team that was horrible on both sides of the ball last year vs. a weak schedule...and then loses more than half of their starters each way as well. Starting quarterback Taylor McHargue was a grinder last year. If you're a grinder against CUSA defenses, then your upside is pretty limited. This is a year though where many in CUSA might slide back to where Rice is all the time...and that gives Rice a chance to make a run at a winning season and a rare bowl bid. That's more of an indictment of the league this year than it is a compliment for the Owls though.

TULANE
Athlon Ranking: 113th
2011 Total Offense: 97th
2011 Total Defense: 83rd
Strength: Pass Offense (71st)
Weakness: Pass Defense (87th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Curtis Johnson
Notebook: The fifth and final new head coach in CUSA this year is Curtis Johnson. This program has had a cloud over it ever since hurricane Katrina devastated the region. Maybe new enthusiasm will help inspire improved results. Quarterback Ryan Griffin was one of the few bright spots for the team last year relatively speaking. That's pretty relative though because the Green Wave was 2-11 with one of the wins coming over SE Louisiana and the other coming over UAB. The stat rankings you see above came against one of the softest schedules in the country. The toughest non-conference games this year are against Rutgers and Ole Miss, which will at least give the team a chance to carry some healthy bodies into league action.

Whew...we're glad Conference USA is wrapped up! This could turn out to be a true debacle of a season in both divisions because of all the new quarterbacks. But, there are certainly some interesting stories waiting to be written. The exclusive TEAM HANDICAPPING approach of JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK always has its pen out before oddsmakers can even find the paper.

Early bird rates are still in effect for 2012 football. Call 1-800-323-4453 for complete details. Don't forget that we're now just a couple of weeks away from the NFL Preseason. Our "Dollars of August" package can be purchased online with your credit card.

Back with you Monday in the NOTEBOOK to preview another showcase series in Major League Baseball, where we are 9-1 in the last 10 and 11-5 since the All Star Break. Our next football report will come Saturday when we study the Mountain West. Next Sunday will feature the Independents as we make the transition from mid majors to majors. Weekends in August will be devoted to the BCS conferences.

Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports! And, link up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK for BIG, JUICY WINNERS!

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