Preseason All-CUSA Team
Houston boasts senior quarterback Case Keenum, by far the nation's passing yardage leader a year ago with 402.3 per game. He also led the nation in TD passes thrown (44) and was 6th in QB rating. Yet, the CFP All-American was somehow dismissed by voters for the Heisman Trophy, finishing 8th overall and behind QB's Colt McCoy (Texas), Tim Tebow (Florida) and Kellen Moore (Boise State).
Now, the Cougars get passed over by the computer which spit out SMU as the team to beat in the west, ultimately defeating UCF in the conference championship game.
If it happens, it would be the first time since 1984 that the Mustangs have won any conference title. Two years later, the football program received the death penalty from the NCAA infractions committee. Since its resurrection in 1989, SMU has enjoyed just two winning seasons. Last year's 8-5 finish was its best since a 6-5 mark in 1997, and it occurred in June Jones' second season as head coach. No one saw that kind of turnaround coming after SMU went 1-11 in his inaugural year.
But before the folks in Dallas get carried away, they should look at how close the race for the west divisional title is expected to be. Houston actually has a higher power rating and Tulsa trails the Mustangs by just 4.85 points.
It is also worth noting that either Houston or Tulsa have represented the west division in all five CUSA title matches.
However, SMU should benefit from a schedule that sends Tulsa and Houston to Gerald J. Ford Stadium, and doesn't contain a single road trip to a CUSA school that is expected to finish above .500. The Mustangs' schedule is also absent of both UCF and Southern Miss. Still, forecasted victories over Houston (-0.56 at SMU) and East Carolina (-0.99 at ECU) are by less than a point.
RB Shawnbrey McNeal left early for the NFL draft (San Diego, undrafted free agent) after rushing for 1,188 yards last year, more than double the yardage that SMU had as a team in 2008 (497). Jones will also have to replace Emmanuel Sanders, the school's all-time leader in career catches (285), career TD catches (34) and receiving yards (3,791). He also owns the marks for single-season (98) and single-game (18) receptions, and single-season receiving yardage (1,339).
The absence of such prolific playmakers can be disastrous - just ask Tulsa or Rice. The Golden Hurricane slipped from 11-3 in 2008 to 5-7 last year after losing QB David Johnson and career rushing leader Tarrion Adams (3,651 yards). The Owls fell even further as they plunged from 10-3 to 2-10 after losing the record-setting pass-catch combo of QB Chase Clement and WR Jarett Dillard.
Tulsa is projected to rebound to a 7-5 record this season, but Rice is predicted to make only modest improvement to 3-9.
UTEP, which hasn't posted a winning record since 2005, is forecasted to land on the bowl bubble at 6-6.
Tulane (1-11, 0-8) and Memphis (0-12, 0-8) are destined to repeat their visits to the cellar of their respective divisions with even worse performances than last season.
In the east division title chase, four schools are within 4.73 power points of UCF (Southern Miss, UAB, East Carolina and Marshall). But the Golden Knights get three of the four closest challengers at home as they look to claim their first CUSA crown since 2007. Working in UCF's favor is the fact that the east division representative has won the last three conference championship games.
Southern Miss and UAB are expected to vie for 2nd. The Golden Eagles are projected to go 8-4 overall which would end a three-year string of 7-6 campaigns. UAB's rise to a 7-5 finish would represent the Blazers' best record since a similar finish in 2004 under then-coach Watson Brown.
Two-time defending champion East Carolina is highly unlikely to make a 3rd consecutive trip to the conference title game, but a forecasted 6-6 finish isn't bad under the circumstances. Gone are head coach Skip Holtz, RB Dominique Lindsay (1,180 yards, 6 TD's) and QB Patrick Pinkney (2,947 yards, 15 TD's, 12 INT's). On defense, the Pirates are missing the top four tacklers and 6 of its top 8, including DB's Van Eskridge (6 INT's) and Levin Neal (2 INT's).
Ruffin McNeill, a Texas Tech assistant for 10 years, gets to handle the rebuilding. McNeill was the interim head coach in the Red Raiders' dramatic 41-31 comeback victory over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl. However, he found himself without a job in Lubbock after Tommy Tuberville was hired to replace Mike Leach. Leach was also ousted amid contested allegations that he mistreated a player, WR Adam James (son of ESPN analyst Craig James), after he had been diagnosed with a mild concussion.
East Carolina's overall schedule is rated as the toughest in the conference with visits to Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and a home date with Navy.
Houston's OOC schedule includes a visit to UCLA in September and a season finale at Texas Tech. The Cougars host Mississippi State in October.
SMU visits Texas Tech and Navy, and hosts TCU.
Tulsa travels to Oklahoma State and Notre Dame.
Rice draws Texas for its season opener at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Southern Miss, the school that prides itself on being willing to play anyone anytime and anywhere, opens at South Carolina and hosts Kansas in the first three weeks of the season.
Marshall and Memphis join East Carolina on the list of CUSA teams with new head coaches. John "Doc" Holliday replaces Mark Snyder for the Herd, and Larry Porter succeeds Tommy West for the Tigers. Holliday is a former West Virginia linebacker who spent a combined total of 23 years as an assistant coach with the Mountaineers under Don Nehlen and Bill Stewart. Porter has spent the past 11 seasons coaching running backs at Arkansas State, Oklahoma State and LSU. Neither has previous head coaching experience.
Snyder forcibly resigned from Marshall after it returned from a 52-21 whipping at UTEP to finish the season 6-6, still good enough to be bowl eligible for the first time since 2004. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter, who was Cincinnati's head coach from 1994-2003, was interim coach for Marshall's 21-17 win over Ohio in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Snyder was 26-37 overall, 17-23 in CUSA.
West was fired on November 9 after a 2-7 start, but stayed on to finish the season at 2-10 for his worst record at the school in his 9 seasons. Overall, West was just 44-55 at Memphis, but he also took the school to five bowl games. Before West's arrival, Memphis had only played in the 1971 Pasadena Bowl.