Advocates of defensive football and low scores, take your heart medication. Proponents of a free flowing style conducive to big plays and even bigger point totals, get ready for an exciting season in Conference USA.
Five of the nation’s top 50 scoring offenses in 2012 are Conference USA members in 2013, including last year’s overall point per game leader, Louisiana Tech. Other C-USA members are primed to erupt in the new season.
Conference USA seems to cycle through members every few years. The 2013 season is one such time of change, with Houston, UCF, Memphis and SMU gone for the American. In their place come North Texas, FIU, FAU and MTSU from the Sun Belt, as well as Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio from the football-defunct WAC.
Some things in C-USA change; others stay the same. The Tulsa Golden Hurricane is a frequent contender for the league’s crown, and last year won its second. Tulsa’s 11 wins in 2012 marked the fourth time since 2007 it has hit the double-digit mark.
Tulsa typically ranks among the nation’s highest scoring offenses, and the 2013 edition should be no exception. Offensive coordinator Greg Peterson is in a role that has launched notable names, like Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn. Peterson returns a wealth of talent at the skill positions, including one of the most devastating one-two rushing combinations found anywhere.
During one of its eras of change, 2005, newcomer Marshall arrived with an impressive pedigree. The Herd were dominant in Div. I-AA, winning championships in the 1990s. Marshall moved up to Div. I-A and in 1999 was the second non-BCS conference program ever to go undefeated in the regular season, peaking at No. 10 in the AP poll.
Its subsequent years in the MAC were not much of a drop-off. Leftwich guided the Herd to a conference championship in 2002 and top 25 ranking.
Marshall has yet to regain that same magic it had in the MAC, but 2013 could be the breakout campaign. Quarterback Rakeem Cato is reminiscent of Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, the Herd play callers who brought national attention to Huntington, W.V. He led the nation in passing a season ago, and is back for more in his third year running the Herd offense.
The Herd may be a favorite in the East, but must fend off another potentially potent offensive team in regular C-USA contender East Carolina. Ruffin McNeill brought a philosophy cultivated under air raid aficionado Mike Leach, which resulted in former quarterback Dominique Davis putting up some of the biggest passing numbers in the nation during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Shane Carden was the Pirates’ play caller last year. While not as prolific as Davis, he still surpassed 3100 yards and led ECU to an eight-win campaign. Carden could have a big year with stud wide receiver Justin Hardy back. Hardy is coming off an 11-touchdown, 1105-yard season.
Circle Nov. 29 on your calendar. That’s when the Pirates visit Marshall in a game that could not only determine the Conference USA East champion, but might also replicate the 2001 GMAC Bowl. That night, Leftwich and David Garrard led their teams to a combined 125 points.
Look for another familiar face in C-USA to bounce back in a big way. Southern Miss suffered the worst single season reversal of fortune ever, going from 11 wins in 2011, to an 0-12 finish last year. Defensive-minded Ellis Johnson as ousted, making way for offensive guru Todd Monken.
Monken’s wide open passing attack helped make Oklahoma State one of the most feared offenses in college football the past two seasons, and should play well in Hattiesburg, where former head coach Larry Fedora oversaw one of the most exciting attacks in the nation.
Among those to watch in Monken’s system is wide receiver Francisco Llanos, who our Al Burke profiled. Llanos was kind enough to share the below highlight tape with us. He certainly looks like someone ready for the new style.
Though Rice is a C-USA mainstay, the Owls are hardly familiar faces atop the league. Head coach Dave Bailiff is changing that. Already historic as just the second coach in program history to win multiple bowl games, Bailiff’s team could contend for its first league title. The modified option offensive coordinator John Reagan employs produced three ball carriers with over 600 yards last year. Among them was quarterback Taylor McHargue, who also passed 325 times for 2209 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Two of the conference’s newbies, Louisiana Tech and MTSU, combined for 17 wins last season. Neither went to a bowl game for various and altogether silly reasons. Either is capable of rectifying that error in its first C-USA campaign.
Blue Raider running back Jordan Parker stepped up after Benny Cunningham went down with a mid-season injury, and Parker was outstanding.
Skip Holtz is in for Sonny Dykes at Louisiana Tech, but don’t expect a deviation from Dykes’ potent offensive philosophy. With Tony Petersen calling the plays, the Bulldogs are still going to air it out plenty.
In a conference that features so much offensive firepower, the defense that can make just those few critical stops could produce a championship. It will be unpredictable, and it will certainly be wild — last year’s championship game proved both.
But it will also be fun.