By Marc Lawrence
‘Welcome Back' is the theme in 2010 in the C-USA. Its 2009 Most Valuable Player (Houston QB Case Keenum), its 2009 Defensive Player of the Year (UCF DE Bruce Miller) and its 2009 Special Teams Player of the Year (East Carolina WR/KR Dwayne Harris), all seniors, are back,
In addition, former Memphis RB Larry Porter and former ECU DB Ruffin McNeill each return to their alma maters as new head coaches in 2010.
This up and coming loop has sent six teams to post-season in four of the past five seasons, while going 10-6 SU and 12-4 ATS against .666 or greater opposition in those games.
Southern Miss takes an eight-year bowl skein into this campaign.
SMU was the most-improved team in the FBS during the 2009 season. The Mustangs won seven more games last year than they did in 2008.
In closing, remember this about this never-say-die conference: since its inception, CUSA underdogs are 21-13 ATS in non-conference battles in which both teams are undefeated, including 17-8 ATS as a dog of seven or more points.
It's like John Sebastian once said, "Yeah we tease him a lot cause we've hot him on the spot, welcome back,
welcome back, welcome back...
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
ALABAMA BIRMINGHAM - 8 / 9
TEAM THEME: BLAZING INFERNO
The Blazers have improved each year under HC Neil Callaway but the Birmingham brigade is clamoring for the 4th-year HC to bring home UAB's first winning season (and bowl appearance) since 2004. It appears Callaway is starting to buckle under the pressure and is looking for the quick fix as he signed a nation-high 12 junior-college transfers. "We got a good mixture of people at every position,' said Callaway. "I really think we helped ourselves at every spot and with the number of JC guys that we've signed, I think we got some immediate help." Help is on the way in the form of nine returning starters for a defense that slipped a titch in 2009. The 22nd-ranked offense, which was boosted by the return of the entire unit last year, should once again be productive with the return of eight starters - though Callaway will have to replace versatile QB Joe Webb. The heat is on.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. East Carolina (11/13)
CENTRAL FLORIDA - 8 / 7
TEAM THEME: ODD OCCURRENCE
George O'Leary may want to turn the calendar ahead - say a year from now. The 7th-year HC has had terrific success in odd numbered years (26-14, three bowl appearances) while the even-numbered seasons have been brutal (8-27, zero bowls). If 2010 is going to show any promise, it will start with a rush defense that was tops in Conference USA and No. 4 nationally. C-USA defensive player of the year, Bruce Miller, returns for his senior season. The All-America candidate leads all active players nationally with 27 sacks and 44 tackles for a loss. Offensively, junior RB Byrnn Harvey (1,109 rushing yards, 14 TD's) spearheads the Knights attack. Harvey actually had more yards in his sophomore season than highly-touted Kevin Smith had in his second year with the Knights. ‘Even' though the calendar says 2010, the Knights ‘oddly' enough should be competitive.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. UAB (10/6)
EAST CAROLINA - 5 / 2
TEAM THEME: ‘RUFFIN IT'
After escalating the ECU program to new heights, Skip Holtz couldn't say no to a multi-million dollar offer from South Florida - his reward for putting the Pirates on the map. Enter former ECU defensive back and assistant, Ruffin McNeill. College football's 13th minority head coach inherits a defense that led the nation in red-zone scoring defense (71.6%) and one that enjoyed the squad's highest take-away total (34) since 1996. It may be awhile before Greenville sees those numbers again as McNeil also inherits a stop unit that returns just two starters and no linemen. While Holtz had the luxury of 52 returning letterman and 16 returning starters in 2009, Ruffin won't enjoy the same - just 43 returnees and 7 total starters back for 2010. Early stops at Blacksburg and Chapel Hill will have us jumping ship before this voyage gets set for its September sail.
PLAY ON: vs. SMU (11/26)
MARSHALL - *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: THE DOCTOR IS IN
A native of Hurricane, WV and widely regarded as one of the country's best recruiters, John ‘Doc' Holliday brings an impressive resumé to Huntington. An associate head coach at West Virginia and Florida, Holliday will need to operate with the skill of a surgeon in order to escape the wrath of a brutal season-opening schedule that is laced with seven consecutive bowl teams - who combined for a 60-33 record. Fourteen returning starters, including a pair of QB's that have started 24 games the past two seasons, should help in the procedure. So should a home field that has seen the Herd post a 118-19 record at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Need some bar bet material? That .866 win percentage is No. 1 all-time in Division 1 football as Alabama (.825) and Bear Bryant Stadium rank a distant second. Holliday will like those house calls.
PLAY ON: vs. East Carolina (10/23)
MEMPHIS - 7 / 7
TEAM THEME: PORTER HOUSE
When Tommy West was pink-slipped in early November last season, he held a fiery press conference saying, "This is not a good day at the office. We've got to help this football program... or do away with it." Help is on the way in the form of new coach Larry Porter, former MSU running back and most recently RB coach and chief recruiter at LSU. Asking every player to ‘Invest in the Helmet', Porter contends all positions are open. Porter's first priority will be patching up a defense that was over 100 YPG worse last season than in 2008.With only one QB on the roster that has taken a collegiate snap and rail-thin at WR where the top two receivers in school history are gone, it may be a while before dividends from his recruiting efforts are realized. Porter and the Tigers look to be raw in 2010.
SOUTHERN MISS - *4 / 9
TEAM THEME: HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS
We're not quite ready to give another tip of the hat to Larry Fedora but the third-year head coach has kept one important Southern Miss tradition going - winning. Thanks to a season-ending five-game win streak in 2008 and season-opening hat trick in 2009, the Golden Eagles have recorded 16 straight winning campaigns... albeit, by the skin of their teeth. But 2009 saw the both sides of the ball take a slight step backwards. Nine returning starters should help the stop unit turn it around but improving an offense that loses record-setting RB Damion Fletcher and four offensive linemen will be Fedora's main concern. The good news is there is plenty of experience at the QB position with the expected return of Austin Davis, who sat out most of last season after tearing a ligament in his foot. ‘Favre' be it for us to say, but something could be amiss in Hattiesburg this season.
PLAY ON: vs. UAB (10/30)
HOUSTON - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: A ‘CASE' FOR THE HEISMAN
QB Case Keenum and his supporting cast are back and the Cougars are billing him as a legitimate Heisman candidate. And why not? His numbers speak for themselves as he is on the cusp of breaking every NCAA total offense and passing mark. With his top three wideouts all back (each with 85 or more catches), Keenum will likely become the first QB in college football history to throw for 5,000 yards three years in succession. How good has this offense been, you ask? Over the past two seasons, the Cougars have been held to under 28 points just three times while ringing up 40 or more points on 16 occasions! A couple of disappointing season-ending losses, including a throttling by Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, should have Keenum and company on the offensive early - and quite often.
PLAY ON: vs. Central Florida (11/5)
RICE - 9 / 9
TEAM THEME: BABY OWLS
The biggest collapse of all FBS programs in 2009 (from 10-3 to 2-10) resulted in a major overhaul to David Bailiff's coaching staff. In Bailiff's defense (or lack of one last year), 75 starts were lost to injuries. As a result, 14 starters on the 2009 squad were either freshmen or sophomores on the two-deep roster, matching Louisiana Tech for the youngest starting lineup in the nation. In fact, 22 Owls made their first collegiate start last year. The owlets started to show a little maturity late in the season with a pair of home wins over Tulane and UTEP. The good news is 18 starters who experienced those victories are back. The bad news is they may have to wait an extra week as their 2010 opener finds them playing Texas. That may not be so bad because, like last year, there's only one way to go - and that's up!
PLAY ON: as dog vs. SMU (10/2) - *KEY
SMU - *8 / 7
TEAM THEME: PAROLED
Apparently there IS life after death. 2009 saw the Mustangs go bowling for the first time since 1984, two years prior to their infamous ‘death sentence.' It didn't take long for June Jones to put his stamp on the program as both the offense and defense took huge strides. After being outscored 458-202 in 2008, the Mustangs got the better of the opposition in 2009 by a 380-359 count - a 277-point turnaround! No wonder they improved a nation's-best seven games last season. They were also the only team in the country to outgain Houston during the regular season and hold Nevada's potent rushing attack to over 200 yards below their season average. All this, with the 4th youngest team in the nation as 29 off 44 players on the two-deep roster were either freshmen or sophomores. With a target squarely on their backs, can the Mustangs once again live to tell about it?
PLAY AGAINST: vs. UTEP (11/6)
TEXAS EL PASO - *7 / 4
TEAM THEME: DASHING AND DARING
It's been five years since HC Mike Price has brought a winner to West Texas but there's a lot to fall in love with in El Paso this year - and it's not a Mexican girl. QB Trevor Vittatoe, who broke UTEP passing records with three 3,000-yard passing seasons, is back. So is RB Donald Buckram (1,594 rushing yards) - one of only two backs (Toby Gerhart) to rush for 200-plus yards in three separate contests last season. "I think he'll be even better this year. He's bigger. He could be 200 pounds by the time the season starts," gushes Price of Buckram. Eight all-conference honorees also return to El Paso in 2010. The schedule lends support to a big year, as well, as the Miners face only one team in the first eight games that sported a winning record in 2009. If Price can figure out a way to win the close ones (lost five games by a TD or less), then this season could be as "wild as the West Texas wind."
PLAY ON: as dog vs. UAB (10/16)
TULANE - *7 / 4
TEAM THEME: TOLEDO, TOO LATE
After three seasons and a 9-27 record, Bob Toledo has learned that coaching in New Orleans is not so easy. That is, if you're the head man at Tulane. With the loss of leading rusher Andre Anderson, another big losing campaign is likely and it's doubtful Toledo will be back to man the Green Wave sidelines for his wooden anniversary. While there are no ball carriers with any significant experience on the roster, QB Ryan Griffin is back after starting the final six games and putting up solid numbers (1,143 yards, 8 TD's) as a freshman in 2009. Toledo will have to improve on a 1-7 conference mark in each of the last two seasons if he has any chance of staying Green. A four-game home stand late in the year may help his cause but the feeling here is it will be too little, too late. Wave goodbye, Bob.
PLAY ON: vs. Army (10/9)
TULSA - *9 / 5
TEAM THEME: MISSION: REVENGE
A 5-7 campaign, on the heels of four straight winning seasons in which they averaged 9.5 wins a year, makes the Hurricane a certified ‘Mission Team' in 2010. The mission will be to rejuvenate an offense that dropped 160 YPG and 18 PPG. The mission leader is QB G.J. Kinne who passed for 2,732 yards and 22 TD's, while also leading the team in rushing yards (393 yards) and TD's (5). Kinne is the only player in school history to pass for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same game. WR/KR Damaris Johnson, the nation's 2009 leader in all-purpose yards with a 224 YPG, looks to make another statement in 2010. Three of the top five tacklers return to a defense that actually improved in points against but slipped in total yards allowed. Despite a road schedule that includes four winning teams and Notre Dame, a soft home schedule makes this mission entirely possible.
PLAY ON: vs. Southern Miss (11/27) - *Key as dog