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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
East, Tier 1: East Carolina
East Carolina recently signed Skip Holtz to a six–year contract extension after a season when they went 8–5 and were second in the East. If good teams are built from the trenches out, this is a good team. A decent offensive line is back in place, and the front seven of the defense is back and deep. The passing game managed 21 TDs to a tidy 9 interceptions last year, and designated starter Patrick Pinkney had 11 of those to 4 picks. RB Chris Johnson's 17 TDs are gone, and that is a double–whammy of a problem now that Dominique Lindsay is out for the year. That could sink the Pirates. That late–breaking news doesn't alter our view that ECU's good fundamentals make them a top team in C–USA, but we're shying away from handing them the whole conference. That opens the door for a conference champ from the West.
Tier 2: Southern Miss; Central Florida
Larry Fedora arrives for his first season as Southern Miss coach after offensive coordinator gigs at Florida and Oklahoma State. Consequently much is expected of the Southern Miss offense. Lightweight RB Damion Fletcher should factor into that well — after almost 1600 yards and 15 TDs last year on the ground, don't be surprised if he gets more touches as a receiver out of the backfield, prolonging his longevity. The installation of the spread will otherwise rely on a QB emerging from the mists. The defense will hang together again, and the schedule isn't taxing, so the golden Eagles should slot in at no.2 in the East until they work the kinks out of the new offense. If they take to it quickly enough, there even a shot at the conference crown.
For almost a week, UCF coach George O'Leary was coach of Notre Dame (I wonder if he includes that on his resumé?), but the part of his resume that actually matters is the Defensive Line Coach parts that date back to 1980. So while RB Kevin Smith's 2,500 yards and 29 TDs are gone, don't worry about the Knights falling off the map — this year is about defense instead. The linebackers return. The secondary returns. And while the defensive line is being reconstructed, remember who's running this show. UCF won't win the conference or even the East this season, but for a team seeking a QB and RB, they won't do bad.
Tier 3: Marshall; Memphis
That noise you hear is not the Thundering Herd of Marshall, but Mark Snyder's train rumbling down the tracks. Once upon a time, Marshall had passers like Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich to cheer. While they still have talent at receiver, the heir apparent to the passing thrown is not... well, apparent. The defense has spotty talent, but as a unit had a bad year in 2007. This season sees Marshall play away to Wisconsin, Southern Miss and West Virginia in the first five games. With UCF, Houston and East Carolina also on the schedule, an even record will be a challenge. It would take at least that to spare Snyder.
Coach Tommy West produced a 7–6 season out of Memphis last year, with a second–place finish in the East. However, that team won a lot of close ones, 24–21 over Marshall, 38–35 over Rice, 28–27 over Tulane, 29–26 over Southern Miss, and 55–52 over SMU. A poor defense returns, while the running game and QB Martin Hankins do not. The receiving corps, including 6–foot–8 Carlos Singleton is there for whoever is the next QB, but unless somebody clicks, a losing record seems assured.
Tier 4: UAB
UAB couldn't run the ball and couldn't stop the run in 2007. That's unlikely to change much, so unless there's some diamonds in the rough amongst a host of JuCo guys like RB Aaron Johns, the Blazers don't look likely to pick themselves up from a 2–win season.
West, Tier 1: Tulsa
Tulsa are again the pick in the West, because of an offense that returns its key skill position stars including WRs Trae Johnson and Brennan Marion, RB Tarrion Williams, but not Paul Smith, who threw 47 touchdown last season and over 5000 yards. David Johnson will try to replace Smith, and if he's only half as good, that's still a lot of scores. However, the defense, which was pretty poor last year, could get worse, meaning Tulsa's claim on anything becomes a little tenuous, and some shootouts go the other way. Hmm, maybe it's not too late to reinstate East Carolina as C–USA champs after all.
Tier 2: Houston
Coach Art Briles left Houston, so ex–Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin arrives as head coach. For now, he finds the offensive cupboard a little bare after the departures of WRs Donnie Avery, Jeron Harvey, and RB Anthony Alridge, and for that reason, Houston are a tier down from Tulsa in the West. The defense looks to be solid however, and of Sumlin can use the best part of an existing offensive line to install some new skill position players, the Cougars shouldn't fall back into the divisional pack while soph QB Case Keenum settles in as the no.1 QB.
Tier 3:Texas El–Paso; Southern Methodist
Putting either UTEP or SMU in Tier 3 requires a belief that improvement is coming. In both cases the improvement must come from the defense. UTEP gets the nod over SMU as their secondary has a chance to upset some of the unproven QBs floating around the West and a passer of their own — Steve Vittatoe who looks capable of gunning along with the better ones. SMU didn't win a single game in C–USA last season, but lost five games by narrow margins, which makes the arrival of run–and–shoot guru June Jones an intriguing scenario; QB Justin Willis threw 51 TDs the past two year, but he might have to throw that many this season to make up for the defense.
Tier 4: Rice; Tulane
If Rice aren't at the bottom of C–USA, it's only because Tulane may be worse. The Owls have a very credible QB in Chase Clement, who tossed 29 touchdowns last year, and a standout receiver in Jarett Dillard, who could set a new NCAA career record for scores this season. But this is still a team that doesn't run well, and doesn't stop the run. They surrendered 34+ points eight times last season, beating UTEP 56–48, but losing to Houston by the same scoreline. They gave up 42 in a loss to Baylor. That sort of thing has to stop unless the Owls are in this purely for the fireworks.
Tulane won four games last season with a runningback — Matt Forte — who was ultimately taken in the second round of the draft. Junior Andre Anderson will be the next player to run behind a line that remains good, but with only 32 carries in two years, Forte's 23 scores leave large shoes to fill. By comparison, the passing game contributed only 10 scores last season. As the defense is nothing to write home about, Tulane could spend '08 in the basement.