As we look ahead to the 2011 college football season, we take with us the lessons we learned from seasons past. We calculate, scrutinize, dissect and digest schedules, returning starters, coaching changes, injuries, and yes, even hunches, and spew it back in the form of how we think each of the 11 Division 1 FBS conferences — and independents — will pan out by year’s end.
Of course, these are merely our opinions. Feel free, as we know you will, to disagree. We know that’s why you really come here anyway.
Here are our predictions for Conference USA:
Ben Kercheval’s C-USA champion: Houston
John Taylor’s C-USA champion: UCF
If you like offense, hate defense, or are content with a disproportionate amount of the former over the latter, then Conference USA is likely your conference affiliation of choice. And there promises to be plenty of offense this year with Case Keenum returning from an ACL tear for Houston, Kyle Padron starting another year in SMU’s run-and-shoot offense and Austin Davis finishing his career under center for Southern Miss. Indeed, C-USA is truly a conference of great system quarterbacks and even better offensive minds.
In the East, I like Southern Miss over Central Florida. Both teams return practically their entire offense, but the Golden Eagles have a veteran advantage over the Knights on defense. Plus, Southern Miss gets UCF at home.
In the West, Houston should bounce back from a tough, injury-plagued 5-7 2010 campaign. Kennum, who has been granted a sixth year of eligibility, will pick up where he left off on his way to breaking just about every NCAA passing record.
Regardless, the East and West divisions of Conference USA should be anywhere between a two and three-team race. And for a conference that prides itself on great offense, it should be an exciting, high-octane race at that.
While it will hardly garner much attention as compared to Big Six BcS battles, the race for the Conference USA title could be the most fascinating and exciting one in the country, even as it will likely happen well under the radar. No less than five schools will have a legitimate shot at winning either the East or West divisional titles.
In the former division, UCF will likely be the preseason favorite according to most prognosticators, although Southern Miss is talented enough to challenge. The game of the year in the East will pit the two schools against each other Nov. 12 — in Hattiesburg, a potentially huge advantage for the Golden Eagles.
In the West, Houston will welcome the return of a healthy Keenum as it attempts to rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled season. Standing in the Cougars’ way for a return to the conference championship game are a pair of formidable obstacles: SMU and Tulsa tied for the Western division title last season, and it appears both school are ready for another run at an overall conference crown.
We’ll see a repeat from last season, with the Oct. 28 SMU-Tulsa game — my pick is the Mustangs — deciding who will play UCF in the conference championship game.