C-USA West Preview
Louisiana Tech is among six newcomers in the seemingly endless revolving door that is Conference-USA.
Despite losing 2012 East Division champion Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU to the American Athletic Conference (a.k.a. the former Big East), C-USA actually expanded from 12 schools to 14.
Besides luring the Bulldogs and Texas-San Antonio away from the Western Athletic Conference, C-USA plundered the Sun Belt Conference for Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and North Texas.
Charlotte, Old Dominion and Western Kentucky are set to join the league next year.
As for this year, defending conference champion Tulsa was the unanimous choice to repeat as West Division champs after capturing all 14 first-place votes in the preseason coaches poll, conducted at C-USA Media Day on Wednesday in Dallas.
A look at the C-USA West:
1. Tulsa (11-3, 7-1) — The FBS' smallest school with an enrollment of 4,100 students, Tulsa has reached double digits in the W column in four of the last six seasons and has gone bowling in seven of the past eight.
Eleven starters (7 offense, 3 defense, 1 kicker) return from the team that defeated UCF 33-27 in overtime in the C-USA championship game and went on to beat Iowa State 31-17 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
Led by running back Trey Watts, who took MVP honors in both the conference championship and Liberty Bowl, the Golden Hurricane return a highly-skilled nucleus. Watts ranked No. 1 in the league with 2,191 all-purpose yards (1,108 rushing, 343 receiving, 154 punt return and 586 kickoff return).
Teaming with Watts to perform perhaps the best 1-2 running backs tandem in the conference is Ja'Terian Douglas (137 carries, 936 yards, 7 TDs).
Quarterback Cody Green passed for 2,592 yards with 17 touchdowns vs. 11 interceptions.
Green's three primary targets return in wide receivers Keyarris Garrett (67 receptions, 845 yards, 9 TDs), Jordan James (41-568-2) and Thomas Roberson (34-343).
Tulsa will need to reinforce its offensive line following the departure of three starters from a group which gave up only nine sacks all season.
On the other side of the ball, the Golden Hurricane face the challenge of replacing eight starters from the conference's best defensive unit. Tulsa held opponents to 347.8 yards per game in the offensive-minded league.
Linebacker Shawn Jackson (88 tackles) and Demarco Nelson (80 tackles, 2 INTs) finished 3-4 on the team in tackles last season.
2. Rice (7-6, 4-4) — With 20 starters back, the Owls stand a good chance of stringing together back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1960-61.
Besides returning 54 lettermen from the team that closed out the season by spanking Air Force 33-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl, the Owls return the entire coaching staff for the first time in coach David Bailiff's seven-year tenure.
Quarterback Taylor McHargue returns to run the offense. In addition to passing for 2,209 yards with 12 touchdowns and five picks, McHargue was the Owls' No. 2 rusher with 667 yards and 11 scores.
Rice also returns its top rusher in Charles Ross (147 carries, 800 yards, 5 TDs) and No. 1 receiver Jordan Taylor (57 receptions, 827 yards, 3 TDs). After going without a touchdown during the regular season, Taylor turned in a 9-153-3 effort to secure MVP honors in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Kicker Chris Boswell converted 23-of-29 field goals in 2012, while leading the nation with six field goals of 50 yards and beyond. He nailed a long of 57.
Led by cornerback Phillip Gaines (33 tackles, 18 pass breakups), the preseason C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, the secondary remains intact.
Also back are the top five tacklers — safety Paul Porras (93 tackles, 2 INTs), linebacker Cameron Nwosu (92 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), free safety Julius White (79 tackles, 2 INTs), end Cody Bauer (51 tackles, 5 sacks) and nose guard Hosam Shahin (45 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 5 sacks).
3. Louisiana Tech (9-3, 4-2 WAC) — Following the loss of 32 seniors and virtually the entire coaching staff, the Bulldogs hardly resemble the squad that ranked No. 1 in the FBS in scoring (51.5 points per game) and total offense (557.9 yards per game).
When Sonny Dykes left for California after guiding the Bulldogs to a three-year mark of 22-15, Skip Holtz answered the call from Ruston. Holtz has compiled a 54-48 record in eight seasons as a head coach at Connecticut, East Carolina and South Florida.
Inheriting a cupboard with only seven holdover starters (3 offense, 4 defense), Holtz faces a daunting task in his initial season at Tech.
Running back Kenneth Dixon, who scored 28 touchdowns to break Marshall Faulk's NCAA freshman record, is the focal point of the offense. The 2012 WAC Freshman of the Year, Dixon rushed 200 times for 1,194 yards (6 yards per carry).
Texas Tech transfer Scotty Young emerged from spring training as the starting quarterback. He has yet to take a snap in a college game.
The Nos. 4 and 5 receivers remain in the fold in D.J. Banks (33 receptions, 434 yards, 2 TDs) and Hunter Lee (31-398-1).
Right guard Matt Shepperd is the only returnee on the interior.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are minus the top seven tacklers from last season.
Cornerback Le'Vander Liggins (50 tackles, 2 interceptions, 11 pass breakups) is the top returning tackler.
Headlining the defensive line — the deepest and most experienced area of the unit — are tackle Shakeil Lucas (42 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss) and end IK Enemkpali (32, 7.5 TFL, 6 sacks).
4. Texas-El Paso (3-9, 2-6) — After 11 years as an offensive line coach in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, first-year head coach Sean Kugler is back home. A UTEP alum, Kugler spent eight years as an assistant with the Miners, starting as a graduate assistant in 1993.
Seven starters return on offense, including 89 percent of last year's rushing total.
UTEP's most pressing need is to find a quarterback, but help may be on the way. Blaire Sullivan held a slight edge over Patrick Higgins at the end of spring training, although transfer Jameill Showers will get a long look in fall practice. Showers lost a quarterback battle last year to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel prior to transferring to UTEP.
Running back Nathan Jeffrey (184 carries, 897 yards, 7 TDs) and wide receiver Jordan Leslie (51 receptions, 973 yards, 6 TDs), the team's leading rusher and receiver, return for 2013.
Improving on red zone efficiency is a priority for the Miners, who had only 19 touchdowns to show for 48 trips inside the opposing 20 last year.
Former Northwestern State head coach and quarterback Scott Stoker is the Miners' new defensive coordinator. Stoker was the Demons' head coach from 2002-08 and spent the past three seasons as DC at Sam Houston State.
Stoker inherits only four returning starters, led by linebacker A.J. Ropati, who was fifth on the team with 58 tackles.
5. North Texas (4-8, 3-5 Sun Belt) — Third-year head coach Dan McCarney greets 17 returning starters (8 offense, 8 defense, 1 special teams) as the Mean Green seeks to avoid its ninth straight losing campaign.
UNT's strength is its offensive line. A trio of incumbents — left tackle Antonio Johnson, left guard Mason Y'Barbo and right guard Cyril Lemon — helped the Mean Green allow an FBS-low six sacks during the entire 2012 season.
Quarterback Derek Thompson threw for 2,649 yards and 14 touchdowns, but needs to reduce his 14 interceptions.
Running back Brandin Byrd (205 carries, 875 yards, 4 TDs) was the team's leading rusher last fall, while Brelan Chancellor (25 receptions, 450 yards, 5 TDs) was the No. 3 receiver.
Highlighting the defensive holdovers is the return of the top five tacklers — Zachary Orr (108 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), linebacker Derek Akunne (90 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INTs), cornerback Hilbert Jackson (84 tackles), strong safety Larime Lee (72 tackles) and free safety Marcus Trice (63 tackles, 2 INTs).
6. Tulane (2-10, 2-6) — Second-year head coach Curtis Johnson is looking for improvement from the Green Wave, who return eight starters on both sides of the field.
Tulane has its problems. Finding a quarterback and upgrading a defense which ranked 11th out of 12 teams in a league that isn't known for its defense are two that come to mind. However, Johnson isn't losing any sleep over the kicking game.
On a team that was far from perfect, reigning Lou Groza Award winner Cairo Santos was an extra point away from perfection. Santos was 21-of-21 on field goals and it wasn't like he was kicking chip shots. Twelve of his field goals were from 40-plus yards out, including a long of 57. His only miss of the season came on an extra point.
Nick Montana (Joe's son) is the likely starter at quarterback.
Tulane's top three pass-catchers are back, led by first-team All-CUSA honoree Ryan Grant (76 receptions, 1,149 yards, 6 TDs). Complementing Grant are Rob Kelley (81-286) and Xavier Rush (43-520-5).
Regardless of who gets the starting nod at quarterback, the Green Wave must develop some sort of a significant running game. Averaging a minute 1.7 yards per carry, Tulane rushed for only 475 yards and three touchdowns for the season.
Safety Darion Monroe (61 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries) and linebacker Zach Davis (50 tackles, 5 tackles for loss) — the top two tacklers from 2012 — return. Freshman All-American cornerback Lorenzo Doss was a bright spot with 44 tackles and five interceptions in nine starts.
7. Texas-San Antonio (8-4, 3-3 WAC) — Former U of Miami coach Larry Coker leads the upstart Roadrunners into their third season as a program.
Despite the return of 20 starters (10 offense, 8 defense, 2 kickers), the Roadrunners remain one of the youngest teams in college football. Last year's team carried an FBS-low five seniors, while the 2013 edition has only nine scholarship seniors.
A plus-14 turnover differential helped UTSA achieve a winning season following a 3-7 mark in its 2011 startup campaign.
Facing a considerably tougher schedule in 2013, which includes non-conference dates with Oklahoma State and Arizona, the Roadrunners will be hard-pressed to duplicate last year's victory output.
UTSA has a capable quarterback in Eric Soza, who threw for 2,085 yards with an impressive 20-3 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio in 10 games.
Dual threat running back Evans Okotcha accounted for 450 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground and 439 stripes and 3 TDs receiving.
David Glasco II averaged 4.8 yards per carry while generating 537 yards and five scores.
Defensively, the Roadrunners' 2-3-4 tacklers return to chase the Coyote. Safety Triston Wade amassed 74 tackles with four interceptions and a pick-6, followed by safety Nic Johnston with 73 and linebacker Steven Kurfehs with 71.