Football season is finally here, and its time for us here at The Rush to do our first edition of the C-USA Football Power Rankings. We've got a lot of solid teams in the league, in fact four are receiving votes in the preseason top 25. This year should provide for some action packed contests, and a ton of scoring considering this isn't exactly a defense heavy league. One thing of note, these power rankings are not necessarily an estimation of how The Rush thinks these teams will do this season, but more an assessment of where they stand coming in to today. Let's jump right in.
12. Memphis Tigers - 2010 Results (1-11, 0-8)
Is there really anywhere else to put the Tigers? They have been absolutely dismal over the last few years, and nothing really says that this year will be an different. Head Coach Larry Porter is now in his second season at Memphis, and that should provide for a little added stability in the program which should translate into production, but that's still yet to be seen.
Season Projection - The Tigers open the season against no. 20 Mississippi St so things could easily get off on the wrong note. Wins against Austin Peay and Arkansas St are likely, and the Tigers will pick up one or two more in conference. We'll generously call it two (4-8, 2-6).11. Tulane Green Wave - 2010 Results (4-8, 2-6).
This will be Coach Bob Toledo's 5th year with the Green Wave, and he has failed to post more than 4 wins in his previous 4 seasons. The Wave does return a solid nucleus to their offense, including QB Ryan Griffin, RB Orleans Darkwa, and WR Ryan Grant, as well as their defensive anchor in Trent Mackey at MLB (124 total tackles in 2010). Mackey is going to need a lot of help though if he expects to propel the Green Wave out of the C-USA basement.
Season Projection - The Green Wave will open the season with a win over SE LA, but things get a little tougher after that. Their schedule sets up for probably about a 2-4 start, and the second half doesn't get any easier. I see another tough year for Coach Toledo (3-9, 1-7).
10. UTEP Miners - 2010 Results (6-7, 3-5)
Considering this is a UTEP Blog, I could probably go on about the Miners for quite a while. But, for the sake of others we'll try not to go overboard. The Miners lost a ton from last year's squad, especially offensively. The O-Line will almost be completely rebuilt, the receivers have almost no experience, and the QB is a first year JC transfer. Although there is talent there, there's no telling how long it will take for them to put it all together. Thank God for our defense, which returns 8 starters, and a handful of key reserves. That unit should be much improved from last year's, and should keep us in plenty of games. From there its up to the offense.
Season Projection - The Miners start the season at home against Stony Brook, but then hit the road for a 3 game stretch. For the sake of objectivity, I'll say they start 2-2 (although 3-1 is certainly possible). The good thing for the Miners is that even though they play 4 of the top teams in conference down the stretch, only the season ender against UCF is on the road. Mike Price may be on the hot seat, but he should do enough to at least keep his seat (6-6, 3-5).
9. Marshall Thundering Herd (5-7, 4-4)
The Thundering Herd return perhaps the best defensive player in all of C-USA in defensive end Vinny Curry, who led all defensive lineman in the nation in tackles in 2010, and is currently projected to be a likely 2nd round draft pick in next year's NFL draft. On offense, the Herd have two inexperienced QBs vying for the starting role, but do return a host of experienced RBs, and top WR Aaron Dobson which should help ease the QB transition.
Season Projection - This will likely be one of the top defenses in conference, and if they can find a QB to lead their offense consistently they could certainly make some noise in conference. The season opener at WVU, and a week three matchup against Virginia Tech will certainly be tough, but the Herd should find their way into possible bowl talks. Vinny Curry and the D should give them enough chances, but the inexperience at QB is probably too much to overcome (5-7, 3-5).
8. Rice Owls - 2010 Results (4-8, 3-5)
This is probably the most talented Owls team in quite some time, but the defense is unproven, and could really hold them back. Last year was a competitive year that saw almost 20 freshman play significant minutes. They do return RB Sam McGuffie, who should be at the head of their running back committee, and both their QBs who saw significant minutes last year. Still, if the Owls want to finish anywhere above the bottom of C-USA, they'll need to improve on their nearly 40 points given up per game.
Season Projection - Hopes for the Owls are high in Houston, but they signed their death note with 4 extremely tough non conference games. They open the season at Texas, Purdue, at Baylor, and at Southern Miss, and could easily find themselves in an 0-4 hole that may be too deep to get out of. The Owls should get going a bit in conference, but this year will turn out much like last (4-8, 4-4).
7. UAB Blazers - 2010 Results (4-8, 3-5)
The Blazers were another team that was extremely competitive last year, but unfortunately for them, injuries really took their toll, and the Blazers finished their season at 4-8. Six of the eight losses last year were by less than two scores, and four of those six were by less than one score. They certainly had their chances then, and returning 15 of 22 starters should give them their chances now as well. Seniors Bryan Ellis and Pat Shed will lead the way on offense, and after a couple years of being close, they may finally break through in their last year with the Blazers.
Season Projection - The Blazers certainly have a chance at getting to bowl eligibility this year, but its going to take picking up a big win or two. They play at no. 22 Florida, and against no. 20 Mississippi St which should be good preps for league play. They'll be close to bowl eligibility, but I'm not in on that just yet (5-7, 3-5).
6. Tulsa Golden Hurricane - 2010 Results (10-3, 6-2)
The Golden Hurricane are a team that should be in the top 4 or 5 of the C-USA power rankings entering the season, but the news of the suspension of star WR and playmaker Damaris Johnson has to drop them on this list. They still return QB GJ Kinne, but Kinne without Johnson is like Batman without Robin, peanut butter without jelly, or well you get the point. Not only was Johnson the top receiver last season, but he was also second in rushing to none other than GJ Kinne. The defense has some serious questions, especially on the line, and if they can't keep them in games, Tulsa is in serious trouble.
Season Projection - Dustin Rensink of SB Nation Houston made a solid point in a conversation on Sunday, saying that with or without Johnson, the Hurricane are likely to go loss, win, loss, loss, win to open the season. The question from there becomes, will Johnson be suspended beyond those first five games. If he is, a season of high hopes could turn out to be a complete bust. For now, (6-6, 5-3).
5. East Carolina Pirates - 2010 Results (6-7, 5-3)
This may be the highest that you will find the Pirates in all C-USA preseason power rankings, but give me a second to explain. Yes, they lost star WR Dwayne Harris, and both of their top RBs, but they return QB Dominique Davis, a couple of starters on the o-line, and another star WR in Lance Lewis. Lewis caught only 12 less balls than Harris, but had just as much yardage, and 4 more TD's. Defensive minded Coach Ruffin McNeil is now in his second season, and if he can just improve his defense a little, these guys will be a task to handle week in and week out. Even with their losses, the offense won't fall off much. It just depends on the D.
Season Projection - The Pirates open up with no. 12 South Carolina, no. 13 Va Tech, and North Carolina in three of the first four games, but a midseason stretch against Memphis, Navy, and Tulane could allow them to gain some momentum. The Pirates should find themselves in a similar boat as last year, but a little better defense will allow them to get above .500 (7-5, 5-3).
4. Southern Methodist Mustangs - 2010 Results (7-7, 6-2)
The Mustangs return QB Kyle Padron, RB Zach Line, and WR Cole Beasely from last year's skill positions. Line rushed for over 1500 yards last season, and even though Beasley wasn't the no. 1 wideout he still pulled in 87 catches for over 1,000 yards and 6 TD's. The offense also returns the entire offensive line, and the defense returns much of its production from last year, including leading tackler LB Taylor Reed, and fellow C-USA first teamer LB JaGared Davis.
Season Projection - The Mustangs seem poised for a run at the C-USA title, and their early season conference schedule surely sets up for that as they host UTEP, are at Memphis, then host UCF in their opening three games. The week 1 matchup with no. 8 Texas A&M could surely help the Mustangs get off on the right foot, but even if they don't, it'd be a complete disaster if these guys were to miss a bowl game (8-4, 5-3)
3. Houston Cougars - 2010 Results (5-7, 4-4)
The Cougars entered 2010 with hopes of running the table behind the arm of senior QB Case Keenum, but an early season injury to Keenum put him on the shelf the rest of the season, and injuries to the backup QBs in the following weeks completely doomed the Cougars. 2011 sees 18th year senior Case Keenum get a shot at redemption along with leading rushers Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes, and no. 1 wideout Patrick Edwards. The Cougars also get back Charles Sims who had in impact in 2009, but was held out by the NCAA clearinghouse last year, as well as three starters on the offensive line. The defense is led by its linebacking corps that return 3 starters, and a 4th who started a couple of his own. The line gave up nearly 5 yards per carry last year though, and the secondary will start two juco transfers. The success of this team will surely depend on if and when the defense can put it all together.
Season Projection - The Cougars, by most, are expected to win the C-USA West. I'm one that basically believes the same. It'll be a tight race between SMU and Houston, but Keenum's 17 years of experience certainly give them the upper hand. A 5-0 start is very doable, and the Cougs then face ECU, Marshall, and Rice at home in the next three. Although not likely, Houston could finish 12-0. With no UCF or Southern Miss to worry about, this is probably the easiest schedule in C-USA (10-2, 6-2).
2. Central Florida Knights - 2010 Results (11-3, 7-1)
The Knights are coming off an exceptionally successful season that saw them hold the best regular season record in C-USA, win the C-USA title game, and then knock off the SEC's Georgia Bulldogs in the Autozone Liberty Bowl. The Knights return sophomore QB Jeff Godfrey, as well as RBs Latavius Murray, and Ronnie Weaver who combined for over 1,500 yards last season. The main question on offense will be of who can replace the top three WRs that are all now graduated? The defense for the Knights was ranked 8th in the nation in points allowed last year, by far the class of C-USA. The problem is that they lost quite a bit of that defense, and how well those holes will be filled is still up in the air. This will be a good team, but I'm not sold on them being the outright no.1 team in C-USA.
Season Projection - With the losses at receiver, and all throughout the defense, it will be almost impossible for this team to live up to what 2010's squad did. The Knights first 4 games are ooc, so that definitely allows their defense to find itself before conference play, but I just don't see the Knights repeating as C-USA champs (8-4, 5-3).
1. Southern Miss Golden Eagles - 2010 Results (8-5, 5-3)
The Golden Eagles return senior QB Austin Davis who threw for over 3,100 yards, 20 tds, and only 6 ints in 2010. They also return virtually all of the rushing performance, including Desmond Johnson and Kendrick Hardy, who together rushed for over 1,500 yards. Austin Davis also has his top three targets back from last season in WR Kevin Bolden, TE Jodhrick Morris, and WR Quentin Pierce. If it wasn't for 2 starters from the o-line being graduated, this offense would almost literally return everybody. The defense returns a solid nucleus including senior LB Korey Williams (2010 team leading 93 tackles), senior FS Kendrick Presley, and senior DE Cordarro Law (2010 team leading 6 sacks).
Season Projection - The Golden Eagles will certainly be talked about throughout the conference race, and are another team whose fairly mild schedule could allow them to walk through the first half of the season. Their game against UCF at home on November 12th could decide the C-USA East champ, but we'll just have to wait and see (9-3, 6-2).