Conference USA will take on quite a different look this year, as not only does the league field 14 schools, two more than the 12 its had since 2005, but six of those schools happen to be new members. Gone are the likes of Houston, Memphis, SMU, and UCF, and in are Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, and UTSA.
Many national media outlets expect for Tulsa and East Carolina to be the class of the league, and now its time to see whether or not MinerRush's contributors agreed. Each contributor had the opportunity to fill out their own rankings, and a point value was assigned to each rank, with the total number of points eventually deciding how teams ranked. Here's how things shook out.
14. [7 pts] Florida International Panthers - First Opponent: @ Maryland - Saturday August 31st
The Panthers enter Conference USA with a new coach at the helm in Ron Turner. Turner inherits a program that went 3-9 a season ago, and returns only a handful of starters. The offense has their quarterback and running back to build around, but little else beyond that. The defense finds themselves in a similar boat. Add to that a fairly tough non-conference slate to open the season, and this team could be facing an uphill battle only four weeks in. Unless they get some players to step up early, it could be another long season for Panther fans.
PaydirtRenzo says: "First year for head coach Ron Turner will be tough considering he inherits a 3-win team with just 4 starters returning on offense and 4 on defense while joining a tougher conference."
13. [18 pts] Florida Atlantic Owls - First Opponent: @ Miami (FL) - Friday August 30th
The Owls showed great improvement in 2012, tripling their win total from 2011. Unfortunately, they only won a single game in 2011. On offense, the the Owls will need to find a quarterback to replace the graduated Graham Wilbert, but they return virtually every other skill position player from a year ago, and have a couple of linemen to work with as well. The defense only lost one starter at each level from a year ago, and returns a group of capable reserves to fill those voids. This team should continue to improve under second year coach Carl Pelini, but with a tough first half of the season, its hard to say just how much.
MinerLeagueArod says: "William Dukes is a go to guy, but after going 5-19 in conference the last three years, they've got a long way to go in Conference USA."
12. [19 pts] UTSA Roadrunners - First Opponent: @ New Mexico - Saturday August 31st
The Roadrunners enter their first year in Conference USA, just one year after joining the college football bowl subdivision (FBS), and only two years after fielding their first ever college football team. In their lone year at the top level of college football, UTSA went 8-4, but did't beat a single team that won more than four games. In fact, they knocked off four non-Division 1-A schools, and four Division 1-A schools with a combined 8 wins. Now, the Roadrunners return nearly their entire starting group from 2012, losing only three total starters, but they've still got a long way to go if they want to come anywhere near their win total from 2012.
Asalom says: "Larry Coker is definitely building something good in San Antonio, and he's got the entire community fired up. Still though, they're a few years out. This year's schedule is much tougher than that of a year ago, and I think their record will echo that."
11. [22 pts] Tulane Green Wave - First Opponent: vs. Jackson State - Thursday August 29th
The Green Wave didn't show much improvement in Curtis Johnson's first year as head coach, posting the same amount of wins they did in 2011 under former coach Bob Toledo. The program hasn't had a winning season since 2002, but despite that, some feel this might be the year. The offense will need to find a replacement under center for three year starter Ryan Griffin, but they've got plenty of skill position players to build around, including running back Orleans Darkwa who when healthy has been very productive, and stud wideout Ryan Grant. The defense returns eight starters from a unit that was ranked 117th overall a year ago, but if they can find some improvement on that side of the ball, that should translate to some wins.
MinerLeagueArod says: "Nick Montana, Joe Montana's son and Washington transfer, is competing for the starting job. Ryan Grant is an NFL prospect, and they've got lots of returning players, but will they be the same old Green Wave?"
10. [27 pts] North Texas Mean Green - First Opponent: vs. Idaho - Saturday August 31st
The Mean Green enter Conference USA off a 4-9 campaign a year ago, winning one less game than they did in head man Dan McCarney's first year in 2011. It might be a little early to start talking about seats getting warm, but if they've still got things stuck in reverse, some might start to get restless. This could be the year the Mean Green turn the corner though, as they return eight starters on offense, and eight on defense. The offense returns starting quarterback Derek Thompson, as well as their top two rushers, and 4 of their top 5 receivers, while the defense brings back its top 5 tacklers. I wouldn't say they've got an easy start, but Idaho, Ohio, and Ball State isn't exactly a brutal stretch.
PaydirtRenzo says: "This is a program that has always had great potential but has seen poor results the past decade. I think the transition to C-USA will be a tough one for the Mean Green."
9. [28 pts] Southern Miss. Golden Eagles - First Opponent: vs. Texas St. - Saturday August 31st
The Golden Eagles had their worst season in school history in 2011, literally, going 0-12 in head coach Ellis Johnson's first and only season at the helm. Now Todd Monken, the former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, steps in, and looks to bring this program back to the type of winning football they've been used to for decades. And, he'll have to do that while replacing a starting quarterback, top two rushers, top receiver, most of the offensive line, and about half of the defense. Add to that the fact the the Golden Eagles play Nebraska, Arkansas, and Boise State in the first four weeks of the season, and well, it won't be easy.
Asalom says: "Ok, so Southern Miss has to replace virtually everyone from its 2012 self, but other than that things are looking good in Hattiesburg. Really though, this is a program that just wins, no way they repeat what happened last year."
8. [30 pts] UAB Blazers - First Opponent: @ Troy - Saturday August 31st
The Blazers have found themselves in much the same boat each of the last few seasons; plenty of talent returning, and seemingly poised to turn that corner. But, in each of those years, that corner turning part hasn't happened. In 2012, they started 0-4, and just never found their way, finishing the season 3-9. This year, they return quarterback Austin Brown, their top three rushers, top receiver, four of five offensive linemen, and 8 of 11 starters on defense. They also have Troy, Northwestern State, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, and UTSA all in the first half of the season. This could be the year that they finally turn the corner.
MinerLeagueAROD says: "QB Austin Brown took over in week 3, they almost upset Ohio State, and haven't looked back since. Darrin Reaves could be a candidate for player of the year, but they'll need to improve the offensive line for that to happen."
7. [41 pts] Middle Tennessee St. Blue Raiders - First Opponent: vs. W. Carolina - Thursday August 29th
The Blue Raiders had a solid 8-4 mark in 2012, but unfortunately for them it wasn't enough to garner a bowl bid. Of those eight wins, only one came against a team with a winning record, and they had a couple terrible losses, to non-Division 1A McNese St. to start the season, and Arkansas St. 45-0 to end the season. They return eight offensive starters in 2013, and will only have to replace standout wide receiver Anthony Amos as far as skill positions go. The defense returns nine starters, and besides the inability to pressure the quarterback, they weren't a terrible unit. Despite their record a year ago, this team was a bit suspect, but if they can continue to improve, they could be a darkhorse contender out of the east.
Asalom says: "This team team is teetering in the middle of the league. They've got the capability to make a run in the east, but if they don't find those close games going their way like they did last year, they could be taking a step back."
6. [42 pts] UTEP Miners - First Opponent: vs. New Mexico - Saturday September 7th
The Miners enter the 2013 season with new life and a new identity. Mike Price retired after his worst season in El Paso, and in steps Sean Kugler bringing a no-nonsense philosophy. Offensively, the Miners bring back a couple of emerging stars in running back Nathan Jeffery and wide receiver Jordan Leslie, as well as a quarterback with high expectations in Texas A&M transfer Jameill Showers. The defense takes on a new look with the 4-2-5, and despite saying goodbye to quite a few seniors, some shuffling around has given this team plenty of experienced, capable players at all levels. Considering a favorable start to the season with New Mexico, New Mexico State, and UTSA, this team is very capable of getting off on the right foot. If they do, they could make some noise out of the west.
UTEP915 says: "UTEP can definitely be a force in the west if the defense can improve in the new system and Showers lives up to the hype and gives us solid QB play.
5. [45 pts] Louisiana Tech Bulldogs - First Opponent: @ North Carolina St. - Saturday August 31st
The Bulldogs also enter a new era in 2013, saying goodbye to offensive minded Sonny Dykes, and saying hello to the more defensive minded Skip Holtz. The hire isn't a bad one, but it'll be interesting to see the transition from the no. 1 offense in the nation, to whatever it is Holtz turns them into. Offensively, La Tech brings back 1,200 yard running back Kenneth Dixon, but that's about it. That unit will be completely rebuilding. Similarly on the defensive side, they've got a good base on the line to build on, but will be looking for replacements throughout in the back seven. Other than opening up at N.C. State, this team doesn't have an extremely tough schedule, but regardless of who they play, it'll be quite to the task to get near that nine win total from a year ago.
Asalom says: "Its hard to say just how good this team will be. They have to replace a ton from year ago, and now have to learn a completely new system, but pure respect for the nation's 'reigning' top offense and Skip Holtz keeps them in the top 5."
4. [54 pts] Rice Owls - First Opponent: @ #7 Texas A&M - Saturday August 31st
The Owls enter the 2013 season with high expectations from most who follow the conference. After starting the year 1-6, they finished the 2012 campaign with five straight wins, including an Armed Forces Bowl win, and will look to continue with that momentum going forward. If he can stay healthy Taylor McHargue will likely lead the offense, along with a running back committee led by a pair of 800 yard rushers from a year ago. The offensive line remains completely in tact, and much of the same can be said on the opposite side of the ball. The Owls return six linemen with at least 12 games experience, only lose one linebacker, and return their entire secondary. Assuming they stay focused, and healthy, this is truly a team that can compete for the conference crown. They open up with fairly tough stretch, but come conference time, they'll definitely be making some noise.
PaydirtRenzo says: "The Owls had a winning season last year and return a whopping 19 starters. They avoid the top teams in the east on their schedule. I think this is the year for Rice to make a run at the title game."
3. [60 pts] Marshall Thundering Herd - First Opponent: vs. Miami (OH) - Saturday August 31st
The Thundering Herd took a step back in 2012, losing four one possession games in Rakeem Cato's sophomore year despite him throwing for 4,200 yards and 37 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions, while completing nearly 70% of his passes. All that said, the guy can't do everything. Alongside Cato, returns the Herd's top three rushers, top wide receiver, and the majority of the offensive line. Considering that, the offense likely won't be the issue. For this team to truly reach their potential, the 123rd ranked scoring defense from a year ago just simply can't be that bad in 2013. That unit returns seven starters, but loses a pair of safeties that were their leading tacklers a year ago. They'll have to sure that group up if they are going to make a serious run at the east. They've got a fairly favorable schedule in the first half of the season so they'll have their opportunities to get things going early.
Asalom says: "I've been a Rakeem Cato fan since his breakout freshman year, and despite his continued stellar play, his defense just hasn't helped him at all. Something tells me that'll change though in 2013."
2. [65 pts - 1 FPV] East Carolina Pirates - First Opponent: vs. Old Dominion - Saturday August 31st
The Pirates enter as the hands down favorite out of the east. They also enter their final year in Conference USA, and will be looking to leave with the title, their first since winning it back to back in 2008 and 2009. To do that though, will take more consistency than they had a year ago, on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Pirates return 3,000 yard passer Shane Carden, 1,000 yard rusher Vintavious Cooper, and 1,110 yard receiver Justin Hardy, but will need to do a bit of rebuilding on the line. The defense returns nine starters, and will have to maintain, or improve on their 54th rated rush defense in a run happy league. They'll start off the season with a pair of "easy" games against Old Dominion and Florida Atlantic, but the three game stretch that follows (Virginia Tech, at North Carolina, at Middle Tennessee) could be pivotal for the success of their season.
MinerLeagueAROD says: "Big, physical, fast senior Vintavious Cooper is the do it all man on offense, alongside weapons like Carden and Hardy. November 9th could be a championship preview when they take on Tulsa."
1. [69 pts - 4 FPV] Tulsa Golden Hurricane - First Opponent: @ BGSU - Thursday August 29th
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane find themselves beginning 2013 in the same place they ended 2012, on top of Conference USA. This team bruised their way to being the nation's 9th ranked rushing offense, and an 11-3 mark, matching their highest win total (2008) of the last 50 years. Cody Green returns under center looking to build on a solid 2012 season that saw him pass for 2,500 yards in a run heavy offense. The three headed monster in the backfield is no more, as gone is Alex Singleton, but that group will hardly miss a beat as despite being the leading carrier, he was only the third leading rusher. Back are Trey Watts (1,108 yds) and Ja'Terian Douglas (936 yds), but the kryptonite for this team may be the rebuilt offensive and defensive lines. The back seven for the defense is also in need of replacements, making it a bit harder for this team to have another dominant year in C-USA. With a tough opening stretch of games, we'll know more about this team real early on.
m_tx says: They finished 8-1 in C-USA play a year ago, and ended with a strong win in their 2012 bowl game against Iowa State.
MinerLeagueAROD says: "Rebuilding defense, but have aspirations as the last BCS buster if they can upset Oklahoma early in the season."
UTEP915 says: "By far, Tulsa is the class of Conference USA this year."
PaydirtRenzo says: "They've only got 3 starters returning on defense, but then again defense has never been Tulsa's strong-suit anyway."
Asalom says: "Until anyone else proves otherwise, this is the league's top team."