Today our series of Conference Conversations takes us to Conference USA. The Saturday Edge is very pleased to present an exclusive Conference USA football Q & A session with Anthony Salom of the UTEP sports blog Miner Rush.
Honestly, there are two teams that are the favorites of Conference USA West heading into the 2012 season. Tulsa and SMU. In the East, its a little tougher to call, but I’ll step out on a limb here and take Marshall.
Tulsa loses star QB GJ Kinne, but will replace him with Nebraska transfer Cody Green. They also have four offensive players returning who had 800+ yards rushing or receiving in 2011, and 7 defensive starters returning as well.
SMU also loses their QB, but brings in highly touted Garret Gilbert, who transferred from Texas, to replace the departed JJ McDermott. Also returning are RB Zach Line (perhaps C-USA’s top RB), and WR Darius Johnson, but will only have 5 players back on defense.
Marshall had an up and down year in 2011, but finished by winning four of the last five, including a win over FIU in the St. Petersburg Bowl. On offense, they return sophomore QB Rakeem Cato, two of their top three RBs, and a handful of solid WRs. Defensively, the Herd will have to figure out how to replace the likes of Vinny Curry, but will return 7 of 11 starters.
As far as the sleeper picks, in the West I like my UTEP Miners. I may be a bit of a homer with this pick, but we’ve got arguably the most experienced QB, a veteran offensive line, explosive playmakers at WR and RB, and 8 seniors and 3 juniors on a solid defensive unit. If we can stay healthy, and with a shot at SMU at home early in the conference slate, we could have a chance to make a run at the title.
In the East, I like ECU. In my opinion, they were very close to having a great season in 2011, but just couldn’t put it all together. Even though they lose QB Dominique Davis, with 14 overall starters returning, they’re one to look out for in 2012.
UCF will certainly be in the picture but considering the news of the NCAA coming down on them for recruiting infractions, they probably won’t be eligible to play in the title game.
If today I’m choosing who I think will win the conference title, I’d probably have to go with Tulsa over Marshall in a close one. Both bring solid playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, but I give Tulsa the defensive edge.
As far as unknown players who could become stars this year, I’ll start with UTEP sophomore RB Nathan Jeffrey. Even though he didn’t have a ton of touches in 2011, he’s already been named to the Doak Walker Award watch list. We’re expecting big things from him.
ECU’s Justin Hardy is also a name to look out for. In 2011, as a redshirt freshman, he led the Pirates in receiving with 64 catches, and 658 yards. While, his numbers don’t exactly make him an unknown, considering he was only a freshman, he still flew under the radar for most of the season last year. Look for him to continue to improve in 2011, and to gain a bit of recognition on the national scene.
Last, is Marshall QB Rakeem Cato. While his freshman year wasn’t exactly a stellar one, he completed 60% of his passes for just over 2,000 yards, for 15 TDs and 11 INTs. And, it can’t be overstated that he was a true freshman. Now, with some experience under his belt, and some solid playmakers around him, look for him to have a breakout season this year.
I think Tulane has to be the team that will show the most improvement from 2011. And most of that has to do with the fact that they went 2-11 last year. There’s really only one way to go. Up! Offensively, the Green Wave bring back QB Ryan Griffin, and RB Orleans Darkwa, both of which should be poised for solid seasons. With games against Louisiana Monroe, Louisiana Lafayette, UAB, Memphis, and Rice, the Green Wave could possibly have a chance to at least double their win total from 2011.
As far as who is the most overrated, I think I’d have to say SMU. It seems like expectations for the team this year are much like they were last year. And last year, the Mustangs got pounded by every good team in the league, and snuck by middle of the road teams like UTEP and Rice. Aside from their shocking win over TCU, SMU didn’t beat anyone who finished .500 or better. If Garrett Gilbert can’t produce quickly, things might not go exactly as planned in Dallas.
I would like to thank Anthony for his participation and great answers to our Conference USA football questions. If you get a chance please check out Miner Rush, they have a lot of great information on UTEP and Conference USA football. And don’t forget to leave us your Conference USA football comments below.