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Conference USA Football Q & A with Miner Rush

Conference USA Football Q & A with Miner Rush

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

Question # 1: Which teams do you believe are going to win the C-USA Divisions? What other team(s) could realistically challenge for the division & conference title? Why?

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.

Conference USA Football - UTEP QB Nick Lamaison

UTEP QB Nick Lamaison

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.

Question # 2: Name me a few unknown players that could become stars this season?

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.

Question # 3: Which team do you believe will show the greatest improvement over last season? Which team is overrated (not nearly as good as they are being made out to be)?

Conference USA Football - Tulane RB Orleans Darkwa

Tulane RB Orleans Darkwa

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.

– Pez.


16 Responses to “Conference USA Football Q & A with Miner Rush”

  1. SoonerBS says:

    Marshall? Interesting . . .

    • Pezgordo Pezgordo says:

      He had written about UCF, but after the sanctions came down yesterday he revised it a little. East looks pretty wide open between Marshall, ECU and Southern Miss.

      You should have a good read on Tulsa since they are from your neck of the woods. What are your thoughts on the Golden Hurricanes this year?

    • Imo, its between UCF, ECU, and Marshall. UCF is likely out of the picture due to those recruiting infractions. Between ECU and Marshall, I like where Marshall is at offensively, and they return 7 defensive starters. ECU has yet to name an official starter at QB to replace Dominique Davis…Like I said, I’m stepping out on a limb, but it should be an interesting race.

      • Pezgordo Pezgordo says:

        Thanks for the follow up comment Anthony. What about Southern Miss? You think they lost too much personnel (including HC Fedora) to challenge?

        • No problem…Southern Miss hasn’t won less than 7 games since 2001 (6), and they haven’t won less than 6 since 1993. So, I don’t expect them to fall off the map. But, yes. New QB, new coach, still w/o their leading rusher, and a ton of holes to fill on defense. They’ll be competitive, I just don’t expect them to repeat.

  2. jimmyd says:

    C-USA thoughts. Disclaimer: 20 yr.Tulsa Hurricane season ticket holder. And guess what? I live here.

    The East and West break down the same. The Ares and the Wannabes, the haves and the have nots.


    Haves, TU, HOU, SMU. Have nots, Utep, Rice, Tulane. (order of finish)

    TULSA – QB Green was a starter at Nebr. Not a bad pedigree. And after 3 great QBs in Peterson, Smith, Kinne running this program, Green is the incarnation to continue the trend. He ran the scout team while sitting out last year, but has had time to get the playbook down and understand the offense. 2 RBs that were 2nd team CUSA LY. A receiver corps that just reloads year after year. An experienced offense line anchored by the best center in the conference in T. Dupey. The defense is senior laden and may be the best in CUSA. They run a 4 man line and many hybrids of 2-5, 3-4. and even 1-6 in the backfield. They have a Cane & Bandit manned by 2 Srs, who are liable to play anywhere in the defense. Coaching is stable and everyone is back, which is an advantage with 2 west programs having new staffs at Hou, and Tulane. HC Blankenship was a fairly unknown coach except locally where he has coached major HS and asst at TU before being named HC. He’s made believers of us now. TU has good depth except at QB If Green goes down, the year will be history. The schedule sets up nicely. TU is a 2 pt. fav @ Iowa St in game , then catches 7 wannabes before a game @ Ark. The finish of @ Hou, vs. UCF, @ SMU is the killer, but by this time we are hoping TU will be rollling down the river (the Arkansas River runs thru the middle of town). With basically a whole year under the belt, these games may be close, but winnable. TU could have an 11-1 year, or 7-5. But lets hope for the former and not the latter.

    HOU – Cougars also start a new QB but by no means inexperienced, having filled in for the injured and now graduated Keenum in ’10 for 8 games, then taking a redshirt last year. After 3 yrs., he should be ready to step right in. They return their lone runner, but lose a lot on their 4 wide receiver set. Experienced off. line. The def. line is manned by 4 Srs, and will be hard to run on, with 2 Sr LBs in the 4-3. The def backs return experience. The schedule sets up nicely with 2 bumps being SMU and ECU on the road, but they do catch Tulsa at home for homecoming. My biggest problem with Hou is a new coaching staff. If they prove capable, along with QB Piland, Hou could be sitting on top again.

    SMU – Another B12 QB in Gilbert(statrer for TX). Great RB crew with capable WRs. But the weakest off. line of the haves. A strong LB corps makes the defense. The Mustangs have maybe the best HC in CUSA in June Jones. He’ll have his troops ready to face HOU, TULSA, So Miss at home and UCF on the road. SMU has always been one of TU’s toughest games on the road. I have them 3rd based on tougher schedule with 4 haves, and weaker off line.

    UTEP – Sorry Miner Rush. I’m not sold on QB Lamaison, and with facing 6 haves, 4 on the road, even HC Price has got to shake his head. Then you add in non-confr games vs. OU, @ Ole Miss, @ Wisky before facing @ ECU, @TU, @ Hou,
    the Miners could be 3-6 before facing UCF and @ So. Miss. With this schedule, I see them fighting to stay out of the cellar.

    Rice – The Owls are, well, the Rice Owls. 4-8 (3-5 confr) the last 2 yrs and no improvement in site. Expect another 4-8, but 2-5 in confr.

    Tulane – Let me say this. I Love New Orleans. My daughter is a Tulane med grad. Go Green Wave. But you have just been an afterthought since the hurricane rolled thru. Not Tulsa, Katrina. And sad to say, a new coaching staff is not going to improve this in a year. But good luck in the future.


    Haves, UCF, So Miss, ECU, Have nots Marshall, UAB, Memphis.

    Not as familiar with the East but some short thoughts. And I’m tired of typing.

    UCF – Everyone likes them this year, top 25 team. They have to go to Tulsa but get ECU and So Miss at home, Beat So. Miss, they win the East. I like HC O’Leary. QB Gabbert is another B12 trensfer (Mizzou) which makes 3 for CUSA. This is a solid team all around, (notes ay the end)

    SO MISS – Losing their HC and QB questions will cost them this year.

    ECU – Having to travel to So. Miss puts them in 3rd. QB questions, but I like the HC.

    MARSHALL – One thing I agree. Marshall could surprise. They catch Tulsa, UCF and Houston at home, give them an upset and who knows.Solid at RB and WR and if QB Cato comes through, they’re a sleeper.

    UAB – New HC Garrick McGee is another Oklahoma product. Lets give him acouple of years, because has nothing to work with this year.

    MEMPHIS – See UAB. New HC Justin Fuente is a local boy, HS QB stud at a major school in town,ex-TU QB player who got screwed over in a coaching change, but man. did he not step into a pitiful program here. GL.

    And now, a couple of kickers in the whole thing just to make things fun.

    UCF on probation. They can’t compete for the title, but guess what. They can still sure kick your ass and that still counts as a loss. They will be a fly in the soup for everyone else. How fun will it be to show everybody we’re better than you anyway. Especially as next year…

    CUSA breakup. UCF, HOU, SMU and Memphis are all gone at the end of the year. How about a little lets kick your butt and don;t let the door hit you in the ass as your leaving from the rest of the conference.

    My thoughts only, but comments are welcome.


    • I’ll start off by agreeing with the others in saying great comments. It’s nice to talk with other knowledgeable C-USA fans. Btw, we do more than just UTEP sports at Feel free to stop by to talk about C-USA power rankings and more in season. Anyway…Here’s a bit of a rebuttal.

      Tulsa: I don’t disagree with you, in fact I picked them to win the conference. But, realize that Cody Green was never the starter at Nebraska, he may have started a game, but was never a true starter. Also, your offensive line is being rebuilt after losing both your tackles, a guard, and your top TE. I still think with the returning pieces your offense will be good, but I don’t think it matches 2011. Your defense is what will carry this team to a title, if they are to do so.

      Houston: Yes Houston has Piland, but they lose pretty much all their receiving production, and I don’t see that defense being tough to run on. Last year, we torched them for 270 on the ground, and they haven’t been a good run stopping unit in recent years. I’ll believe they can stop the run when I see it. On top of that, they only have four starters returning in their front 7, and only two on the line. They have, as mentioned before, a new QB in Piland, and a new coaching staff, and are changing their base defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Like I said about Southern Miss above, I don’t see them falling off the map, but they won’t be nearly as good as last year.

      SMU: I think we have similar thoughts on SMU. But, I’m not sold on Gilbert yet. Yes he was a great HS QB, but that doesn’t mean much in college. And, there’s a reason he never worked out at Texas. He just wasn’t very good.

      UTEP: Jimmy, you may not be sold on Lamaison, but there’s a reason the guy went to Tennessee to begin his career. When things didn’t work out there, he went the juco route, passed for 7,500 yards, 66 TDs to only 20 INTs, and won two straight juco national championships. Last year, he would’ve shown a lot more, had our offensive line been able to protect him. He was knocked out week 2 with a shoulder injury, and never had a chance to get in rhythm. With a veteran offensive line this year, things will be different. More than Lamaison, we have a sophomore RB in Nathan Jeffrey who was just named to the Doak Walker Watch List, a center who was named to the Rimington Watch List, we return our top two WRs, including 1 (Edwards) who was Lamaison’s go to guy in juco, and we also JUST picked up a 6’5 218lb juco WR for 2012. Our TE group goes four deep, and one at least one of them, Kevin Perry, should make some noise in C-USA. On defense we return 7 starters, and will be starting 8 seniors and 3 juniors. In DC Andre Patterson’s third year, this D should be one of the best we’ve seen at UTEP in a while. Also throw in the fact that we have a weapon in the hands down best punter in the league, possibly even the nation.

      As far as UTEP goes, I’ll end with this. Jimmy, yes we have an extremely tough schedule, probably the toughest in the conference. But, you being a Tulsa fan, should remember what people were saying about your team a year ago, heading into a schedule that featured OU, OKST, and Boise St in the first few weeks of the season. Sure you got pounded in those games, but it made you all stronger for C-USA play. I see things the same for UTEP. If we can make it our of our ooc run in relatively good shape health-wise, look out for us in Conference USA.

      Rice and Tulane: I don’t even want to get into.

      In the east:

      UCF: Yes, UCF will be good, but with the NCAA sanctions, they likely will not be allowed to play in the C-USA championship game, so I’m not gonna pick them to win conference.

      Southern Miss: See my comment from a couple of days ago on them.

      Marshall: I’ll just say that they are on the rise. You are completely entitled to your own opinions on them.

      ECU: I like Ruffin McNeil as well, but let’s face it, they’ve underperformed so far in his first couple years. The biggest thing for the Pirates is they lose Dominique Davis who completed like 70% of his passes.

      Like with Rice and Tulane, I’ll don’t even wanna get into UAB and Memphis…And I’m not saying those teams can’t be good, I’m just looking at who I think could have a chance for a conference title.

      Last, I just want to say, that all this “haves and have nots” doesn’t mean a damn thing. If it did, then we wouldn’t play the games. I can guarantee you that this year in C-USA will not be like last where there is a clear cut champ on both sides of the league. It will be a race, and a lot of teams will have a shot at the crown. Should be a great season…AND I CAN’T WAIT FOR IT TO GET HERE!!!

  3. UTSUX says:

    jimmyD just full of Knowledge. Good read D.

  4. Pezgordo Pezgordo says:

    Outstanding info jimmyd. Thanks for the terrific comment. I know GoSooners is pretty high on SMU. He thinks they could have the best D in the conference. I took them +14 in their opener against Baylor only because I thought the number was too high (which apparently it was since it has since dropped to 11). Do you have an opinion on that game?

    Thanks again for the great C-USA info.

  5. SoonerBS says:

    Good stuff here, Jimmy and Anthony. 🙂

  6. GoSooners GoSooners says:

    I won’t be convinced with Tulsa until I actually see them play. I like Cody Green. He was a stud in a bad scheme when he played at Nebraska. But he’s two years removed from the game. And if that isn’t enough, he also had offseason surgery. So there’s a chance he may not be fully recovered or 100%. I know it’s not easy replacing a veteran QB who threw for ten thousand yards in his career. Kinne was the kind of player who made a coaching job much easier. Tulsa had 18 starters back last year. This year they’ll have 13 back. Blankenship isn’t an experienced college coach. So I think this year will test his HC ability much more than last year. If Tulsa can’t get their offense going, I have my doubts they have a good enough defense to pick up the slack.

  7. Davis says:

    This is some of the best C-USA insight I have read all pre-season. Thank you for the information Anthony and jimmyd. It is difficult to find good small conference information. I will check out your site Anthony.

  8. jimmyd says:

    Davis – Thanks for your kind words.

    GoSooners – Here’s the deal on Cody Green. He is different than Kinne. Kinne was a top running back for TU. Outside threat. Quick. Green doesn’t have the quickness but is bigger. He runs up the middle. But Green does have a better arm. Which brings up Blankenship. Yes, rookie HC (2 yr), but he has been here for 5 yrs. in other coaching duties, and an ex-TU QB.His son is the 4th string QB. He’s Blue and Gold through and through. He knows what he has to work with, and the playbook will refect using Green using his skills his way. Kinne was a dual threat QB, Green less so. Green is more of a pocket passer, (hey, he came from Nebr), and actually doesn’t run well to the left. But I suspect he is a more acurate passer with a stronger arm. Anywho, lets hope so. And his surgery is a non-issue. And his running to the left brings up..

    Anthony – Your right. Missed talking about the off. line in original comment. LT is the problem. The blind side. We have the best center in CUSA and actually are upgrading both guard spots with new guys. From all reports so far in camp, the new guards are just monsters, esp. with the run. RT should be ok, but I think we may see some shifting around at LT. After getting through all the coach speak, I’m not hearing much on LT, which in some cases is no news is bad news.
    And to continue with UTEP, from TU experience LY, let us hope you have depth. As you know with the TU OOC schedule LY, it was ugly like yours is this yr. TU was decimated with hurts and injuries. Lost a DB to IR, and a lot of other pains/sprains/pulls that cost a start here and there, some even lingering for the whole year. You’re going to be playing some mean tough animals early. But TU had a little softer schedule later, UTEP’s may not be so lucky this year. But I do wish you and the Miners the best of luck.

    Pez – Looking at that SMU/Baylor game.

    SoonerBS – Can always get TU @ Marshall tixs in W. Va if you want to go. 🙂

  9. Great comments all around. Anyone interested in C-USA football, make sure to check us out at and chime in on the conversation. Football season is upon us!!

  10. ERockMoney says:

    Great stuff guys. This type of conversation is what pays dividends through a long, hard, grinding gambling campaign. The “smaller” conferences are the moneymakers, IMO.

    I have always found the more time spent in CUSA, Big East, MAC, WAC, MWC and Sun Belt translates at a better return than the big conferences.

    JIMMYD – I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on Tulsa’s opener because I’m giving a strong lean towards the Cyclones as home one point dog.

  11. GoSooners GoSooners says:

    JimmyD…Great thoughts on Cody Green and Tulsa. I was impressed with the size of the kid when I first saw him on the field when he had to fill in for Martinez a couple years ago in their game at Baylor. I would think if he remains a 100% healthy he could make a huge impression in that conference. I’m still not totally convinced of Blankenship since he inherited what was basically a ready-made team last year. But given that it IS the CUSA, and not a BCS conference, and that Sumlin and Fedora are now gone, he’s probably as good or better than anybody else that conference has to offer outside of maybe June Jones. But Jones better do something quick or he may not be going with SMU when they join the Big East. Same with O’Leary.

    I get the feeling it’s going to be a very close race. Unlike last year, no team is really complete like a Southern Miss or Houston we had last year. I’m looking at 4 teams that have a decent chance to win the conference. Tulsa, UCF, Marshall, SMU. I’m not crazy about teams with new coaches. Especially if they are also replacing their QB, like Houston and Southern Miss. I’m also not a fan of Ruffin McNeill. And how is Mike Price still coaching at UTEP?

    Jimmy, I would also like your opinion on Tulsa/Iowa State. I normally avoid the games where the non-BCS opponent is favored over a BCS opponent in road games. No matter how bad the BCS opponent may look.

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