NCF Nation: Neil Callaway
Houston one step away. The Cougars faced a tough task on the road at Tulsa, with a spot in the Conference USA championship game on the line. Tulsa jumped out to a 10-6 lead early in the game, and some had to wonder whether we were seeing the old Houston come back to life. But these are not the Cougars of 2009 or 2010. The Cougars reeled off 28 straight points in the second half to blow open the game and win 48-16. Case Keenum threw for 457 yards and five touchdown passes, and Patrick Edwards had 181 yards and four touchdowns as Houston won a school-record 12th game. Two of their touchdown connections came on fourth down. Edwards went over 100 yards for the 16th time in his career and also broke the conference record for career receiving yards. Houston now hosts Southern Miss on Saturday with a chance to make its first BCS appearance.
Coaching carousel starts. Akron, Memphis and UAB all are in the market for new head coaches. The Zips fired Rob Ianello after he went 2-22 in his two seasons at the helm. The Tigers fired Larry Porter after he went 3-21 in two seasons. UAB fired Neil Callaway after he went 18-42 in five seasons with the Blazers. Athletic directors at all three schools essentially said they did not see improvement in their programs and decided to go in different directions. Callaway is the third Conference USA coach who has been fired this season, joining Bob Toledo of Tulane. New Mexico also fired coach Mike Locksley earlier this season, but already hired former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie. Meanwhile, Ianello was reportedly fired as he drove to his mother's funeral in Long Island, N.Y.
Going bowling. Marshall became bowl eligible for the first time under coach Doc Holliday, after a 34-27 win over East Carolina in overtime. The Pirates sent the game into the extra period when Dominique Davis threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Justin Jones with 14 seconds left in regulation. But Davis threw an interception in overtime, after Tron Martinez scored on a 1-yard run for the Herd. East Carolina will not be in a bowl game for the first time in six years. As for the Herd, they are one of several non-AQ teams to become bowl eligible after losing seasons in 2010:
- Ball State improved from 4-8 to 6-6.
- Western Kentucky improved from 2-10 to 7-5.
- Wyoming improved from 3-9 to 7-4, with one game remaining at Colorado State.
- Louisiana Tech improved from 5-7 to 8-4 and WAC champs.
- Utah State improved from 4-8 to 6-5 with one game remaining at New Mexico State.
- Arkansas State improved from 4-8 to 9-2.
- Louisiana-Lafayette improved from 3-9 to 8-4.
As you can see, three Sun Belt teams made five-game improvements, and the league has four bowl-eligible teams this season.
Game of the week. FAU 38, UAB 35.
Howard Schnellenberger announced his retirement before the season, began but his final season was not exactly going according to plan. The Owls were the only winless team in FBS heading into Week 13. But alas, the football gods conspired to make sure the legendary program builder would not go out without a win. The Owls played inspired football Saturday against UAB, beating the Blazers 38-35 as Schnellenberger avoided his first winless season. Alfred Morris had a career-high four touchdowns, with a career-high 198 yards on 38 carries to notch his fifth straight 100-yard game. "I got the biggest and best kiss from [wife] Beverlee in a long time on the sideline," Schnellenberger said afterward. "And I'm expecting more when I get home."
WAC-ky WAC. Nevada was in control of the WAC heading into last week's game against Louisiana Tech. But the Wolf Pack have now dropped two straight games, losing to Utah State 21-17 on Saturday. The Bulldogs had no such problems after their big win over Nevada last week and beat New Mexico State 44-0 to win their first WAC title since 2001. Louisiana Tech has won seven straight after starting the year 1-4. The team also accepted a bowl spot in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, the fifth bowl bid in school history. This will be first bowl appearance since an Independence Bowl victory over Northern Illinois in 2008.
Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall. Cato went 23-of-29 for 341 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-27 overtime win over East Carolina to get the Thundering Herd to a bowl game.
Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple. Pierce had a season-high 189 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries in a 34-16 win over Kent State. Pierce went over the 100-yard mark in rushing for the 17th time in his career and eighth time this season. Pierce has had three or more touchdowns in six games this year.
Bobby Rainey, RB, Western Kentucky. Rainey had a season-high 227-yards and three touchdowns in a 41-18 win over Troy. Rainey also broke the school's single-season rushing record, ending the regular season with 1,695 yards. He now leads the nation for the second straight season in carries and broke his own school record with 369 attempts on the season.
Travis Stanaway, S, Boise State. Stanaway, making just the second start of his career for Boise State, had a career-high nine tackles, forced a fumble and had his first career interception as a Bronco in a 36-14 win over Wyoming.
Bobby Wagner, LB, Utah State. Wagner had a game-high 15 tackles in a 21-17 win over Nevada, and also had a critical fumble recovery on a fourth-and-1 in the final minutes of the game to preserve the victory.
Many thought he was on the hot seat last season, too. But the problem is he has a large buyout that New Mexico cannot afford to pay. According to local reports, it would have cost the program $1.4 million to fire him after last season. It would cost $1 million to fire him in 2011. So he may actually be safe if he has another bad season, unless New Mexico can find some serious cash.
I would put UAB coach Neil Callaway and Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild at the top of this list. Callaway goes into his fifth season at the school and has now been given plenty of time to get his players in to try and get into a bowl for just the second time in school history. He is 15-33 in four seasons and the Blazers went 4-8 last season. With 16 returning starters, including quarterback Bryan Ellis and running back Pat Shed, this could be bowl game or bust season for Callaway.
As for Fairchild, he took his team to a bowl game in his first season in 2008, but his teams have now posted back-to-back 3-9 seasons. The Rams also return 15 starters, including quarterback Pete Thomas. The Rams should be favored in four of their five nonconference games (Utah State, San Jose State, Northern Colorado, UTEP) so expectations will be high to return to a bowl.
Ron English also has gone 2-22 in his first two seasons. His team showed vast improvement last season over 2009. If that continues in 2011, he should be safe even with a losing record. But there are going to have to be more Ws in the win column. Bob Toledo is 12-37 in four seasons at Tulane
West replaces Eric Schumann on the UAB staff. Schumann had served as the defensive coordinator the past four seasons.
In addition to his coordinator duties, West will also coach the linebackers. Tyson Summers, who has served as linebackers coach the past four seasons, will now coach the UAB safeties.
West brings plenty of experience to the staff. Most recently, he served as the head coach at the Memphis, where he guided the Tigers to five bowl appearances in nine seasons. He was fired after in November 2009.
“I’ve known Tommy since the mid-80s and I’ve always thought he did a great job,” UAB coach Neil Callaway said in a statement. “I was really impressed with the job he did with Memphis’ defense when he was their coordinator, and the job he did as a head coach both there and when he was at Clemson.
“I know he is a good person and outstanding coach who fits into what we are doing both in philosophy and in toughness.”
West spent the 2000 season as defensive coordinator before becoming head coach. The Tigers finished the season ranked No. 1 in the nation in rushing defense (72.7 yards allowed per game) and were fifth in total defense (275.3 yards yielded per contest).
West also spent five seasons (1993-98) as the head coach at Clemson. He coached the Tigers to a win in the Peach Bowl a month after being hired and was a part of four bowl teams during his time at Clemson.
A mediator is handling the WAC lawsuit against Nevada and Fresno State, according to a report.
Hawaii defensive line coach Tony Tuioti tried to coach his wife through her labor as he made his way back home from Fresno State. She gave birth to a girl while the team was in flight to Honolulu.
Southern Miss senior linebacker Martez Smith has a knee injury that ends his season and career.
Creating an independent schedule has been a big challenge for BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe.
Boise State is using more of the Wildcat.
San Diego State WR Preston King has turned to coaching, because an undiagnosed heart condition has prevented him from playing this season.
Houston freshman quarterback David Piland is getting on-the-job training.
Troy needs a new option at backup quarterback with Jamie Hampton out for the season.
The heat is on UAB coach Neil Callaway, whose team is off to a 1-4 start. Many fans are calling for his ouster.
Buffalo has moved quarterback Alex Dennison to tight end.
Behind an aggressive, attacking unit, the Knights returned a fumble and an interception for touchdowns, and harassed quarterbacks Bryan Ellis and David Isabelle in an impressive 42-7 victory. UAB (1-4, 0-2) had been close in its four other games this season -- three of them came down to the final play. But this game was essentially over at halftime for the Blazers.
"Anytime you can score on defense it's a major plus, a lot of hard work paid off," UCF coach George O'Leary said in quite the understatement.
The Knights (3-2, 1-0) came into the game with the No. 1-ranked defense and No. 1 scoring defense in Conference USA. They needed a big win after coming just short on the road at Kansas State. They led the entire way until the Wildcats scored in the final minute to win. The team held a players-only meeting to remind everyone there was still the entire conference slate yet to play, and one heartbreaking loss should not ruin a season.
The defense clearly took that to heart, and if you had to give out one helmet sticker, it would go to safety Kemal Ishmael. He intercepted Ellis on the first drive of the game, returning the ball down to the UAB 23-yard line. That led to Ronnie Weaver scoring on a 4-yard run for the first score of the night.
Then in the third quarter, Ishmael stripped Isabelle after a run, and Josh Robinson returned the fumble 56 yards for a touchdown to make it 28-0. Ishmael finished second on the team with seven total tackles.
"He doesn't get the headlines other guys get but if I was drafting a team he would be one of the first guys I'd take," O'Leary said. "He can do a lot of things, run and pass, and makes a lot of key tackles in situations. He's a very good football player and is just being recognized on how well he's playing."
The final defensive score came when Ellis made a terrible mistake. In danger of being sacked, he lofted the ball high in the air while he was falling backward. Troy Davis was there to pick the ball off and score to make it 42-7. Ellis went 14-of-30 for 149 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, after two straight 300-yard performances.
"They outplayed us," UAB coach Neil Callaway said. "They out-coached us. They did everything better than we did. We weren't ready to play and that is my fault."
After the impressive win for UCF, it is safe to say the race for the Eastern Division in Conference USA should come down to the Knights and Southern Miss. Sorry, East Carolina. That defense is just not good enough yet, and injuries on the defensive front hurt. East Carolina travels to Southern Miss this weekend in an important division game. Southern Miss plays at UCF on Nov. 13.
But UAB and UCF are just fine with playing those games if they are on national television. The two Conference USA East Division rival square off in Orlando tonight in their first conference game.
"The big thing is we’ve got back-to-back Wednesday games, but I think any time you can get on national TV and the exposure the conference gets and the school gets, you can’t pay for that," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "It’s an odd night, but it’s a great opportunity for both schools to go out and show what they’re about."
It's also an opportunity for both schools to put disappointing losses behind them. The Knights lost in the closing minute to Kansas State after leading for the entire game. Carson Coffman scored with 36 seconds left to give the Wildcats the 17-13 win. As for UAB, three of its four games have come down to the final play.
The most recent came in its last game against Tennessee, a 32-29 double overtime loss that featured five missed field goals from Josh Zahn. Coach Neil Callaway opened up his kicking competition during the bye week, but Zahn has held on to his job.
"We tried to create a lot of distraction with teammates on the field, crowd noise and harassing them," Callaway said. "He won the battle."
As for how Zahn has responded since his tough outing against the Vols, Callaway said, "Obviously, he missed five, but he made two at the end of the game in overtime, which is good. He’s disappointed, but I don’t think he’s so rattled that he can’t perform still."
UCF will see a different UAB team than it is used to seeing thanks Bryan Ellis, who has taken over at quarterback. Ellis is more of a pocket passer and has thrown for 360 or more yards in his two starts. Meanwhile, the Knights will start true freshman Jeffrey Godfrey, but O'Leary plans on playing veteran Rob Calabrese. Godfrey has started the last two games in place of Calabrese. But Calabrese didn't see any playing time against Kansas State, and O'Leary thought that was a mistake.
"Did you see the last game? Of course we need both," O'Leary said. "I think it's natural when we have a young, freshman quarterback that you give him a chance to get a little blow out there and see what's going on to get his head where it's at, if he is making some mistakes. If they are older kids, I think you can use a one quarterback team because they are used to the pressure and the sense of urgency at that position. When you have a young kid, you have to have two ready to play and get them both in the game plan."
For UAB coach Neil Callaway, it is all about trying to accentuate the positives. His team has competed hard. It has never given up. The effort has been there. If a few plays had gone differently ... but there are no ifs in college football, of course.
So the Blazers are 1-3 heading into their bye week, before a big game at East Division rival UCF on Oct. 6.
“What we’re going to do is take the high road and try to build off the positive and build off the fact that guys are playing hard,” Callaway said in a phone interview. “There’s some satisfaction in competing and playing hard, but there’s no satisfaction coming up on the short end. If we got into a game where we didn’t compete and we didn’t try, that would be more troublesome.”
Zahn is 3-of-9 on his field goal attempts this season. That also includes a block on a 28-yard attempt that would have won the season opener against FAU. The Owls were able to get penetration, but the kick never got up high enough.
Callaway said Zahn is doing fine, but disappointed over his misses. He pointed out that Zahn was able to make his two field goals in overtime, showing his mettle as a competitor.
Still, it has to be tough to swallow a loss in which you have a school-record 92 plays and outgain the Vols 544-287. The same could be said of the game against the Owls. UAB outgained them 424-347, had more first downs, and quarterback David Isabelle ran for three touchdowns and 214 yards. UAB led the entire way, until FAU scored on a 38-yard run with 2:20 left in the game.
UAB was able to pull out a 34-33 win over Troy when Bryan Ellis threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jackie Williams on the final play of the game to win. The 99-yard drive started with 1:09 left and UAB without timeouts.
The only game that was not close on the scoreboard was a 28-7 loss to SMU, but even then UAB had chances. Trailing 14-7 late in second quarter, UAB drove 75 yards to the SMU 1-yard line but failed to score before the half ended.
Then, UAB opened the second half and drove 74 yards. Isabelle hit Frantrell Forrest for an apparent 50-yard touchdown, but Forrest fumbled at the goal line and SMU recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
“It’s obvious we can compete and play with anybody and we’ve made that statement all along,” Callaway said. “For a team like us, there’s not much room for margin of error. We’re not better than anybody hands down, but we’re good enough to compete and win every ballgame we play. If we continue to play hard, we can win a lot of ballgames.”
One of the biggest positives of the first four games has been the play of Ellis, who has now taken the starting job from Isabelle. Ellis came in off the bench against Troy and threw for 360 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that up with another big game against Tennessee, and has thrown for 733 yards in two games -- earning back-to-back Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Ellis provides a change of pace to what fans have seen out of UAB in recent years behind Joe Webb, a dual-threat quarterback. Isabelle is more in the mold of Webb, but Ellis is a pocket passer.
His story is even more impressive when you consider he did not play his first two seasons because of a shoulder injury. In his only action last season, Ellis went 1-of-4 for 14 yards but injured his hand and was limited the rest of the year.
Callaway will continue to play Isabelle to change up his offense, and likes the 1-2 punch his quarterback gives his team.
“The diversity we have with it creates problems for defenses,” Callaway said.
Now it is just a matter of putting everything together and winning those close games.
The good: Toledo is off to a 3-1 start after winning three straight road games for the first time since 2002. Its 31-20 win over Purdue Saturday gives the Rockets wins over teams from automatic qualifying in five straight seasons. Quarterback Austin Dantin is putting together a nice season in his sophomore year, and went 24-of-31 passing for 209 yards and two scores. He also ran the ball a game-high 17 times for 64 yards and two touchdowns -- including a career-long 58-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter. … Temple kept it closer against Penn State than it had in a really long time, falling to the Nittany Lions 22-13. That was the closest it came to a win since losing 27-25 team in 1985. …
Five winless teams picked up Victory No. 1 on the season: Colorado State, North Texas, ULM, Marshall and UNLV. The Rams had the longest losing streak among that group, breaking a 12-game skid with their last-second win over Idaho. Marshall beat Ohio after coach Frank Solich elected to go for two points with no time left to try to win the game. But Boo Jackson’s pass went incomplete. Solich said he elected to go for two because he didn’t have faith that his defense could stop the Herd.
Fresno State gave up 55 points to an Ole Miss team that struggled to score this season against FBS opponents, averaging 13.5 points in those games. But the Bulldogs defense seemed to revert to form against the Rebels, giving up 425 yards on the ground and 578 total yards.
The heartache: You have to feel for UAB and coach Neil Callaway. Two of its three losses have come on the final play of the game. In both, UAB outgained its opponent. Start with the season opener against FAU. The Blazers blew a 16-point third-quarter lead but had a chance to win on the last play of the game. Instead, their 28-yard field goal was blocked. Then against Tennessee this past week, UAB outgained the Vols 544-287 in the game and held them to only 147 yards after the first quarter. But four missed field goals spelled doom, and the Blazers lost 32-29 in overtime.
A few more helmet stickers: Colorado State freshman quarterback Pete Thomas went 29-of-37 for 386 yards and three touchdowns, both of which are career highs. … Middle Tennessee defensive end Jamari Lattimore had four sacks to go with a career-high eight tackles, a forced fumble, and two quarterback hurries against Louisiana. The four sacks also tied the Sun Belt Conference single-game record and goes down as the most in the FBS this season. … TCU punt returner Jeremy Kerley had a career-high 234 all-purpose yards against SMU, averaging 34.4 yards per kickoff return. That includes a career-long 83 yarder.
A few injury items to note: BYU junior defensive tackle Romney Fuga is out for the season after tearing his ACL and LCL against Nevada on Sunday. Fuga was apparently hurt by what BYU said was a cheap shot from Nevada offensive linemen John Bender. Coach Bronco Mendenhall called it “not a positive football play.” Fuga has started all four BYU games this season, with 15 tackles and ½ a sack this season. … Kent State anticipates having running back Eugene Jarvis (groin) available this week against Miami (Ohio). …
Ohio linebacker Noah Keller is most likely gone for the season with a partially torn ligament in his toe, wide receiver Riley Dunlop is out two to four weeks, and wide receiver/punt returner LaVon Brazill (leg) is questionable after missing the game against Marshall. … The Bowling Green quarterback situation is up on the air. Matt Schilz (shoulder) sat out against Michigan, and it’s a matter of whether he can throw during practice this week. … Temple running back Bernard Pierce (ankle) is a game-time decision against Army. … Louisiana quarterback Chris Masson (knee, chest) should be available against North Texas on Saturday.
Week 4 look ahead: A few big games this week on the schedule. The biggest: Navy at Air Force. Navy has won seven straight over the Falcons and seven straight Commander-in-Chief trophies. This could be the best shot yet for Air Force to win with the No. 1 rushing offense in the country. Navy has been banged up, including quarterback Ricky Dobbs, but the Midshipmen had a bye week to try and get healthy. … BYU is at Utah State on Friday night in a game that has lost some of its luster. Both teams are 1-3 and looking for some much needed momentum.
But why wait?
I thought I‘d assess the temperature of the various coaches in my leagues to see where they stand heading into 2010 and what they need to do to ensure their employment in 2011.
Needs to win right away
Mike Price, UTEP: Price has become a bit of a fixture in this particular position on the hot seat list. He was given a vote of confidence at the end of last year, but that was because he still has players such as quarterback Trevor Vittatoe and running back Donald Buckram on his roster. But they’re gone after this season, so Price needs to make something out of this year or else.
Neil Callaway, UAB: Callaway is 11-25 in his three seasons as UAB’s head coach and the Blazers have not won more than five games in any of his seasons. In all fairness, Callaway did have to deal with scholarship losses thanks to NCAA APR sanctions that came down prior to his arrival. But with Joe Webb gone and the team looking for an offensive spark this year, the administration and fans could get antsy.
Seat could get toasty midseason
David Bailiff, Rice: I honestly think Bailiff has nothing to fear, but last season’s 2-10 campaign was pretty brutal, especially after the 10-3 season in 2008. But Bailiff has some key transfers this season, including running back Sam McGuffie, who could end up being the best player in the conference. Another 10-win season might be a stretch, but the Owls should get into bowl contention.
Bob Toledo, Tulane: Toledo took a tough job four years ago as Tulane was still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina and was displaced because of other hurricanes. He also has to deal with a tough academic standard, which often hampers recruiting. Still, Tulane has some fertile recruiting ground with Louisiana and Texas and should be better than its 3-9 record a year ago.
Chillin’ in a lounge chair
Kevin Sumlin, Houston: Sumlin’s Cougars provided some thrills last year with wins over Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State en route to a 10-win season, but they struggled at the end of the season and failed to win the conference title or the bowl game. Still, Sumlin’s coaching job in just two years has made him one of the hottest up-and-comers, and Houston will want to hold onto him as long as it can.
June Jones, SMU: Jones has started SMU on the road back to prominence, which has its administration and fan base in a frenzy. The school bumped up his salary last year and the expectations for a nine or 10-win season, a division title and possible league title are high. Jones won’t be chastised if they don’t achieve all of those goals, but he has to continue to show improvement.
George O’Leary, UCF: Remember when folks were calling for O’Leary’s job? Yeah, those days are gone and now many think the Knights could be the team to beat in the East Division and perhaps the conference. The defense has been stout, but the Knights need to show some progress on offense to live up to the expectations.
Todd Graham, Tulsa: I think it’s fair to call last year’s 5-7 finish a fluke. Graham acknowledged that he underestimated the loss of some of his seniors after the 2008 season and the lack of depth on the offensive line. However, Tulsa doesn’t lose much offense from a year ago, and if the O-line and quarterback G.J. Kinne can progress, the Golden Hurricane could be right back in the conference title hunt.
Larry Fedora, Southern Miss: Fedora missed an East Division title by five points last season and those five points were the theme that drove the Golden Eagles this spring. Southern Miss will once again be at the top of the East Division and will probably battle UCF for the division title. Fedora has kept the bowl streak alive, but now it’s time to push his squad forward.
New coach, jury is still out
Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina: McNeill took over a team that lost 28 seniors from last year and he’s installing a new offense and defense. Now, it’s tough to rule out the back-to-back conference champions, but it’s hard to see this as anything but a rebuilding year.
Larry Porter, Memphis: Porter is another coach who lost several key contributors. He’s breaking in a new quarterback and a new running back in a new system. He has a little more pressure on him to build quickly with possible expansion looming, but it will take some time to get this team back in contention.
Obviously, I have more conferences, so I’ll break this down over a few posts throughout the rest of the week. I’ll go in alphabetical order, so let’s start with Conference USA.
C-USA announced last month that it will have six guaranteed bowl spots and an agreement with the new Dallas Football Classic to participate in that game should be the Big Ten or Big 12 be unable to provide a team. The Liberty Bowl takes the conference champion and then teams are dispersed with the help of the league office.
I’m not going to pick the exact bowls but rather the teams I think will be bowling at the end of the year.
COUNT ON IT
- Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles have missed the postseason just once this decade, so there’s no reason to think they’re going to slip now. Yes, there are questions on the offensive line, but this team should be challenging for a conference title by the end of the season.
- Central Florida: The Knights rebounded from a tough 2008 to nearly play in the conference title game in 2009. This year, the defense looks stout and the offense seems to have found a quarterback in Rob Calabrese that can help expand their game. Running back is a huge question mark with Brynn Harvey out for nonconference play, but several other options seemed to step up during the spring.
- Houston: The Cougars seemed to hit a wall at the end of last season, but with nearly everyone returning from that team, they’ll be the favorites to win C-USA West in the fall. The question will be whether they learned from last year’s mistakes to put themselves in better bowl position this year.
- SMU: Dare I say that SMU is back? The Mustangs will be young again, but I think coach June Jones has found something in quarterback Kyle Padron and the Mustangs will once again be in a bowl hunt. I think the ‘Stangs have the best chance to give Houston a run for the West Division.
- Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane had a down year in 2009, but I think that was an aberration. Coach Todd Graham acknowledged he underestimated the loss of some players heading into last year, but with most of the 2009 squad returning for 2010, he feels confident his team can rebound. Much of Tulsa’s success will depend on the offensive line, which was really shaky a year ago.
- UTEP: The Miners have the talent to make a bowl game, especially with quarterback Trevor Vittatoe and running back Donald Buckram back, but the consistency is something that needs to come along. The Miners have a new defensive coordinator, which should alleviate the need to get into shootouts with opponents.
- Marshall: It’s hard to say what a team will look like with a new coach and several of the top offensive weapons gone, but coach Doc Holliday does have some gems on his roster that could get this team to six wins. However, the nonconference schedule is a bear and the Herd has to play at Southern Miss, ECU and SMU.
- East Carolina: The Pirates lost more starters to graduation than any other team in the country. Combine that with trying to learn a new offensive and defensive system and it seems like a rebuilding year.
- Rice: Last year was a tough transition for Rice after losing almost all of its offense from 2008. This year should be better with some new quarterback choices, experience and running back Sam McGuffie available to play. The Owls could easily go 2-2 during nonconference play and have SMU and Houston at home, but there’s a tough road stretch during late October and early November that will get them a bowl berth.
- Memphis: New head coach Larry Porter inherited a lot of potential, but it won’t be easy to put that together in a year. There are a lot of questions for this Memphis team, especially at running back, the position that carried the offense a year ago.
- UAB: Quarterback Joe Webb was the Blazers’ all-everything player a year ago and now that he’s gone, no one has stepped up to fill that gap. Coach Neil Callaway has been looking for players to help out for the past few years and has had little luck finding someone to emerge. That will continue as the Blazers struggle in 2010.
- Tulane: I thought the Green Wave would be better in 2009, but that didn’t happen and I don’t have a lot of confidence for 2010. They lose top players Jeremy Williams and Andre Anderson and are still looking for consistent play from both sides of the ball.
Florida International players and coaches continue to deal with the aftermath of the death of running back Kendall Berry.
As spring practices continue, Jordan Wynn remains the future of the Utes' offense.
After Saturday’s scrimmage, Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson is starting to see improvement within his team.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham places his faith in 23-year-old quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson.
The quarterback race at Louisiana Tech continues to narrow as spring pushes on.
The Nevada first-team defense kept Colin Kaepernick’s offense out of the end zone during the spring game.
The quarterback race is still wide open at UAB as coach Neil Callaway looks for a replacement for Joe Webb.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson
- Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Tony Franklin loves his old employer Troy, but he really wants to win tonight’s game.
- Colorado State football is still learning how to finish games after last week’s loss to Idaho.
- Boise State coach Chris Petersen looked for positives after watching the film of last week’s win against UC Davis.
- Wyoming defensive tackle Mike Neuhaus has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
- San Diego State is happy about its win, but there are still too many mistakes being made on offense.
- WAC commissioner Karl Benson is disappointed in Boise State’s drop in the polls despite an undefeated record.
- Navy's triple-option offense will bring back memories of Rice’s old offensive scheme.
- Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley isn’t exactly thrilled about his team being 1-0 in the WAC.
- UAB coach Neil Callaway had a tough project when he arrived at the school, but he’s slowly making progress.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson
- Wyoming feels confident that it’s heading in the right direction after a strong first-half showing against Texas last week.
- Miami (Ohio) has yet to score a point on offense, and to do so, coach Mike Haywood said his running attack needs to get going.
- FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger felt like his team should have put up a better fight against Nebraska two weeks ago, but it will get another chance to show well against an AQ team with South Carolina this weekend.
- Western Michigan’s Aaron Winchester is hoping to make amends after a costly fumble against Indiana last week.
- UAB coach Neil Callaway hopes the close loss to SMU motivates his Blazers.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson
A conference game against Rice, a team that won 10 games a year ago, is not exactly the way UAB coach Neil Callaway wanted to open up the 2009 season, but he hopes it’s a good wake-up call for his Blazers as they enter a pivotal year.
“It’s a concern,” Callaway said of opening the season with a conference game. “We are playing at home, which is good. With the choices we had in scheduling, I think we did the right thing, but the fact that you open up with a conference game gets you a little nervous. But we’ve had a good camp. We’ve known our schedule since about mid-March, so we’ve been preparing for it, and hopefully we’ll be successful at it.”
The Blazers are 6-18 since Callaway took over in 2007. He’s been hampered by scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA for APR violations.
Last year, the Blazers showed flashes of being decent with wins over Marshall, Tulane and Central Florida and near wins against Houston and East Carolina. Much of that success was because of quarterback Joe Webb, who provided almost all of the offense for the Blazers.
Webb finished the year with 2,367 yards passing, 10 passing touchdowns, 1,021 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. He accounted for 77 percent of the Blazers' offense in 2008. And because he had the ball so much, he also accounted for several of the team’s mistakes, including 16 interceptions, which was the third highest total in the conference.
Callaway acknowledged after last season that he needed to get more production out of other players if the team was going to be successful, and he challenged players in the spring to fill that void.
“Joe is by far our best playmaker offensively, and we’ve asked him to do an awful lot,” Callaway said. “For us to be a very good offense, we have to find people to go around him. I feel good about our receiving corps. I think we have a couple tight ends that can do some things to help. My biggest concern right now is our running back spot. We need to find a running back or two or three that we feel comfortable giving the ball to them 30 times a game and we can come out somewhere between 100-150 yards from the running back spot.”
One of those running backs is senior Rashaud Slaughter, who was second on the team in total offense with 690 total yards. But he’s been inconsistent in his tenure often yielding the ground game to Webb. Four times last season he rushed for 21 or fewer yards and eight times he rushed for fewer than 50.
But Callaway is confident his team has the talent to be better than last year’s 4-8 mark and perhaps make some waves in Conference USA’s East Division. But it won’t be easy with one of the more daunting schedules in the league. Not only do the Blazers have nonconference games at Troy, Texas A&M and No. 8 Mississippi, it has conference road games against UTEP, Memphis and East Carolina.
“I remember when we played Michigan State  the first game our staff was here, I asked our guys to stand up if they had ever played in a college football game, and there may have been about a dozen of them,” Callaway said. “We are certainly past that point now. We’re gaining on it, and we’re heading in the right direction.”
• Ball State coach Brady Hoke left Ball State for several reasons, including the fact that his assistant coaches weren't being paid enough.
• UAB coach Neil Callaway is in the midst of putting together his best recruiting class since he's been with the Blazers.
• Fresno State offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier left the Bulldogs for Washington for a variety of reasons, including the timing and the money.
• Memphis' success during the past five seasons has allowed coach Tommy West to sell that success to recruits.
• Gerald McRath might be gone for Southern Miss, but the Golden Eagles will welcome former Pearl River Community College and Oak Grove High School linebacker Hendrick Leverette to campus this spring to take his place.