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Thursday, December 11, 2003
The best and worst of C-USA

By Eric Crawford
Special to

A final team-by-team look at Conference USA.

You can't get much more disappointing than 0-13 as Army becomes the first NCAA Division I-A team ever to go winless in 13 games in one season. Coach Todd Berry was let go at midseason. But the Black Knights are looking forward to a new start. They'll have a new coach next season, which will be their last in Conference USA. After that, they'll face a schedule that is more in line with their program.

MVP: WR Aaron Alexander. He brought a new dimension to the Army offense, ranking fourth in the league in receptions per game. He had 801 receiving yards and six TD catches. His 59 catches this season is a new Army record.

Biggest Disappointment: The downfall of the running game. When Berry replaced the wishbone with the spread offense, he threw the baby out with the bathwater. Army needs to be able to run the ball, and Berry's one-back scheme couldn't spread defenses out enough to make that happen.

What's Next: Bobby Ross was a great choice for Black Knights. A hard-nosed coach who knows the Xs and Os and has proven he can recruit as well as he coaches, Ross could be the guy to restore Army's image.

Coach Rick Minter warned before the season that he was concerned about graduation losses on offense, particularly at the wide receiver spot. But the Bearcats got off to a good start with wins over East Carolina and West Virginia. Then the offense began to bog down, and injuries, particularly to transfer running back Richard Hall, took their toll on the offense as the season went on. A season that should have been a celebration in Cincinnati -- with the program being invited to join the Big East -- wound up in frustration and Minter being fired. The Bearcats had just over 11,000 fans at their regular-season finale, and half of those fans drove up from Louisville to watch the visiting team.

MVP: DE Trent Cole. His coaches nicknamed him "Scrap Iron" because there's no fat on his 6-foot-4, 260-pound frame, and he was the steel in a defense that was the strength of Cincinnati's team for much of the season.

Biggest Disappointment: The passing game. It wasn't so much the fault of junior quarterback Gino Guidugli, who was inconsistent at times, as much as a young receiving corps that dropped too many balls and struggled to get open.

What's Next: The next Cincinnati coach will have some talent to work with, starting with Guidugli. There's no reason the Bearcats can't win right away with whomever is hired. Most of the offensive skill players return.

East Carolina
Most people knew it would be a tough year for the Pirates, though their 1-11 finish might have been a little tougher than anyone in Greenville, N.C., anticipated. Still, first-year coach John Thompson kept his team improving throughout the season and did the best he could after losing star running back Art Brown in the preseason. Thompson said he'll change the way he does things a little bit in Year 2, cutting back on some of his off-the-field program responsibilities to get more involved in the nuts and bolts of the team. "I know I want to get more involved football-wise," Thompson said. "I know I didn't manage my time as well as I would have liked to. I was doing too many other things non-football related that I felt had to be done."

MVP: WR Terrance Copper. Others may have put up better numbers or gotten more notice on all-conference teams, but for a good part of the season, Copper was the only offense ECU had. And his effort rallied the offense to do better things as the season wore on.

Biggest Disappointment: East Carolina's defense wasn't what would've been expected from a team coached by Thompson, who came to ECU from a stint as defensive coordinator at Florida. The Pirates gave up nearly 36 points per game.

What's Next: Thompson returns most of his key players on both sides of the ball and should have Art Brown back next season. That may not mean an immediate turnaround for the Pirates, but it does mean that they should be back above .500 next season.

Art Briles brought a slick offensive system and a new quarterback to Houston and both were an instant success. Freshman Kevin Kolb was the runaway winner for C-USA freshman of the year in leading the Cougars to a 7-5 record and their first bowl game since 1996. The Cougars still have a ways to go on defense. A long way. They gave up more than 700 yards in two different games -- against TCU and Louisville -- and those were the biggest two biggest yardage outputs in Division I-A this season. But to take Houston bowling in his first season, Briles is off to a smashing start at his alma mater.

MVP: QB Kevin Kolb. He threw 23 touchdown passes with only four interceptions, an impressive ratio for any QB, much less a true freshman. He led C-USA in passing efficiency, completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 2,799 yards.

Biggest Disappointment: The defense against the run. Houston gave up 5.2 yards per carry to opponents. The Cougars won't get to many more bowl games doing that.

What's Next: Briles had an extremely young team this year and as long as the defensive issues are addressed he could be on the verge of building a consistent winner in Houston.

The Cardinals were picked to finish fifth in C-USA after losing star quarterback Dave Ragone and most of their defensive stars, as well as coach John L. Smith. Instead, first-year coach Bobby Petrino solidified the offensive line, developed junior quarterback Stefan LeFors into a first-team All-C-USA pick and breathed new life into the Cardinals' running game. What was supposed to have been a rebuilding year turned into a 9-3 season for Louisville, albeit against one of the weakest schedules in NCAA Division I-A. But Petrino's penchant for building blockbuster offenses was evident -- the Cardinals were even more potent than they were the year before, and posted the second-highest rushing total in C-USA history.

MVP: QB Stefan LeFors. He isn't big, but he made big plays all season, executing Petrino's intricate offense to perfection. He led an offense that ranked fifth nationally in total yards and threw for 2,921 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also hurt opponents with his running ability, and had a 69-yard TD run against Cincinnati.

Biggest Disappointment: The Cardinal defense didn't appear to make much progress as the year went on, and gave up nearly as many points in its final four games as it did its first seven combined.

What's Next: After interviewing with Auburn for a head coaching job that wasn't yet open, Petrino appears set in Louisville for the foreseeable future, and has most of his impact players returning on offense and defense, and he'll add some talented newcomers. The Cardinals should be among the favorites to win the league title next year, but Petrino will have to turn his talents to the defense if a championship is to become a reality for Louisville.

It was the breakthrough season Memphis had been waiting for for years. The Tigers combined a potent offense with a Joe Lee Dunn-designed defense to post its best record (8-4) since 1973 and earn their first bowl berth in more than 30 years. The Tigers ranked No. 1 in C-USA in total defense and second in scoring defense. Memphis is headed for the New Orleans Bowl, where it figures to take plenty of fans after leading C-USA in attendance this season. In his third year, head coach Tommy West has the program moving forward for the first time in years. Two signature wins this season showed that times have changed. The first came at home against Ole Miss. The second was on the road, where the Tigers manhandled Louisville 37-7.

MVP: RB DeAngelo Williams. Despite a knee injury that kept him out of the season finale and could sideline him from the bowl game, Williams still leads the nation in all-purpose yards at 192.1 yards per game.

Biggest Disappointment: A loss in the season-finale to South Florida put a bit of tarnish on an excellent season.

What's Next: West has Williams and quarterback Danny Wimprine back to spearhead an offense that should be one of C-USA's best next season. On defense, Dunn will need to replace linebacker Coot Terry, but should have a strong enough group next season to give Memphis some preseason consideration for the conference title.

South Florida
The Bulls were looking forward to joining Conference USA to have access to the school's first bowl appearance. But despite a 7-4 overall record and a 5-3 finish in the conference, tied for third place with Memphis and Louisville, the Bulls still were left home for the postseason. The reason: When Baylor and Eastern Michigan dropped South Florida from their schedules in February, the Bulls were left to scramble to fill the dates and wound up having to settle for Division I-AA opponents. Those wins don't count toward bowl eligibility. That didn't sit well with Leavitt, especially since two of the teams headed for bowls -- Louisville and Memphis -- South Florida beat during the regular season. Still, it was a successful debut for the Bulls, who won't be spending much time in C-USA. They're slated to begin Big East play in 2005-06.

MVP: Free safety J.R. Reed. Reed was among the top kick returners in the nation, averaging 31.7 yards per return, and led C-USA with seven interceptions. He also returned a fumble 45 yards for a touchdown and was second on the team with 100 tackles.

Biggest Disappointment: A 22-19 home-field loss to UAB in the season's next-to-last game. A win there would have put more pressure on bowl selectors, and it was a game the Bulls could have won, but five interceptions and six turnovers overall gave away their bowl hopes.

What's Next: Head coach Jim Leavitt needs to find answers at quarterback and running back, which were positions by committee last season. He figures to continue his strong recruiting in Florida, however, and will be a championship contender until moving on to the Big East, where the program hopes to take another quick step up.

Southern Miss
After a 3-3 start, the Golden Eagles had an off week following a 17-3 loss at Alabama, and head coach Jeff Bower said the team used the next two weeks to regroup and take stock of itself. The result was a 27-6 pounding of South Florida in its next game, and Southern Miss went on to run the C-USA table. "You go back to the turnaround we did before that South Florida game and the leadership of this senior class ... to go from not feeling very good about yourself to running the table, that's just a great job by this football team and a great job by our coaching staff," coach Jeff Bower said. "This was a darn good coaching job, and I'm not saying mine. I'm talking about this staff. Boy, they did a heck of a job. We searched for the answers and kept working, and our kids did, too. Good things happened. We finally found some things and developed some confidence and really made it a good year."

MVP: LB Rod Davis. Davis missed one game because of an injury but still finished the season with 137 tackles, and 17 for losses. He also had seven quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles and figures to be hurrying NFL quarterbacks sometime soon.

Biggest Disappointment: A 38-14 loss to Nebraska at home on Sept. 25. The Golden Eagles had waited a long time to get the Cornhuskers on their home field, but couldn't do much with them once they got them there.

What's Next: Bower is going to have some major holes to fill on defense, but he has always seemed to find a way to do that. He'll have a couple of solid options at quarterback and the offense, having figured things out at the end of this season, should enter next season with more continuity than it has had in recent years.

The sad part of chasing the BCS rainbow is that anything else seems not quite satisfying. The injustice would be that if TCU felt let down after finishing an 11-1 season, and yet that could well be the feeling after a late-season loss to Southern Miss and a bowl bid fiasco after the season finale. TCU rejected a bid to the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., because the early bowl date conflicted with the school's final exams. Instead, it will stay home to play in the PlainsCapital Fort Worth Bowl -- hardly a fitting reward for such a great season. It's difficult not to wonder if C-USA's inability to get TCU into a more attractive alternative for the GMAC Bowl will lead the school to look elsewhere. It already is reportedly considering a move to the Mountain West.

MVP: DE Bo Schobel and QB Brandon Hassell. Schobel helped key a defensive unit that again came through when the team needed it this season, but he'll need to share the honors with quarterback Brandon Hassell, who came on when starter Tye Gunn was injured and kept the offense running at a high level. Without Hassell, the Horned Frogs don't win shootout games with Houston or Louisville.

Biggest Disappointment: A no-brainer, the loss at Southern Miss. TCU was getting interest from Fiesta Bowl scouts and was going to receive serious BCS consideration if it went unbeaten.

What's Next: Look for the Frogs to just keep winning, no matter what conference they're in. Gary Patterson has something good going in Fort Worth. TCU needs to upgrade its nonconference schedule, but with an impressive group of offensive skill players back and the always-athletic defense Patterson puts on the field, the program is going to keep winning.

Coach Chris Scelfo knew he had to rebuild his defense, he didn't realize he'd have to do it while nursing a mid-sized infirmary on his sidelines. Injuries crippled the Green Wave, with 26 players, more than a quarter of the entire team, missing at least one game with an injury. Still, the Green Wave managed a positive finish, even after losing running back Mewelde Moore for the final part of the season. They won two of their final three games, and still wound up leading C-USA in takeaways for a second straight season. "After getting off to a good start and then losing five in a row, to come back and finish the way we did says something about the character of our players," Scelfo said. "We had our ups and downs, but we never got fragmented."

MVP: RB Mewelde Moore. The leading rusher in Tulane history, Moore missed the season's final three games but still ran for 915 yards and had 1,323 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns.

Biggest Disappointment: After pointing their entire offseason toward a home-opener against TCU, a late rally came up just short and the Green Wave lost to the Horned Frogs 38-35. It's hard to wonder if Tulane had managed to win that game if the team's fortunes -- or luck -- might have been any different.

What's Next: The only positive in the number of injures Tulane encountered is the number of young players who saw meaningful action. Scelfo should have experience returning at just about every position except for quarterback, where he'll have to find a replacement for J.P. Losman.

Pretty soon, UAB is going to get over the hump and into a bowl game, and when the Blazers do, nobody in Conference USA will be surprised. This year, the Blazers played with only four seniors and lost six starters to season-ending injuries but still went 4-3 in conference play. At 5-6 overall, they weren't bowl eligible, but coach Watson Brown has virtually everyone back for next season, including starting quarterback Darrell Hackney, who himself missed the final third of the season with an injury.

MVP: LB Zac Woodfin. Woodfin broke his own school record with 149 tackles to lead Conference USA, while anchoring a defense that picked up the slack after Hackney was injured.

Biggest Disappointment: The home loss to Troy State on Sept. 13 was difficult to explain, and dealt the Blazers' bowl hopes a serious blow.

What's Next: UAB players already were talking about championship aspirations for 2004 at the end of this season, with every key player returning. The Blazers should be good, but the young players will have to learn consistency if they want to jump all the way to the top of the league standings. At the very least, UAB's first bowl appearance could be just a year away.

Eric Crawford covers Conference USA for the Louisville Courier-Journal.