by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Welcome to the Greyhound terminal of college sports, otherwise known as Conference USA, where the "big dogs" have been motoring in and out at a dizzying pace. We'll get to more of those specifics in a moment.

Though its history is rather brief (dating only to 1995), CUSA has nonetheless served a unique and rather useful role in the college sports landscape. Roots not entrenched like those of other long-established leagues, CUSA’s existence was more a matter of convenience for countless far-flung football independents. It was the outgrowth of the old Metro Conference, a hastily arranged affiliation created in the mid ‘70s to give many of the same displaced independents a home for basketball, and its spinoff the Great Midwest Conference, formed in the early '90s. Eventually, the idea struck most of those members that they should probably expand their league to include football, too. With wide regional boundaries, a rebranding was also in order, and Conference USA as we know it was born in the mid ‘90s.

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CUSA membership, however, has always been in a state of flux, and an acknowledged short-term parking place for schools looking to move up the college food chain but always a rung or two above the bottom level. CUSA offered those sorts a home, conference-wide TV coverage, and guaranteed spots in several lower-tier bowl games, with the longshot chance that if a team could navigate through a season undefeated, it might even have a shot to squeeze into the BCS. While the latter is yet to happen, the benefits of CUSA always were better than most alternatives for league members.

As soon as they weren’t, however, the more-accomplished loop entries were always apt to move. Flagship programs like Louisville and Cincinnati would depart to the Big East. TCU, which made a brief pit stop in the league, would do an about-face and rejoin the Mountain West (before finalizing a move to the Big 12). All of those moves over the previous decade, however, were just a prelude to the reorganization that has taken place in the last eighteen months that has, if not shaken CUSA to its core, certainly provided it with a new and different look.

To get everyone up to speed on the changes, here’s a brief overview of what has transpired with league membership since last season.

Who left: Houston, SMU, Central Florida and Memphis all departed for the American Athletic Conference, joining a collection of Big East holdovers. More departures are slated for next year, when Tulsa, East Carolina, and Tulane all bolt for the AAC, too. These developments have hit the league where it hurts in both football (five of the past six division champions are gone or will be gone) and men's basketball (Memphis was the only CUSA school that has mattered for a good while in hoops).

Who arrived: Lots of low-major football flotsam, in the form of Sun Belt refugees Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee, and North Texas, plus WAC escapees La Tech and FBS newbie UTSA, only in its third year of gridiron competition. The raid on the Sun Belt continues next year when Western Kentucky joins the party. Old Dominion and Charlotte will compete in basketball this school year and enlist their new football programs in 2014 (Monarchs) and 2015 (49ers).

Is CUSA better off, or worse off, after the changes? A vote for worse. Although the league maintains a presence in the important Texas and Florida locales, their new entries in those states generate less interest than the schools lost (Houston, SMU, UCF) in some key markets. The remaining programs in Florida and Texas are largely afterthoughts in places like Miami, Houston, San Antonio, and the Metroplex. Short-term, adding markets like Ruston and Murfreesboro (home of MTSU on the fringe of Nashville Metro, and about an hour's drive from the Nashville Airport) don’t really replace Memphis or much enhance the footprint of CUSA, which is starting to look a lot like the Sun Belt of the past few years.

Future additions, however, of the growing and vibrant Tidewater and Charlotte markets, plus the potential of UTSA in San Antonio, might bode well down the road and compensate somewhat for next year’s loss of New Orleans. Whatever, we admire the resourcefulness and spunk of CUSA, which still has a definite pulse.

Winner or loser in the conference shuffle? For the moment, we’ll say that CUSA in a net loser. But it’s also a survivor, a valuable commodity in the current marketplace.

Following are CUSA previews for the upcoming season, divided into the East and West Divisions. First up is the West, with last year’s straight-up and pointspread records included. The East preview will follow.


For those who are wondering, yes, Tulsa (2012 SUR 11-3; PSR 9-5) will again be facing Iowa State early this season (September 26 at Ames, to be exact). No, however, the Golden Hurricane won’t be playing the Cyclones every week, although it might seem that way as the late September meeting will be the third between the schools in just over a year.

Last year, the teams split the pair of games, though the trajectory of the Tulsa season is accurately reflected in the results of those two clashes. In the opener, ISU rolled by a 38-23 count, but for the rematch in the Liberty Bowl game at Memphis on New Year’s Eve, the Golden Hurricane would exact its revenge by a 31-17 score. In fact, by the end of the 2012 campaign, Tulsa had become quite a load.

Between those pair of battles vs. ISU, the Golden Hurricane found time to win another Conference USA title and that Liberty Bowl invitation. And with some of the recent contenders in the loop (such as Houston, UCF, and SMU) having high-tailed it to the old Big East/new American Athletic Conference since the end of last season, the path would seem clear for Tulsa to secure one more league crown before it, too, joins the Cougars, Golden Knights, Mustangs, and a handful of other Big East holdovers in the AAC for 2014.

It’s the way the Golden Hurricane succeeded in 2012 that not only surprised us a bit, but also indicated why HC Bill Blankenship’s side, even minus seven departed All-CUSA performers from last season, looks a good bet to defend its league crown this fall before leaving for the AAC.

More specifically, and in a very un-Tulsa and CUSA-like way, the Golden Hurricane did it mostly with defense (!) a year ago, leading the league in most relevant stat categories. Meanwhile, the offense, while potent as usual, did it in a slightly different manner, mostly sticking with a ground-based assault as Nebraska transfer QB Cody Green (54% completions, 17 TD passes and 11 picks) struggled to get comfy in the passing game, in most recent years (and historically) a Tulsa staple.

Whether the new Golden Hurricane “D” can live up to the standards of its predecessor from last year remains to be seen. Tulsa swarmed on the stop end in 2012, ranking third nationally with a staggering 53 sacks while fifth-ranked in tackles for loss (110), but most of the antagonists from that 2012 platoon have departed. Most, but not all, as a pair of playmaking OLBs (Shawn Jackson and Mitchell Osborne) return to the mix as two of the three returning starters.

The stop unit has become quite comfy with third-year d.c. Brent Guy’s attack-based schemes, although a completely rebuilt DL will be tested after the departure en masse of last year’s starters up front. Senior safety Marco Nelson is the only returning starter in the secondary that also must replace CB Dexter McColl, one of the leading interceptors in that nation last fall. But if the well-regarded replacements grasp Guy’s schemes as did last year’s platoon, Tulsa still should have a disruptive presence on defense.

The rebuild theme is not quite as loud on the offensive side, although three OL starters from last year’s road-grading quintet that opened holes for the nation’s ninth-ranked rushing attack must be plugged into the lineup. Fortunately, they will be blocking for one of the nation’s more-accomplished 1-2 RB combos, with TBs Trey Watts (J.C.’s son; 1108 YR in 2012) and Ja’Terian Douglas (936 YR last fall) still in the fold.

But if the defense slips just a bit, it will be up to the former Cornhusker QB Green to cut down on some of his mistakes and improve his accuracy for the Tulsa “O” to again tally at or near last year’s 35 ppg, important in case the Golden Hurricane gets involved in some of those old-style shootouts this fall.

Tulsa, however, is used to winning (55-25 SU since 2007), and has not skipped a beat since Blankenship, a former Golden Hurricane QB, was promoted from the assistant ranks to replace Todd Graham in 2011. Blankenship is 19-8 SU and has covered 60% of pointspread decisions as chalk since assuming command of the program. And without much to beat in the Western half of the loop, the Golden Hurricane is favored almost by default to return to the league title game in early December. Anything less than another bowl visit (which would be the school’s fourth straight and eighth in nine years) would be a shock.

Speaking of shocks, the emergence of Rice (SUR 7-6, PSR 8-4-1) late last season certainly qualified as such. Without much warning, the Owls caught fire in late October and probably saved the job of HC David Bailiff by winning four straight at the end of the regular season to qualify for a rare bowl berth, then swamping Air Force 33-14 in the Armed Forced Bowl at Fort Worth.

For the most part over the past half-century, the only bowls familiar to Rice have cereal-filled; the Owls once went 45 years between postseason visits. But Bailiff, who also won the Texas Bowl over Western Michigan back in 2008, now has a pair of bowl wins under his belt, joining the legendary Jess Neely as the only Rice football coaches with multiple bowl wins. (Neely, by the way, was on the job 27 seasons between 1940-66 and won three bowls; Bailiff has been on the job since 2007 and is 2-0 in the postseason.)

Excitement and Rice football usually aren’t mentioned in the same sentence, but last year’s fast finish and the return of a whopping 18 starters has the small but vocal group of Owl backers looking forward to the fall with something other than the normal trepidation. While Rice has often fielded potent strike forces, it’s the prospects for continued improvement from the defense which are also fueling optimism in Houston.

In fact, ten starters are back from last year’s platoon that matured noticeably as the season progressed and was rarely the roadkill version of prior Rice stop units. Still somewhat undersized, d.c. Chris Thurmond’s speed-based 4-2-5 alignment again features hybrid “KAT” (part safety, part linebacker) Paul Porras, who recorded a team-high 93 tackles as he roamed all parts of the field last fall.

Concerns entering the fall center around DE Cody Bauer and CB Philip Gaines, who each missed spring practice due to injury and whose playmaking presence will be necessary in the fall. Last year’s platoon, however, allowed more than 30 points just once in the last eight games, marking a significant improvement from previous versions.

A well-balanced offense that returns eight starters plus several proven and capable reserves is also cause for encouragement. Rice both ran and passed for more than 200 yards per game out of Bailiff’s progressive spread looks detonated by a pair of playmaking QBs, led by vastly underrated sr. Taylor McHargue, a “gamer" who passed for over 2200 yards and ran for another 667 yards while accounting for 23 TDs via air and land. Soph Driphus Jackson provides a nice change-of-pace and proved Mariano Rivera-like in relief of an injured McHargue in the bowl game, passing for 264 yards and a pair of TDs in the win over Air Force.

The “O” also returns its entire starting OL but must find serviceable replacements at TE, where McHargue and Jackson lost their top two targets, Vince McDonald and Luke Wilson, both taken in April’s NFL Draft. The top rushers all return, however, led by punishing 230-lb. sr. Charles Ross (800 YR in 2012). Senior PK Chris Boswell is also a scoring threat, having kicked eleven field goals beyond 50 yards in his career.

Bailiff’s Owls, who covered 6 of their last 7 games in 2012, have also make quite a fortress out of their cavernous (and mostly-empty) Rice Stadium, standing 12-4-1 vs. the line as host since 2010.

It’s rare to say we would be surprised if Rice doesn’t make a bowl game, but that’s the case for this fall.

From our perspective, the West drops off considerably once beyond Tulsa and, yes, Rice. We’re hardly convinced any of the remaining five can get to a bowl. But we do suspect that long-downtrodden Tulane (SUR 2-10, PSR 6-5-1), without a bowl bid since 2002, will make some improvements this fall before, like Tulsa, it skedaddles to the AAC in 2014.

Emotionally, we doubt the Wave faces the sort of challenges it did last season, either, when DB Devon Walker suffered a catastrophic spinal injury in the second game of the season at Tulsa. Collectively, the team, already adjusting to first-year HC Curtis Johnson, was sent reeling after Walker’s injury and didn’t seem to recover until a midseason home upset win over SMU.

Once the 2012 campaign hit the halfway point, however, Tulane competed on mostly-even terms down the stretch and demonstrated a bit more proficiency on offense, especially when scoring 33 ppg over the last five games of the season. Although Tulane was gaining only inches per carry for most of the campaign with the nation’s 119th-ranked rushing offense, there is reason for some encouragement this fall.

Specifically, the ability of the aptly-named (for Tulane) sr. RB Orleans Darkwa to stay healthy would suggest an improved infantry component. Darkwa, saddled with numerous injuries the past two seasons, has run with plenty of flair when healthy, which he wasn’t a year ago when various ankle-related problems slowed him to just 241 rush yards. Still, he’s gained over 2000 YR in his Greenie career, and enters fall camp as healthy as he’s been (knock on wood) since the 2011 season, when he gained 924 YR and scored 13 TDs. Four starters are also back along an OL that must admittedly improve its run blocking and QB protection after ranking 101st in sacks allowed.

Speaking of QBs, regional sources believe Tulane might be due an upgrade in the form of juco Nick Montana, a onetime Washington recruit who took several snaps with the Huskies in 2011 and the son of you-know-who. Montana, who passed for 2652 yards a year ago at Mt. SAC JC in Southern California, will have to fill the shoes of courageous predecessor Ryan Griffin, serviceable but a victim of severe punishment in his three years as the starter. Holdover soph Devin Powell has some starting experience and a strong arm, but spring work suggested he lacks the polish of Montana. Plenty of established receiving targets return, led by sure-handed sr. Ryan Grant (76 catches last fall).

Johnson and o.c. Eric Price have also now had a full year to install the same sort of offense run by the hometown NFL Saints, for whom Johnson worked before tackling the Tulane assignment. Although Drew Brees has exhausted his college eligibility and isn’t going to be wearing a Greenie uniform this fall, Tulane’s improvement down the stretch in 2012 and some encouraging spring work suggests the Johnson version of the Saints offense might be gaining traction.

Whatever improvements made by the strike force might all become moot if the “D” doesn’t improve from a sorry performance in 2012 that included a whopping allowance of 38.4 ppg (ranking a poor 115th nationally), but another transfer, this one ex-LSU DT Chris Davenport, adds the sort of potential playmaker that last year’s stop unit lacked. Alongside well-regarded 290-lb. jr. DT Kenny Welcome and attack-minded jr. DE Julius Warmsley, both with All-CUSA ability, the DL intrigues.

The LB spots are undersized, however, and there is concern regarding MLB Zach Davis, a starter last fall but iffy entering fall camp after missing spring practice with ongoing ankle woes. A veteran secondary returns three starters and both CBs including soph Lorenzo Doss, a Frosh A-A last season, and soph S Darion Moore, who received All-CUSA Frosh honors last fall.

Also worth noting is that after several seasons of underwhelming results vs. the pointsptread at home, Johnson’s team covered its last four numbers at the Superdome after dropping 24 of the previous 33 vs. the spread as host.

More potential good news involves the schedule, as the 2013 slate is palatable; Superdome dates vs. Jackson State and South Alabama out of the chute give the Greenies a shot at the sort of quick break that could develop some momentum. Positive contributions of key transfers QB Montana & DT Davenport, however, will be needed for Tulane to get within earshot of .500.

The uniforms will look the same, but that’s about the only similarity between the 2012 version of Louisiana Tech (SUR 9-3; PSR 6-6) and what we’ll see in 2013. Including the conference affiliation, as the Bulldogs have enlisted with CUSA after fleeing the burning building otherwise known as the WAC.

Only five starters, including a mere one from last year’s record-breaking offense that scored a nation’s-best 51.5 ppg, are back in the fold. The architect of that electrified attack, HC Sonny Dykes, has also departed, now at Cal. Enlisted to rehabilitate a head coaching career that went pear-shaped at South Florida is none other than Skip Holtz, who hopes a return to CUSA will prop up his credentials as did his positive five-season run at East Carolina between 2005-09.

Still, the psyche of the La Tech program took a major blow last fall when losses in the last two games vs. Utah State and San Jose State not only denied the Bulldogs a chance at the final WAC football crown but also, and somewhat amazingly, sent their bowl hopes spinning. What happened?

At 9-3 even after those season-ending losses, La Tech surely seemed bound for somewhere in the postseason, especially with that high-octane offense. “Somewhere” for the Bulldogs was hopefully going to be in Dallas on New Year’s Day against Purdue, but a chain reaction of events (triggered by Oklahoma getting bypassed for a BCS berth by Northern Illinois) meant the Big 12 was able to fll its slot in Big D after all, and Okahoma State would be invited to the Heart O' Dallas at the historic Cotton Bowl. While Bulldog AD Bruce Van De Velde balked at accepting a bid to the nearby Independence Bowl for a regional battle vs. UL-Monroe, the Dallas bid disappeared and the Shreveport folk, not willing to wait around for Van De Velde to make up his mind for their game, invited Ohio U instead.

Thus, a 9-3 team with the nation’s highest-scoring offense (and not on probation) would amazingly miss out on a bowl, a rather remarkable development in this age of bloated postseason schedules!

A bowl bid isn’t all that evaporated down the stretch in 2012, either, as one of the nation’s most-dynamic pointspread runs, which had seen Tech cover 17 of 20 games since the beginning of the 2011 season, crashed and burned in a succession of five straight losses vs. the line to close the campaign.

La Tech can only hope to be in position to turn down a bowl bid this fall. Though Holtz has never employed the sort of high-tech spread preferred by predecessor Dykes, he’s not discarding the design of his inherited attack, which will still line up with four wideouts. But among those departed are prolific QB Colby Cameron, who passed for 4147 yards and 31 TDs a year ago, as well as the top three receivers from 2012 who combined for 194 catches and 2400 receiving yards.

Back in the fold for the strike force, however, are 215-lb. soph RB Kenenth Dixon, who set an FBS record for TDs by a freshman with 27 a year ago, and WR D.J. Banks, who caught 33 passes as a reserve in 2012 and itching to get a chance as a featured target.

Pulling the trigger for the offense will apparently be Texas Tech transfer Scotty Young, who never got a chance with the Red Raiders after expecting to play for Mike Leach and his Air Raid attack but instead overlooked by Tommy Tuberville after Leach was uncermoniously fired. Young was then motivated to transfer to La Tech by the presence of the Leach-influenced Dykes before Sonny left for Berkeley. Nonetheless, the QB job looks Young’s to lose despite the fact he hasn’t taken a snap in a live game since the fall of 2009, when he was considered one of the top QB prospects in the nation.

While the offense’s issues are new, concerns for the defense have existed for a long while. Although we’re not sure the Bulldog stop unit was as bad as its stats indicated a year ago when placing dead last in total (528 ypg) and pass (340 ypg) defense and a poor 116th in scoring “D” (38.5 ppg), simply because the pace and tempo of Tech games resembled a ping-pong match due to the prolific offense, and foes at full-throttle to keep pace. But new d.c. Kim Dameron cannot be too comforted by the fact he faces a near-complete rebuild job in the back 7, and will be counting upon juco reinforcements like Mitch Villemez and Nick Thomason to fill the playmaking roles at the two LB spots.

Three starters do return up front, however, where run-stuffing sr. DT Justin Ellis has lost weight (he’s down to 330 lbs!) in hopes of improving his quickness. Which would come in handy vs. opposing QBs who too often had all day to pick apart the porous pass defense a year ago. Only one starter, jr. CB LaVander Liggins, returns in the secondary.

Tech is a legit X-factor in CUSA, but all of the changes, both personnel and coaching-wise, plus the new conference, effectively qualify it as an expansion-like entry this season. We don’t know what to expect and will just take a wait-and-see approach in Ruston instead.

Change is the theme at UTEP (SUR 3-9, PSR 5-7), too, where the head coaching tenure of Mike Price was allowed to quietly expire after last season. Which caught no one in El Paso or elsewhere in CUSA territory by surprise, as many suspected the veteran mentor was past his sell-by date. Indeed, were it not for financial considerations related to his buyout, Price would not likely have lasted into 2012. As it was, his regime, which had begun with so much promise in the middle of the last decade, began to deteriorate in recent years. The Miners, without a winning record since Price’s second season in charge back in 2005, decided it was time for a change.

After an interesting collection of candidates (including ex-Boise State and Colorado HC Dan Hawkins and former Philadelphia Eagles assistant Juan Castillo) were rumored for the job, UTEP instead opted for one of its own with Sean Kugler, a Miner grad most recently on Mike Tomlin’s NFL Pittsburgh Steelers staff as their OL coach.

Unfortunately for Kugler, he inherits a pretty bare cupboard at the Sun Bowl with only nine starters back from last year’s forgettable 3-9 mark. Moreover, his new d.c., Jeff Choate, bolted after spring practice to take a job at Florida. Scott Stoker was then recruited from Sam Houston State, where his Bearkat defenses have ranked among the leaders in the FCS ranks, after spring.

Stoker thus enters fall camp without having seen any of his new troops in action. In fact, few have seen any of the Miner defense in action because seven new starters are projected into the mix, including a completely rebuilt secondary in what is expected to be a base 4-3 defense that does return some playmakers on the DL in tackles Germard Reed and 320-lb. Marcus Bagley, who each performed with some flair in 2012. But Stoker’s secondary is brand new, with juco reinforcements enlisted to fill those gaps, and the platoon ranked last in CUSA in tackles for loss a year ago.

On the plus side, an unexpected bonus for Kugler and new o.c. Patrick Higgins came in February when QB Jameill Showers, a onetime decorated prep, announced his intention to enroll at UTEP as a graduate transfer who will become immediately eligible (with two years left on his eligibility clock) this fall. Showers became lost in the shuffle at Texas A&M, first behind Ryan Tannehill and then Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Rather than waste away on the Aggie bench, Showers decided to get out of College Station and give his career a chance to revive itself in El Paso. Although holdover soph Blaire Sullivan, who stared two games in 2012, was running first string in spring practice, most expect Showers behind center for the September 7 opener vs. New Mexico at the Sun Bowl.

If the athletic Showers can emerge as a playmaker, there might be hope for a pro-style UTEP “O” that will line up with an old-fashioned dual RB setup featuring jr. speedball Nathan Jeffery, a legit coast-to-coast threat who gained 897 yards in 2012 but has been hampered by injuries throughout his career. A healthy Jeffery and accomplished WR Jordan Leslie (51 catches and 6 TDs in 2012) provide the makings of a capable supporting cast.

Kugler, however, exited spring without any kickers or punters (scholarship or walk-on), the ranks thinned by the suspension of local walk-on PK Enrique Quintana. With the questions elsewhere on his roster, Kugler cannot afford special teams areas to emerge as trouble spots. And we doubt the Miners snap their streak of losing seasons which threatens to reach eight in a row this fall.

Did North Texas (SUR 4-8, PSR 5-7) pick a good year to jump from the Sun Belt to CUSA? Hard to tell, because there haven’t been many good years in Denton since the Mean Green was winning Sun Belt titles and going to the New Orleans Bowl on a seemingly- annual basis over a decade ago for long-departed HC Darrell Dickey. What difference does 2013 make from any other over the past eight or so years?

Still, there have been some positive developments at the northern end of the Metroplex of late. But regressing from a 5-7 mark in vet HC Dan McCarney’s first year in charge in 2011, down to 4-8 last season, isn’t the sort of trajectory the Mean Green was expecting for its football program when not only the switch of leagues was announced, but entering the third year of existence in what might be the best mid-sized playing facility in the country, the sparkling, 2-year-old Apogee Stadium, on the opposite side of I-35E from old Fouts Field and its distant sightlines.

Dazzling new stadium or not, however, the fact the Mean Green was a middle-of-the-pack (at best) Sun Belt entry the past few seasons does not suggest it will do much better in its new home base of CUSA.

Thus, the on-field recipe could change this fall. The word during springtime in Denton was that sr. QB Derek Thompson, a 2-year starter, could be facing a serious challenge for the starting role in the form of electric RS soph Andrew McNulty, a dynamic runner who saw token action as a frosh two years ago in in 2011, or another RS soph, Brock Berglund, a onetime Kansas recruit and a decorated dual-threat during is high school days in Highland Ranch, Colorado. Offensive coordinator Mike Canales, a former South Florida o.c. who was interim HC for the Mean Green in the last part of the 2010 season following Todd Dodge’s ouster, might be getting a bit flustered with Thompson, still uncomfortable throwing anything other than dink-and-dunks. Thompson made too many key mistakes a year ago when throwing downfield as he tossed 14 picks (compared with 14 TD passes), and was partly to blame for the inefficiency of last year’s “O" that continually bogged down in the red zone en route to scoring only 20.9 ppg (and over 24 only once vs. FBS foes) to rank 103rd nationally despite total offense stats of nearly 400 yards pg (ranking 67th) that suggested something better.

There are some interesting weapons still in the fold, however, including a trio of RBs (led by slamming 5'10, 216.-lb. Sr. Brandin Byrd, who gained 860 YR last fall) who all gaiend at elast 500 YR in 2012 and now augmented by Purdue transfer Reggie Pegram. Plus deep threat WR/KR Brelan Chancellor, who missed the last month of the 2012 campaign with a broken collarbone but gained 18 yards per catch and led UNT with 120.9 all-purpose ypg. An OL that allowed only six sacks in 2012 (nation’s best) returns three starters and is cause for further encouragement.

But can UNT really win enough to get in the bowl mix with any of the QBs on its roster? We'll see.

The Mean Green “D” made palpable improvement a year ago from recent editions when allowing its least points (27.8 ppg) since 2006, holding four different foes to 14 points or fewer. Not exactly old Dallas Cowboys Doomsday defense-type stuff, but an upgrade nonetheless.

The strength of the platoon should lie in a veteran secondary that returns all of its starters, led by all-league soph CB Zac Whitfield, but the front seven lacked playmakers a year ago, and top pass rusher K.C. Obi graduated. Meanwhile, the spate of injuries that depleted the line last season continued in spring, with touted juco addition DT Quentin Brown tearing an ACL and likely out for the season, and a couple of projected starters also held out of workouts. The pivot point of the “D” should be holdover MLB Zach Orr, who earned All-Sun Belt honors last season when making a team-high 107 tackles. But he needs some help.

We’ll keep an eye on the Mean Green, but considering their modest recent efforts in the Sun Belt, we doubt things get any better in their first trip around the CUSA track.

The real mystery team in the loop will be UTSA (SUR 8-4, PSR 7-3), a baby program in only its third season of competitive football and still in transitional phase to FBS status. Like a year, ago, the Roadrunners will not be eligible for a bowl bid (that changes in 2014), but even with some of the soft spots on last year’s schedule, that 8-4 mark has opened a few eyes in CUSA, where UTSA moves this fall after campaigning in the WAC a year ago.

Indeed, some consider the Roadrunners to be a potential flagship program in the league, representing a bustling metropolis in San Antonio and playing in the league’s premiere facility, the 65,000-seat Alamodome. Moreover, there isn’t another CUSA entry with a head coach who has won a national title, as the Runners’ Larry Coker did at Miami in 2001.

Coker’s influence was easy to note a year ago when UTSA recovered from a midseason slump to win its last three games. But the grade figures to be steeper this season with no lower-level opposition on the schedule like a year ago, when the Roadrunners beat the likes of Texas A&M-Commerce, Georgia State, NW Oklahoma State, and McNeese State. All 12 foes this fall represent BCS programs, and non-league dates include contests vs. bowl winners from last year such as Oklahoma State and Arizona.

Still, we would not sleep on UTSA as long as sr. QB Eric Soza is on the field. Soza passed for over 200 yards per game and 20 TDs while tossing only three picks all of 2012. In two years as a starter, Soza has proven plenty resourceful, passing for 34 TDs compared to only 12 picks. His escapability (he rushed for 364 yards last year, too) was a big plus as he constantly wheeled away from pass rush-pressure last fall, sacked only seven times. Four starters return along the OL, and top rushers Evans Okotcha and David Glasco II combined for nearly 1000 yards last fall. Although for any program in such an embryonic stage, depth remains a significant concern.

Those growing pains were evident on defense last year when the Roadrunenrs allowed 46.3 ppg in their four losses. Almost everyone on the stop unit has starting experience, but upgrades are still needed, especially in a secondary that proved quite leaky when allowing 272 ypg thru the air. Coker subsequently dismissed four DBs from the program in spring, including a returning starter at CB, Erik Brown, though plenty of experience remains in the secondary of the DB-heavy, 4-2-5 alignment preferred by Coker and d.c. Neal Neathery. But those coverage deficiencies of the DBs loom as potentially acute, especially with so many pass-happy offenses in CUSA.

The Roadrunners probably don’t come close to their eight wins from a year ago, but that’s not yet an issue for a fledgling program learning how to compete at a higher level. Besides, Coker’s target dates for a contender are more likely 2014 and 2015. Until then, the Roadrunners at best figure as a nuisance, especially when QB Soza goes into his Fran Tarkenton act this fall.

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