It will be a fight to the top of C-USA

Published 3:04 pm Thursday, August 7, 2008

By By JEFF LATZKE, AP Sports Writer
TULSA, Okla. — Tulsa coach Todd Graham is keeping no secrets when it comes to his lofty goals for this season. Anything less than perfection will be a disappointment.
And after watching former WAC rivals Boise State and Hawaii reach the BCS the past two seasons, why shouldn’t the Golden Hurricane dream of becoming the next team to crash the Bowl Championship Series party?
Don’t believe him? Well, neither did some of his players when the former defensive coordinator took over as head coach last season and set a goal of making Tulsa the nation’s top offense.
Gus Malzahn unleashed the no-huddle scheme that he never got to use at Arkansas, and the Golden Hurricane averaged 544 yards as three relatively unknown receivers eclipsed 1,000 yards. The trigger man, Paul Smith, has moved on after a record-setting career but longtime understudy David Johnson and junior college transfer Jacob Bower are competing to replace him with every skill player back around them.
A four-game midseason stretch will present the biggest hurdle for Tulsa. UTEP and defending Conference USA champion Central Florida come to town before a road game at Arkansas on Nov. 1. Two weeks later is a visit to 2006 C-USA champ Houston, where former Oklahoma receivers coach Kevin Sumlin has taken over for Art Briles.
And don’t forget SMU, which could have life for the first time since its 1989 NCAA death penalty with the arrival of June Jones after he led Hawaii to the Sugar Bowl last season.
The Golden Hurricane matched a school record with 10 wins last season, finishing in impressive fashion with a 63-7 GMAC Bowl victory against Bowling Green that went down as the biggest bowl blowout ever.
A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
SOUTHERN MISS — Key players: RB Damion Fletcher, Jr.; LB Gerald McRath, Jr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Fletcher is the nation’s third-leading returning rusher, behind only Kent State’s Eugene Jarvis and Ohio State’s Chris Wells. He averaged 122 yards and ran for 15 touchdowns last season. … Larry Fedora, a former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State and Florida, takes over a squad that’s played in six straight bowl games.
UCF — Key players: LT Pat Brown, Sr.; CB/PR Joe Burnett, Sr. Returning starters: 5 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: The Golden Knights will try to replace NCAA leading rusher Kevin Smith with another Smith: junior Phillip Smith. … Led C-USA with 39 sacks and set school record with 24 interceptions last season.
EAST CAROLINA — Key players: FS Van Eskridge, Jr.; DE C.J. Wilson, Jr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Ranked fourth in country in turnover margin. Led Conference USA with 31 takeaways, while committing only 14 turnovers. … Lost RB/KR Chris Johnson, who led nation in all-purpose yardage last season.
MEMPHIS — Key players: WR Duke Calhoun, Jr.; WR Carlos Singleton, Jr. Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Calhoun, a junior, has caught a pass in each of his 24 career games. … Former Miami assistant Tim Walton takes over as defensive coordinator after the Tigers ranked 100th in total defense last season.
MARSHALL — Key players: DE Albert McClellan, Jr.; TE Cody Slate, Jr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: McClellan, the 2006 C-USA defensive player of the year, returns after missing all of last season following knee surgery. He had a league-high 11 sacks in 2006. … Coach Mark Snyder is responsible for only three losing seasons since Thundering Herd moved to FBS in 1997.
UAB — Key players: FS Will Dunbar, Sr.; QB Joe Webb, Jr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Rushing defense allowed NCAA-worst 256.8 ypg last season … Webb becomes a full-time QB after also playing WR last year.
TULSA — Key players: WR Brennan Marion, Sr.; RB Tarrion Adams, Sr. Returning starters: 9 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Nation’s top offense must replace all-time passing leader Paul Smith. Senior David Johnson is top candidate, but juco transfer Jacob Bower could also play. … Had three 1,000-yard receivers, 1,000-yard runner and 1,000-yard passer last season.
HOUSTON — Key players: FS Kenneth Fontenette, Sr.; DE Phillip Hunt, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Kevin Sumlin is the first black coach for a Bowl Subdivision team in Texas. … Lost 1,500-yard rusher Anthony Alridge and 1,400-yard receiver Donnie Avery from nation’s fourth-rated offense.
RICE — Key players: QB Chase Clement, Sr.; WR Jarett Dillard, Sr.; FS Andrew Sendejo, Jr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Set school records with 377 points and 4,848 yards last season. … Clement was first player in NCAA history with consecutive games with 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing.
SMU — Key players: QB Justin Willis, Jr.; WR Emmanuel Sanders, Jr. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: After leading Hawaii to the BCS, June Jones brings his high-powered run-and-shoot offense to Dallas. … Jones had the biggest turnaround in NCAA history when he took a winless Hawaii team and went 9-4 in 1999. The Mustangs were 1-11 last year.
UTEP — Key players: QB Trevor Vittatoe, Soph.; WR Jeff Moturi, Jr. Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: New defensive coordinator Osia Lewis switching from 4-3 to 3-3-5. … K Jose Martinez was Groza Award finalist.
TULANE — Key players: LB Evan Lee, Sr.; LG Michael Parenton, Sr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Andre Anderson is the favorite to replace RB Matt Forte, who ranked second in the nation with 2,127 yards rushing and 23 TDs last season. … Former defensive line coach O’Neill Gilbert takes over as defensive coordinator.