December 12, 2008

Conference USA starts fast but fades down stretch

MORE: All-Conference USA Team

Conference USA received a lot of attention this season, but ultimately, the league again fell short in trying to get in the discussion about the best non-"Big Six" leagues.

East Carolina's fast start upsets of Virginia Tech and West Virginia in back-to-back weeks fueled talk of the Pirates earning a BCS bid. But after a 3-0 start, the Pirates lost three in a row and faded from public consciousness.

Tulsa began 8-0 and coach Todd Graham openly talked about his goal of getting into the Orange Bowl. But the Golden Hurricane stumbled badly down the stretch, losing three of their final five games. That included a home loss to ECU in the league title game.

Still, six league teams are headed to bowls, and some of the best offenses in the nation reside in C-USA.

Houston and Tulsa were first and second, respectively, in the nation in total offense. Rice was 10th, and Southern Miss (20th), Memphis (22nd) and UTEP (30th) also were in the top 30.

Houston's Case Keenum, Tulsa's David Johnson and Rice's Chase Clement were among the top six in total passing yards nationally. UTEP's Trevor Vittatoe, SMU's Bo Levi Mitchell and Southern Miss' Austin Davis were in the top 23 in that category.

Southern Miss wide receiver DeAndre Brown was one of the best true freshmen in the nation, and Golden Eagles junior running back Damion Fletcher had his third consecutive 1,000-yard season.

Here's a rundown of the best and worst of C-USA in 2008.

Player of the year: Rice QB Chase Clement. Clement - a senior - tossed 29 TD passes last season, when he threw for 3,377 yards. He blew those numbers away this season, throwing for 3,812 yards and 41 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He also ran for 621 yards and 11 scores, and he averaged 369.4 yards of offense per game. He also guided Rice to a 9-3 record and a tie for the C-USA West title.

Coach of the year: East Carolina's Skip Holtz. His team opened the season 3-0, including victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia. That spurred talk of ECU being a potential BCS-buster and of Holtz leaving for a bigger job after the season. But the Pirates hit a midseason lull to fall to 3-3. To Holtz's credit, he rallied his team to a 9-4 finish and the C-USA title.

Freshman of the year: Southern Miss WR DeAndre Brown. Brown came in highly hyped and lived up to the hype. He had 66 receptions for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns. The yardage total was fourth in the league and the touchdown total was tied for second.

Offensive coordinator of year: Tulsa's Gus Malzahn. The Golden Hurricane are second nationally in scoring offense and total offense. Tulsa had eight games in which it scored at least 40 points and six in which it scored at least 50. In addition, the Golden Hurricane rolled up at least 500 yards in 11 of 13 games.

Defensive coordinator of year: East Carolina's Greg Hudson. ECU was in the top three in the league in the major categories first in scoring defense, second in total defense, third in rush defense and third in pass defense. In addition, it was in the top 51 nationally in each category - an achievement in a league as offensive-minded as C-USA.

Best game: Houston 42, UTEP 37, Nov. 22 in Houston. Houston QB Case Keenum threw for 480 yards and ran for the winning score with 41 seconds to lift the Cougars past the Miners. Houston scored 26 fourth-quarter points to overcome a 28-9 third-quarter deficit.

Biggest upsets: East Carolina 27, Virginia Tech 22, on Aug. 30 in Charlotte, N.C., and Marshall 37, Houston 23, Oct. 28 in Huntington, W.Va. In non-conference play, it was ECU's season-opening victory over Virginia Tech in which the Pirates scored late on a blocked punt to shock the eventual ACC champ. In conference play, it was Marshall's surprisingly easy victory over Houston. The Herd dominated the first half in the Tuesday night game, and the Cougars had to score two TDs in the fourth quarter to make it appear closer than it was.

Biggest surprise, player: UAB QB Joe Webb. Webb, a junior, didn't move full-time to quarterback until midway through last season (he had been a wide receiver). In his first full season as a starter, he exceeded expectations. Webb threw for 2,367 yards and 10 TDs and ran for another 1,021 yards and 11 TDs. He is just the sixth quarterback in major-college history to pass for 2,000 and rush for 1,000 in a season.

Biggest surprise, team: Rice. The Owls are 9-3 and are carrying a six-game winning streak into their Texas Bowl appearance against Western Michigan. It's the school's first nine-win season since 1953. The Owls were supposed to finish in the middle of the conference. Instead, they tied for the title.

Biggest disappointment, player: Tulsa WR Trae Johnson. Johnson was magnificent as a freshman last season. A year ago he finished with 70 catches, including 13 for touchdowns. This season, though, he saw his role usurped by Damaris Johnson a freshman. Trae Johnson finished with 20 receptions and three touchdowns. He had 12 games last season in which he had at least three catches; he had just four such games this season.

Biggest disappointment, team: SMU. Granted, new coach June Jones wasn't taking over a juggernaut. Still, more was expected from the Mustangs than a second consecutive 1-11 season. Jones played a lot of freshmen, which he hopes pays off down the line. The sooner the Mustangs can put this season behind them, the better.

Underclassmen liable to go pro: Southern Miss RB Damion Fletcher, Southern Miss LB Gerald McRath, UTEP WR Jeff Moturi, Memphis WR Carlos Singleton, East Carolina DE C.J. Wilson.

Next season's division winners: Southern Miss in the East, Houston in the West. Both had first-year coaches this season and both are going to bowls. Still, both also probably should have had one more victory. Southern Miss should have a great passing duo with WR DeAndre Brown and QB Austin Davis both of whom were freshmen this season. And if RB Damion Fletcher returns, the Golden Eagles will have the league's best running back. Houston QB Case Keenum had a huge sophomore season and should only improve under the tutelage of coach Kevin Sumlin. The Cougars have a ton of skill-position talent returning, though the offensive line could be a problem. As for the defenses for both teams? As long as they are adequate, that should be enough.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.




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