August 19, 2011
Conference USA 2011 Conference Report
Can Case Keenum bounce back? Will Tulsa suffer without Todd Graham? Is anyone in the league going to play defense? Ben Glicksman tackles that and much more in his 2011 C-USA preview.
How They'll Finish
EAST Conference Overall
Central Florida 7-1 9-3
Southern Miss 5-3 8-4
East Carolina 5-3 5-7
Marshall 4-4 5-7
UAB 3-5 4-8
Memphis 0-8 1-11
WEST Conference Overall
SMU 6-2 9-3
Tulsa 6-2 7-5
Houston 5-3 9-3
Tulane 3-5 4-9
Rice 3-5 3-9
UTEP 1-7 3-9
Conference Championship: UCF def. SMU
Offensive MVP
Case Keenum
2010 stats: 42-of-64, 636 yards, 5 TD, 5 INT
2011 projection: 455-of-660, 5,300 yards, 44 TD, 12 INT
Granted a sixth-year of eligibility following last season's ACL tear, Keenum aims to return to gun-slinging form in 2011. He's been Houston's starting quarterback since 2007, transforming the offense into a bona fide juggernaut. Though his injury leaves doubts, Keenum still seems a lock to break the NCAA career passing record. He's just 3,486 yards shy of the all-time mark of 17,072 set by Hawaii's Timmy Chang in 2004, and threw for more than 5,000 yards his sophomore and junior seasons.
Defensive MVP
Vinny Curry
2010 stats: 94 tackles, 18 TFL, 12 sacks, 2 FF
2011 projection: 89 tackles, 20 TFL, 14 sacks, 3 FF
Curry is one of the nation's premier pass rushers. It's almost inarguable. He amassed 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss last year, good for fifth and 13th in the FBS, respectively. He also accumulated 94 tackles, tops in the nation for a defensive lineman. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound senior possesses great edge speed and an explosive first step, qualities that could very well make him a first-round draft pick come April.
Three Key Nonconference Games
Central Florida at BYU
Friday, Sept. 23
8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
As far as quarterback showcases go, few offer as much potential as this late September showdown. The Knights come armed with Jeff Godfrey, a dual threat who's as dangerous on the ground as through the air. The Cougars counter with sophomore Jake Heaps, the former five-star recruit who picked apart UTEP in last year's New Mexico Bowl. Expect a shootout.
Tulsa at Boise State
Saturday, Sept. 24
8 p.m. ET
Are you ready for some scoring? It should be in high supply here, as both the Golden Hurricane and Broncos finished among the top five in total offense last year. And while G.J. Kinne and Kellen Moore should come out firing, don't overlook the impact of Tulsa wideout Damaris Johnson. The elusive junior is a threat to score on any play, doubling as one of the most dynamic return men in the country.
Friday, Sept. 30
8 p.m. ET
The Mustangs haven't beaten the Horned Frogs since 2005 despite playing them every year since 2007. If they're going to win, this could be the season. SMU returns 18 starters from last year's squad, headlined by quarterback Kyle Padron and tailback Zach Line. The Mustangs have also proven they can hang with the Horned Frogs: They led 17-14 in the third quarter of last year's game before going on to lose 41-24.
Key Conference Game
Houston at Tulsa
Saturday, Nov. 26
The final regular season contest for both schools is loaded with storylines. The West could be on the line, as it figures to be a three-team race between Houston, Tulsa and SMU all year. Scoring should be in abundance, as both teams averaged more than 37 points per game last season. Best of all, the matchup already demonstrated its classic potential. The last time quarterback Case Keenum faced Tulsa in 2009, Houston triumphed 46-45 on a game-winning 51-yard Matt Hogan field goal as time expired.
Three Key Questions
The best quarterback in Oklahoma? Case Keenum's recovery may be the biggest quarterback story in the conference, but Tulsa's G.J. Kinne is by no means a distant second. The reigning Offensive Player of the Year finished last season with 3,650 passing yards, 561 rushing yards and 38 total touchdowns, leading the Golden Hurricane to victories in their final seven games. Expectations are higher this year. Bill Blankenship, Tulsa's newly promoted head coach, recently declared Kinne -- not Landry Jones or Brandon Weeden -- the best quarterback in Oklahoma.
End of an era at Tulsa In his four-year tenure at Tulsa, Todd Graham was nothing short of terrific. He went a combined 36-17, won three bowl games and consistently boasted an offense among the nation's elite. After leaving for Pittsburgh in January, though, the job was given to Bill Blankenship, an assistant coach under Graham since 2007. His follow-up act won't be easy: The Golden Hurricane play at Oklahoma, vs. Oklahoma State and at Boise State during a three-week span in September.
Can anyone in the conference play defense? Few, if any, conferences possess the quality of offense in Conference USA. Six of the twelve schools ranked 33rd or higher in total offense last year, each producing more than 414 yards per game. Problem is, few C-USA programs bother to defend. Five teams surrendered more than 400 yards per game last season, including East Carolina, which allowed an FBS-worst 478.

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