There won't be any college football games played for quite a while but that doesn't mean we are going to stop talking about the sport we love. Each week during the off-season we will bring you the top stories and we will also be discussing a variety of topics in our weekly roundtable. Over the next few weeks we will be touching on all of the BCS Conferences and also taking a look at the non-BCS teams. We started with the ACC, hit the Big 12 , talked Big Ten football, discussed the Big East, and last week dissected the Pac-12.
This week we it's all about Conference USA and we've got a couple of great special guests to help us out. Fresh off of answering some questions for us in our Southern Mississippi Exit Survey we have Drew White of Scout.com's Golden Eagle Pride coming to drop some knowledge on us. Also joining us this week is Jefferson Powell of the Houston College Football Examiner. You can follow him on twitter @JeffersonPowell or become a fan of his on facebook. Enough with the chit chat, let's talk college football!
Conference USA has a strong crop of QBs coming back this year. Let's play armchair GM. Which C-USA QB would you take to start on your team?
Drew White: Case Keenum of Houston is one of the best quarterbacks on the nation. He has an exceptionally quick release, pin point accuracy, and the ability to make any throw from any spot on the field. Even further, he is a field general and a leader on and off the field. Keenum runs the Cougar offense at a high pace, and he makes every player on the field with him better. This offense is one that gives defensive coordinators nightmares.
Jefferson Powell: Assuming he is healthy there is no doubt I would take Case Keenum. He will be in the midst of all Heisman talk for the coming season if he can stay healthy. He's a true gunslinger and knows that offense like it's second nature. I think he'll rebound strong and we'll see another year of amazing numbers.
Ross: I'm gonna stick with the obvious answer and say Case Keenum, the man who's poised to break several career passing records this year. Yes, he gets to play in a pass-happy offense, but for his career he's still completed almost 70% of his passes and has a 2.5:1 TD:INT ratio. I'll take those numbers on my team.
Kevin: Everybody looks like they are together here on the pick of Case Keenum so I'm going Austin Davis of Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles were in the Top 20 last year in terms of Total Offense and they were in the Top 15 of Points Scored. Davis has a great TD to INT ratio as last year it was 20:6 and for his career it is 53:16. Another thing that impresses me is that his statistics don't drop off on the road, so you can take him in any opponents stadium and he will perform at his highest level.
Conference USA has some noteable coaches, Which C-USA coach gives you the best chance to win every week?
Drew White: There are some very good coaches in Conference USA, but I would take George O’Leary because of his ability to coach defense and prepare his team to play. O’Leary has plenty of experience in building a program, and he is building a very good one at Central Florida. He is coming off the most successful season in Central Florida history, including a 10-6 victory over Georgia from the SEC. O’Leary is a master of in-game adjustments, and continues to have his program on the rise.
Jefferson Powell: I'll have to side with UCF's George O'Leary on this one. In terms of overall program success I think he is doing a great job at UCF. Not only is he improving that team on the field, he's also pushing his athletes to achieve and perform at higher standards in the class room as well and since he has been in charge UCF has drastically improved their athletic facilities on campus. I think he is doing a tremendous job at UCF and his team will be one to keep an eye on.
Ross: I guess I'd probably go George O'Leary at UCF since he's done a rare thing in C-USA: build a consistent winner (if two years can said to be "consistent," anyway... but this is C-USA -- no one builds a dynasty here) on the back of a solid defense rather than a prolific offense. Since I'm a believer that a solid defense will always keep me competitive in a game, I'll take that over any of the coaches who champion high-powered offenses -- offenses that are prone to stalling out in bad weather or against stiff competition.
Kevin: As a Georgia fan I refuse to pick George O'Leary. I'm sure he can teach the kids how to pad their resumes but he hasn't taken UCF to a BCS bowl yet. June Jones has. Jones is a dynamic offense coach and has only been at SMU for three years but already has them contending for Conference Titles.
Which players do you see poised for breakout seasons this year?
Drew White: SMU quarterback Kyle Padron has all the tools, the offensive system, and 10 returning starters to be poised to make some noise on the national scene. Another quarterback that burst onto the scene was Jeff Godfrey of Central Florida. With his dual threat ability, strong arm, and great instincts, Godfrey has all the tools in his arsenal.
Also look for running back Kendrick Hardy of Southern Miss to establish himself as a dominant back. With size and strength, Hardy can run over and through opponents and will give the Eagles another weapon on offense. UAB’s running back Pat Shed has the potential to have a huge season with a good offensive line and a quarterback threat.
Jefferson Powell: Keep an eye out for sophomore quarterback Jeff Godfrey of UCF. Last year he was thrust into the starting role as a true freshman and led the Knights to a Conference USA Championship and berth in the Liberty Bowl where they took down SEC foe Georgia 10-6.
Godfrey is a threat on the ground as well, last season he was the team's second leading rusher gaining 704 yards on 152 carries with 10 touchdowns. This season I think we'll continue to see him as a legitimate ground threat, but with a year under his belt I think he'll start to blossom into more of a passer. At times last season he seemed to have a run-first mentality. This season I think we'll see him work his way through his progressions and if nothing is there, he can still beat you with his legs. Definitely someone to keep an eye on in 2011.
Ross: Zach Line, RB, SMU; He finished 11th in the nation in rushing yards (1494) and had the highest ypc (6.1) of any non-QB (Denard Robinson had a ypc of 6.6) -- and I still don't think anyone knew who he was or what he did. I think that changes in 2011 and Line has another big year and starts getting recognized as a top RB.
Kevin: I'm going to head to Louisiana and talk about Orleans Darkwa of Tulane. He was the second leading rusher in C-USA last year but there were five games last year where he ran the ball six times or less. Last year Darkwa compiled 925 yards and a whopping 5 ypc and also put up 11 rushing TDs. He basically did all that in only seven games. If he gets a full season of #1 back carries this year he could be dynamic.
There legitimately looks to be at least three teams from each division that could take the C-USA crown this year. Who are your early picks for each division?
Drew White: With the wide open style of play in Conference USA, any team is capable of an upset week in and week out. Several teams have established themselves with a nice nucleus returning leadership in key areas for next season. Central Florida is still the champs of the conference, and will be there until someone knocks them off. The offense returns eight starters, but the defense has a lot of holes to fill. Southern Miss could break through if they can find some consistency in the defense. The Eagle offense looks to be on the brink of another huge year, and a new defensive system should pay dividends.
Out west, SMU seems to be the team to beat, with QB Kyle Padron and only lost one offensive starter from a year ago. If the Mustangs can get some production out of the defense, they are the early favorite to win the west. G.J. Kinne returns a strong Tulsa offense, and new coach Bill Blankenship has plenty to work with offensively for the Golden Hurricane. The defense, ranked 111th last season, must improve for Tulsa to win the conference.
Jefferson Powell: UCF is definitely the team to beat out of the East. They've got a talented young quarterback who emerged as a legitimate playmaker this spring. They have developed great depth at tailback and are returning four of five starters along the offensive line. Their only question on the offensive side of the ball is who will replace the top three targets from last season. Look for AJ. Guyton to step up and be in the mix. On the defensive side of the ball UCF found some playmakers along their defensive line during the spring. Troy Davis came away with five sacks in the spring game and their secondary is as good as its ever been. They do have some question marks at linebacker, after losing three starters. But Ray Shipman joined the team from playing basketball and Jonathan Davis made the switch to linebacker form tailback and both players played well this spring. All in all they'll be a tough team to contend with and will give their opponents a hand full. I think there is a legitimate chance we'll see them back in the Championship game representing the East.
Coming out of the West, I think you have to take a serious look at Houston. With Case Keenum coming back they will have a lot of weapons to their disposal and the most depth of any team at quarterback. We could see a record setting year for the Air-Raid offense this season with Keenum at the helm. Running back Bryce Beall is back after rushing for 12 scores last season. They will however need someone to step-up at wide receiver and they may have found a few candidates this spring. Ronnie Williams and Darian Lazard both capped off an impressive spring with standout performances in the spring game. Last year the issue with Houston was always defense. One thing to note after the spring is it appears the defense is poised for a greatly improved season and they just might have the best set of linebackers in Conference USA led by Marcus McGraw and Phillip Steward. The strength of the defense is definitely in the middle, If they can get pressure up front and they find consistency in the secondary there is no doubt they'll make improvements along the defense. Bottom line, If Keenum can stay healthy with all the other weapons they have on offense and their defense continues to perform to the level they played this spring they are definitely the favorite coming out of the west. Even with an injury to Keenum they'll contend, but with him leading the way they are my favorite to win the conference.
Ross: I see a rematch of last year in the C-USA Championship Game with UCF and SMU. East Carolina has the offense to make noise in the C-USA East, but their defense is too much of a dumpster fire to make them serious contenders. UCF has to rebuild their defense, but I they'll be able to do that pretty well with the coaching and talent on hand. Houston looks like the main threat to SMU's chances to repeat in the C-USA West if they get Keenum back at 100%, but their lack of defense is also troubling. SMU returns a significant portion of their team from a year ago and they look like they've settled into June Jones' system well; I think they're poised for a big year. In fact, they're my tentative pick to win C-USA this year.
Kevin: In the West, Houston doesn't have to play UCF or Southern Miss from the East so I think that give them an immediate advantage (SMU has to play So Miss and Tulsa has to play UCF). As long as Keenum stays healthy I think they have a chance to have a really great year so they are my pick from the West. From the East, it's really a toss up between UCF and Southern Miss. I think UCF is the more well rounded pick and were much more consistent last year despite losing to the Golden Eagles. So right now I've got UCF penciled in for the East. If Southern MIss can fix their defense I might be tempted to swing my vote.