Here are five stories to watch in Conference USA this upcoming season:
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The Buzz: Next to the Big East (sorry force of habit) American Athletic Conference, no other league has gone through such a major makeover like Conference USA. With membership dwindling thanks to the departures of Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF, the league was forced to recruit new members reaching into the Sun Belt Conference for schools like Florida International, Florida Atlantic, North Texas and Middle Tennessee. Then there is the addition of Louisiana Tech and UTSA from the WAC. The league even went so far as adding former Football Championship Subdivision programs like Old Dominion and Charlotte, both will join the league in 2014. Western Kentucky will also make the leap from the Sun Belt in 2014 as well. In all, six members will make their CUSA debuts in 2013.
Which newcomer will make the biggest splash in 2013?
The Buzz: Only three of the six new additions – Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana Tech and UTSA – had winning records in 2012. Middle Tennessee State is coming off an 8-4 season its since 2009, but the Blue Raiders, who have only had three winning seasons in the past 10 years, return 18 starters and make a strong case to be the best of the newcomers. UTSA returns 20 starters from a team that finished 8-4, but the Roadrunners were 4-4 last season against FBS opponents with wins against teams that were a combined 8-41 overall. Louisiana Tech is coming off its best season since 1997 when it went 9-3. The Bulldogs were even ranked at one point in 2012, but success comes at a price and coach Sonny Dykes left to take the Cal job. Skip Holtz was hired after being fired from USF and takes over a program that returns only eight starters from 2012 and will need to adapt to his coaching style.
Is Tulsa the team to beat this season?
The Buzz: If there has been at least one constant in Conference USA over the last decade, it’s the play of Tulsa. The Golden Hurricanes have played in four of the league’s last eight conference championships and have won all of them including last season. Over the past decade, the program has enjoyed moderate success with a record of 72-34. This year’s team is no exception bolstered by the return of quarterback Cody Green and running backs Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas. The duo rushed for more than 2,000 yards on the ground and 10 touchdowns. The defense lost some pop with the departures of DeAndre Brown and Dexter McCoil, but linebacker Shawn Jackson should be a force in the middle. Three of Tulsa’s first four games are winnable and the rest of the schedule looks easy. It will be tough not to see them repeat in their final season in the league.
What are the chances of a BCS Buster from CUSA?
The Buzz: Very slim. With so much turnover in the league – six new schools – along with four programs featuring new coaches, it’s going to be an uphill climb to get a team into the national spotlight. Not only would a team have to go undefeated in league play, but it would also need to earn some big non-conference wins as well. Tulsa looks to have the best chance to do both especially with games against Oklahoma and Iowa State on the schedule. East Carolina would be the next possibility with non-conference games against Virginia Tech, North Carolina and N.C. State. Other than that, it’s not happening this year.
Will we see any more additions/subtractions to the league?
The Buzz: Even with 14 members, it’s hard to imagine that Conference USA is done making future moves not with the ever-changing college landscape. According to CBSSports.com’s Jeremy Fowler, Commissioner Britton Banowsky is weighing a 16-team mode for the league with the creation of two, eight-team divisions based on geography. That would help reduce travel costs, which is one of the key issues in that model. If so, that means Conference USA would need to add two more members in the near future. Fowler points out that Arkansas State or Louisiana-Lafayette would be two possibilities. The last time we saw a league jump to 16 members was in the late 90’s with the Western Athletic Conference. That experiment didn’t last long because of in-fighting between members over money. That shouldn’t be an issue here because the league just signed a $40 million deal with Fox Sports and has deals with both CBS and ESPN also.
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