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Conference USA Football Pre-Season Power Rankings: Traffic At The Top

While the return of Case Keenum has hopes high in Houston, SB Nation Houston doesn't have the Cougars ranked at the top of Conference USA - or even the West Division - to start the 2011 season.

Believe it or not, it's football week, with the college season kicking off on Thursday, and the hometown Cougars and Owls starting their seasons with most of the rest of the country on Saturday. That means we can (hopefully) stop talking about conference realignment, stop talking about programs going on probation, and start talking about the results of football games.

Along those lines, let's take a look at SB Nation Houston's pre-season power rankings in football. It's hard to put these teams in order right now, with a trio of Conference USA schools finding themselves receiving votes in the pre-season polls, and a number of conference teams who can look at their rosters and have solid reason to believe that they can compete for a conference title. Conference USA may not finally break through and have its BCS buster in 2011, but it looks - on paper, at least - to be four schools deep in each division. Honestly, the top eight or nine teams on this list are fairly interchangeable.

Without any further ado, here's our pre-season power rankings for Conference USA:

1. Central Florida Knights (11-3 in 2010, 7-1 C-USA)

The Knights suffer heavier losses due to graduation than most of Conference USA, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but they do return Jeff Godfrey at QB, after he had a monster freshman season (66.8% completions, 13 TD, 8 INT, 566 rush yards, 10 rush TD), and a scary-deep stable of running backs. As mentioned, there are heavy losses on the defensive side of the ball, but it's a defense that was two or three notches ahead of everybody else in the conference to begin with.

Everyone associated with the UCF program should be glad to begin the season, and have their school in the news for something other than the mess surrounding the Erick Plancher lawsuit. Expect the distractions of that case to be the popular excuse in Orlando if the season doesn't go as planned.

This week: a cakewalk at home against Charleston Southern, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST

2. Southern Miss Golden Eagles (8-5 in 2010, 5-3 C-USA)

The Golden Eagles may actually be the favorites in the East Division, with their match-up with UCF falling in Hattiesburg this year. The core of an explosive offense returns in 2011, led by quarterback Austin Davis and running back Kendrick Hardy. The defense needs to improve (29.5 points allowed per game in '10), but there is a lot of experience there.

This week: a home date with Louisiana Tech, Saturday, 9:00 PM CST. The Golden Eagles beat LT last year, 13-12, despite playing poorly. It will be an interesting game for UH fans, for scouting purposes, because even though USM is not on the schedule, the Cougars face the Bulldogs in their third game of the year.

3. Southern Methodist Mustangs (7-7 in 2010, 6-2 C-USA)

I won't blame you if you criticize me for putting SMU ahead of the Cougars, despite Houston being tabbed as favorites in the west in many publications. But on paper, the Mustangs look as good or better than the Cougars, in terms of all the talent they return, and the recruiting class they brought in. Kyle Padron-Zach Line-Cole Beasley is right up there in terms of QB-RB-WR combos in the conference, and the defense (which was a touchdown per game better than Houston's in 2010) returns eight starters.

The defense doesn't get its potential impact freshman in Davon Moreland, an incredibly highly-touted recruit from California who picked the Ponies over a plethora of Pac-12 offers. Moreland is no longer on the SMU roster, apparently due to a grades issue.

This week: A road game at Texas A&M, Sunday, 6:30 PM CST. That's right, it's a face-off between two schools who are embarrassing the heck out of themselves in the media in terms of conference alignment. The difference? Unlike SMU and the Big XII, Texas A&M still has a shot at the SEC.

4. Houston Cougars (5-7 in 2010, 4-4 C-USA)

As far as the SMU comparison goes, here's what works in Houston's favor: the Cougar-Mustang showdown takes place in Robertson Stadium, SMU draws both Southern Miss and UCF out of the east (Houston draws neither), and while Padron is a nice quarterback, he's not Case Keenum. It's also worth mentioning that Kevin Sumlin and June Jones are both entering their fourth years at their respective schools, and Jones has yet to beat Sumlin.

But will the Cougar defense, in the second year under defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, and with new positional coaches for the defensive line and linebackers, be as good as the Mustangs'? We'll start to get an idea of that on Saturday.

This week: A home game against UCLA, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. Oh yeah, it's revenge time. It's also basically the only respectable opponent on Houston's schedule, so if there's a chance to make a national impression, it's now for the Cougars.

5. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (10-3 in 2010, 6-2 C-USA)

Hard to believe that a team that finished last year ranked in the top 25, which returns so much of its nucleus, could be the consensus third horse in the West division race, but that's what's facing Tulsa, amid a new coaching staff, and some questions at the offensive playmaker positions. Tulsa has actually won 10+ games in three of the last four seasons, but has some lingering questions on defense, a brutal non-conference schedule, has to face UCF on the road, graduates multi-purpose offensive threat Charles Clay, and may be without uber-playmaker Damaris Johnson (872 receiving yards, 560 rush yards, 11 total TD) for a while.

On the plus side, quarterback G.J. Kinne is poised for another big year, with one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country working to protect him. Tulsa also does have some decent experience on the defensive side of the ball.

This week: a road game at Oklahoma, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST. Talk about testing yourself right out of the gates. It doesn't get much tougher than a road game at the #1 ranked team in the country. When the two schools faced off two years ago, the Golden Hurricane suffered an embarrassing 45-0 loss. Tulsa shouldn't lose quite so badly this time around, but it's hard to imagine TU hanging close, especially without Johnson.

6. Rice Owls (4-8 in 2010, 3-5 C-USA)

While a murderer's row of a non-conference schedule may hurt Rice's overall record, they have one of the most talented squads in conference on paper. Quarterback Taylor McHargue missed much of his freshman year with injuries, but when he was healthy, he led Rice to a pair of impressive victories to end the season, posting a 6-1 TD-INT ratio overall. Sam McGuffie heads a deep stable of running backs, defensive end Scott Solomon - an NFL prospect - returns after missing a year with injuries, and there's enough returning talent in the secondary to believe that the Owls can improve upon their poor pass defense despite the tragic career-ending injury to Travis Bradshaw.

This week: A road game at Texas-Austin, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST. It may look like the Owls are preparing to take their annual beat-down at the hands of the Longhorns, but with all the questions facing Mack Brown's squad, don't be surprised if Rice makes a game of it, in the first (and the way things are going, possibly the last) game to be televised on the Longhorn Network.

7. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (4-8 in 2010, 3-5 C-USA)

While the Blazers haven't had a winning season since the program's only bowl appearance in 2004, UAB has actually had a positive yardage margin in conference play each of the past two seasons, something only three other conference squads can claim. Will this be the year that the Blazers finally break through and compete for the East Division title? Head coach Neil Callaway's job probably depends on it.

Quarterback Bryan Ellis may not get as much hype as some of the other C-USA quarterbacks, but he is a solid option for the Blazers. Senior halfback Pat Shed returns after piling up over 1,300 yards of total offense a year ago. The defense will have to show improvement, but there's a ton of experience there.

This week: Off. Yup, the Blazers begin the season with a bye week before taking on Florida next Saturday.

8. East Carolina Pirates (6-7 in 2010, 5-3 C-USA)

Despite hiring Ruffin McNeill, a defensive coordinator, as their new head coach, the Pirates were among the NCAA's worst defenses last year. It was their explosive offense, led by star QB Dominique Davis, which kept them in games. Davis returns, but doesn't have an experienced running back to hand the ball to, loses stud receiver Dwayne Harris to the NFL, and has an inexperienced offensive line in front of him.

With their two top tacklers graduating, it's hard to imagine the defense being a whole lot better than it was last year. And if the offense slips even a little, it could be a long year in Greenville.

This week: Game against South Carolina in Charlotte, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. A stiff test for the ECU defense, given Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore, and the stable of offensive weapons that the Gamecocks have available to them.

9. Marshall Thundering Herd (5-7 in 2010, 4-4 C-USA)

The Herd played some of the most respectable defense in conference last year, but were the rare C-USA team to struggle on offense. This year, they return much of that defense, led by defensive end Vinny Curry (94 tackles, 12 sacks) and add highly-touted recruit D.J. Hunter in the secondary, but will still be searching for playmakers on offense.

Too many C-USA teams have too much talent on offense for Marshall to have much success if they can't start finding ways to put points on the board. But if they can find consistent contributors at the offensive skill positions, Marshall could be a sleeper team in the East - although the schedule doesn't do them many favors, as they draw road games with Houston and Tulsa out of the West.

This week: road game at West Virginia, Sunday, 2:30 PM CST. The Herd had a 21-6 lead in the fourth quarter of last year's in-state rivalry game before losing in overtime. This time around, they face former Houston offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen in his first game as a head coach.

10. Tulane Green Wave (4-8 in 2010, 2-6 C-USA)

Things can't get a whole lot worst than they have been for Tulane under Bob Toledo (13-35 overall record, 7-25 in conference, no seasons topping three wins over Division 1-A competition), and while things may be looking up a little in 2011, it won't be enough to make them competitive in a deep West division, and it may not be enough to save Toledo's job. While I usually don't advocate keeping coaches around who struggle as much as Toledo has, I kind of would like to see the Green Wave give him another couple years to develop the young team Tulane currently has. Ryan Griffin is a respectable quarterback, Orleans Darkwa can do some good things at running back, and both should be around for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

There aren't a lot of tougher situations in 1-A college football than Tulane, and Toledo at least deserves a chance to see his first couple of recruiting classes through to graduation, to see if he can win with them. But in 2011? A bowl season is probably out of the realm of possibility.

This week: Tulane hosts 1-AA foe Southeastern Louisiana, Saturday, 2:30 PM. The Green Wave have defeated the Lions twice in the last four years, but both games were decided by single-digit margins.

11. Texas-El Paso Miners (6-7 in 2010, 3-5 C-USA)

Speaking of coaches on the hot seat, Mike Price has to hope that a 6-6 season, capped off by a shellacking at the hands of BYU in the New Mexico Bowl (the Miners' first bowl appearance since '05), is enough to earn him the chance to take his team through rebuilding mode once again. The defense, coming off a year in which it allowed under 30 points a game for the first time since that '05 season, has the potential to be respectable. But the offense loses basically everybody, including the school's all-time career passing leader in Trevor Vittatoe, 1,000-yard receiver Kris Adams, and all five starters on the offensive line.

Running back Joe Banyard returns after he did a nice job of filling in for the injured Donald Buckram last year, but he's not a one-man offense. After the requisite 1-AA opponent to begin the year, UTEP faces three straight road games, and then hosts Houston, so the rest of the offense had better come together quickly, or the Miners are going to find themselves in a hole they won't be able to dig their way out of.

This week: Home game against Stony Brook, Saturday, 8:00 PM CST.

12. Memphis Tigers (1-11 in 2010, 0-8 C-USA)

The Tigers became only the second different school to put up the bagel in conference play since C-USA assumed its present 12-team, two-division alignment in 2005. (SMU did it in back-to-back years in '07 and '08.) And they graduate basically everybody from last year's team, to boot, although that might not be a bad thing. Head coach Larry Porter stepped into an awfully tough situation, and we won't really be able to judge how good of a job he's doing until 2014 or so, because there just isn't a human being on the planet who could turn the Memphis Tigers into a respectable football team in the next year or two.

I've got nothing else to say. This team is awful, and I pity them.

This week: Memphis hosts Mississippi State, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central. If the TIgers can stay within three scores of the Bulldogs, it will be a huge moral victory.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.