CUSA Preseason Coaches Poll
Preseason All-CUSA Team
If the computer (about the computer) forecast holds true, UCF and Tulsa will meet for the CUSA championship for the second consecutive season, and the third time in the last four years.
The title game is staged on the home field of the school with best conference winning percentage, making it the only conference championship game that isn't played at a pre-determined neutral site.
In 2005, Tulsa entertained UCF and won the championship game 44-27. The Golden Knights hosted the event last year in Orlando and defeated the Golden Hurricane 44-25. The computer says the two schools will head back to Tulsa at the end of this season where home field advantage will help the Golden Hurricane to a 2.78-point edge.
For the rematch to happen, UCF has to get off of the roller coaster ride it has been on for the past four seasons.
In 2004, the Golden Knights suffered through an 0-11 campaign in George O'Leary's first season as head coach. O'Leary's second campaign was much different as an 8-win improvement put his squad in the conference championship. But in 2006, UCF slid backwards to a 4-8 finish with losses in 5-of-7 games down the stretch. Vast improvement was expected last year, but no one foresaw the dramatic upswing to a 9-3 regular season that precipitated the CUSA crown. Alas, the glass slipper broke at the Liberty Bowl where two Cinderellas faced-off and Mississippi State (which improved from 3-9 in 2006 to 8-5 last season) prevailed 10-3.
Meanwhile, Tulsa has enjoyed three consecutive solid seasons with records of 9-4 in 2005 (conference champs), 8-5 in 2006 (3rd place, CUSA West), and 10-4 last season. Tulsa managed that consistency despite losing head coach Steve Kragthorpe to Louisville after the '06 campaign. When Kragthorpe departed, the Golden Hurricane lured Todd Graham away from Rice. Graham was Kragthorpe's defensive coordinator for three years at Tulsa before landing his first head coaching job with the Owls in 2006 where he converted the perennial losers to a 7-6 season and their first bowl bid in 45 years in his only season at the helm.
The Golden Hurricane capped last year's campaign with a 63-7 crushing of Bowling Green at the GMAC Bowl.
In the bowl romp, Tulsa QB Paul Smith set an NCAA record with his 14th consecutive 300-yard passing game and the Golden Hurricane also became the first team in NCAA history to have a 5,000-yard passer (Smith) and four other 1,000-yard gainers in the same season. The nation's leading offense had three 1,000-yard receivers (Brennan Marion, Trae Johnson and Charles Clay) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Tarrion Adams). All return except for the quarterback.
Another Smith - Kevin - was the star at UCF. The Golden Knights' running back challenged the NCAA single-season rushing record of 2,628 yards set by Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State in 1988. Smith came up just 61 yards short after being limited to 119 yards in the bowl loss to the Bulldogs.
UCF's Smith was the 64th player taken in the NFL draft (Detroit Lions), while Tulsa's Smith was signed as a free agent (Jacksonville Jaguars).
Replacing their respective Smith's won't be easy for Tulsa or UCF, but the computer indicates that each division only appears to have one team capable of challenging its defending division champ.
Central Florida's toughest challenge in the East division should be mounted by East Carolina. The Pirates actually enter the year with a higher power rating than UCF, but must travel to Orlando where home field gives the Golden Knights the projected victory in a division tie-breaker by a scant 1.04 points.
Marshall, Memphis and Southern Miss all trail UCF and Tulsa by at least 10 power points. The Herd, Tigers and Golden Eagles should stage a fierce battle for 3rd, 4th and 5th as no more than 2.25 power points separate those three teams.
In the West division, Houston is the only team within 12 points of Tulsa. The Cougars trail the Golden Hurricane by just over 5 points. Rice, Tulane and UTEP are at least 6-1/2 points behind Houston. The Owls, Green Wave and Miners will compete for 3rd through 5th-place division finishes with only 2.63 power points coming between them.
Houston's influence in the conference race will be impacted by new head coach Kevin Sumlin who served as co-offensive coordinator, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma from 2003-2007.
Southern Miss also has a new head coach in Larry Fedora. The Oklahoma State offensive coordinator replaces Jeff Bower who stepped down November 26 after guiding the Golden Eagles to their 14th consecutive winning season and 10th bowl invitation in the past 11 campaigns. Bower spent 29 years at the Hattiesburg, Mississippi school as a player, assistant coach and head coach. He was 119-83-1 after coaching Southern Miss to a 31-21 loss to Cincinnati at the Papajohns.com Bowl on Dec. 22 in Birmingham.
Fedora's first team is projected to finish 7-5 (5-3 in CUSA) which is exactly the same record that Bower produced last year.
CUSA's other new head coach is the one that everyone will be watching.
June Jones comes to SMU after surprisingly leaving Hawaii. Last season, his Warriors were the only team in the FBS to go undefeated in the regular season. Their only loss came to Georgia, 41-10, in the Sugar Bowl to cap a 12-1 campaign.
Jones' predecessor at SMU, Phil Bennett, was just 18-52 in six seasons. The Mustangs have not been to a postseason game since defeating Notre Dame 27-20 in the 1984 Aloha Bowl. SMU was given the "death penalty" by the NCAA for numerous violations and was shut down completely for two seasons from 1987-1988. The program restarted in 1989 but has enjoyed just two non-losing seasons since then, including a 6-6 campaign under Bennett in 2006. The Mustangs went 6-5 in 1996.
Jones' impact at Hawaii was monumental. After the Warriors suffered their first-ever winless season in 1998 with an 0-12 campaign, the passing offense mastermind guided the team to a 9-4 record in his first year. It was the biggest one-year turnaround in NCAA history.
The computer doesn't expect Jones to replicate similar immediate results at SMU. It has the Mustangs going 1-11 in 2008 with the only forecasted win coming in week two over FCS member Texas State. However, no one should be totally shocked if SMU moves to the middle of the pack.
No team in CUSA finished the 2007 season with the exact record predicted by the computer, but four teams came within 1 victory and three others missed by just 2 wins. Last year's forecast had Southern Miss and Houston playing for the title with the Cougars claiming the crown. Houston managed to tie Tulsa for the West division lead, but lost the tie-breaker with the 56-7 pounding it took when it visited the Golden Hurricane on November 10. Southern Miss finished 2 games out of the lead in the East division but was in the hunt until late October.
The computer excelled in forecasting games that involved CUSA East teams with a season record of 60-12 (.833) straight up, and 39-29 (.574) against the spread. The computer's 2007 GameDay predictions went 12-0 with UAB, 12-2 with UCF, 11-2 with Houston, and 10-2 with Marshall. It also went 10-3 with Memphis and Southern Miss.