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January 14, 2010

C-USA Breakdown: Trying to bust through

ALSO: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | MAC | Mountain West | Sun Belt | WAC

For the second season in a row, Conference USA had a potential "BCS buster" early in the season. And for the second season in a row, that team not only didn't make it into the BCS, it didn't even win the league.

In 2008, Tulsa gained notice with an 8-0 start. But that turned into a 10-2 finish, and the Golden Hurricane then lost in the league title game to East Carolina before winning their bowl for a final mark of 11-3.

This season, Houston started 3-0, with wins over Oklahoma State - which was in the top 10 at the time - and Texas Tech. But the Cougars finished 10-2 and lost in the league title game to ECU. Houston then lost its bowl game, too, and ended the season 10-4.

QB Case Keenum had big numbers (5,671 yards, 44 TDs) but struggled in big games.

Player of the year: Houston QB Case Keenum.
Keenum put up monster numbers - 5,671 yards, 44 touchdowns - for the Cougars, who led the nation in total offense and passing offense. But he picked a bad time to have, arguably, his two worst games. He threw three picks in the C-USA title-game loss to East Carolina and six in the Armed Forces Bowl loss to Air Force. Because of Houston's defensive deficiencies, Keenum must be razor-sharp when the Cougars play "good" opponents, and he suffered for it in those two losses.

Rivals.com 2009 All-C-USA Team

While ECU hasn't been as good offensively as Tulsa and Houston, it was much better defensively - and that helped the Pirates win the titles.

Here's a final look back at this season in C-USA.

Coach of the year: Skip Holtz, East Carolina. Holtz doesn't get enough credit for what he has done at ECU. The Pirates again won the league this season, upsetting a then-ranked Houston team in the conference title game. And for the second season in a row, Holtz's team fell to an SEC team in the Liberty Bowl, this time because his kicker missed four field goals of less than 40 yards. Holtz has built his program around defense, a rarity in the league.

Freshman of the year: UCF CB Josh Robinson. Robinson was a four-star prospect out of Plantation (Fla.) High in 2008 and lived up to billing this season as a true freshman. He stood out in a new secondary, finishing with a league-high six interceptions - including one vs. Texas - to go along with eight pass breakups and 69 tackles.

Offensive coordinator of the year: Dana Holgorsen, Houston. Holgorsen, formerly an assistant to Mike Leach at Texas Tech, oversaw the nation's No. 1 team in total offense and passing offense and the No. 2 team in scoring offense. All of his key skill-position guys are set to return next season.

Defensive coordinator of the year: Greg Hudson, East Carolina. Hudson guided a unit that was third in the league in total defense and led in scoring defense and forced turnovers. Bad news for ECU is that he left to be linebacker coach at Florida State after the Liberty Bowl.

Biggest surprise: SMU. The Mustangs were 1-11 in June Jones' first season in 2008, and slight improvement was expected this season. Instead, Jones guided SMU to an 8-5 mark, including a victory in the Mustangs' first bowl appearance since 1984. The Mustangs had just five senior starters, so another bowl bid seems likely.

Biggest disappointment: Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane were 10-3 in 2008, but a minor step back was expected after the loss of a lot of talent. Alas, it wasn't a minor step; instead, it was a trip-and-fall. Tulsa started 4-1 but finished 5-7. The biggest problem with the Golden Hurricane is that they lost to every "good" C-USA team they played. The offensive line and secondary must play much better next season.

Best postseason performance: SMU QB Kyle Padron. Padron, a true freshman, didn't play at all in the first six games, then became the starter when sophomore Bo Levi Mitchell went down with a shoulder injury. He was 4-2 as the starter, but nothing he had done prepared anyone for his Hawaii Bowl performance - 32-of-41 for 460 yards and two touchdowns in a beatdown of Nevada. All of a sudden, SMU has a quarterback controversy.

Worst postseason performance: Houston. We knew the Cougars' defense had issues, but Air Force controlled the ball and the game in pounding the Cougars 47-20 in the Armed Forces Bowl. And it didn't help that Keenum threw six picks - just three fewer than he had thrown all season.

Underclassmen liable to leave early: East Carolina WR Dwayne Harris, East Carolina DT Linval Joseph.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Tulsa QB G.J. Kinne. Kinne, who began his career at Texas, had an OK season as a first-time starter for the Golden Hurricane. He finished the season with 2,732 yards, 22 TDs and 10 picks. But he faded down the stretch, as did his team: Tulsa lost five of its final six games, and Kinne threw eight picks in those six games. Kinne is a good running threat, so a 3,000-yards passing/500-yards rushing season is a legit possibility next season.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Southern Miss LB Korey Williams. Williams was a reserve as a redshirt freshman in 2008, then blossomed into one of the best linebackers in the conference this season. He should be the best linebacker in the conference next season - and garner some national accolades as well. He has big-play ability and could be Southern Miss' next Gerald McRath.

Player most on the spot next season: UTEP QB Trevor Vittatoe. UTEP underachieved in going 4-8 this season. The Miners beat Houston and crushed Marshall, but they also lost to Rice, Tulane and Memphis. Five of their losses were by seven or fewer points. Had Vittatoe shown more consistency, maybe some of those closes losses could've been narrow wins instead. RB Donald Buckram had a big season, but Vittatoe struggled. He had 25 TD passes and seven picks in 2007, then followed that with an even better season in '08 - 33 TDs and nine interceptions. But he threw 17 TD passes and 13 picks this season, and five of those TD passes came in the season finale against Marshall. For UTEP to contend for a division title, Vittatoe must play better.

Next season's division winners: UCF in the East, Houston in the West. East Carolina and Southern Miss look to be losing too many players to be the preseason pick to win the East; that leaves UCF, which should be fine offensively - if it can find a new quarterback. The back seven on defense will be strong, but the Knights' line must be rebuilt. In the West, Houston should have an even better offense than it did this season. Keenum and all of his skill-position playmates return. Still, that defense needs a lot of improvement. The Cougars allowed 30.1 points per game this season, and that figure needs to drop by five or six points.

National title contenders: None. Conference teams should focus on getting into the BCS. Houston's offense is good enough - but not that defense.

ALSO: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | MAC | Mountain West | Sun Belt | WAC

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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