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January 19, 2011

C-USA: Knights lead the charge


For the third time in four seasons, Conference USA had two teams finish with at least 10 wins. And for the first time since 2004, a league team finished in the season-ending coaches' poll.

UCF (11-3) finished 20th in the poll, while Tulsa (10-3) received enough votes to finish 27th. UCF won the East title, while Tulsa finished tied with SMU -- but lost the tiebreaker -- for the West title.

In a league in which defense too often seems an afterthought, UCF and SMU won division titles because of their defenses. UCF finished 15th nationally in total defense, while the Mustangs were 40th. Just three league teams (Southern Miss, which won eight games, was the other) finished in the top 70 nationally in total defense.

A season after there were three coaching changes, there was just one this season, when Tulsa coach Todd Graham left for Pittsburgh. Running back coach Bill Blankenship, a Tulsa alum, was promoted to take his spot.

Biggest surprise: No one, really. In the preseason, we predicted UCF, Southern Miss and East Carolina from the East and Houston, SMU and Tulsa from the West to go bowling, with an outside shot at a postseason bid for UTEP. Houston was a disappointment (more on the Cougars in a second) and UTEP indeed went bowling. No team in the league overachieved.

Biggest disappointment: Houston. The Cougars entered the season hoping to be a BCS-buster and with QB Case Keenum squarely in the Heisman picture. But it all went horribly wrong -- for Keenum and the team -- on Sept. 18 at UCLA. While trying to make a tackle after an interception, Keenum blew out his knee and was lost for the season. To make matters worse, backup QB Cotton Turner sustained a broken collarbone in the same game and also was lost for the season. Houston regrouped and stood at 5-3 heading into November. But the Cougars cracked and lost their final four games. The defense was expected to be better, but it really wasn't.

Best postseason performance: Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane were 10.5-point underdogs in playing 10-win Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The game was on Hawaii's home field. But Tulsa forced six turnovers, rolled up 531 yards and blew out the Warriors 62-35. Tulsa scored three touchdowns in a 3:45 stretch of the third quarter to take control and end the season 10-3.

Worst postseason performance: East Carolina. Wow, here's a surprise -- the Pirates' defense was shredded. Maryland ran for 297 yards and torched ECU 51-20 in the Military Bowl. ECU scored its final TD with 1:43 left in the game to make the score a bit more respectable than it really was. In addition to its non-existent run defense, ECU committed four turnovers and was called for 15 penalties. All in all, an awful way to cap the season.

Underclassmen leaving early: Southern Miss WR DeAndre Brown.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Tulane QB Ryan Griffin. He threw for 2,371 yards and 14 TDs while completing 59.9 percent of his passes as a sophomore this season; he also tossed eight picks. Look for the yardage total to increase by about 500, the TDs to increase to the upper teens and the completion percentage to get to about 63 or 64. Griffin has the physical tools to be a good one, especially in this league, which isn't exactly filled with top-notch defenses.

Next season's breakout defensive player: UCF DE Darius Nall. Nall, who will be a senior in the fall, tied for second in the league with 8.5 sacks this season as a reserve, but he was overshadowed by DE Bruce Miller -- the league's defensive player of the year -- on his own team. Next season will be different, though. Nall will be the guy at end for the Knights, who almost always have a stingy defense. UCF coaches do a nice job of putting their top defenders in position to make plays, so a 10-sack season is a legit goal for Nall, even without Miller on the other side getting all the double-teams.

Player most on the spot next season: Houston QB Case Keenum. The guy who was expected to lead Houston to a monster season in 2010 now will be expected to do so in 2011. The difference? He'll be expected to do so while attempting a comeback from a severe knee injury. Keenum is extremely well-versed in Houston's offense, so assuming he is 100 percent physically, look for huge numbers. And if he doesn't produce huge numbers, the Cougars are going to struggle.

Next season's conference champions: UCF and Tulsa. UCF won the East title this season and should do so again next season, as Southern Miss looks to be the only legit challenger. UCF needs to replace both starting offensive tackles and will have to replace six defensive starters. But the Knights will be fine on defense, meaning those OT spots are the key. But there is a deep group of running backs and a solid group of receivers to go along with QB Jeff Godfrey, who was excellent as a true freshman this season. Tulsa tied for the West title this season and should emerge from a crowded field to win it in 2011. Nine offensive starters are back, including QB G.J. Kinne, the entire line and the receivers. Eight starters are back on defense. Frankly, the biggest question about Tulsa is how much coach Todd Graham - who left for Pittsburgh - will be missed. Running backs coach Bill Blankenship was promoted to head coach, but, frankly, the main reason for his promotion seems to be that he was willing to take the relatively paltry salary administrators were offering.

National title contenders: None. The division champs have a shot to finish in the top 25, though.

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

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