by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Here’s a factoid of interest for every college football junkie worth their salt. Since Conference USA began competing as a football league in 1996 (the year after it organized as an official conference), only one school remains in the loop from the outset...Southern Miss.

Indeed, maybe the “C” in C-USA should refer to “change” instead of conference. After all, the league has changed its membership more often than Hillary Clinton has changed her hairstyles over the past 18 years.

Change, however, just goes with the territory in this loop. Perhaps that is part of C-USA’s charm.

Whatever, welcome to the Greyhound terminal of college sports, where the "big dogs" have been motoring in and out at a dizzying pace, and continue to do so.

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Though its history is rather brief (dating only to 1995), C-USA has nonetheless served a unique and rather useful role in the college sports landscape. Roots not entrenched like those of other long-established leagues, C-USA's existence was more a matter of convenience for countless far-flung football independents. It was the outgrowth of the old Metro Conference, a hastily arranged affiliation created in the mid '70s to give many of the same displaced independents a home for basketball, and its spinoff the Great Midwest Conference, formed in the early '90s. Eventually, the idea struck most of those members that they should probably expand their league to include football, too. With wide regional boundaries, a re-branding was also in order, and Conference USA as we know it was born in the mid '90s.

C-USA membership, however, has always been in a state of flux, and an acknowledged short-term parking place for schools looking to move up the college food chain but always a rung or two above the bottom level. C-USA offered those sorts a home, conference-wide TV coverage, and guaranteed spots in several lower-tier bowl games, with the longshot chance that if a team could navigate through a season undefeated, it might even have a shot to squeeze into the BCS, or, moving forward, the College Football Playoff. While that seems unlikely any time in the near future, there is at least a road map for the C-USA to get involved in the “New Year’s Six,” the progeny of the non-title bowl games of the old BCS. The C-USA champ will now have a chance to be considered with the best from other mid-level leagues to qualify for one spot saved in the New Year’s Six.

But national recognition has never been the driving force of C-USA. Rather, the benefits of membership have always been better than most alternatives for league members. Those include plenty of opportunities to play in minor bowl games, of which two of the new additions to this year’s postseason lineup (games in the Bahamas and at the Miami Marlins’ stadium) are reserving spots for C-USA reps. Low-end benefits to membership, to be sure, but benefits nonetheless.

As soon as benefits look like they might be better elsewhere for C-USA reps, however, they usually move, which has happened a lot in recent years. More outflow has occurred for this season, with East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa all having recently de-camped to the American, which is looking an awful lot like the old C-USA. Into C-USA are Western Kentucky (from the Sun Belt) and newcomer Old Dominion, which didn’t even have a football program as recently as 2008 and in the FCS ranks as recently as 2012. The Monarchs had provisional FBS status last season and now, thanks to a recent ruling, will be eligible for the conference title and bowl bids this fall.

Next year, the new program at Charlotte will join the league as well, although if history is any indicator, don’t be surprised if another switch or two is just over the horizon.

So, all we can say is not to get used to the current membership of C-USA. Remember, that “C” might as well signify change.

Following is the first of our two-part preview of C-USA, first examining the Western half of the loop, with the East in our next update. As always, teams are presented in predicted order of finish, with 2013's straight-up and pointspread records included.

Well, we at TGS had been waiting since our kickoff season of 1957 for Rice (2013 SUR 10-4; PSR 8-6) to win another conference championship. But wait no more; the Owls are champs again after swooping to the C-USA crown last fall, including a 41-24 romp past Marshall in the conference title game at Houston.

That Rice was outmanned vs. Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl (a 44-7 Owls loss) should not throw too much cold water on the renaissance, which as recently as midway in the 2012 campaign looked unlikely to manifest at any time in the near future. Nor did it seem as if HC David Bailiff would be around to steward any turnaround. But turnaround Rice did, beginning midway in 2012, when the Owls unfurled five wins in their last six to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2008, saving Bailiff’s job and preceding an Armed Forces Bowl romp past Air Force.

Rice was back, and so was Bailiff, who has stabilized a program that had not experienced much success since the Eisenhower administration. Only the legendary Jess Neely has recorded more bowl visits as Owls coach than Bailiff, whose three postseason trips are two more than the entirety of Rice’s bowl appearances in from Neely’s last bowl team in 1961, to when Bailiff was hired in 2007. No surprise, then, that Bailiff has been rewarded with deserved contract extensions since, and a loss vs. an SEC foe in bowl season last New Year’s Eve is hardly cause for alarm. After all, not many SEC-caliber teams inhabit C-USA, although the Owls will be challenged in their first two non-conference by another SEC rep (Johnny Football-less Texas A&M, which was pushed by Rice in last season’s opener) and Notre Dame, where the Owls haven’t visited in 40 years, since Al Conover’s team, with future NFL QB Tommy Kramer, gave Ara Parseghian’s last Fighting Irish squad all it wanted in a 10-3 squeaker for the Domers. But the slate becomes more favorable as the season progresses, as a succession of C-USA West foes including Southern Miss, UTEP, and La Tech are not to be confused with Texas A&M or Notre Dame anytime soon.

Make no mistake, Rice is still no football factory, as even its magnificent stadium, the sight of a long ago Super Bowl (VII, Dolphins-Vikings) and possessing 70,000 seats, sees a tarpaulin covering all of the end zone seats (and almost one-third of the capacity of the facility) in Oakland A’s-like fashion. Even such, Rice football crowds are usually intimate gatherings. With one of the smallest enrollments at the FBS level, the fan base remains legendarily minuscule, all the more reason to marvel at the handywork of Bailiff, who now presents a different sort of concern to administrators as the possible target of an amorous suitor.

While much attention was paid to Bailiff’s stylish offense last season, it was in fact defensive upgrades that prevented the Owls from becoming the sort of roadkill that was familiar for decades. Indeed, last year’s “D” recorded the best numbers for the platoon since Todd Graham’s rare Rice bowl team of 2006, allowing a respectable 24.4 ppg, ranking 42nd nationally (rarified air for Owl stop units) while also boasting of a No.18 ranking in pass defense.

A healthy seven starters return to the platoon, although d.c. Chris Thurmond is scrambling to replace CB Philip Gaines, the rare Owl defender taken in the NFL Draft (in Gaines’ case the Chiefs in the 3rd round). The strength of the 4-2-5, according to both Thurmond and Bailiff, should be at the LB spots, where there is considerable depth and demon speed as flashed by WLB James Radcliffe a year ago. The front is also rather robust by Rice and C-USA standards, led by All C-USA DT Christian Covington and sr. NT Stuart Mouchantal, who anchor a DL that was not pushed around as usual in 2013. Even minus NFL-bound CB Gaines, three starters are back in an accomplished secondary, including a pair of sr. CBs with starting experience, Bryce Callahan and Malcolm Hill.

Bailiff spent spring making necessary adjustments on the offensive side following the departure of its top rusher and team MVP (RB Charles Ross), a versatile and effective spread-style QB (Taylor McHargue), and two seasoned linemen. Bailiff also needed to do some staff juggling after respected o.c. John Reagan was hired away by Charlie Weis at Kansas. For the latter, Bailiff promoted from within, as Larry Edmonson (passing game coordinator past three seasons) and Billy Lynch (WR coach past four years) will be sharing the coordinator title, with Edmonson handling most of the play-calling duties.

The transition seemed to be further smoothed in spring when Bailiff was also keen to develop some depth and rested several front-line players including projected starting QB Driphus Jackson, a junior who contended with the departed McHargue for starting duties in the past but also rather fragile, with a history of injuries. Bailiff already knows what he has in the explosive Jackson, who has come off of the bench to lead wins the past two seasons, including the bowl success vs. Air Force in 2012. Jackson gets back both of Rice’s top receivers (deep threat Jordan Taylor, with 55 catches and 8 TDs in 2013, and Dennis Parks), although his passing skills have not matched his running prowess in past appearances. Replacing top rusher Ross (1280 YR in 2013) might not be as daunting as it seems, as Bailiff has several eager backs (especially Jowan Davis, who gained 476 YR last year, and Darik Dillard, who added another 396) itching to get more carries after impressing in limited work last fall. Three starters are back in an all-upperclass OL. Bailiff is also looking for a new PK and will pick from among incoming frosh following the departure of school record-setter Chris Boswell.

In conclusion, there are some question marks in the land of the Owl, but for the first time in more than a half-century, Rice appears to have built a solid program to withstand such year-to-year vicissitudes. And let’s not forget that this is the CUSA West, not the SEC West. A return trip to the conference title game would be no surprise, and a third straight bowl visit (for the first time in bowl history) should be a minimum expectation. After all, Rice is now a postseason regular. Times change, don’t they?

Effectively operating as a college football expansion team, Larry Coker‘s UTSA Roadrunners (SUR 7-5, PSR 7-5) have borrowed a page from some of the most successful pro sports expansion franchises (think Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Diamondbacks as opposed to Atlanta Falcons, Montreal Expos, or the second coming of the Cleveland Browns) to become competitive in short order. By the end of their third season last fall, UTSA might even have been the best team in C-USA, winning its last five games, including a 10-7 success over rugged and bowl-bound North Texas.

This emergence of a new program marks a redemption for Coker, who won a BCS title with the Miami Hurricanes in 2001 (with, as many like to remind, most of Butch Davis’ players) but was run out of Coral Gables after the 2006 season. Building from the ground up with the Roadrunners, Coker’s fingerprints are all over this program much as Howard Schnellenberger’s were at start-up Florida Atlantic early in the last decade. After enlisting with the WAC in its final year of existence as a football league in 2012, the program made a soft landing a year ago in C-USA, which for the moment appears to be a very nice fit.

But there might even be more upside at UTSA, which calls the 65,000-seat Alamodome its home. As the only major college foorball program in the San Antonio area, and with the school already established for a few decades, there is a solid base of local support. And those locals, whose allegiances have long been split among other Texas schools (mostly UT, as San Antonio has long been Longhorns territory, with Austin not far away), now have a new hometown team to support. Conference USA, whose ranks are always in flux, was thrilled to enlist the Roadrunners, who have the potential to become the flagship program in the league, especially with spacious Alamodome as the league’s premier facility.

Better yet for 2014, UTSA is now eligible to compete for bowls after being ineligible in its transition period the past few years.

On the surface, Coker looks well positioned to get the Roadrunners into their first bowl, welcoming back a whopping 17 starters and 55 letter winners. Although it’s one who did not return that is causing the most question marks for forecasting purposes.

That would be gritty QB Eric Sosa, who served as the program’s only signal-caller in its three-year history. Though Sosa’s stats were not to be confused with those of Jameis Winston, he was a fiery on-field leader and playmaker, passing for 2719 yards a year ago while running for another 369 and 7 TDs. Sosa was the on-field face of the Coker program who led by example, and many credit that leadership to the late-season breakthrough a year ago.

The reins have thus been turned to sr. Tucker Carter (not to be confused with Tucker Carlson), who saw brief duty in relief last season while completing 23 of 33 mostly short throws. Carter has a bigger arm, but less mobility, than Sosa, though the schemes of o.c. Kevin Brown will remain mostly the same.

Eight starters are back on the attack end, including the top ten pass catchers from 2013, which should further ease the transition to Carter at QB. One of those, 5’10 sr. slot receiver Kam Jones, caught 34 passes last season but also carried the ball 29 times on “orbit sweeps” to add another 302 yards and 5 TDs, including an 84-yard scoring romp at Tulsa. We mention Jones because he could be the “X-factor” for the Coker offense, likely to be featured in Wildcat alignments as the recipient of direct snaps. (Jones is also a featured kick returner). The top backs from 2013 also return, all north-south, no-nonsense runners led by sr. David Glasco II (596 yards and 5.2 ypc in 2013). All five starters also return along the OL, with 300-lb. LG Scott Inskeep having drawn the attention of NFL scouts.

Coker’s defense also returns almost in tact from 2013 when it limited its last four foes to 15 points or fewer. Nine starters remain in the fold, including an all-senior DL featuring a couple of former Big 12 signees, DEs Ashaad Mabry (former Ok State) and Robert Singletary (former Baylor and brother of former Texas Tech hoop star Mike Singletary). Another Big 12 transfer, jr. Bennett Okotcha (ex-Oklahoma), is the team’s best shutdown corner. Indeed, the secondary appears to be a strength of the 4-2-5 looks preferred by Coker and d.c. Neal Neathery, especially with three-year starters Triston Wade and Nic Johnson both disruptive forces from safety positions.

Continuing the returnee theme, both of Coker’s kickers (PK Sean Ianno and P Kristian Stern) are back as well.

A quick glimpse at the Roadrunner roster notes an all-upperclass look on both offense and defense, with 19 seniors (21 if counting the kickers) projected into the starting lineup. This is the season Coker had obviously been pointing toward in the ramp-up of the program, and if Carter can deliver at QB, there is no reason UTSA cannot contend in the West and qualify for a bowl. The schedule is favorable as well. It’s next season when we find out more about the program, as Coker could be looking at a new rebuild in 2015. For the moment, however, Spurs fans and others in the Alamo City should enjoy what UTSA puts on the field this fall.

The measure of the progress of a program is often how it performs after a breakout season. And while veteran HC Dan McCarney deserves plenty of kudos for engineering a 2013 resurgence at North Texas (SUR 9-4, PSR 10-3) after eight straight losing campaigns in Denton, we’ll find a lot more about the staying power of the Mean Green after the graduation of the bulk of the starting lineup from last year’s Dallas Bowl winners.

Don’t count us, however, among those who believe UNT will disappear quickly from the scene. That is partly due to McCarney, who was able to mostly hold his own in a previous head-coaching assignment at Iowa State (a difficult place to win; ask current Cyclones HC Paul Rhoads) and has proven a massive upgrade from the spectacularly failed Mean Green experiment with predecessor Todd Dodge, who arrived Gerry Faust-style from the high school ranks. Appropriately, McCarney has been rewarded with a contract extension thru 2018. Moreover, UNT has been able to benefit from a significant facility upgrade the past few years, including a sparkling new Apogee Stadium, a major step up from old Fouts Field, on the other side of adjacent I-35E. Recruits, plenty of whom hailing from the Metroplex (of which Denton sits on the northern fringe), have been paying more attention as well, as UNT now appears a more viable and desirable alternative for the area’s many FBS-quality preps who might like to play college football closer to home. The transition from the Sun Belt to C-USA also proved no issue at all a year ago for McCarney’s team.

The news is hardly all gloomy in Denton because of so many departed key performers. Especially since one area where the Mean Green returns impressive depth is along an airtight OL that returns four starters and provided pristine protection the past two years for QB Derek Thompson, when UNT allowed fewer sacks than any team in the country. Both returning starters at guard, Cyril Lemon and Mason Y’Barbo, are considered NFL prospects. The capable Thompson, however, matured as an on-field leader throughout his career and is one of those who has departed after last year’s breakthrough.

Thus, among many focuses in Denton entering the fall will be that of Thompson’s replacement, a competition that was not resolved in spring and will resume when camp reconvenes in August. To this point, there has been little separation between holdover jr. Andrew McNulty, Thompson’s backup the past two seasons, and juco Josh Greer. The skill sets of each are similar, with both being rather mobile, but their ability to stay healthy (an issue for Green in the JC ranks) and avoid mistakes will be keys in the fall. Thompson, with his big arm, was also able to stretch the field horizontally, a key element in the recent UNT offense and something neither McNulty nor Greer, at this stage at least, have suggested they could provide.

McCarney and o.c. Mike Canales (once at South Florida and an interim HC in Denton after Dodge was relieved midway in the 2010 campaign) also have to identify several new skill-position weapons and playmakers after graduation hit the RB and receiving corps hard as well. Runners Antoine Jimmerson (440 YR in 2013) and Reggie Pegram (338 YR LY) will look to fill most of the carriers of the departed Brandin Byrd (1075 YR in 2013). Similarly, most of Thompson’s favorite receivers, many of them deep threats, have departed. Returning starter Carlos Harris (47 catches last year) was more of a possession-type target; former Texas transfer Darius Terrell could emerge as the sort of homerun element that the Canales offense needs. Replacing the electric Brelan Chancellor, a long-ball receiving threat and one of the nation’s best kick returners, is another challenge.

It was the stop unit, however, that really helped forged the Mean Green turnaround in 2013, ranking second nationally in red-zone defense, fourth in takeaways, and eighth in scoring defense at 17.8 ppg. (UNT blocked seven kicks as well last season.) The front seven, however, is looking at a significant rebuild after losing six starters from last year’s rock-ribbed platoon that recorded a whopping 39 sacks, also one of the nation’s top marks. The defenders also played a key role in many lower-scoring games that contributed to a 10-3 “under” mark in 2013.

The good news, however, is that shrewd veteran d.c. John Skladany, whose association with McCarney goes back to their days together at Iowa State, remains in the fold. It has been no coincidence that the UNT defensive numbers have improved significantly since Skladany assumed his latest duties in 2012.

Though seven starters have departed from last year’s nationally-ranked unit, most of the second stringers have experience together from a year ago. Senior OLB Derek Akunne is one of those returning starters and one of the leaders of the “D” after recording 200 career tackles. But almost all of the other defenders who made plays in opponents’ backfields last year need to be replaced. McCarney and Skladany still expect to have another eight-man rotation along the DL as they did a year ago, it’s just that last year’s second stringers such as srs. DE Daryl Mason and DT Alexander Lincoln must emerge as playmakers.

The strength of the platoon, at least at this stage, would appear to be in the secondary, where three of four starters return, including accomplished starters at both corners (James Jones and Kenny Buyers) and in center field (SS Lairamie Lee).

While we would be careful to not put too much emphasis on the result of the opening game at Texas (in Charlie Strong’s Longhorn debut), a more accurate (and important) barometer of UNT’s status likely comes in the second game at Denton vs. Metroplex neighbor SMU. By the time a possible C-USA West showdown at Rice rolls around in late October, the new pieces should have at least had time to fit. With so many new elements, however, replicating last year’s success, including the sparkling 10-3 spread mark, appears unlikely, with much depending upon one of the new QBs at least proving serviceable. Still, we don’t expect the Mean Green to disappear from the radar as long as McCarney is coaching in Denton, and another bowl bid should be likely.

The fall-off in C-USA West from the top tier to the bottom appears to involve a Grand Canyon-like drop. Indeed, the projected lower half of the West went positively subterranean in 2013, barely registering in the cases of UTEP and Southern Miss.

Louisiana Tech (SUR 4-8, PSR 4-8) wasn’t quite that bad, but the Bulldogs took several steps backward in 2013 under then-new HC Skip Holtz, who was not able to reverse a worrying recent career trajectory that has featured nothing but bad news the past few years. To be fair, the downturn was somewhat expected last season in Ruston after graduation took away the bulk of a 9-win team in 2012 as well as HC Sonny Dykes, who moved with his Air Raid offense to Cal. And the Bulldogs were now competing in C-USA, which could be considered a slight upgrade from previous enlistment in the WAC.

In that context, perhaps the four wins managed by Holtz were not calamitous, but the direction of a program that once upon a time produced a QB named Terry Bradshaw appears to be headed in the wrong direction.

Holtz might be due a mulligan from last season, but we’ll get a better idea this fall if he is the right man to lead La Tech back to some semblance of prominence. Since early in the 2011 season while still at South Florida, Holtz has a 8-24 SU record over a 32-game span, so the questions about his continuing leadership are justified.

The offense became something of a mish-mash last season after the graduation of record-setting QB Colby Cameron and the departure of most of the pieces of the Dykes Air Raid. Holtz, thinking the existing personnel was still a better fit for the Dykes offense (which in structure and philosophy was a departure from past Holtz offenses), enlisted Marshall assistant Tony Petersen, familiar with the spread from his work with the Thundering Herd, but the personnel really didn’t lend itself to the spread or any other style a year ago. It was a pass-first attack that couldn’t pass, partly because neither QB (RS frosh Ryan Higgins or Texas Tech transfer Scotty Young) could get comfy with a receiving corps that had no go-to targets in the fold.

Unless one of the true frosh QBs in the program (Mississippi product Alex Woodall or Georgia product Price Wilson) or Iowa transfer Cody Sokol emerge, it will likely be Higgins at the controls this fall after Young left the program in April. Among other concerns, Higgins is well-advised to reverse his inverted TDP/interception ratio of of 6/13 from last season as well as to avoid injury, which impacted him last fall as well. Tech will still utilize a 4-WR set as a leftover from the Dykes Air Raid days, and it is hoped that LSU transfer Paul Turner will provide the sort of deep threat that last year’s targets lacked. Higgins, Sokol, or one of the frosh QBs could definitely use Turner to stretch the field after would dink so much that we began to recall a more-famous Dink (that being James Bond’s gal-pal from the early scenes of Goldfinger).

While the passing game looks for some traction, Holtz and Petersen might be better advised to emphasize the ground threat and quality jr. Kenneth Dixon, who popped for 917 YR in last year’s point-challenged offense and has already gained more than 2000 YR in his Tech career. Dixon has also gained better than 6 ypc in each of his first two years. But highlighting the differences from 2012 to 2013, Dixon’s TD count dropped from a staggering 28 as a frosh to just 5 as a soph last year. There is decent depth at RB with jr. Tevin King, with almost 900 YR the past two seasons, but King missed spring drills with a dislocated ankle which could jeopardize his status for the fall. Indeed, some C-USA scouts wonder what Holtz was able to accomplish at all in spring when an injury epidemic limited scrimmage opportunities.

All five projected starters on the forward wall (three returning from 2013) tip the scales at 300 pounds or more, but pass protection also needs to improve after allowing 30 sacks a year ago.

While Holtz could use a re-do from 2013, so could new d.c. Manny Diaz, who when last seen was being thrown under the bus by Mack Brown at Texas after the Longhorn “D” was liquefied in an early season game at BYU. This is the same Diaz who was regarded as a hot coaching commodity not long ago when coordinating Middle Tennessee and Mississippi State defenses.

Noted for his blitz schemes, Diaz is hoping to add that element to a Bulldog defense that will likely align in base 4-3-4 looks this season after mostly using the 4-2-5 a year ago. There is a solid corps of returnees in the secondary featuring three 2013 starters, including CBs Adairius Barnes and LaVanger Liggins. Soph safety Xavier Woods (61 tackles LY) flashed potential star form at times as a frosh last season.

Three new starters must also be plugged in along the DL, but there is some experience up front with linemen having rotated into the lineup last fall. Diaz is also expecting jr. DE Vontarrius Dora to develop into one of the better defensive linemen in C-USA, but he could use some help, as could the Bulldog rush defense that ranked a poor 91st nationally a year ago. Possible help could also come from Illinois transfer Houston Bates, an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick with the Illini who showed up after spring practice and will be eligible for the fall. A hybrid DE/LB, Diaz should be able to find a place for him in the lineup.

Diaz figures to help the defense, but until the offense finds a QB to stretch the field and re-establishes some sort of identity, the Bulldogs might be hard-pressed to better their 4-8 mark from last season. The schedule won’t help, especially with four of the first five games on the road, all at bowl teams from a year ago (including BCS Oklahoma and Auburn). On the plus side, if Tech can survive September, the slate becomes much more manageable after the first month...we’re just not sure if the Bulldogs are going to still be in one piece when the calendar hits October. Note that Skip’s once-glossy pointspread record has also taken a hit the past few seasons, with a 7-24-1 mark vs. the line his last 32 at USF & La Tech as he enters 2014.

Talk about deceiving numbers...did you know that Southern Miss (SUR 1-11, PSR 3-9) enters 2014 with a longer winning streak than Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, and every other bowl loser from last season?

Whatever. When we talk about drops from previous heights, our former reference to the Grand Canyon does not due justice to the degree of fall-off for the Golden Eagles since HC Larry Fedora left Hattiesburg for North Carolina following the 2011 season. A better analogy for USM football might be a farther drop than Felix Baumgartner’s leap from outer space in the Red Bull capsule in the autumn of 2012.

The Golden Eagles fell far, alright, losing an astounding 23 straight games after Fedora’s departure following the 2011 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl win over Nevada. The ill-advised hire of South Carolina d.c. Ellis Johnson, who had no success in prior head coaching stints, as Fedora’s successor, set the program back to square one after a disastrous 0-12 performance in 2012, prompting Johnson’s ouster and hiring of Todd Monken, the Oklahoma State o.c. just as Fedora had once been before taking the USM job.

Had the program really fallen off such a steep cliff after Fedora’s departure? It was hard to arrive at any other conclusions as Monken, like predecessor Ellis Johnson, looked destined to record another big donut in Hattiesburg last season until wretched UAB appeared on the schedule at the end of the regular season. The Golden Eagles would take out two year’s worth of frustrations in a 62-27 romp. And, voila, USM would suddenly enter 2014 on a longer win streak than many power programs.

Besides, after losing 11 of 12 games, and 9 of 12 vs. the line, and outscored by an average of 42-17 last season, there’s really only one direction (up) for the program. And, we admit to liking the new and funky USM unforms feautring two-toned pants (black in front, yellow behind), a fashion statement stolen from Chuck Wepner in his 1975 fight vs. Muhammad Ali.

(We’re grasping for straws for any positives regarding the Golden Eagles, as you see.)

Hopes for improvement center upon an offense that was gaining inches, not yards, per carry for much of 2013 and ended up ranked 121st (almost as low as you can go) in rushing at a mere 72.9 ypg. The Golden Eagles also didn’t run for a TD during the first half of the season. But Monken didn’t settle upon a QB until mid-October, either, when true frosh Nick Mullens supplanted disappointing Cal transfer Allen Bridgford. Mullens at least came out swinging the rest of the season in what, by design at least, was supposed to be an uptempo, 4-WR spread. Mullens would complete less than 50% of his passes and toss 14 picks, but he competed and tossed 13 TD passes, including five in the season-ending bombardment of woeful UAB.

A possible plus for this fall is that Mullens has been reunited with Chip Lindsey, the new USM o.c. hired from Gus Malzahn’s Auburn staff after coaching Mullens in high school. But there were myriad other problems with last year’s offense that ranked 117th nationally in scoring and finished dead last nationally in TO margin (1-9), guilty of nation’s worst 39 giveaways. A porous OL and a butter-fingered receiving crew were also partly to blame. There are eight starters back from last season, plus 6’3 soph WR D.J. Thompson, a promising big target who was one of many Golden Eagles to have their 2013 campaign scuttled by injuries. Perhaps Lindsey’s presence will give Mullens more confidence to throw downfield after sticking with lots of short stuff last season; WR Tyre’oune Holmes gained only 7.7 yards per catch on his team-best 53 receptions.

Monken and Lindsey are also hoping that a porous OL that returns two starters and should benefit from a couple of beefy juco additions, tackles Norman Price and Charles Collins. After using ten different starters up front in 2013, and allowing a whopping 36 sacks (ranking 110th), we’d say there is room for some new blood up front. Jalen Richard and George Payne, the top two RBs from last season when they had nowhere to run, will surely welcome the help.

Unfortunately for USM, the defense was almost as bad as the offense last season, ranking 117th in scoring and 113th (225 ypg) vs. the rush. Injuries certainly did not help, as a trio of multi-year starters--DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches, LB Alan Howze, and S Jacorius Cotton--combined to play in just six games. All return for another kick at the can this fall. Depth figures to improve as some of those pushed into active duties because of their injuries last season are now expected to slip back into reserve roles.

Beleaguered defensive coordinator Dave Duggen, in the mood to change things after last year, implemented a conventional 4-3-4 scheme in spring to take place of the 4-2-5 that was utilized (to not great effect) last season. Speaking of spring, the surprise of the drills was early enrollee and all-name CB Picasso Nelson, a true frosh who was the star of the spring game when recording two picks and a handful of tackles. Seven starters, plus the three aforementioned who missed almost all of 2013, as well as the artful frosh, DB Picasso Nelson, at least suggest improved depth this fall on the stop end.

But optimism has to be tempered, as the Golden Eagles could really take their lumps in a pair of non C-USA road games at SEC Mississippi State and Alabama, and let’s not forget that six of their seven league losses in 2013 came by 21 points or more, with the other defeat against an awful FIU, which many observers believed would have trouble against a good high school team last season. About all the encouragement we can give USM fans is that it would be hard for the Golden Eagles to be as bad as they were last season...unless they regress back to the 0-12 mark of 2012.

If we’re picking a team to finish beneath Southern Miss, we’d better have a pretty good reason. So, meet UTEP (SUR 2-10, PSR 2-10), which was so bad last season that the Miners were rumored to be offered to neighboring Mexico by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a boundary dispute over the adjacent Rio Grande River...and Mexico refused.

Yes, it was that bad a year ago at the Sun Bowl, just a drive and a four-iron from the border. After gently prompting the retirement of predecessor Mike Price, UTEP grad and longtime NFL assistant Sean Kugler would return to his alma mater in his first head coaching adventure. Which went about as well as a safari without a rifle, as by the end of the season it could be argued that the Miners were one of the worst teams in the land. Even F. Lee Bailey would have refused the case to prove otherwise in court.

The rationale for the Kugler hire can be traced to AD Bob Stull, for whom Kugler played as an offensive linemen when Stull coached the Miners in the late ‘80s (and qualified for a rare bowl appearance at the Independence in 1988). But whereas Stull has earned kudos for his recent hire of Tim Floyd on the basketball side, the jury is still out on the football hire of Kugler, who looked either too unprepared or too overwhelmed to handle the nuances of the position, and for last year at least, proved a significant downgrade from Price. The Miners got worse as the season progressed, as only the appearance of FIU on the schedule in mid-November prevented the Miners from closing Kugler’s debut season with ten straight losses. (The other win, by the way, came against nearby, 2-10 New Mexico State). Moreover, the Miners’ last five losses came by 38, 30, 34, 42, and 31 points, looking for all the world as if they couldn’t wait for the campaign to end by the time Tulane and Middle Tennessee were running up big margins in the last two games in late November.

Kugler has a lot of work to do to reverse the trajectory. The pro-style attack might have a better chance with a healthy sr. QB Jameill Showers, a Texas A&M transfer who played behind Ryan Tannehill and Johnny Football at College Station and displayed some decent playmaking skills last season before his season ended with a shoulder separation in the October 26 blowout loss at Rice. Of course, injuries were an occupational hazard working behind a porous and banged-up OL that allowed 27 sacks. But Showers at least enters 2014 with half-a-season’s worth of experience in the Kugler-o.c. Patrick Higgins offense, as well as a full spring of work (remember, he didn’t show up last year in El Paso until the summer).

A concern for the Miners’ passing game, which disappeared almost completely down the stretch last fall after Showers’ injury, was the offseason departure WR Jordan Leslie, the 2013 catch leader with 44 (and 7 TDs) who transferred to BYU. Lanky 6'5 sr. Ian Hamilton is considered a possible breakthrough performer after catching 25 passes a year ago.

For the time being, however, UTEP’s biggest threat will appear to be on the ground, where the Miners ran with some success last season (185 ypg) and feature electric soph Aaron Jones, who ran for 90 ypg, the nation’s best for a frosh, in 2013, and another former leading rusher, sr. Nathan Jeffery, who has gaiend almost 1600 YR ion his career. Three starters are back along the OL, but Kugler, a college lineman and OL coach by trade, is juggling positions, with last year’s starting guards Jerel Watkins and Kyle Brown moving outside to tackle spots, while last year’s starting C, Paulo Melendez, moves from center to RG. Given that the OL is supposedly Kugler’s expertise, we give him the benefit of the doubt on the wisdom of these moves. Kugler might also want to spend some time with his special teams, in particular soph PK Jay Mattox, who missed 8 of his 15 FG attempts in 2013.

The problem for Kugler is that he could import Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steeler offense he used to help coach and it would do nothing to help the real problem area of the squad, defense, a recurring headache in El Paso since the days of the Clinton administration. Last year’s nightmare national rankings of 117th (rushing), 115th (scoring, and 107th (overall) could have been mistaken for bowling scores.

Part of the collapse could have been due to the schemes, which were switched to a 4-3 in spring by new coordinator Jeff Choate, but then subsequently changed to a 4-2-5 under Scott Stoker, who was hired away from Sam Houston State after Choate left the program for Florida in April. (Choate must like to move, because he has since hooked on with the Washington Huskies). Maybe the Miners were simply confused last year.

We can say with some assurance that there will be no chance for UTEP to improve if it allows 6.2 ypc as it did a year ago with its collection of Claude Rains (the "Invisible Man") imitators. Thus, losing three starters from the DL might not be a bad thing. The Miners also recorded only 13 sacks last season, ranking 118th. Much is expected of returning starter jr. DE Roy-Robertson Harris, who generated what little pass rush UTEP displayed a year ago, but the new starters in the middle of the line must perform better than their predecessors. The back seven returns five players with starting experience; again, we’re not sure that is a good thing.

Once we identified UTEP as a go-against last season, we felt almost guilty reveling in their incompetence as they matched their 2-10 SU record by also covering just 2 of 12 against the line. We’re know saying this about several CUSA entries, but it will be hard for the Miners to be as inept as they were a year ago. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for UTEP fans this fall, but it’s the best we can do.


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