July 24, 2006
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The inaugural Conference USA Football Championship game featured UCF and Tulsa squaring off for the 2005 league title and according to the league's 12 head coaches, those two squads will once again meet up for a title shot in 2006. The Golden Knights were picked to win the East Division crown, garnering 65 of a possible 72 points, while the Golden Hurricane was picked to win the West, posting 61 total points, edging UTEP by one point.
Picked to finish at the bottom of the East Division a year ago, UCF surprised many in the college football world as George O'Leary led UCF from an 0-11 mark in 2005, to an 8-5 mark, a C-USA title game appearance and the school's first-ever bowl game at the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl last season. The seven-game improvement was the tops in Division I-A football in 2005. Sophomore RB Kevin Smith returns after garnering C-USA Freshman of the Year honors as he finished his rookie campaign with 1,178 rushing yards, including a 202-yard effort in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
Tulsa closed out the 2005 season winning seven of its last eight contests, including the inaugural C-USA Championship game and the 2005 AutoZone Liberty Bowl over Fresno State. Junior quarterback Paul Smith, the Liberty Bowl MVP, returns to lead a Golden Hurricane offense that averaged 38.1 points per game in nine victories a year ago. Smith threw 20 touchdown passes in 2005 and was only picked off only six times.
Southern Miss, selected second in the East, will look to make it 13-straight winning seasons under head coach Jeff Bower. The Golden Eagles closed out the 2005 campaign with a 31-19 victory over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl - the school's eighth trip to a postseason game in the last nine years. Sophomore tight end Shawn Nelson led the club in receiving yards with 540 yards and capped the season with back-to-back 100-yard games, including an MVP effort in the New Orleans Bowl.
The Miners were one point shy in the coaches' poll of being picked as the preseason favorite to win the West for the second-consecutive year. In two seasons at UTEP, head coach Mike Price has led the Miners to back-to-back bowl appearances and eight-win seasons. Senior QB Jordan Palmer is one of 19 starters returning for Price, who will also have nine seniors return to start for his defense. Palmer is already the school-record holder for passing yards (7,489) and touchdown passes (62) at UTEP.
Memphis, slated to finish third in the East, is coming off three-consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history. The Tigers have averaged eight wins in each of those three seasons, but will have to replace three-time C-USA Offensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Williams, who finished his career as one of just four running backs in Division I-A history to rush for 6,000 yards in a career. Senior free safety Wesley Smith will look to become just the second player in C-USA history to earn All-C-USA first team honors four-consecutive years.
Houston was tabbed to finish third in the West and will be led by four-year starter Kevin Kolb behind center. Already the school's all-time total offensive leader with 9,752 yards, Kolb was selected as the C-USA Preseason Offensive Preseason Player of the Year. The senior needs 276 passing yards to become the UH all-time leader in that category. On defense, the Cougars return 10 starters, including starting safety Will Gulley, who missed the 2005 season with a knee injury.
Marshall was picked fourth in the East, while SMU secured that spot in the West. The Thundering Herd finished 4-7 under the direction of first-year head coach Mark Snyder, while the Mustangs won five games for the first time since the 1997 campaign. SMU ended the season on a three-game winning streak - its longest since 1999. The two fourth-place teams feature two of the league's top returning running backs. Marshall's Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 997 yards is the top-returning back in terms of yards per game at 90.7. For SMU, sophomore DeMyron Martin was sixth in the league with 854 yards and led the Mustangs with nine rushing touchdowns.
UAB and Tulane were picked to finish fifth in the East and West Divisions, respectively. The Blazers return 57 lettermen and 12 starters on offense and defense, but will have to replace quarterback Darrell Hackney, who started 38 games in his four-year career and was the All-C-USA first team signal caller in 2005. Following a season that saw the Green Wave play its six home games in six different stadiums outside of New Orleans, the squad returns to the Superdome for its home opener vs. SMU on Sept. 30.
Rounding out the poll in the East is an East Carolina squad that won five games in head coach Skip Holtz' first season guiding the program. Senior WR Aundrae Allison became the first Pirate to record a 1,000-yard receiving season in 2005. Allison, a JUCO transfer, hauled in 83 catches for 1,024 yards and seven touchdowns. Rice rounds out the poll in the West. The Owls will be under the direction of first-year head coach Todd Graham, who comes to Houston from Tulsa where he served as the defensive coordinator for the league champion Golden Hurricane.
2006 C-USA FOOTBALL COACHES PRESEASON POLL
Offensive Player of the Year
Kevin Kolb, QB, Houston (254-420, 3,258 yards, 19 TDs)
Defensive Player of the Year
Larry McSwain, DE, UAB (53 tackles, 5 TFLs, 4 sacks)
Special Teams Player of the Year
Darren McCaleb, K, Southern Miss (23-28 FGs, 107 points)
First Team Offense
QB Kevin Kolb, Sr., Houston
RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Jr., Marshall
RB Kevin Smith, So., UCF
OL George Batiste, Sr., Southern Miss
OL Travis Cooley, Sr., Southern Miss
OL Cedric Gagne-Marcoux, Sr., UCF
OL Eric Graham, Sr., East Carolina
OL Jeff Perrett, Sr., Tulsa
OL Julius Wilson, Sr., UAB
WR Aundrae Allison, Sr., East Carolina
WR Johnnie Lee Higgins, Sr., UTEP
WR Vincent Marshall, Sr., Houston
TE Shawn Nelson, So., Southern Miss
First Team Defense
DL Antonio Harris, Jr., Tulane
DL Larry McSwain, Sr., UAB
DL Alex Obomese, Sr., UTEP
DL Zach West, Sr., UTEP
LB Nick Bunting, Sr., Tulsa
LB Nelson Coleman, Sr., Tulsa
LB Orlandus King, Sr., UAB
DB Bobby Blackshire, Sr., Tulsa
DB Joe Burnett, So., UCF
DB Caleb Hendrix, Sr., Southern Miss
DB Wesley Smith, Sr., Memphis
First Team Special Teams
K Darren McCaleb, Sr., Southern Miss
P Michael Gibson, Sr., Memphis
KR Jessie Henderson, So., SMU
PR Joe Burnett, So., UCF
Predicted Order of Finish
1. UCF 65
2. Southern Miss 52
3. Memphis 43
4. Marshall 35
5. UAB 28
6. East Carolina 25
1. Tulsa 61
2. UTEP 60
3. Houston 55
4. SMU 39
5. Tulane 20
6. Rice 17