A look around Conference USA
Louisville is the favorite to capture the conference title after a near-flawless start.
Parity is the buzzword around college football, and Conference USA continues to drive the bus. A league that had seven of 11 teams finish at .500 or better last season is headed toward another wild ending. Three squads are currently undefeated in league play, while several others are within striking distance of the top. Untangling the hodgepodge of contenders is no easy task, but here's what we know so far.
Louisville is the favorite to capture the conference title after a near-flawless start. In four games the Cardinals have produced two shutouts and forced 12 turnovers. Coach Bobby Petrino is stocked with offensive weapons at QB and RB, and Louisville currently ranks fourth nationally in total offense (503.8 ypg).
Southern Miss survived a scare last Thursday against Houston and moved to 4-0 with an overtime win. The defending league champs are 3-0 on the road, where they'll face Memphis and Texas Christian in mid-November. UAB is unbeaten in league play and boasts a veteran core that has learned how to win close games.
Memphis features two of the league's top offensive weapons -- QB Danny Wimprine and RB DeAngelo Williams -- and is making progress on defense after crumbling at UAB. TCU has been beset by injuries and poor pass defense, but a potent offense makes the Horned Frogs dangerous.
The league's bottom half has been plagued by inconsistency. Army and East Carolina could gain some sorely needed momentum after ending losing streaks of 19 and nine games last Saturday.
UAB: With 18 starters returning, UAB's 4-1 start isn't a total shock. But the Blazers, who suffered five losses by 14 points or fewer last year, have rallied around their senior leaders to win several close games. QB Darrell Hackney has thrown 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions, while a trio of senior linebackers has helped UAB's defense force a league-high 14 turnovers.
Last Saturday's dominating win over Mississippi State propels UAB into a critical stretch. The Blazers play three of their next four at home and close out the regular season at Southern Miss. "We're a little older, more experienced," Blazers coach Watson Brown said. "We're just not losing our cool."
Cincinnati: The Bearcats have all-but deflated following an emotional win Sept. 11 over rival Miami (Ohio). Cincinnati dropped games to Syracuse and UAB before becoming the first team since November 2002 to lose against Army. "We have to go back to square one," said first-year coach Mark Dantonio, who perhaps put too much emphasis on the Miami (Ohio) game. "We were a program, I think, that was close and all of a sudden we've spiraled downhill. It's disappointing, but it's where we're at now. We've got to regroup."
QB Gino Guidugli ranks second in the league in total offense (234.3 ypg), but the Bearcats have struggled with turnovers (minus-7 for season). Cincinnati's offense is just 17-for-24 in red zone opportunities, ranking second to last in the league.
Memphis QB Danny Wimprine has stretched opposing defenses in the passing game and given Williams some room to roam. Williams has reached 100 rushing yards or more in 14 of his last 15 games. "It makes us feel good because we're helping him out, we're opening up lanes for him," Memphis LT David Davis told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "He does a lot on his own as well."
Midseason Coach of the Year
Louisville's Bobby Petrino: Petrino has skillfully managed QBs Stefan LeFors and Brian Brohm in a balanced offense that features three dangerous RBs. His hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Cassity revamped a defense that ranked in the league's bottom half last season. Louisville is allowing only seven points and 82.3 rushing yards a game. "We think defense is going to take us to the top," Cardinals LB Brandon Johnson said. "They say a lot of times the offense wins games but the defense wins championships."
Louisville dropped three of its final five games last year, but Petrino is doing all he can to avoid another late-season letdown. His work is reflected in the players' attitude. "Right now the ball's in our favor and things are going well," Cardinals FS Kerry Rhodes said. "But we're not that high on ourselves yet. We've still got to prove ourselves a little bit more."
Louisville is the early favorite to win the conference and earn a Liberty Bowl bid. Southern Miss, UAB and Memphis are virtual locks for three of the league's remaining bowl spots. And that fifth and final bowl? TCU has the talent to turn things around and reach the postseason, while South Florida and Cincinnati need much more consistency. The Bulls are the most penalized team in Division I-A, while the Bearcats must recapture the passion they had early in the season.
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
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