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The Conference USA Preview: Amid realignment changes, Tulsa looks to contend once again

Tulsa looks to defend the Conference USA championship in 2013. Photo: USA Today Sports

Crystal Ball Run will be previewing each conference for the 2013 season with week-by-week coverage. Today we continue our 2013 conference previews with a look at Conference USA.

Conference USA always seems to have some sneaky fun football to pay attention to. The 2012 season was certainly keeping up with that trend as we saw some unlikely storylines develop from start to finish. We saw one program go through an entire season without a win, another battle back in the second half of the season to grab an unlikely postseason spot and two entertaining clashes between division champions for final bragging rights in a year of transition for the conference.

2012 In Review

It is not often that a program that wins a conference championship one year fails to win a conference game the following year. It is even more rare to see that conference champion fail to win a single game all year round. In fact, unless I am mistaken, that had never happened before Southern Mississippi went from conference champs to conference chumps in 2013.

Southern Mississippi was faced with a coaching change after losing Larry Fedora to North Carolina and Ellis Johnson was unable to find any answers for Southern Miss as they limped through an 0-12 season. Any momentum gained from winning a Conference USA championship on the road against Houston the season before was lost in a hurry. They came close a few times to avoiding a winless season though, but victory would elude the Golden Eagles time and time again. The high point of the year for Southern Miss may have come on a rain-soaked night at home against Louisville. The Cardinals struggled mightily as the down pour made for nearly unplayable playing surface, but Teddy Bridgewater prevailed in the clutch to avoid the upset bid. The Eagles were close to victory in game eleven, with an 81-yard pass from Arsenio Favor to Quentin Pierce tying UTEP at 27-27 midway through the fourth quarter, but UTEP's Autrey Golden returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for what would turn out to be the game-winning touchdowns. It was that kind of year for Southern Mississippi.

On the other end of the Conference USA spectrum was Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane opened the season with a tough 38-23 loss at Iowa State, but they would get their revenge in the postseason. In between, Tulsa showed off an offense that was difficult for Conference USA opponents to slow down. Tulsa scored at least 27 points in all but one conference game, and they scored over 30 points in six Conference USA games. Trey Watts led the Golden Hurricane with 1,108 rushing yards but it was Alex Singleton who punched it in to the end zone with a team-leading 24 touchdowns. Singleton added one more receiving touchdown for good measure. Though SMU scored a conference upset of Tulsa, it was Central Florida who would be the biggest threat to Tulsa and a Conference USA championship. As fate would have it, these two programs would battle twice in a span of three weeks. Each would see Central Florida leave Tulsa with a hard-fought, difficult loss to swallow.

Central Florida was 0-2 against Tulsa in 2012. Photo: USA Today Sports

Central Florida was caught playing catch-up in the first meeting in mid-November. Tulsa jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter but the Golden Knights would take a 14-10 lead in to halftime thanks to a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown by A.J. Bouye. It was Tulsa who would make the adjustments in the second half though, taking a 23-14 lead in the third quarter and holding on for a 23-21 victory. The rematch two weeks later would take place in Tulsa once again, this time for the Conference USA championship. This time Central Florida played a little bit more confidently and got more out of the offense. Central Florida took a 27-21 lead in to the fourth quarter but Tulsa rallied using special teams. A 54-yard punt return for a touchdown by Trey Watts would tie the game at 27-27, but ironically enough it would be special teams that would keep the game tied when an extra point attempt failed. This would eventually send the Conference USA championship game in to overtime, where Tulsa's Alex Singleton would clinch the championship with a one-yard touchdown run for a 33-27 victory.

Elsewhere in the conference we saw Houston's post-Case Keenum rebound after a slow start, a 65-59 final between East Carolina and Marshall, SMU play the first real victim of Johnny Manziel's Heisman campaign, June Jones win his third bowl game at SMU in four years, and Rice return to a postseason bowl game despite starting the year with a 1-5 record and needing to win the final four games of the season to become bowl-eligible after dropping to 2-6.

Who's In, Who's Out?

Kenneth Dixon will look to keep Louisiana Tech's offense going amid changes in 2013. Photo: USA Today Sports

Conference USA was hit pretty hard by the realignment changes going on around the country. While the Big East takes the bullet on the national scale of realignment, Conference USA has been one of the conference to feel the rough impact of changes in the Big East. As the Big East made moves to stay afloat, many of the top targets for their expansion came from Conference USA.

This season will see Central Florida, Houston and SMU leave Conference USA for The American. They take some of the top television markets for the conference with them as well (Orlando, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth). Next year more Conference USA members will leave for The American when East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa all change their patriotic conference flags.

Conference USA does add some new members to the fold this season though, to make up for the vacancies opened up by the departure of Central Florida, Houston and SMU. Florida International and Florida Atlantic will leave the Sun Belt Conference for Conference USA to fill two spots. Conference USA also picks up two schools form the rubble that is the WAC, with Louisiana Tech and UTSA.

Conference USA will keep two divisions of seven teams each in 2013. Here is how they look for 2013:

  • East Division: East Carolina, FIU, FAU, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss, UAB
  • West Division: Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, Tulane, Tulsa, UTEP, UTSA

Conference USA will add Western Kentucky (Sun Belt) and Old Dominion (FCS) in 2014. Charlotte will play their first football season in school history this fall and will join Conference USA in 2015.

Head Coaching Changes

While there were not a ton of changes in the head coaching ranks in Conference USA for 2013, two of the new members made moves this off-season. Florida International surprised everyone by cutting ties with Mario Cristobal and Louisiana Tech had to find a replacement after losing their coach to a Pac 12 school. Southern Mississippi is the only Conference USA member from 2012 making a coaching change, their second in as many seasons. This time, it was by their own choice and perhaps deservedly so.

Florida International: Mario Cristobal was fired by Florida International (and later signed by Alabama as an assistant for Nick Saban). Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback coach Ron Turner was hired as head coach a month later.

Louisiana Tech: Sonny Dykes was hired away by California. He was replaced by former South Florida head coach Skip Holtz (fired by USF).

Southern Mississippi: Ellis Johnson was fired by Southern Mississippi following an 0-12 season. Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken was hired as head coach.

Conference USA in Bowl Games

Conference USA had one of the best postseason records in the country last season, with a 4-1 bowl record. Two of those wins were picked up by now former Conference USA members Central Florida and SMU. Current Conference USA members accumulated a bowl record of 2-1.

Central Florida, now in The American, was dominant against the MAC's Ball State in the Beef 'O Brady's Bowl. SMU, joining Central Florida in The American, blasted the Mountain West Conference's newcomer Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. The two American members combined to outscore their opponents 81-27. The rest of Conference USA performed pretty well as well, overall.

Conference USA champion Tulsa defeated Iowa State 31-17 in the Liberty Bowl and Rice was in command against Air Force, winning 33-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl. East Carolina took the lone hit in the conference, losing to Louisiana-Lafayette by a score of 43-34 in the New Orleans Bowl.

Despite a record of 9-3, Louisiana Tech did not play in a postseason game as a member of the WAC. UTSA was ineligible for postseason play despite a record of 8-4 due to their transition period in to the FBS.

Biggest Win of 2012

Tulsa 31, Iowa State 17 (Liberty Bowl, December 31, 2012): There were not a lot of signature victories for Conference USA in 2012, but Tulsa's revenge victory against Iowa State may be the best to choose from. After opening the season with a loss at Iowa State, it was fitting for Tulsa to get a chance to reverse the story in the Liberty Bowl. Down 17-7 at halftime, Tulsa took control in the second half and scored 24 unanswered points for a 31-17 victory, holding the Cyclones to 268 yards of offense and forcing three turnovers.

Biggest Loss in 2012

Houston 13, Texas State 30 (September 1, 2012): We knew that Houston was going to be taking a step or two back fresh out of the Case Keenum and Kevin Sumlin era, but nobody saw this one coming. Texas State, playing their first season as an FBS program, shocked the Cougars in week one with a dominating victory, rolling up 440 yards of offense.

Kevin McGuire is the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Follow him on TwitterGoogle+ and Facebook.

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Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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