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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 9:12 AM

When the NCAA granted injury prone Houston quarterback Case Keenum a sixth year of eligibility, you knew that the West division of Conference USA was going to put on quite a show this year.

*Houston managed to rank fifth in the nation on passing offense last year even without Keenum. They're likely to possess one of the most explosive offenses in the sport this season.

*SMU won the West last year with effective quarterback Kyle Padron leading the June Jones attack. The Mustangs finished a respectable 21st in passing offense…though they used that approach to move the chains and run clock rather than light up the scoreboard (SMU ranked only 74th in scoring offense). An extremely high 18 starters return to a team that was best in the West last year.

*Tulsa's versatile attack finished 5th in the nation in total offense last year. Returning quarterback G.J. Kinne was the Offensive Player of the Year in CUSA in 2010. The Golden Hurricane is the only CUSA program with a new head coach this year. Bill Blankenship has promised to keep the pedal to the metal.

The race is too close to call entering the season. You have to assume Keenum is going to inspire a big bounce back year for the Cougars. Can you pencil them in as the best up front? Some preseason prognosticators think so. Some don't. We present our college previews in the order that Athlon has them ranked. Let's dig through some numbers and see if we can make any headway.

SMU
Athlon Ranking: 49th
2010 Total Offense: 33rd
2010 Total Defense: 40th
Strength: Pass Offense (21st)
Weakness: Rush Offense (81st)
Returning Starters: 10 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: June Jones
Notebook: The Mustangs can be tricky to handicap because they're kind of a 'grinder' team that uses short passes to gobble up yardage, run clock, and protect their defense. Don't make the mistake of seeing them as a run-and-gun team just because June Jones is the head coach. That 'style' of play did find the end zone often several years ago. Defenses adjusted, and now it's much more common to see spread offenses settling for bits and pieces at a time. If you watched SMU's loss to Central Florida 17-7 in the CUSA Championship game, or their 16-14 loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl, you know this is a team that can bog down when it's time to find the end zone. Having 18 returning starters from a bowl team should help them at least maintain last year's form. Their season opener against a potentially distracted Texas A&M team could prove very interesting.

HOUSTON
Athlon Ranking: 58th
2010 Total Offense: 11th
2010 Total Defense: 103rd
Strength: Pass Offense (5th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (114th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin
Notebook: Our in-house Power Ratings currently give Houston the slight nod in this division because of our respect for Keenum. He finds the end zone! At least, he does when he's healthy. Be aware that Houston beat SMU without him last year 45-20 on the road. The only reason SMU won the West last year is that a lot of different Houston quarterbacks kept getting hurt. We'll have to think about the Cougars in their season opener at home against UCLA. The schedule is very manageable the rest of the way. Houston doesn't play SMU or Tulsa until the last two games of the season. They dodge Central Florida and Southern Miss from the East in the schedule rotation. If Keenum stays in the lineup, Houston will be favored on a weekly basis through the season. The stage is set for a REALLY big year…one that could even launch the university into the Big 12 depending on how the politics of realignment shake out.

TULSA
Athlon Ranking: 62nd
2010 Total Offense: 5th
2010 Total Defense: 111th
Strength: Pass Offense (13th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (120th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Bill Blankenship (new)
Notebook: Tulsa lost the tie-breaker to SMU last year because of a 21-18 head-to-head loss on the road. Both teams finished 6-2 in league play. The Hurricane certainly closed the season more impressively…with wins over Notre Dame, Houston, and Southern Miss in the second half of the season…along with a 62-35 bowl win at Hawaii. Former head coach Todd Graham was hired away by Pittsburgh. The pressure is on Blankenship as the only new coach in a conference that has a lot of player experience returning. We already mentioned that G.J. Kinne returns at quarterback. That's three for three so far here in the West with returning signal callers. You read in Saturday's NOTEBOOK that the best four teams over there return their starters as well. A killer September could take a serious toll…with Oklahoma, Oklahoma, and Boise State all on the schedule. No wonder Graham wanted to leave! You have to assume the physical pounding from those games will cause a hangover early in league play. Tough to ask the Hurricane to win the division as a result. They're helped by facing both SMU and Houston at home.

RICE
Athlon Ranking: 94th
2010 Total Offense: 63rd
2010 Total Defense: 107th
Strength: Rush Offense (51st)
Weakness: Pass Defense (119th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: David Bailiff
Notebook: There's likely to be a big drop off from the big three to the rest of the division. Rice does return experience…but this is an undersized team that can't defend, being led by a coach who's in way over his head at this level. They have a couple of options at quarterback, with two guys who split time last year. An interesting start to the season against Texas, Purdue, and Baylor will tell us a lot about this team. Should they hold their own vs. that trio, then we're looking at a team that may be able to pull off an upset or two in CUSA. If the Owls are just blowout fodder, then it's probably another 4-8 type season in the offing. We will look for value spots against other CUSA weaklings. A group this spirited usually fares well vs. disrespectful Vegas prices.

TULANE
Athlon Ranking: 106th
2010 Total Offense: 66th
2010 Total Defense: 74th
Strength: Pass Defense (28th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (101st)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Bob Toledo
Notebook: A fifth school with a returning quarterback! Tulane only returns three other offensive starters though, and didn't impress last year on that side of the ball vs. a weak schedule. It was tough to be Tulane before hurricane Katrina. The program's never really recovered from that disaster. Scheduling softer has helped soften the blow. Non-conference games this year are SE Louisiana, Duke, Army, Syracuse, and Hawaii. Beats getting pounded by SEC teams. Tulane did beat Rice and UTEP last year, giving them hopes for 'best of the rest' honors in the bottom three this season.

UTEP
Athlon Ranking: 108th
2010 Total Offense: 78th
2010 Total Defense: 91st
Strength: Pass Offense (58th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (90th)
Returning Starters: 1 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Mike Price
Notebook: Yes, one returning starter on offense. Remember when Mike Price was the next big thing in college coaching. He went to UTEP to earn back his reputation, and was never able to do so. He was just more and more exposed as a guy who took advantage of his 15 minute then blew it. Things should be very tough this year because everyone else is more experienced. Cupcake wins last year included Arkansas Pine Bluff, New Mexico, New Mexico State, and Memphis. Maybe the team will overachieve now that all expectations are gone. Maybe that's what Price needs to get his reputation back.

A lot of our mid-major write-ups every summer end up warning you about the high number of really bad teams at the lower levels. The media tends to downplay the negatives because it's not good television. Anyone who can walk and chew gum gets thrown into the media polls because reports rank records rather than true quality. But, THIS YEAR, in CONFERENCE USA, there are multiple teams who can actually make meaningful headlines in September and in the bowls. During league play, some real battles are going to unfold as several legitimate contenders try to win a championship. Pay attention to CUSA!

Our college previews continue next week with the Mid American Conference. Then, the final weekend of August is reserved for the Sun Belt and the Independents. Notre Dame and Navy always make that an interesting read. BYU joins them on that page this year. If you're a pro football fan, our NFL Divisional previews resume Monday with the AFC East to get you ready for NY Jets/Houston on ESPN. Those will be running on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays as warm-ups to national TV games.

We hope you've taken advantage of the early bird rates at JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK. This is a great weekend to take care of business if you've been stalling. You've been watching the NFL action on TV. Make sure you're winning while you're watching!

Whether it's the NFL, the college powers, or the college mid majors…nobody beats football like the EXCLUSIVE TEAM HANDICAPPING APPROACH of JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

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This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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