C-USA can’t stand up in bowls

For USF fans who boycotted the postseason, there was a lot to see. Cincinnati’s 42-26 victory against East Carolina Dec. 6 meant the Bulls were out of the bowl running, but the 2002 bowl season had a lot of implications for USF in the upcoming season.

Although 9-2 wasn’t good enough this season, should the Bulls duplicate that mark in 2003, they could be booking their tickets to the Liberty Bowl by November.

TCU’s 9-2 mark earned the Horned Frogs the Conference USA crown in 2002 and the trip to Memphis. As the Bulls enter C-USA next season, TCU again figures to be the favorite after winning the league with the staples of championship football — running and defense.

The Horned Frogs displayed just how good they were in those two areas in their 17-3 win against Colorado State in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve .

The Horned Frogs return their two leading rushers, who combined for more than 1,700 yards. Freshman Lontae Hobbs didn’t play the first four games because the TCU coaches were going to redshirt him. Injuries forced them to play him, and he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns, including 287 yards against Memphis in the season finale. But Hobbs was eclipsed by Ricky Madison in the bowl game, who had 113 yards and a touchdown, while Hobbs added 77 yards.

The real reason behind TCU’s success was its stellar defense. In the Liberty Bowl, the Rams fumbled the ball six times, losing three, and Colorado State quarterbacks threw three interceptions. The Horned Frogs stymied the Rams’ offense, limiting them to 143 yards of total offense. Thousand-yard rusher Cecil Sapp had 106 yards rushing against TCU, but only 22 after Colorado State’s first two possessions.

Tulane also looks like a contender after dismantling Hawaii on the island. The Bulls would have had the Green Wave’s spot in the Hawaii Bowl had East Carolina put up any defense on Cincinnati. Instead, the Bearcats went to the New Orleans Bowl, where they were roughed up by North Texas — the same Mean Green squad that USF defeated 24-17 earlier in the season.

While Cincinnati failed to get the job done in its bowl game, Tulane put the rest of the league on notice. Quarterback J.P. Losman showed the flashes of brilliance this season that everyone expected out of him at UCLA when he was a highly-touted freshman. He’ll return for his senior season this year after throwing for 2,200 yards in 2002. He also had almost twice as many touchdowns (19) as interceptions (10).

The Green Wave will also have a potent ground game behind Mewelde Moore, who was also the team’s leading receiver. Moore has rushed for more than 2,500 yards the past two seasons. Against Hawaii, Moore ran for 116 yards and a touchdown, while catching six passes for 80 yards.

Defensively, Tulane ranked third in the conference in scoring (21.2 points per game) and third in pass defense (177.6 yards per game).

Future C-USA foes Southern Miss, Louisville and Cincinnati did not fare as well. The Golden Eagles, who lost 16-13 in Raymond James Stadium Oct. 12, got bowled over by Oklahoma State 33-23 in the Houston Bowl. The Cowboys manhandled Oklahoma, which beat USF 31-14 Sept. 28, in their last regular season game, 38-28.

For 2003, the Golden Eagles must make a decision at quarterback (Dustin Almond or Mickey D’Angelo), find someone to fill tailback Derrick Nix’s shoes (he had his third 1,000-yard season in 2002 after missing two years due to a kidney ailment) and return their defense to its usually tenacious form (third in C-USA at almost 325 yards allowed a game).

Louisville is the candidate most likely to take a big fall in 2003. The Cardinals lost the matchup of marquee quarterbacks in the GMAC Bowl when Marshall throttled them 38-15. The team found out coach John L. Smith was accepting the Michigan State job at halftime of the game and never recovered.

A new quarterback will also be on hand, as a successor to Dave Ragone must be located. Expecting a Heisman Trophy-caliber season, Ragone and the Cardinals underachieved with a porous offensive line that surrendered 43 sacks. Sack master Dewayne White also will be missed, as he registered the most sacks in Louisville and C-USA history in his three seasons. An early entrant to the 2003 NFL Draft, he figures to be a second-round pick.

Cincinnati had the league’s most efficient quarterback in sophomore Gino Guidugli, but his five interceptions in the New Orleans Bowl doomed the Bearcats chances against North Texas. He also fired 16 picks in Cincinnati’s 13 regular-season games, as the team that took national champion Ohio State to the final minute struggled to finish .500.

With five of the 10 teams below .500 in 2002, the Bulls have a good chance of having to face three bowl teams at most. East Carolina and Houston, two teams USF beat in 2002, finished the year with losing records and have new coaches next year. Army went 1-11, lost 58-12 to Navy and has won five games in the last three years.

Gone from the schedule are bowl-bound teams like Arkansas and Oklahoma, replaced with Eastern Michigan and Baylor. The Eagles went 3-9 in 2002, after seasons of 2-9 in 2001 and 3-8 in 2000. The Bears went 3-8, with one of those wins coming against Division I-AA Samford, and they have a new coach — Guy Morriss from Kentucky.

While Jim Leavitt choose not to coach Alabama, he will be see the Crimson Tide Aug. 30, when the Bulls travel to Birmingham. Although ‘Bama was 10-3 in ’02, probation kept it out of a bowl game. Alabama finished 2002 ranked 11th in the Associated Press poll.

If the 2002 postseason is any indication, bowling should be a much better proposition for USF in 2003.