The 2012 season will be one of transition for C-USA, as it moves from the talented and experienced QBs who dominated the conference a season ago to a conference full of youth and uncertain expectations. This will also be the last season the conference fields Houston, Central Florida, SMU and Memphis, the former three of which helped carry the conference to new offensive heights through the years. This season, many of the names have changed, but the philosophies have not and with that should come plenty of fantasy production for offenses that like to spread the field and throw the ball.
TOP-5 FANTASY STARS
1. Charles Sims, RB, Houston
Almost all of the major parts from Houston's offense last season are gone, except for Sims. He is the unquestioned leader of the running game and is likely to be a big factor in the passing game as well. Moreover, the running backs behind him on the depth chart are inexperienced and have little chance to steal carries. Look for Sims to soak up the touches left behind by outgoing running backs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall as he carries the Cougars and his fantasy owners into the red zone on a regular basis.
2. Zach Line, RB, SMU
Line was the conference's top running back last season, and that isn't likely to change much this season. His numbers from 2011 were great, even better when you consider he missed the end of the season due to a toe injury. There are concerns this season, though, as his offensive line goes from one of the most experienced in 2011 to one of the least experienced in 2012. Still, Line has talent and plays in a June Jones offense that knows how to move the chains. It's not unrealistic to think that Line could end the season as a top-5 fantasy running back.
3. Darius Johnson, WR, SMU
Johnson enters 2012 with a new quarterback in Garrett Gilbert, but the same head coach who loves to throw the ball in June Jones. It's tough to see Johnson not dominating the conference in most receiving stats. For one, he no longer has to compete with Cole Beasley for catches, and, two, Houston's usual prolific offense likely will take a step back after all the changes it went through this offseason. And Johnson's new quarterback, Gilbert, will benefit from a change of scenery as he moves from the University of Texas to SMU. Moreover, Johnson won't have to deal with the quarterback controversy that went on last season with J.J. McDermott and Kyle Padron.
4. Aaron Dobson, WR, Marshall
Dobson is 6-foot-3, 200, and plays every bit of it. His size is unique in a conference that sees mostly lean and speedy receivers in spread systems. Not Dobson - he is the definition of a player who was built for the red zone, where quarterback Rakeem Cato can just throw it up and expect him to come down with it. It should come as no surprise that he has the most returning receiving touchdowns from last season (12). Expect his catches and yards to increase in 2012 and for him to turn in a monster senior season.
5. Orleans Darkwa, RB, Tulane
Darkwa was the second in the conference last season in rushing touchdowns with 13 and expects to build on that number this season. Within the Tulane offense he is the lead back, and there really is no second. He gets enough carries to challenge for more than 1,000 rushing yards in 2012. That might not sound special, but it would put him near the top of the C-USA leaderboard. Plus, how can a guy fail when his name is Orleans and he plays in the Crescent City?
Garrett Gilbert, QB, SMU
Gilbert went from being the 2009 Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year, to playing in the national championship in the 2010 season at Texas, to losing his job to Case McCoy and David Ash in 2011, before finally transferring and landing at SMU for 2012. At SMU he has a chance to step away from the spotlight that Austin imposes and be coached by a man, June Jones, who has helped to rewrite the passing record books. He also steps into a situation where he'll have a great running back in Zach Line to help alleviate pressure from defenses that look only for the pass. Moreover, he has Darius Johnson, a senior wideout who led the conference in receiving yards last season. Together these factors make it tough to see Gilbert not finding success in 2012. The fact that many wrote him off after what happened at Texas in 2011 only means his draft-day price will be minimal.
Storm Johnson, RB, Central Florida
Johnson, a Miami Hurricane transfer, is expected to be used often this season. Reports out of camp have him turning heads and pressing starter Latavius Murray for the team's starting job. Given his talent, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Starting quarerback Blake Bortles is more of a passer than former quarterback Jeff Godfrey, which should keep the rushing yards to the running backs and help drive Murray and Johnson's numbers, especially near the goal line. It wouldn't surprise in the least to see Johnson end up the starter by year's end.
Chris Campbell, QB, Southern Miss
New Southern Miss head coach Steve Buckley is keeping the same offense that former coach Larry Fedora used last season, which means this team is going to throw the ball plenty. Campbell is the likely starting quarterback to drive the offense, if he can hold Anthony Alford off to win the job in camp. No one is expecting the 30 passing scores that senior Austin Davis produced last season, but that is the type of potential that this offense has when run correctly. Don't expect the Golden Eagles offense to slow down just because Fedora and Davis are gone.
Mike Edwards, WR, UTEP
Edwards has a unique relationship with quarterback Nick Lamaison in that they played together at Junior College before both transferred to UTEP. So this season, now that they have both had time to learn the UTEP offensive system, should be a productive one for Edwards. Expect Edwards to double his three touchdowns from a season ago and become a more consistent receiver with an increase in catches and yards.
Chris Boswell, K, Rice
Say what you will about kickers, but last season Boswell made 81.0 percent of his field goal attempts, ranking third in the conference. He also was used frequently as he attemped nearly two field goals a game. Kicking for a less than stellar offense works in his favor, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Boswell be end up as one of the nation's more dependable kickers this season.
David Piland, QB, Houston
Piland has massive shoes to fill and possibly even bigger fantasy expectations to meet this season. He might have ranked among the conference's stars if there hadn't been so much turnover in the Houston locker room this offseason. The team has not only lost its head coach, Kevin Sumlin, to Texas A&M, but also its offensive coordinator, five of its top six receivers and two of its top three rushers from last season. Relying on Charles Sims to carry the load as running back and receiver is asking a lot. Perhaps the best true wide receiver on this season's roster is five-star recruit Deontay Greenberry, a true freshman. Overall, listing Piland as a bust is more about his surroundings than his true level of talent.
Latavius Murray, RB, Central Florida
Murray is listed as a bust only because of the presence of "backup" Storm Johnson. Johnson is an explosive runner who is already pressing Murray for playing time, and we're barely a week into camp. Don't be surprised to see Murray lose goal-line touches to Johnson and eventually lose his starting gig by season's end. We already know at this point that they'll be used together in the backfield; it's only a matter of time until it's Johnson's backfield and not Murray's.
Sam McGuffie, WR, Rice
McGuffie is a former Michigan transfer who has never fit into the Rice offensive system. Apparently the coaching staff took note of this as McGuffie has moved from running back to wide receiver this offseason. For those who don't know much about the Rice offense, the Owls like to spread field and throw the ball, but rarely have the talent necessary to execute this at a high level. Last season, Vance McDonald, a former tight end, and Luke Wilson, a pure tight end, led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns. It's doubtful McGuffie, who is nothing more than a name at this point, will suddenly start taking away catches from those two returning receiving options.
Matt Hogan, K, Houston
Hogan is here for the same reasons as Piland - fantasy owners are expecting too much from an offense that just went through a massive overhaul in the offseason. A change at head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback and a slew of new WRs, likely won't help Hogan lineup for as many extra points as last season. It's possible Hogan benefits from more field-goal attempts this season, but the Cougars offense likely will take a big step back in general, not just stalling in the red zone. Kickers should be drafted from teams that fantasy owners are confident won't have trouble moving the chains - that's simply not the case with Houton considering how much turnover the offense has undergone.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Central Florida Knights
RB Latavius Murray (68)
East Carolina Pirates
RB Reggie Bullock (67), WR Justin Hardy (50), Reese Wiggins (55)
QB David Piland (4), RB Charles Sims (4), WR Daniel Spencer (49), K Matt Hogan (2)
Marshall Thundering Herd
WR Aaron Dobson (39), WR Antavious Wilson (74)
RB Jerrell Rhodes (72)
TE Luke Willson (22)
RB Zach Line (8), WR Darius Johnson (18)
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
WR Tracey Lampley (51)
Tulane Green Wave
RB Orleans Darkwa (25)
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
QB Cody Green (33), RB Willie Carter (66), RB Trey Watts (69), RB JaTerian Douglas (70), WR Bryan Burnham (52)
QB Jonathan Perry (44), WR Jackie Williams (69), WR Jamarcus Nelson (70), TE Nolen Smith (18)
RB Nathan Jeffery (48), TE Kevin Perry (38)