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Elite Quarterbacks Lead Conference USA Favorites

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MEMPHIS (AP) - Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne had a phenomenal 2010 season, throwing for 3,650 yards, rushing for 561 more and accounting for 38 touchdowns. He ranked fourth in the nation in total offense.

In Conference USA, he is just another face in the crowd.

“Every once in a while, you get a special year like this,” Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship. “You’ve got a lot of quarterbacks with a lot of experience surrounded by plenty of playmakers. It should be a really fun season.”

Offense should be easy to find this season in Conference USA, with talented and experienced quarterbacks on nearly every roster.

Houston senior Case Keenum headlines the group after the NCAA granted him a sixth-year of eligibility following a season-ending knee injury. He’s already in the NCAA career top 10 for passing yards and touchdown passes and is one of just two quarterbacks in Football Bowl Subdivision history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in two seasons.

Joining Keenum and Kinne is East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis, who threw for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdowns. There’s also SMU’s Kyle Padron, who threw for 3,828 yards and 31 touchdowns. And don’t forget Southern Miss’ Austin Davis, who threw for 3,103 yards and 20 touchdowns. There is also Central Florida sophomore Jeff Godfrey, who threw for 2,159 yards and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman to lead the Knights to the conference title.

While all are prolific, each has a slightly different way of making his offense go.

“A lot of people are doing a lot of things,” Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. “There’s a million ways to skin a cat. All you’ve got to do is look at the numbers and it will scare you.”

It remains to be seen if one of the star quarterbacks can turn his team into the BCS-buster that Conference USA has coveted, but can’t find. Houston, Southern Miss and Central Florida are the early conference favorites.

“I hope one of our schools does find a way to break onto that national stage, because it would be good for the league,” Blankenship said. “But it’s not just quarterback play that wins championships. You’ve got to have the whole package.”

How they lineup:

Central Florida

Key players: QB Jeff Godfrey, RB Ronnie Weaver, DB Kemal Ishmael, DB Josh Robinson.

Returning starters: 7 offense, 4 defense.

Notes: The Knights won their second C-USA championship in four years last season, and also beat Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. … UCF set a school record with 11 wins in 2010 and finished ranked 21st in the Top 25. … UCF has led C-USA in total defense the past three seasons.

Southern Mississippi

Key Players: QB Austin Davis, K Danny Hrapmann, DL Cordarro Law, RB Kendrick Hardy.

Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: The Golden Eagles have had 17 consecutive winning seasons, which is the fourth-longest active streak in FBS, trailing only Florida State (29), Florida (20) and Virginia Tech (18) … Coach Larry Fedora hired new defensive coordinator Dan Disch, who will change the defense from a 4-3 base to a 4-2-5 formation.

Houston

Key players: QB Case Keenum, KR/PR Patrick Edwards, RB Bryce Beall, OL Chris Thompson.

Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Keenum has already thrown for 13,586 career yards and 107 touchdowns. .. Beall led C-USA with 12 rushing touchdowns last season. .. Senior linebacker Marcus McGraw has led the team in tackles the last two seasons, with 110 tackles last season.

Tulsa

Key players: QB G.J. Kinne, DB Marco Nelson, PR Damaris Johnson, OL Clint Anderson.

Returning starters: 10 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: The Golden Hurricane ended the season on a seven-game winning streak, including a 62-35 victory over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. They finished 24th in the Top 25. .. Johnson has 7,796 career all-purpose yards, including 2,693 last season. He had 560 rushing yards, 872 receiving yards, 292 yards on punt returns and 904 yards on kick returns.

SMU

Key players: QB Kyle Padron, RB Zach Line, OL Kelvin Beachum, DL Taylor Thompson.

Returning starters: 10 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Padron’s 3,828 yards passing, 31 touchdown passes and 35 total touchdowns last season all set school records. .. Line rushed for 1,494 yards last season, which was the second-highest total in school history, trailing only Eric Dickerson’s 1,617 rushing yards in 1982.

East Carolina

Key players: QB Dominique Davis, WR Lance Lewis, DB Emanuel Davis, DB Bradley Jacobs.

Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Davis accounted for 46 of the Pirates’ 60 touchdowns last season, earning C-USA Newcomer of the Year honors. .. Coach Ruffin McNeill is noticeably slimmer than last season. During C-USA Media Day, he said he had lost a “fourth-grader” since the 2010 season.

Marshall

Key players: DE Vinny Curry, WR Aaron Dobson, DB Omar Brown, DB Donald Brown.

Returning starters: 5 offense, 9 defense.

Notes: Curry was one of the most productive defensive players in the nation last season with 18 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks. .. The Thundering Herd won four of their last five games last season under first-year coach Doc Holliday.

UAB

Key players: QB Bryan Ellis, OL Matt McCants, DL Elliott Henigan, RB Pat Shed.

Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Ellis finished with 2,940 yards passing despite not becoming the starter until the fourth game of the season. .. Shed rushed for 847 yards last season and caught a team-high 47 passes for 471 yards.

Rice

Key players: P Kyle Martens, DB Travis Bradshaw, RB Sam McGuffie, LB Corey Frazier.

Returning starters: 9 offense, 9 defense.

Notes: McGuffie was one of just three FBS running backs with at least 880 yards rushing and 380 yards receiving last season. .. The Owls are the only team in C-USA to have at least nine starters returning on both sides of the ball. .. Martens averaged 46 yards per punt last season, which ranked third in the country.

Tulane

Key players: RB Orleans Darkwa, LB Trent Mackey, QB Ryan Griffin, DB Shakiel Smith.

Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Darkwa rushed for 925 yards and scored 11 touchdowns, setting school records for a freshman in both categories. .. Mackey had 124 tackles last season, which ranked third in C-USA.

UTEP

Key players: DB Travaun Nixon, RB Joe Banyard, LB Jamie Irving, LB Isaiah Carter.

Returning starters: 2 offense, 9 defense.

Notes: Banyard rushed for a team-hihg 623 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry. .. Of the Miners’ nine defensive starters returning, linebacker Royzell Smith is the most experienced, with 24 career starts.

Memphis

Key players: WR Marcus Rucker, DL Frank Trotter, LB DeRon Furr, P Tom Hornsey.

Returning starters: 4 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Memphis hopes to bounce back from a brutal first season under coach Larry Porter. The Tigers finished 1-11, losing their last nine games, including the last eight by at least two touchdowns. .. Rucker has caught a pass in 12 consecutive games, and led the team with 704 receiving yards and eight touchdowns last season.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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