C-USA Coaches Poll
1. Cincinnati, 2. Louisville, 3. Southern Mississippi, 4. Memphis, 5. Houston, 6. Tulane.
By Gene Phelps
MEMPHIS In years past, Southern Mississippi's football program was never concerned with the Nielsen ratings. They may be this year.
The Golden Eagles, who have appeared on television just 14 times in their history, will be on the tube seven times this season. And it's all because of the school's affiliation with the new six-team Conference USA.
"Our players are as excited about being on TV as they are playing for a conference championship," Southern Mississippi head coach Jeff Bower said Wednesday at the C-USA media day. "The exposure the conference gives our program is great. It means everything."
Joining USM in the first-year football conference are Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Tulane and Houston.
"Being an independent, we've never had an opportunity like this," Bower said. "We're playing for a conference ring, a championship trophy. This is what it's all about."
USM's conference games against Louisville (Sept. 28), Memphis (Oct. 19) and Cincinnati (Nov. 2) will be televised by Fox Sports as part of the C-USA weekly package. The Golden Eagles will also play East Carolina (Oct. 10) and Florida State (Nov. 16) on ESPN2, Georgia (Aug. 31) on SportSouth and Alabama (Sept. 7) on Jefferson-Pilot.
"We're excited about getting the opportunity to play on TV," USM defensive back Rod Thomas said.
And, if the Golden Eagles could win the inaugural C-USA championship, they'd earn an eighth TV appearance in the Dec. 27 Liberty Bowl, which is being televised by ESPN.
The C-USA preseason poll, which was voted on by the coaches, has Cincinnati tabbed as the favorite, followed by Louisville, USM, Memphis, Houston and Tulane.
"We're going to have our hands full," Cincinnati third-year coach Rick Minter said. "To win a conference championship you have to have three things a darn good road team, a good quarterback and continuity on your coaching staff."
Minter's Bearcats lack a little bit in all three. They play C-USA games against Louisville, USM and Memphis on the road. The quarterbacking job is going to a player, sophomore Chad Plummer, who has played less than 10 college quarters. And the coaching staff features six new faces.
"I'm not making any predictions," said Minter, who has 11 starters back from a team that finished 6-5 last season. "We're just extremely enthusiastic about the season."
Unlike Minter, Louisville second-year coach Ron Cooper, who has 12 starters back from a team that finished 7-4 last season, made a bold prediction.
"We plan to be back here to play in the Liberty Bowl in December," he said. "I think this could be a special season for this team."
The two favorites Cincinnati and Louisville play Oct. 26 in Louisville.