Patrick Magee

C-USA Top 5: Revisiting the best players, teams and moments in Conference USA's football history

Last summer, I ran a series of called 'C-USA Top 5' that ranked the top players, teams and moments in Conference USA's football history.

This year, C-USA is celebrating its 20th year in existence. I decided it was a good time to re-publish the majority of my blogs from that series in one large post. 

I've edited some of these rankings to reflect the league's history following the 2014 campaign.

Here you have it, the best of Conference USA football in its 20th year:

TOP RUNNING BACKS

The C-USA Top 5 series start with a ranking of C-USA’s best all-time running backs:

1. DeAngelo Williams (Memphis, 2002-05): With 6,026 career yards, Williams ranks fifth all-time on the FBS level in rushing. He also has 55 career rushing touchdowns and averaged an amazing 6.2 yards per carry in his career. Williams has also had a productive NFL career with the Carolina Panthers. 

2. Damion Fletcher (Southern Miss, 2006-09): He may not have been the fastest, the strongest or the biggest, but there’s no denying that the Biloxi product was a special college running back. He ranks second behind Williams in C-USA history in career rushing with 5,302 yards and ranks 10th all time in FBS. In 2009, he became just the ninth running back to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his career. 

3. Matt Forte (Tulane, 2004-07): Forte was a good back for his first three years, but he became special as a senior. In his final season, he rushed 361 times for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns. He accounted for 4,265 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns in his career. Forte has built on a strong college career and become one of the best running backs in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. 

4. Kevin Smith (UCF, 2005-07): No C-USA running back has had a bigger season than Smith did in 2007, when he ran a whopping 450 times for 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns. He led the Knights to a 10-4 campaign as a senior, capping a career that ranks third all-time in C-USA in total rushing with 4,679 yards. 

5. Derrick Nix (Southern Miss 1998-2000, 2002): For many USM fans, it’s a case of what might have been for Nix. Treatment for an ankle injury led to major kidney problems, limiting him to just five games and 156 yards in 2000 and keeping him off the field in 2001. Even though he never fulfilled his potential as a top NFL prospect, Nix battled through health issues late in his career to end up with 3,584 yards and 30 touchdowns. 

TOP QUARTERBACKS

When ranking the best players in Conference USA history at each position, choosing among the top quarterbacks is the most difficult task. 

There is no question as to who deserves to be considered the best in C-USA — Houston’s Case Keenum. 

In a pass-happy C-USA, the rest of the field is much tougher to put together. 

But here you have it, the top five quarterbacks in the 20-year history of the league: 

1. Case Keenum (Houston, 2007-11): With 19,217 career passing yards, Keenum is by far the top passer in the history of the FBS, out-pacing the second-place quarterback (Hawaii’s Timmy Chang) by 2,145 yards. He also has the most career touchdown passes in FBS with 155. 

2. Rakeem Cato (Marshall, 2011-14): Cato holds the FBS record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (46). He finished his Marshall years with most of the Herd’s passing records, including career yards (14,079), completions (1,153), attempts (1,838), touchdowns (131) and total offense (14,918).

3. Austin Davis (Southern Miss, 2008-11): C-USA has had flashier quarterbacks in its history, but not many of them were more steady than Davis, a former walk-on who broke most of Brett Favre’s records at USM. He ranks sixth all-time in C-USA in passing yards (10,892) and threw for 83 touchdowns compared to just 27 interceptions. He also rushed for 25 touchdowns. 

4. Paul Smith (Tulsa, 2005-07): The Golden Hurricane became a consistent winner with Smith behind center. Tulsa twice made it to the title game under his watch and won the 2005 C-USA championship. He was great as a senior with 5,065 passing yards and 47 passing touchdowns. He also ran for 27 touchdowns, a C-USA career record for a quarterback. 

5. Dave Ragone (Louisville, 1999-2002): His numbers may not seem as good as some of the quarterbacks that followed him in C-USA, but Ragone was the best passer in the league’s first decade. He was the three-time C-USA Player of The Year from 2000-02. The three-year starter accounted for 8,564 passing yards and 72 touchdown tosses in his career.

TOP RECEIVERS

Looking back through the Conference USA record books, there is no shortage of receivers who have put up huge numbers over the league’s first 20 years. 

With so much of the league relying on a pass-first offense, it would be easy to pick the league’s best all-time receivers based solely on statistics. If that was the case, Houston receivers would dominate the list. 

The Cougars are still represented in this C-USA Top 5, but there have been plenty of good pass-catchers at other programs the last two decades. 

The top five receivers in C-USA history: 

1. Jarett Dillard (Rice, 2005-08): With 60 career touchdown catches, Dillard is by far the most prolific receiver in FBS history when it comes to getting in

the end zone. He had over 1,000 yards receiving in three straight seasons and closed out his career with 292 catches for 4,138 yards. 

2. Dwayne Harris (East Carolina, 2007-10): One of the toughest to ever line up at the position, Harris is basically a power tailback lining up in the slot. Now a Dallas Cowboy, Harris caught 268 passes for 3,001 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career. He caught a whopping 101 passes as a senior. 

3. Tommy Shuler (Marshall, 2011-14): He teamed with Rakeem Cato for one of the most productive quarterback-receiving duos in college football history. His 322 career catches rank fourth all-time in FBS. 

4. Patrick Edwards (Houston, 2008-11): With 4,507 career receiving yards, Edwards ranks first all-time in C-USA and fourth in the FBS. As a senior, he caught 89 passes for 1,752 yards and 20 touchdowns. 

5. Roddy White (UAB, 2001-04): White made a steady progression throughout his four years, topping out with an incredible senior season. In 2004, he caught 71 passes for 1,452 yards and 14 touchdowns. For his career, he had 163 catches for 3,112 yards and 26 scores. 

TOP OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

In an era where the best linemen on both sides of the ball mostly wind up in the SEC and other power conferences, Conference USA has had its own standouts on the offensive line. 

The players included in this C-USA Top 5 could have played on every level of college football and been all-conference performers. 

In reviewing the best offensive linemen, one stood out — Jason Fabini, a former Cincinnati offensive lineman who went on to an 11-year career in the NFL. 

Here are your top five offensive linemen in C-USA history: 

1 Jason Fabini (Cincinnati, 1995-97) — A three-time first-team All-Conference USA performer, Fabini started 43 of 44 games in his his college career. At 6-foot-7, 312 pounds, Fabini became one of the best offensive linemen to ever suit up for the New York Jets. 

2. Sebastian Vollmer (Houston, 2005-08) — The German-born Vollmer went from a freshman who could barely speak English to first-team All-Conference USA as a senior. The 6-foot-8, 315-pound Vollmer was a second-round pick by the New England Patriots. He has started 52 of 59 career games for the Patriots. 

3. Kelvin Beachum (SMU, 2008-11) — He was twice named first-team All-Conference USA, earning second-team honors as a sophomore in 2008. Beachum was a four-year starter for the Mustangs before becoming a seventh-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012. He started 12 games at guard for the Steelers in 2013. 

4. Matt McCants (UAB, 2007-11) — Twice named first-team All-Conference USA, McCants is considered one of the best players to ever suit up for the Blazers. He earned 42 career starts before becoming a sixth-round draft pick by the New York Giants in 2012 and is now a tackle for the Oakland Raiders.

5. Lamar Holmes (Southern Miss, 2010-11) — It all came together for Holmes in his senior season, starting at left tackle for a USM offensive line that helped lead the way to a 12-2 campaign. Since Holmes completed his eligibility in 2011, the USM offensive line hasn’t been the same. Holmes was a second-round NFL Draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2012.

TOP DEFENSIVE LINEMAN

While Conference USA has the reputation for putting up big points on offense, there has been no lack of talent along the defensive line in the league’s 20 years. 

You have to get after the quarterback in in C-USA to succeed and defensive end is the position where you find the best defensive linemen in the league’s history. 

To be on the list of the top five defensive linemen in C-USA history, the player had to be much more than just a pass rusher. 

While Southern Miss defensive end Adalius Thomas was at his best when he was sacking the quarterback, he had a much bigger impact on the game than just rushing the passer. 

Here are the top five defensive linemen in C-USA history: 

1. Adalius Thomas (Southern Miss, 1996-99): The Alabama native was an impact player from the moment he stepped on the field at USM. He registered 39 tackles as a freshman to make the Sporting News Freshman All-American Team. The honors didn’t stop there as Thomas earned All-American selections as a junior and senior, including College Football News first-team honors in 1999. Twice the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time Pro Bowler in the NFL, he finished his USM career with 242 tackles and 34.5 sacks. He was also dangerous on special teams with seven blocked kicks. 

2. Vinny Curry (Marshall, 2008-11): His last two years at Marshall were among the best seasons ever for a C-USA defensive player. His breakout year came in 2010 when he registered 94 tackles and 12 sacks. He was named the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 with 77 tackles and 11 sacks. 

3. Dewayne White (Louisville, 2000-02): Despite playing only three years before entering the NFL draft, White left C-USA as is its all-time sacks leader with 37.5. He was named the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2001 after registering 15 sacks. 

4. Jamie Collins (Southern Miss, 2009-12): The current New England Patriot became a defensive end/linebacker hybrid his last two years at USM and was a disruptive force after playing defensive back and linebacker his first two years. He had 190 tackles, 39.5 for lost yardage and 16.5 sacks in his last two seasons. He often flew under the radar when it came to earning accolades, but there was no denying that he was often the best athlete on the field. 

5. Bruce Miller (Central Florida, 2007-10): Few C-USA players have been more steady in their careers. He finished his four seasons at UCF with 35.5 sacks and 214 tackles. Now a fullback for the San Francisco 49ers, his best season came in 2009 with 13 sacks.

TOP LINEBACKERS

Like Penn State on the national level, Southern Miss has been “Linebacker U” in Conference USA’s two decades of existence. 

There are several Golden Eagle linebackers worthy of consideration in this version of C-USA Top 5, but Rod Davis’ career at USM was the most decorated of all of them. That’s why the Gulfport native is at No. 1 on this list. 

When Davis completed his career, he held the FBS record for career tackles with 526 total. That record has since been broken by Northwestern’s Tim McGarigle (545). 

Here are the top five linebackers in Conference USA history: 

1. Rod Davis (Southern Miss, 2000-03): Starting with a Sporting News Freshman All-American selection in 2000, Davis was selected as an All-American in three out of his four years at USM. In an era when Southern Miss was the class of C-USA because of its defense, Davis ran the show for the Golden Eagles and was named the 2003 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year. In addition to his 526 total tackles, Davis had 60.5 tackles for lost yardage, 18.5 sacks, four interceptions and 18 pass breakups. 

2. Michael Boley (Southern Miss, 2001-04): Playing alongside Davis, there was a serious debate on whether Boley was actually the better linebacker. Following his ninth year in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013, Boley has had a good showing on football’s highest level. At USM, the extremely athletic Boley was named the 2004 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year and finished with 422 career tackles, 28 sacks and nine forced fumbles. 

3. Tyrus McCloud (Louisville, 1995-96): He earned the first two Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year honors. He finished with 405 career tackles. 

4. Pernell Griffin (East Carolina, 1998-2001): The Pirate picked up plenty of accolades in his time in Greeneville, N.C. He was a first-team All-Conference USA selection three times and a freshman All-American. He completed his career at ECU with 460 career tackles. 

5. Gerald McRath (Southern Miss, 2005-08): He got off to a slow start after redshirting his first season and getting injured in the second game of his redshirt freshman campaign. Once healthy, he covered as much ground as any linebacker in C-USA history and finished as the 2007 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year and totaled 386 career tackles.

TOP DEFENSIVE BACKS

In ranking Conference USA’s top five defensive backs of all time, the margin is slim from No. 1 to No. 5. 

It’s fitting that former Southern Miss star Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison of Louisville earn the top two slots in this version of C-USA Top 5. Surtain and Madison were NFL teammates with the Miami Dolphins and both went to multiple Pro Bowls. 

Surtain has the slight edge because he became the first defensive back to earn C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in 1997 (the only other one is Kemal Ishmael in 2012) and he played more years in the conference. Madison only played in two (1995-96) while Surtain was a standout in C-USA from 1995-97. 

UCF’s run of producing top notch prospects is impressive with Minnesota Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson leading the way at No. 3. 

Here are your top five defensive backs in C-USA history: 

1. Patrick Surtain (Southern Miss, 1995-97): Among the best defensive backs to suit up for the black and gold, Surtain earned several All-American honors in 1997 as a senior. He had 16 career interceptions and set the school record for pass breakups at 31. Surtain, a New Orleans native, earned three Pro Bowl invitations with the Miami Dolphins. 

2. Sam Madison (Louisville, 1995-96): One of the best defensive players to ever suit up for the Cardinals, Madison was a star in C-USA at its inception. He had 16 career interceptions and earned plenty of All-American accolades as a senior. He earned four Pro Bowl bids with the Dolphins. 

3. Josh Robinson (UCF, 2009-11): Easily the best cornerback in C-USA from the last decade, Robinson was a star at the outset. He finished with 10 career interceptions and was named first-team All-C-USA in his sophomore and junior seasons. He declared for the NFL Draft after his senior season and is a key piece of the secondary for the Minnesota Vikings. 

4. Kemal Ishmael (UCF, 2009-12): The only safety on this list, Ishmael was a strong presence in the UCF secondary. He had 124 tackles and three interceptions as a senior to earn the 2012 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year honor. He finished with 368 career tackles. 

5. Joe Burnett (UCF, 2005-08): Dangerous with the ball in his hands, Burnett was an excellent kick returner. He was also quite the corner with 16 career interceptions. 

TOP SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS

In ranking the top special teams players in Conference USA’s 20-year history, you could easily make the list 10 deep. 

However, this is the C-USA Top 5 and we’re sticking with the five best special teams players over the last two decades. 

Former Memphis kicker Stephen Gostkowski never won a Lou Groza Award, but the Madison native tops this list for what he did in college and how he’s proven himself as one of the NFL’s best kickers over the last decade. The Groza doesn’t always go to the nation’s best kicker (Consider Danny Hrapmann for Southern Miss in 2010). 

Here are your top five special teams players in C-USA history: 

1. Stephen Gostkowski (Memphis, 2002-05): C-USA’s all-time leading scorer with 369 career points, the former Madison Central star was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2006 to replace kicking legend Adam Vinatieri, and he’s done just that. Gostkowski has made 86.8 of his NFL field goal attempts, eclipsing Vinatieri. He made 70 of 92 tries at Memphis. 

2. Joe Burnett (UCF, 2005-08): The speedy Burnett was named All-C-USA as a punt returner in all four seasons at UCF. Burnett had three punt returns for touchdowns and two kickoff returns for touchdowns. As a senior, he was named first-team All-C-USA as a cornerback, punt returner and kick returner. 

3. Eric Booth (Southern Miss, 1994-97): The Bassfield native led the nation in kickoff returns in 1997 with an average of 34.8 yards per return and scored two touchdowns. Booth finished his career with an average of 32.43 yards on kickoff returns, the second-best in FBS history. 

4. Seth Marler (Tulane, 1999-02): He ranks second behind Gostkowski in most field goals made by a C-USA kicker with 66. Marler won the Lou Groza Award in 2001 after making 15-of-16 field goal attempts. 

5. Cairo Santos (Tulane, 2010-13): He registered a rare perfect season for a kicker in 2012, making 21-of-21 tries to win the Lou Groza Award. 

BEST SEASONS BY C-USA TEAMS

Tulane’s football history has been inconsistent at best, but the program lays claim to the best season in Conference USA history. 

The Green Wave put together an incredible 1998 campaign, going 12-0 and finishing ranked seventh overall under head coach Tommy Bowden, who left for Clemson after the season. 

There may have been better C-USA Teams before and after 1998, but that Tulane team deserves the right to stand atop top this version of C-USA Top 5. 

Shaun King led the way for the Green Wave offense at quarterback, throwing to a pair of talented receivers in JaJuan Dawson and P.J. Franklin. 

Here are you top five seasons in C-USA’s 20-year history: 

1. Tulane 1998 (12-0): The Green Wave fell short of earning a BCS bowl bid because it didn’t beat a ranked team, but it was dominant throughout the season. With offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez calling the plays, Tulane put up big numbers and won every game by double digits. Tulane capped the season with a 41-27 win over BYU (9-5) in the Liberty Bowl and finished ranked seventh. 

2. Louisville 2004 (11-1): Louisville destroyed the competition for much of the season, but a 41-38 loss at Miami prevented the Cardinals from an undefeated campaign. Louisville averaged 50 points a game behind quarterback Stefan LeFors and beat previously undefeated Boise State, 44-40, in the Liberty Bowl. Louisville finished ranked No. 6. 

3. Southern Miss 2011 (12-2): The Golden Eagles were an offensive juggernaut and had one of the most opportunistic defenses in college football history. USM stubbed its toe on the road against Marshall and UAB to prevent a BCS bid, but stunned previously undefeated Houston, 49-28, in the C-USA title game. The Eagles finished ranked No. 20 with a win over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl 

4. Southern Miss 1997 (9-3): The 1999 and 1997 USM teams are almost interchangeable here, but the 1997 squad gets the edge because legendary coach Jeff Bower considers this team his best. USM’s only three losses were on the road to Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. USM finished ranked 19th and pummeled Pittsburgh, 41-7, in the Liberty Bowl. 

5. Houston 2011 (13-1): The Cougars’ BCS bowl hopes were dashed and Heisman Trophy plans for quarterback Case Keenum came crashing down in the C-USA title game loss to USM. Houston managed to rebound with a win over Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl and finished ranked No. 18. 

TOP QUARTERBACKS

There have been some gaudy offensive statistics in Conference USA’s 20-year history, so it should come as no surprise that the league’s best performances have come on the offensive side of the ball. 

This C-USA Top 5 honors the five best seasons by an individual player in league history. 

The man who tops this list is Houston quarterback Case Keenum, the best passer in FBS history based on statistics. His Heisman Trophy campaign came up short in 2011, but he was at his best that year. 

Former Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry’s 2010 season and the 2002 campaign for former USM linebacker Rod Davis both received serious consideration for this list as defensive players, but neither quite made the cut. 

Here are the five best seasons by an individual player in C-USA history: 

1. QB Case Keenum (Houston, 2011): Keenum seemed to set a new standard for himself with each season, and he was at his best as a senior in 2011. A loss to USM in the C-USA title game ended his Heisman Trophy hopes, but he was still outstanding that year. He completed 71 percent of his passes for 5,631 yards, 48 touchdowns and amazingly just five interceptions. Keenum had a passing rating of 174.0 in 2011. 

2. RB Kevin Smith (UCF, 2007): With a whopping 450 carries for 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns, no C-USA team has relied on a single running back more than than the Knights did in 2007. UCF was a run-first team in a pass-first league, and Smith led the way. The Knights went 10-4 in 2007 with a C-USA championship. 

3. QB Shaun King (Tulane, 1998): The Green Wave went 12-0 in 1998 and King served as the MVP of that squad. He was nearly perfect as a passer that year, hitting 67.2 of his attempts for 3,508 yards for 38 touchdowns and six interceptions. His passing rating of 178.71 is one of the best in FBS history. 

4. WR Jarett Dillard (Rice, 2008): Dillard is the NCAA all-time leader in touchdown receptions and he closed out his career with a particularly strong season. In 2008, he caught 87 passes for 1,310 yards and 20 touchdowns. What’s amazing is the 20 the scores isn’t even his best season. He caught 21 as a sophomore. 

5. RB Matt Forte (Tulane, 2007): The only player on this list who had his great year during a losing campaign for his team, Forte ran 361 times for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns for the 4-8 Green Wave. He also showed good hands out of the backfield with 32 catches for 282 yards. 

TOP UPSETS IN LEAGUE HISTORY

Throughout its 20 years, Conference USA football has developed a reputation for taking down the big boys. 

No team played that role better in C-USA than East Carolina. The Pirates make this list three times with victories over traditional powerhouse programs such as Miami, West Virginia and Virginia Tech. 

Southern Miss has had its fair share of impressive non-conference wins, but it doesn’t quite make this list due to Alabama (2000) and Nebraska (2004) both ending their seasons with losing records. 

Houston had a big win at No. 5 Oklahoma State in 2009, but the Cowboys fell short of the final AP rankings. 

Here you have it, the five biggest regular season victories in Conference USA history: 

1. East Carolina 27, Miami 23 (1999): The Hurricanes entered the game ranked ninth in the nation and ended up 9-4 and ranked 15th overall. The game was moved to Raleigh, N.C., because of damage in Greenville, N.C., from Hurricane Floyd. ECU, which finished 9-3, rallied from 20 points down to win. 

2. UAB 13, LSU 10 (2000): Possibly the most stunning non-conference upset by a C-USA team, UAB picked up the biggest win in the program’s history in Baton Rouge, La. Rhett Gallego kicked a field goal on the final play of the game to upset LSU, which ended up 8-4 and ranked 22nd by the AP. The Blazers went 7-4 in 2000. 

3. Memphis 44, Ole Miss 34 (2003): Eli Manning’s final season at Ole Miss got off to a bumpy start with a surprising loss at Memphis in game two. Memphis quarterback Danny Wimprine threw for three scores and running back DeAngelo Williams ran for 135 yards. The Rebels ended up 10-3 and ranked 13th by the AP. Memphis had a 9-4 season. 

4. East Carolina 27, Virginia Tech 22 (2008): Virginia Tech entered this game ranked 15th, but strong special teams play helped the Pirates earn the upset. T.J. Lee blocked a punt and returned it 27 yards for the score for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:52 left. Hokies ended up 10-4 and ranked 14th. ECU had a 9-5 campaign. 

5. East Carolina 24, West Virginia 3 (2008): The week after topping the Hokies, East Carolina pulled a huge upset again in impressive fashion. ECU dominated No. 8 West Virginia, 24-3, with a strong defensive performance. West Virginia still managed a good season, going 9-4 with a No. 23 ranking.

TOP COACHES

Jeff Bower is without question the best football coach to ever walk the sidelines in Conference USA. 

When comparing the records of other coaches in the league’s 20-year history, they all pale in comparison to Bower’s run from 1996-2007 at Southern Miss after the program entered C-USA. 

USM won four conference titles under Bower. No other program has more than three C-USA titles to this point. 

Bower had a 119-83-1 overall coaching record and went an impressive 93-54 in Conference USA, putting up winning marks in all 12 seasons while in the league. Against league competition, Bower was 63-24. 

C-USA has been home to a lot of coaching talent, but none of them built a winner like Bower did. 

Here are the top five coaches in the league’s history: 

1. Jeff Bower (Southern Miss, 1996-2007): Under Bower’s watch, Southern Miss was the dominant program in C-USA from the outset. In the Golden Eagles’ first four years in the league, they went a combined 21-2 against league competition and won two conference titles. USM developed a reputation as a consistent winning program, and no coach at the school can be credited more for that tradition than Bower. When he was forced out as head coach in 2007, it caused a heated debate in the USM community that still rages today. 

2. Kevin Sumlin (Houston, 2008-11): Possibly the most dynamic personality to coach in C-USA, Sumlin built on Art Briles’ success and took the program to new heights popularity in the city of Houston. Sumlin deserves a great deal of credit for the new stadium that the Cougars will be playing in this year. He went 35-17 in four years in C-USA, making a big impact in a relatively short period of time. 

3. Todd Graham (Rice, 2006 & Tulsa, 2007-10): Graham took over a woeful Rice program that went 1-10 in 2005 and turned it around in one year for a 7-6 season in 2006. He only lasted at Rice one year, taking over at Tulsa in 2007 for a successful four-year run. The Golden Hurricane hit the 10-win mark in three of Graham’s four years there for a 36-17 mark. 

4. George O’Leary (UCF, 2005-12): He may be no stranger to controversy, but there’s no denying that he can coach. O’Leary took over at UCF in 2004 in the program’s last year in the MAC and the Knights went 0-11 in that first campaign. The next season, the Knights went 8-5 and played for a C-USA title. O’Leary went 60-44 in his time in C-USA, keeping watch over a program that may be the fastest growing in the nation. 

5. Tommy Bowden (Tulane, 1997-98): He was the head coach at Tulane for just two seasons, but he did an incredible job in that short stint. The Green Wave went 7-4 and 5-1 to finish in second place in C-USA in his first year. The next season, Tulane went an incredible 12-0. Bowden’s two years at Tulane should go down as one of the best coaching jobs in college football history. 

TOP BOWL GAMES

Conference USA recently had its tie-in with the Liberty Bowl come to a close, but the league had a good run with the Memphis-based game. 

C-USA came painfully close to breaking through with a BCS bowl bid on several occasions, but the Liberty Bowl provided a nice prize for the league’s champion. 

The best bowl victory in C-USA history also happens to be one of the most exciting bowl games in recent memory -- the 2004 Liberty Bowl between Louisville and Boise State. 

Louisville ended the Broncos’ 22-game win streak with a 44-40 victory at Liberty Bowl Stadium. 

Here are the top five bowl victories in C-USA history: 

1. 2004 Liberty Bowl -- Louisville 44, Boise State 40: This game pitted the C-USA champion against a Boise State team that entered the contest with a 11-0 record out of the WAC. In a game that set offensive records for the Liberty Bowl, it was an interception by Louisville safety Kerry Rhodes that put the game way. Louisville went 11-1 that season, its final in C-USA before making the move to the Big East. 

2. 2001 Liberty Bowl -- Louisville 28, Brigham Young 10: The Cougars started that season 12-0 and were ranked in the top 10 for much of November before falling to Hawaii in the final regular season contest. Louisville put on a dominant defensive performance, holding BYU to 276 yards, 300 short of its season average. Quarterback Dave Ragone threw for three scores as Louisville capped the season with an 11-2 record. 

3. 2000 Mobile Alabama Bowl -- Southern Miss 28, TCU 21: The season before TCU started its four-year stint in C-USA, the Horned Frogs found out how tough their new league would be. Southern Miss quarterback Jeff Kelly threw a touchdown to Kenny Johnson with 8 seconds left to pull off the upset of a TCU team that entered the contest with a 10-1 record and ranked 13th. The Eagles did a good job of containing TCU running back LaDanian Tomlinson and carved up the nation’s best defense. USM finished 8-4. 

4. 1998 Liberty Bowl -- Tulane 41, Brigham Young 27: The Green Wave completed its 12-0 season by beating a good Brigham Young squad that finished 9-5. The victory over BYU capped off a season that’s likely the best in program history since it was a member of the SEC from 1932-66. Quarterback Shaun King was named the game’s MVP. 

5. 1997 Liberty Bowl -- Southern Miss 41, Pittsburgh 7: This game makes the list because of the dominating performance against a quality opponent. Pittsburgh entered the game just 6-5, but it had impressive wins over West Virginia, Miami and Virginia Tech. Against USM that day in Memphis, Pittsburgh had no answer for the Golden Eagles. USM quarterback Lee Roberts threw three touchdowns to game MVP Sherrod Gideon and the Eagles had three defensive touchdowns by Perry Phenix, Terrance Parrish and Adalius Thomas.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYERS

Without Case Keenum, former Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin may not be at Texas A&M and the Cougars might not be playing in an impressive new stadium this season. 

Keenum’s career at Houston was the most prolific for a quarterback in FBS history and he was beloved by the Cougar faithful. 

While records are meant to be broken, Keenum’s numbers will be hard to match for any future quarterbacks. 

That’s why Keenum rates in this Conference USA Top 5 as the best offensive player in the league’s history, and he’s joined by plenty of other talent. 

This series has rated the top players at every offensive position, and now we rate the top five best offensive players in C-USA history regardless of position: 

1. QB Case Keenum (Houston, 2007-11): The best Heisman Trophy candidate to ever come out of C-USA, Keenum had quite the career. He joins a long list of great college quarterbacks from Houston, including Heisman-winner Andre Ware and David Klingler. The current Houston Texans quarterback holds several FBS career records, including 155 passing touchdowns and 19,217 passing yards. 

2. RB DeAngelo Williams (Memphis, 2002-2005): Often ignored when discussing the top running backs in FBS history, Williams was outstanding in his final three years of college football. He ran 969 times for 6,026 yards and 55 touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards a carry. That makes him the fifth-best rusher in FBS rusher, statistically. 

3. QB Rakeem Cato (Marshall, 2011-14): Cato holds the FBS record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (46). He finished his Marshall years with most of the Herd’s passing records, including career yards (14,079), completions (1,153), attempts (1,838), touchdowns (131) and total offense (14,918).

4. WR Jaret Dillard (Rice, 2005-08): Dillard is the best in FBS history when it comes to touchdown receptions with a total of 60. His knack for finding the end zone earned him several All-American honors. His best season came as a sophomore when he had 91 catches for 1,247 yards and 21 touchdowns. 

5. RB Damion Fletcher (Southern Miss, 2006-09): He became a Southern Miss legend by rushing for at least 1,000 years in each of his four seasons at the school. He ran 1,009 times for 5,302 yards and 44 scores. He also caught 109 passes for 904 yards. That’s pretty good for a player who was lightly recruited out of Biloxi High School. 

TOP FOOTBALL PROGRAMS

Conference USA has seen schools come and go, but only one football program has been there throughout its 20 years and been a consistent winner – Southern Miss. 

Before the last two seasons of 1-23 football, USM ran off a string of 18 consecutive winnings, 16 of them coming in C-USA. 

That’s why Southern Miss tops this C-USA Top 5, which ranks the top football programs in league history. 

USM has had its recent struggles, but top programs such as Louisville and East Carolina have also had miserable seasons in C-USA. Louisville went 1-10 in 1997 and ECU went a combined 3-20 from 2003-04. 

TCU comes up short of making it in this top five because its stint in C-USA was so short (2001-04) and included two great seasons in 2002 and 2003 (a combined 21-4 in that stretch) framed by 6-6 and 5-6 campaigns. 

Here are your top five football programs in C-USA history: 

1. Southern Miss (1996-): USM has been considered one of the top football programs in C-USA since the league was founded in 1995. The Golden Eagles have five league titles, the most in C-USA history. Former coach Jeff Bower built the program around strong defense and his successor Larry Fedora turned USM into an offensive juggernaut. Second-year coach Todd Monken hopes to get the program back on track. 

2. Louisville (1996-2004): The Cardinals became one of the better non-BCS programs in the country. Head coaches John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino built a proven winner and that allowed the program to make the climb to the Big East and the ACC, which it joins this year. Louisville had some average teams in C-USA, but it closed out strong with three titles in its last five years in the conference with a 47-16 record during that stretch. 

3. Tulsa (2005-13): Only topped by Southern Miss as a consistent winner, Tulsa had a better reputation as a basketball program when it joined the league in 2005. In its nine years in C-USA, Tulsa had seven seasons of at least eight victories and two C-USA titles. 

4. UCF (2005-12): The Knights had their ups and downs in C-USA, but George O’Leary’s teams were were always tough to handle in the East. UCF won four division titles and two C-USA championships, going 43-21 against league competition. 

5. East Carolina (1997-2013): The Pirates edge out Houston for the final spot on this list because of the Cougars’ early struggles in their first decade in C-USA. ECU had the most rabid fans in C-USA and they were witness to mostly very good football teams in Greenville, N.C. ECU won back-to-back titles in 2008-09 and reached the postseason 10 times. 

TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYERS

Southern Miss swept the top spots when ranking the best defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs in Conference USA history so it’s only fitting that a Golden Eagle sit atop the ranking of the top five defensive players in league history. 

Former Southern Miss defensive end Adalius Thomas, who went onto a solid NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, earned the right to be considered the conference’s best at any position position on defense. 

Former Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry trails close behind Thomas and two more Golden Eagles make this list. 

Here it is, the top five defensive players in Conference USA history: 

1. Adalius Thomas (Southern Miss, 1996-99): Thomas was a major figure in C-USA when USM consistently had the best defenses in the league. He was twice named C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Year as a dominating pass rusher at defensive end. Thomas also contributed on special teams, blocking seven kicks in his career. He registered 242 career tackles and 34.5 sacks.

2. Vinny Curry (Marshall, 2008-11): The former Marshall defensive end always had to be accounted for by opposing offenses. Curry had an incredible motor for a defensive end and his last two years with the Thundering Herd were impressive. Now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, Curry had 12 sacks as a junior and 11 as a senior. 

3. Rod Davis (Southern Miss, 2000-03): USM has a tradition of having the best middle linebackers in the league, and Davis was the best of them all. No other player in C-USA history had a more decorated career on defense than Davis with All-American honors in three out of his four years. He had 526 career tackles, including 168 tackles and 10.5 sacks as a junior in 2002. 

4. Patrick Surtain (Southern Miss, 1995-97): With 16 career interceptions, Surtain stands out as the best defensive back to ever suit up in C-USA. As a senior, he had 84 tackles and six interceptions to earn Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. He earned three Pro Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. 

5. Sam Madison (Louisville, 1995-96): Before he teamed with Surtain to give the Dolphins one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL, Madison was a star in the Louisville secondary. He had 16 career interceptions and was nearly a unanimous All-American as a senior. 

TOP NFL PLAYERS FROM C-USA

Conference USA is well-represented among the better players in the NFL, but a handful of players stand apart as the best professionals to ever come out of the conference. 

Brandon Marshall is a controversial figure, but there’s no denying that the Central Florida product has become one of the best receivers in the NFL over the last decade. 

Marshall had just one season in C-USA when UCF moved into the league in 2005, earning second-team all-conference that season. 

In Marshall’s eight seasons in the NFL, he has five seasons of at least 100 catches. 

Those numbers put Marshall at the top of this C-USA Top 5, which ranks the best NFL players to come out of the league: 

1. Brandon Marshall (UCF, 2002-05): A fourth-round selection in 2006, Marshall split much of his UCF career between safety and receiver. Once the Denver Broncos picked him up, it was apparent that his future was on the offensive side of the ball. Now a New York Jet, Marshall has been to the Pro Bowl five times and was named first-team All-Pro in 2012. 

2. Roddy White (UAB, 2001-2004): One of the most prolific receivers in the NFL, White has been to the Pro Bowl four times with the Atlanta Falcons. White has the Falcons’ career record for receiving yards with 9,436. The Falcons selected White with the 27th overall pick in 2005.

3. Chris Johnson (East Carolina, 2004-07): The speedy Johnson had one of the better seasons for a running back in NFL history when he rushed for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009 for the Tennessee Titans. While he hasn’t quite repeated that success, Johnson has eclipsed 1,000 yards in each of his six seasons in the NFL. Now a New York Jet, Johnson has reached the Pro Bowl three times and was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year in 2009. 

4. Matt Forte (Tulane, 2004-07): One of the steadier running backs in the NFL, Forte is a major threat as a runner and a receiver. He likely deserves more than the two Pro Bowl invitations that he’s received. He has rushed for 929 yards or more and had at least 44 catches in each of his six seasons in the NFL. 

5. Sam Madison (Louisville, 1993-96): He helped give the Miami Dolphins one of the better cornerback duos in the NFL when he was paired with Southern Miss product Patrick Surtain. Madison made the Pro Bowl four times and made 38 career interceptions in 12 NFL seasons. 

TOP PLAYERS REGARDLESS OF POSITION

Former Houston quarterback Case Keenum stands out as the most prominent football player in Conference USA history. 

As the holder of several FBS career passing records, there’s no doubt as to who deserves to be considered the best football player in C-USA’s existence. 

While offensive numbers seem to be on the rise with each season, there are some records that Keenum set that may never be broken. 

Keenum’s 19,217 career passing yards is over 2,000 more than the man in second place, Hawaii’s Timmy Chang. 

Here you have it, the five best players in C-USA history regardless of position: 

1. Case Keenum (Houston, 2007-11): Keenum’s numbers were slightly padded due to receiving a medical redshirt after to an injury in the third game of the 2010 season, but he would still be the FBS record holder even without the 636 yards he threw for in 2010. The quarterback threw for 155 touchdowns and ran for 23 more. He only threw for 46 interceptions. 

2. DeAngelo Williams (Memphis, 2002-05): The running back deserves his place among the best rushers in FBS history. He ranks fifth all-time in BCS with 6,026 yards. Of Memphis’ seven bowl games, Williams was a part of three of them. 

3. Adalius Thomas (Southern Miss, 1996-99): He was the best player on the field every time he faced off against Conference USA competition. Thomas was twice named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year with 34.5 career sacks and 242 tackles. USM won three conference titles in the defensive end’s time at the school. 

4. QB Rakeem Cato (Marshall, 2011-14): Cato holds the FBS record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (46). He finished his Marshall years with most of the Herd’s passing records, including career yards (14,079), completions (1,153), attempts (1,838), touchdowns (131) and total offense (14,918).

5. Jarett Dillard (Rice, 2005-08): Like Keenum and Williams, Dillard hovers near the top of the all-time records in FBS. The receiver holds the FBS record for most career touchdown receptions with 60, which is 10 ahead of the second-place man, Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards. 

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