After two seasons atop the conference, East Carolina introduces a new coach and new starters in all but 8 positions on the entire team this season. The door is open once again in the east for teams like Central Florida, Southern Miss, and Marshall to compete for a chance at the division and conference titles. On the west side, the question will be can anybody contain the ridiculous Houston offense? The Cougars rolled through Oklahoma State and were ranked most weeks last season with 10 wins overall, but Houston wants to step up to the next level and be a BCS buster for a conference that has had no real threats to the BCS yet.
Houston has remained one of the teams to beat in the West division the past three seasons, and the Cougars are clear favorites in 2010 thanks to an outstanding offense. QB Case Keenum is a Heisman candidate who will get more attention if he even begins to approach his 2009 total of 5671 yards passing. Keenum has all three of his top receivers returning including James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier, and Patrick Edwards. Expect sophomore running back Charles Sims to also catch a fair number of balls out of the backfield. Sims and Bryce Beall combined for nearly 1400 yards last year and should again build up big yards as defenses must play to stop Keenum. The one roadblock for Houston the past two seasons has been a leaky defense which ends up on the field a lot thanks to the prolific fast-action offense. The defense returns six starters in 2010 including three of the top four tacklers from a year ago. LB Marcus McGraw anchors the center of the defense and had 4 sacks last season. the one area the Cougar defense has to improve is generating interceptions and turnovers. The schedule is manageable but ends with tough road games at Southern Miss and Texas Tech. Houston may be undefeated in late November but it's hard to see them sweeping both of those games.
It only took one year for June Jones to turn SMU around, as the Mustangs tied for the division title last season with Houston and ramped up the running game to fully complement a solid passing attack. The running game will only get better with true freshman speedster Darryl Fields coming into a starting role. QB Kyle Padron threw for nearly 2000 yards in split duties last year but this year the job is his with three returning receivers led by Aldrick Robinson this year. The defense also should be slightly improved with seven starters returning, including senior LB Youri Yenga. Look for the 3-4 defense to be a solid stopper against the passing attacks in the C-USA West, while SMU hopes the offense continues to lead the charge. Houston and Tulsa have to come through Dallas, which sets up a possibility of a surprise season for SMU when everyone is focused on Houston. The road schedule is manageable and Texas Tech may be in trouble in the opening weekend if SMU comes out of the gates as well as they did last season.
Central Florida Knights
Central Florida has fluctuated between winning seasons and losing seasons under George O'Leary, but with ECU taking a big step backwards in 2010, UCF might break the trend with a second-straight bowl season and possible division title in 2010. The offense does welcome a new starting quarterback in Rob Calbrese, although he will have a highly experienced crew of returning receivers to throw to and a high-quality offensive line as well. RB Bryan Harvey ran for over 100 yards a few times last season and should be a threat to do it nearly every week this season. The defensive backfield returns six out of seven starters including superstar CB Josh Robinson (6 interceptions as a freshman) and LB Chance Henderson. The defense and special teams will keep the Knights in many games which means the key will be how quickly Calabrese has the offense moving. The schedule is incredibly easy until November, when an all-important home game against Southern Miss is sandwiched between 3 roads games. If those four games are split, UCF will likely end up in the C-USA championship.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Despite a shocking departure of Jeff Bower after 2007, the Golden Eagles have kept a streak of winning seasons going over a decade now. This year that task may seem difficult with only three returning starters on offense. However, the strength of this team will be the defense, which returns four of the top five tacklers from a year ago. Linebackers Korey Williams and Ronnie Thornton lead the defense and should add to their nice 10 sacks combined in 2009. The defensive line is also rock-solid and should give opposing offenses a lot of pressure and problems. Although the offense basically reloads this year, QB Austin Davis is back as the field general and does return Deandre Brown in the receiving corps. The offense will definitely have their early struggles, but the incoming crew of starters did look good in the spring and when they found playing time last year. Southern Miss will be the division favorite based on their longtime winning pedigree, but a season closing stretch at UCF, vs. Houston, and at Tulsa could take a division crown away if the game in Orlando goes south. This should be another winning season, either way.
IN THE MIX
The Hurricane offense took a big step back in 2009, which dropped them from two double-digit win seasons to a 5-7 finish. However, nine starters return this year including a dynamic duo in the passing game of transfer players from the Red River Rivalry: QB G.J. Kinne (from Texas) and WR Jameel Owens (from Oklahoma). The running game really fell off last season and Kinne was the leading rusher, which cannot happen again with all 5 running backs returning. Derrick Hall and Charles Clay should be closer to 1000 yards apiece than the 300 from last year. On defense, there are six new starters but the only real question mark is in the defensive backfield. The only returning starter is CB Charles Davis, who was recently granted a fifth year of eligbility due to injury issues last year. The best unit on the team is definitely the special teams, with K Kevin Fitzpatrick and P Michael Such back for another year. Tough late season roadtrips to Notre Dame and Houston will likely be big issues for the defense, but other than that every game is winnable.
Although the West division may seem to revolve around Dallas and Houston these days, the Miners should be more in the mix this season after a disappointing 4-8 campaign with 5 close losses. QB Trevor Vittatoe threw for over 3300 yards last season and should keep those numbers in 2010 depsite replacing two of his three main targets. Donald Buckram will demand attention as he ran for 1594 last year and has a good offensive line packed with nothing but seniors. The defense has a couple underclassmen stepping in on the defensive line, but the middle of the defense is sold with all the linebackers returning. Royzell Smith needs to find a way into the opposing backfields to mess up plays and inspire the younger defenders. UTEP does have tough road games at Houston and Tulsa, but the one thing that may hold the Miners back from their first bowl since 2005 will be special teams. Dakota Warren takes over as punter and kicker, which could wear the sophomore thin early in the season if things do not start well. Expect possible bowl eligibility if the breaks go UTEP's way this season.
Marshall Thundering Herd
The Mark Snyder era came to an end after five seasons, but Marshall came out and stole a good win against Ohio University in the bowl game to finish 7-6 last year. The Herd offense welcomes Clemson transfer QB Willy Korn to the program this season, and Korn nearly own the job in South Carolina so he's obviously going to be one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Korn has top receiver Antavious Wilson back and the rest of the receivers are speedy. The offense plans under new coach Doc Holliday appear to be more wide-open than they were under Snyder, which will play to the talent Holliday has in 2010. The defense is led by LB Mario Harvey and FS Omar Brown, who should get more than two interceptions this season playing with a much better defense overall. The defensive line plugs in a couple new starters and could cave in a bit, but the strong linebacker crew should hold up the defense. Usually a new coach means rebuilding time, but considering the division equality in 2010, Marshall could find themselves playing important games late in November. Bowl eligibility should happen despite a brutal out of conference slate including Ohio State and WVU.
The Blazers have struggledin Neil Callaway's first three seasons, but improvement in the record every year led them to 5-7 last year. With 16 returning starters, this looks like a perfect season to break through for the program's second-ever bowl game appearance. The one problem on offense will be replacing Joe Webb, who leaves UAB as the third-best passer and the second-best rusher in school history. New QB David Isabelle was actually the team's second best rusher last season and will only need to shore up his decisions and skills in the passing game for the Blazers to keep on rolling on offense. The defense brings back everyone of note from last year except for Brandon Carlisle, which means that while UAB is still not an elite defense, they will be better. Look for DL Elliott Heingan to pick up some more sacks, especially against East-divison quarterbacks this season. If UAB can keep the ball-control offense going and keep Isabelle away from injuries, the Blazers will be right in the mix fo rthe division title. However, road games at UCF and Southern Miss will likely be lost, leaving the Blazers to look elsewhere for six wins.
ALL THE REST
Last year started as a disaster for the Owls who were coming off ten wins and led off with an 0-9 start. However, winning two of the final three puts the Owls on the right track again heading into this season. Eighteen starters return and one of the new faces is Michigan transfer RB Sam McGuffie. McGuffie should single-handedly balance the spread offense a bit more than last season, which will help Nick Fanuzzi or whomever takes over the starting quarterback job if Fanuzzi loses it. LB Travis Bradshaw leads the defense and could rack up another 120+ tackles this year. The defensive line should also be able to get some pressure this season on opposing quarterbacks after not really generating much threat last year. The Owls will likely not return to bowl eligibility with a tough schedule, but this many starters coming back means a big bounceback year is certainly possible. The early home games against Northwestern and Baylor could be the difference for the Owls.
Tulane Green Wave
Tulane struggled through a 3-9 season last year and have not really been able to get moving back toward the top of the division in Bob Toledo's three years at the helm. Like seemingly everyone else in the West division, Tulane returns a lot of starters on offense (7). Sophomore QB Ryan Griffin will have the job all to himself this season but will be breaking in new receivers except for Casey Robottom. The offensive line should actually be one of the best in the division, but that may not be enough for a team that will likely need to outscore opponents to win. The defense fits in new starters at six of the seven positions up front, and the defensive backfield needs to improve drastically despite bringing back three starters themselves. Look for Iowa transfer DE Dezman Moses to be the best player on the defense, but opposing offenses may just run away from Moses and Justin Adams to keep the ball rolling. Tulane draws a brutal schedule with three of the top 4 teams in the East alongside roadtrips to Houston, UTEP, and Tulsa. Although nothing says there won't be a Superdome surprise, Tulane is still a couple of years away by all appearances.
East Carolina Pirates
While it may be hard to believe, ECU will likely go from four straight bowl seasons and BCS buster possibilities under Skip Holtz to a losing season this year. The defense returns only two starters, both corners Emanuel Davis and Travis Simmons. In fact, the defense was not great at times last season and perhaps a reload is just what the doctor ordered to improve those numbers. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe this many new starters will jell quickly with a brutal first five games including roadtrips to Blacksburg and Chapel Hill as well as Hattiesburg in conference play. The Pirates will become more of a spread offense now with a Mike Leach-protege coming in. Thus, even with six returning starters, no job is safe with a whole new system. Dominique Davis appears to be the man who will take over at quarterback, and Davis was solid in his few appearances at Boston College. Receivers Dwayne Harris and Darryl Freeney are a good start to a spread attack, but the main question will be whether Davis has enough time to find the open man. ECU will drop toward the back of the pack this season, but perhaps will be promising toward the end of the season when the schedule lightens up slightly.
Memphis fell into the basement last season with a 2-10 finish, and the rebuilding will continue under new head coach Larry Porter. Perhaps the reason the C-USA is so up for grabs is the amount of new schemes and head coaches, but Memphis will liekly not be able to parlay these circumstances into a winning record this season. The offense will have a new quarterback (likely Cannon Smith) and a new running back Jerrell Rhodes. The offensive line will be one of the best in the conference led by Brad Paul and Dominik Riley, but that may not be enough to salvage the offensive numbers. The defense returns most of the defensive line, but the rest of the unit reloads this season. The defensive backfield was atrocious at times last season, so new players can only hope to improve the defense. Two brutal out of conference games against SEC teams will keep any hopes of bowl eligibility down in 2010, but look for some improvement overall.
Although Southern Miss has the defense to stop Houston's prolific offense and would make for a great C-USA title game, I project it will instead be UCF playing against the Cougars. Given that matchup, Houston will not be denied in Keenum's final season from a conference title and a national ranking again. The east division should be absolutely wild, as even ECU and Memphis could steal some wins depending on how turnovers happen in those games. Even Houston is not a certainty, as June Jones appears to have SMU ready to take over this conference as he did with Hawaii in the past. Expect a good year overall but not many splashes out of conference for this league, as everyone focuses on Houston alone. The bowl season should be a good one though.