CUSA East Preview

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

A YEAR OF TURMOIL
IN CUSA EAST

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

We resume our college football conference previews today with a look at the East Division of Conference USA. We'll study CUSA West tomorrow (with Houston and SMU). Our look at the mid majors will carry us through the week. You NFL fans, be aware that we'll start our divisional statistical previews on Sunday Night August 8th when Dallas plays Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Game.

CUSA East will be quite a handful for oddsmakers and handicappers this year:

*Marshall has a new head coach, and uncertainty at the quarterback position.

*East Carolina has a new head coach and unclear quarterback options.

*Memphis has a new head coach and confusion at quarterback.

*UAB lost its quarterback, who was one of the only good players on the team.

That's two-thirds of the division! Top contenders Southern Miss and Central Florida are the only teams with some stability (and Southern loses eight of its 11 offensive starters), which is why they're expected to compete for the divisional title...and the opportunity to play Houston in the CUSA championship game.

Let's take a closer look...

SOUTHERN MISS
Athlon Ranking: 58
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 31 on offense, 80 on defense
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 8 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: It's important to remember that Southern Miss really wasn't all that great last year. Their stat rankings are okay. But, they tended to lay eggs way too often. You've probably forgotten that they played in the New Orleans Bowl last year...and that they lost to Middle Tennessee 42-32. If you're getting outclassed by Middle Tennessee...well, how good can you be?!

There are two good options at quarterback because Austin Davis and Martevious Young both played well last season. Davis got hurt and midseason, and the offense didn't lose a step. Unfortunately, most everyone else is new. The defense was bad last year, and this class of defense rarely gets much better even when a lot of starters return.

The season opener at South Carolina will give us a good read of where this team stands, as will a home game two weeks later vs. Kansas. We're willing to consider Southern Miss as the class of the division. We'll have to see it first though. And, we'll have to see some consistency too.

CENTRAL FLORIDA
Athlon Ranking: 60
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 87 on offense, 48 on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Here's another CUSA team that got embarrassed in a bowl game. Central lost to Rutgers 45-24 in St. Petersburg, in a game that was supposed to be more of a toss-up.

We were impressed with the Knights' defense last year (well, not in the bowl game!). They held Texas to 35 points in Austin...in the kind of game that Mack Brown and Colt McCoy typically shoot for 52 or more. They held Houston 32 points in an upset win the next week. Sometimes mid majors have misleading stat rankings. Central Florida under George O'Leary probably was a top 50 defense last year, and will likely shine on that side of the ball again.

Offense is a big concern. Quarterback Rob Calabrese was benched last season, so the team has limited confidence in him. They really only scored on weak defenses with his replacement. There's just not much to get excited about in CUSA East this year when Southern Miss and Central Florida represent the class of the group!

Early tests will be September 11th vs. NC State, and September 25th at Kansas State. We do have respect for this coach, and this defense. This is a bandwagon we can jump on if September is impressive.

MARSHALL
Athlon Ranking: 87
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 81 on offense, 66 on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Hey, we have a team that won a bowl game! Marshall edged Ohio 21-17 in the Little Caesar's Bowl last year. It was ugly. But, it was obviously less ugly than what Southern Miss and Central Florida put on the board.

New coach Doc Holliday comes over from West Virginia. He's known more as a recruiter and motivator than a coach. This 'type' has actually had a very poor history at the head position. There's only so much rah-rah stuff you can do before you actually have to have workable schematics and intelligent strategies. We expect Marshall's athleticism to get better...and we expect them to bully lesser teams because of the gung ho atmosphere. They may have big troubles vs. veteran opponents.

Senior Brian Anderson returns at quarterback. He wasn't particularly good last year, but managed a winning season. Clemson transfer Willy Korn will be given every shot to liven things up. That may be needed immediately, with Ohio State and Wet Virginia opening the season. It will be interesting to see how Holliday performs against his old team.

If Korn lights a fire under the offense, we'll strongly consider Marshall as a pointspread threat in league play.

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EAST CAROLINA
Athlon Ranking: 91
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 67 on offense, 71 on defense
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 2 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: What a mess this could turn out to be. Skip Holtz is gone as head coach (now at South Florida). Long time quarterback Patrick Pinkney is gone. Last year's stat rankings weren't all that great anyway. Hardly anyone returns on both sides of the ball. Lotsa luck Ruffin McNeil!

McNeil is the likable defensive coordinator from Texas Tech who didn't get the coaching job for the Red Raiders when Mike Leach was forced out. That's because locals saw how shaky the defense was during his tenure! He's a player's coach...but far from a sure thing to succeed as the head man. Given his challenges this year, it's very hard to expect a good season for the Pirates. The offense will be in DEEP trouble in late September on the road against Virginia Tech and North Carolina.

MEMPHIS
Athlon Ranking: 98
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 63 on offense, 116 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 3 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Here's another mess. You thought the top two teams looked shaky in this division. They might CRUSH everyone else! New coach Larry Porter has been a running backs coach for years, most recently at LSU. How is he going to fix a defense that ranked 116th last year, and is green as can be this year?

His first step will be to emphasize a run-based offense. That will at least shorten the game (and will have us looking Under in early season action). There's not much for him to work with at quarterback though, or really throughout the whole roster. This was a bad team last year...and it's unreasonable to expect a quick fix from a coach who hasn't been a coordinator. All three new CUSA coaches have good reputations for recruiting. Anyone with a good reputation on either side of the ball is going to get opportunities in better conferences!

ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM
Athlon Ranking: 104
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 22 on offense, 114 on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Quarterback Joe Webb was a one-man team for UAB last year. Joe Webb isn't around any more. So, one of the most pathetic defenses imaginable will still be allowing a lot of points. But, the offense will have little hopes of keeping up its end of the bargain.

That's why UAB is picked to finish last! It's really hard to know how the bottom three are going to shake out because there's so much new talent in key positions. We won't be endorsing any of them until we see something positive. We could be fading them very aggressively if the new QB's and new coaches look to be in over their heads in September. A reasonably tough trifecta of SMU, Troy, and Tennessee await in September. Those performances will set the tone for the season.

We spent a few years talking about how the MAC had fallen from grace as a competitive mid major. CUSA seems to be on the same path. Major conferences are doing a better job of keeping stellar recruits from falling through the cracks. Successful CUSA coaches get hired out of the league. Talented QB's can only play so long before eligibility runs out. CUSA East seems to be getting the short end of all of those sticks in 2010.

We'll look at the West tomorrow...where Case Keenum of Houston is still around, and June Jones has been doing good things at SMU. The MAC, the Sun Belt, and the Independents (with Notre Dame) are on the immediate agenda this week as well.

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We'll finish out the mid major previews this week. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's really happening in the world of sports!

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