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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 9:12 AM

The ingredients are in place for a VERY interesting year from Conference USA.

*There's coaching stability, with 11 of 12 head coaches returning.

*There's quarterback stability, with 9 of 12 starting quarterbacks set to return barring injuries in August practice or other developments.

*This is a passing conference, so quarterback stability means even more. There are seven teams in Conference USA this year who return their quarterback from a top 50 passing attack.

*We're talking about a conference that often lines up against big name college powers in September. The majors 'schedule light' by including a Conference USA squad on the slate. That may come back to haunt a few teams this year.

*This could go all the way to the bowls, where Central Florida took out Georgia of the SEC in the Liberty Bowl.

We continue our summer series of college football conference previews this weekend with Conference USA. We'll look at CUSA East today in the NOTEBOOK. We're back tomorrow to run the numbers in CUSA West. If you weren't with us in July for the majors, please check the archives for those reports (remembering that headlines this week about injuries or suspensions won't be reflected in those July articles). Last week we kicked off August with a look at the Mountain West and the WAC. Those are in the archives too.

Central Florida and Southern Miss are expected to battle it out for bragging rights in the East this year. Let's jump right in and see how things might play out…

Athlon Ranking: 51st
2010 Total Offense: 65th
2010 Total Defense: 15th
Strength: Rush Defense (8th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (87th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: George O'Leary
Notebook: We don't want to lead anyone to believe that a CUSA team is about to break through this year and become a national power. The depth of talent just isn't there. And, these guys play such wide open games that defenses wear down during the course of the season…making it tough to post a great record. This Central Florida team…that won CUSA last year and finished with an 11-3 record…still lost to Kansas State, NC State, and Southern Miss. Our point is that there's 'spoiler' potential in big early season games (Central hosts Boston College and visits BYU in September), and then again in the bowl season. Efficient Jeff Godfrey is back at quarterback, which gives the offense a chance to improve its national ranking. The defense was hurt by graduation, but Coach George O'Leary knows how to coach defense at this level…so that's less of a concern. We'll have our eye on that September 10th game vs. Boston College that comes after a tune-up against Charleston Southern.

Athlon Ranking: 55th
2010 Total Offense: 18th
2010 Total Defense: 47th
Strength: Rush Defense (13th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (99th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Larry Fedora
Notebook: Southern Miss ended 2010 with a whimper, falling to Tulsa in their regular season finale before losing a nailbiter to Louisville in the Beef O'Brady Bowl (note that CUSA faced the SEC, Big East, and the ACC in bowl games last season, which is why we're giving you an early heads up about bowl spoilers). They were 8-3 before that, including a road win at Central Florida. Quarterback Austin Davis is back to lead a balanced offense that can hurt you on the ground or in the air. Coach Larry Fedora is getting his footing. September is relatively soft. Midseason road trips to Virginia and Navy will give the Golden Eagles a chance to make some regular season headlines. They're certainly capable of edging past Central Florida to win this division too.

Athlon Ranking: 82nd
2010 Total Offense: 25th
2010 Total Defense: 120th
Strength: Pass Offense (8th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (117th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Ruffin McNeil
Notebook: Well, the stat rankings aren't much of a surprise for a head coach who used to be at Texas Tech. Great offense and horrible defense. The problem here is that the defense was REALLY horrible…and playing fast-break football all season just made it worse because of the fatigue. Senior quarterback Dominique Davis will give the Pirates at least a puncher's chance in early season battles with South Carolina of the SEC and Virginia Tech of the ACC. If EC is going to catch somebody napping, it's going to be right out of the gate before the defense has worn down. It's fun to watch East Carolina's games…but in an arena football sort of way. The sport is trending away from this style because opposing defenses can disrupt the bedlam and force turnovers, while opposing offenses can march down the field in the fourth quarter.

Athlon Ranking: 87th
2010 Total Offense: 30th
2010 Total Defense: 80th
Strength: Pass Offense (24th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (105th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Neil Callaway
Notebook: Things could get interesting with UAB this year because they return more starters than anyone else in the East by a good bit…and because quarterback Bryan Ellis put up some good numbers last year against a schedule that included a win over Troy, and overtime loss at Tennessee, a tight 29-24 loss to Mississippi State that ended up looking GREAT in retrospect, and a road win at Southern Miss. Unfortunately, the team lost to Marshall and Rice to counteract the positives. The season opener this year is at Florida. Unfortunately a bye week when everyone else is playing on September 3rd could cause some issues there. We expect to be on UAB at least a couple of times this year at value prices.

Athlon Ranking: 95th
2010 Total Offense: 103rd
2010 Total Defense: 71st
Strength: Rush Defense (55th)
Weakness: Run Offense (114th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Doc Holliday
Notebook: The Thundering Herd fizzled to a 1-6 start in 2010 before getting some things goind down the stretch. They were at least better than the dregs of CUSA even if they didn't match up well with the powers. The bad news this year is that they don't have a returning quarterback (the first team we've discussed with that plight). And, they have limited experience back on an offense that was horrible to begin with. We'll be looking at Unders with this team. September tests vs. West Virginia and Virginia Tech could be painful to endure if this offense can't get anything on the board.

Athlon Ranking: 118th
2010 Total Offense: 117th
2010 Total Defense: 115th
Strength: Pass Offense, Rush Defense (81st)
Weakness: Rush Offense, Pass Defense (116th)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Larry Porter
Notebook: The first really ugly situation of the division. Memphis had absolutely horrible stats last year, and was then ravaged by graduation. Maybe that's a good sign since all the dead weight is gone. But, normally, bad programs without experience get bludgeoned until the new guys get a sense of the game. This is not a team we expect to play spoiler early in the season. Maybe they'll catch one or two flat opponents napping later on in league play. Tough to go 0-12 with Austin Peay on the schedule. The Tigers currently have the look of somebody that bad though. Maybe Coach Larry Porter will have some surprises in store. To this point, how bad things have gotten under his leadership is the surprise.

That wraps up today's look at CUSA East. We'll look at the West tomorrow, with SMU and Houston set to have a very entertaining battle for the title if Cougars quarterback Case Keenum can stay healthy.

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This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by and For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.


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