Conference USA East Division Could Surprise This Year

Jason DuniganCorrespondent IJune 30, 2009

NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 21:  Head coach Larry Fedora of the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles celebrates after defeating the Troy Trojans in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on December 21, 2008 at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Eagles defeated the Trojans 30-27.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As the season draws closer with each passing day, you can feel the anticipation of college football fans nationwide.

As a hardcore fan, I constantly search the preseason magazines and Internet web sites for the latest nugget of information to try to get a handle on just how my team will perform this upcoming year.

Strangely enough, although my alma mater is a relatively successful BCS school, I find myself drawn to those Tuesday night MAC and Sun Belt Conference games on ESPN during the course of the season. 

Maybe I am just a fan. Maybe I am just a fanatic. It is too close to call.

Either way, there is pleasure to be found in looking past your own little world and peering into another's for a quick fix of college football action to hold you over until Saturday.

All that said, my gut tells me that there may be no more interesting conference battle royal this year than what will take place in Conference USA's East Division. Pay attention, fans—this race could get good.

Right away, you start to think of East Carolina and what they accomplished last year. They definitely earned the right to be considered a favorite, not just for the East Division title, but for the conference title as well.

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However, I am going to go in a little bit different direction than most. Although ECU will be a formidable opponent for anyone on their schedule, I think the eventual winner of CUSA's East Division will be Southern Miss, and with good reason.

Southern Miss has a projected eight starters returning on both offense and defense. That's eight starters back on an offense that ranked 20th nationally in total offense and 31st in scoring offense. Southern Miss is going to score early and often on whomever they face. Don't be surprised when their improved defense shuts down a few people this season either.

If Southern Miss has a chink in their armor, it could be special teams, where they have to replace do-it-all kicker Britt Barefoot. If they can find a serviceable punter and field goal kicker, the Golden Eagles could flirt with a top-15 ranking late this season.

I won't go so far as to call for an undefeated season with a tough schedule that includes games against Virginia, Kansas, East Carolina, Houston, Tulsa, and Louisville, but a 10-win season is there for the taking.

Southern Miss predicted record: 10-2

My second place finisher in the division is East Carolina. They may be the second best team in the conference and not get a chance to play in the Conference Championship game, which is a shame.

East Carolina will benefit from having quarterback Patrick Pinkney back for what seems like his 23rd year of eligibility. What his experience will bring to this team cannot be overstated, and if East Carolina does win their division, it will be because of Pinkney.

This will be a very experienced team with 18 seniors in their "two-deep" on the depth chart. As is the case with Pinkney, do not discount the value of a senior-laden team and the experience they can draw on to get themselves out of tight spots.

If ECU does have a problem, it is in their running game. They have the line and the passing game, but if teams don't have to concern themselves with stopping the run, opposing defenses will sit back in zone coverage and dare ECU to throw the ball. Although Pinkney is capable, ECU was only the 60th-ranked passing attack in the nation last year. Look for that number to improve this season.

Still, the Pirates need a running game if they are going to pull out wins in Chapel Hill, Morgantown, Tulsa, and Huntington, as well as at home against Virginia Tech and Southern Miss. Don't sleep on Appalachian State either.

East Carolina predicted record: 9-3

Central Florida may be in the running for most improved team in the conferenceif not the countryin 2009. Although they won't win many more games, if they do win any more at all, they can only get better statistically over their dreadful performance last season.

Out of 119 FBS programs last year, UCF finished 119th in total offense. That is dead last, my friends. It will be hard not to improve on numbers that bad.

The good news for the Knights is that they have almost every single playmaker back from last year's offense. That means more experience and more time working together to gel as a unit. They won't scare anyone into thinking they will contend for the division crown, but they should be good enough to flirt with bowl eligibility.

The defensive front seven should be a strength for this team. It will have to be to get around what will surely be a long season in the secondary. If coach George O'Leary can get his defensive backfield even serviceable by October, it could get interesting in Orlando.

The Knights now have the experience they lacked last season. Now they have to prove they have the talent. A ridiculous non-conference schedule that features Miami, Texas, and suddenly-tough Buffalo, coupled with an unfavorable conference slate, probably means the Fighting O'Learys will be lucky to get bowl eligible, but 6-6 beats last year's output of 4-8.

Central Florida predicted record: 6-6

How the mighty have fallen.

At one time, Marshall University was the poster child for how to move up from FCS football and be successful in the FBS ranks.

Now, with their former coach retired from football, and a string of four consecutive losing seasons under current head coach Mark Snyder, the only thundering "heard" in Huntington has been the chorus of fans booing the lackluster product they have seen on the field since Bob Pruett left town.

Things might be looking up for the Marshall faithful this fall, however.

Marshall returns solid experience on the offensive and defensive lines this season. That will go a long way in defining how the season plays out for the Herd. The defensive line, especially, could really be something.

On offense, Marshall has playmakers in tight end Cody Slate and running back Darius Marshall. They are missing an experienced quarterback, and that could be the Achilles' heel of the team this fall. Darius Marshall may have 1,800 yards on the ground this season if they can't find some sort of rhythm in their passing game.

On defense, they have super-talented Albert McClellan back for his senior season, two years removed from a major injury. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter is back for his second full season as well, and that could pay big dividends for Marshall late when the conference schedule hits full stride.

Minter's influence on how Mario Harvey and the rest of the linebackers perform will be huge. Harvey will be the defensive quarterback for this team as he tries to get an otherwise inexperienced linebacking corps up to speed.

The bottom line for Marshall will be how their passing attack comes together. The learning curve for Mark Snyder is over. It is time to win, and he knows it. Fans can no longer cover for Snyder with the excuse of his inexperience as a head coach. He is entering his fifth season, and he must produce now. His job may depend on it.

Marshall predicted record: 6-6

I will say it right now: I am a fan of what Tommy West has been able to accomplish at Memphis. He hasn't set the world on fire, but in Memphis football lore, not many have. Prior to West's arrival in Memphis, the Tigers had been to one true bowl game in their history since the program's inception in 1912.

Since 2003, West has taken the Memphis Tigers to five bowl games, winning two of them. That is no small accomplishment considering the school's history, or lack thereof.

Unfortunately, this won't be the year Tommy makes his sixth bowl appearance with the Tigers. One returning starter on the offensive line and one returning starter on the defensive line is not a recipe for a successful season. Coach West knows this, too.

On the positive side, Memphis has talent and experience at the offensive skill positions. The running game was stellar last season, and the passing game was adequate. If the offensive line even pretends to show up for games, the ability is there to put some points on the board.

On the other side of the ball, what they lack in starting experience on the front line they make up for in time-in-rate. They have five seniors and three juniors rotating in their top eight. They should have the knowledge of what to do when they hit the field, but whether they do it or not remains to be seen.

The back seven of the defense should be a strength for the team. If the defensive line can do its job, the secondary and linebacking crew have the ability to do good things.

All in all, this looks like it might be a long season in Memphis. Although I believe the boosters have enough sense to keep Tommy West around for a long time, winning only makes the fans greedy for even more wins.

If the season turns out the way I think it will, Coach West may not need an electric blanket to keep him warm during the winter months. His seat may be hot enough to do the job for him—and John Calipari won't be the only coach being replaced in Memphis.

Memphis predicted record: 4-8