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Offseason grades: Year not pretty for C-USA

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All was back to normal for Conference USA this year.

East Carolina raised some eyebrows two seasons ago when it won the conference regular season title. Rice, though, returned to its usual spot on top of conference with a 17-7 league mark and 40-23 overall record.

The Owls fell short of reaching the College World Series, but reached the title game of the Austin Regional against rival Texas.

The rest of C-USA doesn't have much to talk about.

Southern Mississippi struggled for much of last season before finishing the campaign on a high note and sneaking into an NCAA regional. East Carolina, Houston and Tulane, meanwhile, were huge disappointments as all three failed to reach the NCAA postseason.

Conference USA definitely had a year to forget.

East Carolina

Grade: D

What they accomplished this year: The Pirates' 2010 campaign was more about what they didn't accomplish. They entered the season with high hopes and were expected to compete for a spot in the College World Series. That didn't come close to happening. ECU finished 11-13 in C-USA and failed to make an NCAA regional after compiling a 32-27 overall record. The Pirates failed in arguably the most hyped season in school history.

What must improve: ECU had a year to forget and it began with the suspension of infielder Dustin Harrington early last season. The Pirates will return enough quality hitters to have a solid offensive lineup next season. However, the pitching staff and defense must improve. ECU finished last season with a 5.25 ERA and had just one pitcher with an ERA below four. Most importantly, defense must improve after the Pirates finished '10 with a dismal .952 fielding percentage. Will ECU turn the tide in a year few expect it to?

Draft departures: INF Kyle Roller, INF Dustin Harrington, OF Devin Harris

Houston

Grade: F

What they accomplished this year: The Cougars didn't accomplish anything last season. They entered the campaign expected to finish near the top of Conference USA. They finished the season in a three-way tie for fifth. UH compiled a 11-13 conference record and failed to make an NCAA regional after compiling an overall record of 25-32. UH had such a poor campaign the university decided to part ways with longtime head coach Raynor Noble.

What must improve: The Cougars should get a recruiting boost with former TCU stud recruiter Todd Whiting taking over as head coach. But on the field, the Cougars have much work to do between now and next season. UH could improve a bit in the field, but its pitching staff is the biggest concern. The Cougars finished last season with a dismal 6.54 ERA and return just one pitcher that had an ERA below five.

Draft departures: INF Blake Kelso, P Michael Goodnight, C Chris Wallace

Marshall

Grade: C+

What they accomplished this year: The Thundering Herd was better than expected last season. They were picked eighth in conference. Instead, they finished in a two-way tie for third with a .500 conference record. The Herd failed to reach an NCAA regional after putting together an overall record of 27-31. However, exceeding expectations means the Herd took a step in the right direction. Now things must come together.

What must improve: It's clear what must happen for the Thundering Herd to take a huge step forward next season: pitching and defense must improve. The offense could improve after finishing last season with a .292 average. Pitching and defense are greater concerns. The Herd had a dismal 6.56 ERA last season and had two starting pitchers with ERAs above seven. That much change. The same goes for team defense after they finished the '10 with a .962 fielding percentage.

Draft departures: P Kevin Shackelford, P Ryan Kiel

Memphis

Grade: C+

What they accomplished this year: The Tigers were expected to finish near the bottom of Conference USA last season. They accomplished much more. Memphis finished in a two-way tie for third with Marshall thanks to a .500 C-USA record. It also compiled a 28-30 overall record, thus failing to make an NCAA regional. It was far from a good campaign for the Tigers, but perhaps they set the tone for more success next season.

What must improve: Memphis has a chance to make an NCAA regional next season, but some important areas must improve. The Tigers finished last season with a .321 average and have a solid base entering fall workouts with Drew Martinez leading the way. The situation on the mound and in the field isn't so great, though. The Tigers had a 6.09 ERA last season and must improve that mark to take a step forward. They also need help in the field after finishing '10 with a dismal .958 fielding percentage.

Draft departures: P Ryan Fraser

Rice

Grade: B+

What they accomplished this year: The Owls returned to their rightful spot on top of Conference USA. The Owls compiled a 17-7 league mark and won the regular season crown by three games. They also reached another NCAA regional but fell short of advancing to a super regional with an Austin Regional title game loss to Texas. Omaha is the expectation for this program, but finishing 40-23 last season shouldn't be considered a huge disappointment.

What must improve: The Owls lost some legitimate firepower at the plate this past summer, but return plenty of quality hitters, including reigning Yahoo! Sports Player of the Year Anthony Rendon. It'll be interesting to see how the Rice pitching staff fairs next season. The Owls certainly didn't compile bad numbers on the mound last season. However, they lacked a dominant starting pitcher that often is present on a Wayne Graham-coached team. As usual, Rice is expected to compete for a CWS berth next season.

Draft departures: INF Rick Hague, C Diego Seastrunk, INF Jimmy Comerota, OF Chad Mozingo, P Mike Ojala, P Jared Rogers

Southern Mississippi

Grade: B

What they accomplished this year: The start to the Scott Berry era was tough sledding for much of the season, but the Golden Eagles settled in and put together a fantastic run to end the campaign. The Eagles finished second in conference with a 14-10 record and made another NCAA regional appearance. They finished last season with a 36-24 overall record. It wasn't a great year for the Eagles, but it sets the stage for the Berry era.

What must improve: The Eagles always seem to have productive offenses and that shouldn't change too much next season. They also were OK defensively last season. The situation on the mound is different. The Eagles are ecstatic to welcome back ace right-hander Todd McInnis, but the rest of the staff needs work after finishing last season with a 5.96 ERA. Pitching is the key to USM's success next season.

Draft departures: P Scott Copeland

Tulane

Grade: D

What they accomplished this year: The Green Wave had one of the more bizarre campaigns we've seen in a while. They failed to meet expectations in conference play with a last place finish and a 10-14 overall record. However, they finished the season with an overall record of 32-24 record. Still, the Green Wave was expected to finish in the middle of conference and compete for an NCAA regional appearance. That didn't happen and it was a year to forget.

What must improve: Tulane knows what must change if it plans to make an NCAA postseason appearance next season. The Green Wave return enough quality hitters to have a solid offense in '11. They also should be fine in the field. The situation isn't as great on the mound, where the Green Wave is coming off a campaign that ended with a 5.73 ERA. This fall and the upcoming season are very important for the program.

Draft departures: INF Rob Segedin, P Preston Claiborne

UAB

Grade: C-

What they accomplished this year: The Blazers didn't deviate off their expected path last season. They finished in a three-way tie for fifth in conference with an 11-13 record. They also failed to make an NCAA regional after compiling an overall record of 28-25. It wasn't a successful campaign for the Blazers, but it wasn't surprising either.

What must improve: The Blazers have a cornucopia of areas that must improve between now and next season. They finished last season with just a .283 batting average. They also struggled on the mound and ended the campaign with a 5.93 ERA. In the field, UAB had a dismal .958 fielding percentage. Improvements to all areas could put UAB in the regional discussion next season.

Draft departures: INF Luke Stewart, P Nick Graffeo

UCF

Grade: C-

What they accomplished this year: There was some good and bad last season. The Knights entered the season hoping to take a huge step forward with coach Terry Rooney in charge. They improved their overall record with a 33-22 mark. However, they also finished in a tie for last place in conference with an unimpressive 10-14 mark. There's still plenty work to do before the Knights are over the hump.

What must improve: The Knights have recruited well the past two seasons and know what it will take between now and next season to finally take a step forward. They again are expected to have a solid offense. However, the pitching staff and defense leave something to be desired. The Knights ended last season with a 6.01 ERA and .963 fielding percentage. The '11 campaign is huge for Rooney's program.

Draft departures: P Owen Dew, OF Shane Brown, OF Chris Duffy