Conference USA preview: The final season in the current configuration figures to have close races

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo! Sports

Realignment has hit Conference USA in a big way, and the league will look a lot different in 2013.

Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF are leaving for the Big East after this season. FIU and North Texas are coming aboard from the Sun Belt and Louisiana Tech and UT San Antonio are joining from the WAC.

This season's league race has some intrigue. It appears to be a three-team race in each division, with UCF, Southern Miss and East Carolina vying to wear the East crown, and SMU, Houston and Tulsa the main combatants in the West. Each team has issues, though.

UCF looks to be the best team in the league, but motivation could be a factor. The Knights recently were put on NCAA probation, and as it stands now, they are ineligible for postseason play this fall. But the school has appealed, and it has asked for an expedited ruling. There's a chance the appeal won't be ruled upon until after the season, which means UCF would be free to go to a bowl. The flipside: If the NCAA ends up denying the appeal, that means UCF would be ineligible for the postseason in 2013 – the school's first season in the Big East.

There are four new coaches in the league this season: Ellis Johnson at Southern Miss (replacing Larry Fedora, who went to North Carolina), Justin Fuente at Memphis (replacing the fired Larry Porter), Garrick McGee at UAB (replacing the fired Neil Callaway) and Tony Levine at Houston (replacing Kevin Sumlin, who went to Texas A&M).

The order of finish

East Division: 1. UCF; 2. Southern Miss; 3. East Carolina; 4. Marshall; 5. UAB; 6. Memphis
West Division: 1. SMU; 2. Houston; 3. Tulsa; 4. Tulane; 5. Rice; 6. UTEP

The players

Best offensive player: SMU RB Zach Line. Despite missing the last three games with a broken foot, Line rushed for 1,224 yards and 17 TDs last season; he was seventh nationally in rushing (122.4 ypg). He has gained 2,718 yards and scored 27 TDs in the past two seasons. Line has 15 100-yard games in the past two seasons and 34 career rushing TDs, third-most among active players (behind only Montee Ball and Denard Robinson).
Best defensive player: Southern Miss DE Jamie Collins. Collins blossomed into a big-play guy last season, when he was switched to end from linebacker. He actually plays a hybrid end/'backer role, but is at his best when he is in attack mode. He had 98 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season. Now truly comfortable at the position, he should break into double digits in sacks and seems likely to garner at least 20 tackles for loss.
Breakout offensive star: Houston QB David Piland. All he has to do is replace Case Keenum, perhaps the most prolific quarterback in NCAA history. Piland, a sophomore, did start eight games as a true freshman in 2010 when Keenum was hurt and performed admirably, throwing for 2,641 yards and 24 TDs. But he also threw 14 interceptions. The offense will not be quite as pass-happy under the new coaching staff, but Piland – who redshirted last season – has the needed tools to be successful, including a stud tailback in Charles Sims.
Breakout defensive star: UCF SS Clayton Geathers. All the talk the past two seasons about UCF's secondary centered on CB Josh Robinson, who turned pro after his junior season. Now Geathers should get more attention. He started every game last season as a redshirt freshman, making 67 tackles, and is ready to blossom this fall. He has excellent size (6-3/204), can run and is a big hitter. He and senior FS Kemal Ishmael give the Knights the best safety duo in the league.
Best newcomer: SMU QB Garrett Gilbert. He'd better be the best newcomer if SMU wants to win the West Division title. He graduated from Texas in the spring and transferred to SMU, where he has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Gilbert always has had the needed physical tools, but he played poorly as the starter at Texas. The thought is June Jones' pass-happy offense will be a good fit. It will help Gilbert that he will have the league's best offensive player, Zach Line, in the same backfield.

The coaches

Coach on the hottest seat: Rice's David Bailiff. He is 23-38 in five seasons, but almost half the wins (10) came in 2008, when the Owls won their first bowl since the 1953 season. But since that '08 season, the Owls have won just 10 games and have had some of the worst defenses in the nation. Rice is rebuilding along both lines, and it's hard to see the Owls finishing with a winning record this fall.
Best coaching staff: SMU. Coach June Jones has done an excellent job stabilizing the program and he also has hired good assistants. Defensive coordinator Tom Mason has done great work, and defensive line coach Bert Hill and running backs coach Wes Suan are solid. The new wide receiver coach is Jason Phillips, who comes aboard after doing a good job in that role at Houston.
Best offensive coordinator: East Carolina's Lincoln Riley. Riley, who turns 29 on Sept. 5, is heading into this third season as the Pirates' OC. He is a Mike Leach disciple, making it no surprise the Pirates have winged it around since his arrival. ECU has been in the top 20 in pass offense in both his seasons. Riley was a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech in 2002 as a freshman; the next season, he gave up his helmet for a head-set and served as a student coach for three seasons while he was getting his degree. He became a Red Raiders graduate assistant in 2006, then became receivers coach in '07.
Best defensive coordinator: SMU's Tom Mason. Mason was Fresno State's linebacker coach when Jones hired him at SMU, and he doesn't receive enough credit for the work he has done in Dallas. He took over one of the worst defenses in the nation and has turned it around. SMU was 27th nationally in total defense last season and allowed 340.0 yards per game. In 2007, that total was 498.7. Mason has presided over dramatic improvement – from 479.5 in '08 to 397.1 in '09 to 352.9 in '10 to last season. Mason runs a 3-4 set and blitzes frequently.

The schedules

Game of the year: SMU at UCF, Nov. 3. These look to be the best teams in the conference, and it could be the first of two meetings; they could meet again in the C-USA title game. These teams should have the top defenses in the conference.
The 10 best conference games:
10. East Carolina at Southern Miss, Sept. 15
9. Houston at East Carolina, Nov. 3
8. Tulsa at Houston, Nov. 10
7. UCF at Marshall, Oct. 27
6. Tulsa at SMU, Nov. 24
5. UCF at Tulsa, Nov. 17
4. Southern Miss at SMU,
3. Houston at SMU, Oct. 20
2. Southern Miss at UCF, Oct. 13
1. SMU at UCF, Nov. 3
The 10 best non-conference games:
10. Rice at Kansas, Sept. 8
9. East Carolina at North Carolina, Sept. 22
8. UCF at Ohio State, Sept. 8
7. Oklahoma at UTEP, Sept. 1
6. Southern Miss at Nebraska, Sept. 1
5. Louisville at Southern Miss, Sept. 29
4. TCU at SMU, Sept. 29
3. Boise State at Southern Miss, Oct. 6
2. Texas A&M at SMU, Sept. 15
1. Missouri at UCF, Sept. 29

The preseason All-C-USA team

QB David Piland, Houston
RB Zach Line, SMU
RB Charles Sims, Houston WR Willie Carter, Tulsa
WR Justin Hardy, East Carolina
WR Darius Johnson, SMU
T Jacolby Ashworth, Houston
T Phil Smith, UCF
G Joe Duhon, Southern Miss
G Blake McJunkin, SMU
C Trent Dupy, Tulsa
E Jamie Collins, Southern Miss
T Germard Reed, UTEP
E Margus Hunt, SMU
LB Ja'Gared Davis, SMU
LB Jeremy Grove, East Carolina
LB Shawn Jackson, Tulsa
LB Taylor Reed, SMU
CB D.J. Hayden, Houston
CB Deron Wilson, Southern Miss
FS Kemal Ishmael, UCF
SS Dexter McCoil, Tulsa
Special teams
K Chris Boswell, Rice
P Ian Campbell, UTEP
KR Rannell Hall, UCF
PR Tracy Lampley, Southern Miss
(Note: Tulane LB Trent Mackey has been suspended indefinitely after an arrest for armed robbery and thus is not on this preseason team. If he plays this fall, he will be a top contender for all-league honors.)

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