Posted 06/29/2011 at 03:52 PM
Conference USA does not get a lot of national respect but the conference produced six bowl teams last year, led by Central Floridaís upset win over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. The favorite in the conference this year Houston, was not one of those six teams in the postseason last year so it could be an interesting year in a league that is more competitive than most realize. While the West division has been settled with ties each of the last three years, there have been clear cut leaders in the East in recent seasons. The schedules for each team will play a big part in shaping the race in 2011 with the draw from the West division creating huge disparities. Here is a closer look at the six East division teams with emphasis on the schedules lined up this season.
East Carolina Pirates: In what was expected to be a true rebuilding season for East Carolina, the Pirates found a way to the bowl season, winning several close games last year. The defense allowed 44 points per game last year, over double what the Pirates allowed in 2008 or 2009 however. The offense was more than capable of hanging close in shootouts last season but ideally that is not the situation the program wants to be in. East Carolina does have to play at Houston which will be a challenging game but the Pirates host both Southern Miss and UCF so they could be a threat for upsets. Non-conference games with South Carolina, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina as well as a game at Navy make this a very tough slate overall and while the Pirates may be a play-on team in league play, matching last seasonís win total will be very tough. This is a team that will probably start the year 1-4 or worse but could have a strong second half.
Marshall Thundering Herd: In a promising first year for the new coaching staff Marshall went 5-7 with wins in four of the final five games of the season after an ugly 1-6 start. Marshall nearly upset West Virginia and finished with a 4-2 home record. Winning at home will be tough this season with a fairly difficult slate of games and a very challenging non-conference schedule will likely prevent any real improvement in the team record. Marshall plays three out of four non-conference games on the road and three of the games are against major conference opponents. The conference schedule features the top two teams from the west, both on the road as well. Marshall has been a decent defensive team in recent years and with nine starters back that unit should be a strong point but overall this is a team that will struggle to show any visible improvement, even though this team likely could beat last yearís squad easily.
Memphis Tigers: After a one-win season there is nowhere to go but up but the Tigers were rarely competitive last year with some of the worst offensive numbers in the nation. There is not much reason to expect a big change this season as few returning starters are back in action and this could be even more of a rebuilding season. The schedule is weaker this season so there will be opportunities for the Tigers as the non-conference schedule is manageable with three games that Memphis should have a shot in. Also most of the winnable games on the conference schedule will be at home and the Tigers received a very favorable draw of opponents from the West division. It wonít take much for Memphis to double last seasonís wins but moving beyond that may be a reach.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles: Southern Miss gets a great draw in the schedule as they do not face Houston or Tulsa from the West division. The Golden Eagles were 8-5 last season and statistically was even better than that record indicated. With a 14 starters back this could be the team to beat in the conference, especially looking at the schedule. Southern Miss also gets to host UCF who was the division and conference champion in 2010. With a non-conference schedule that also could be swept, the Golden Eagles have a shot to have a really strong season. Road games at Virginia and at Navy are by no means easy but the schedule sets up well for a double-digit win season.
UAB Blazers: UAB was a much better team than the 4-8 record indicated last season as they lost several very tight games including major upset opportunities at Tennessee and at Mississippi State. While an improved season is very possible it will come through a difficult schedule, drawing both Houston and Tulsa from the West and facing a tough home schedule in conference play. The non-conference season features Mississippi State again as well as a trip to Florida but with 16 starters back the Blazers could be poised for a bowl breakthrough as this should be the best UAB team since at least 2004. UAB will need to find a way to win some of the close games to get to six wins but they should have opportunities even if they will probably need at least one upset to get there.
Central Florida Knights: After an 11-3 season and an impressive win over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl it will be tough for Central Florida to match that success in 2011. The defense which has carried the team in recent seasons including posting incredibly stingy numbers last year will likely be weaker and the schedule presents a few hurdles. The non-conference slate features tough games with Boston College and at BYU and there are some difficult road games in conference play. UCF also draw Tulsa and SMU from the West division making for a more difficult schedule than Southern Miss will have to face. The Knights are a contender but likely not the same team as last year and the schedule draw will make it a much tougher path to repeat as conference champions.