Conference USA East is not a real easy division to pick this year. ECU has a new coach and a new system and has additionally lost some key players. UCF is unpredictable and USM can usually be counted on to have a pretty decent team. Marshall may or may not be a factor, it is probable that Memphis is in complete rebuild mode, and UAB is, well, UAB. That being said let us take a look at how I believe the CUSA East will play out this year.
1. USM: I will go with Larry Fedora's club to take the number one slot and meet Houston in the CUSA Championship. History has shown that the Golden Eagles put a good, but not great, team on the field year after year. The recruiting base is good with a lot of kids coming to play for a quality club that may not quite be ready for SEC play. They also can get kids that can play in the SEC on occasion as the two other D1 Mississippi schools are not usually contenders for a SEC championship, while USM can never be counted out in CUSA. There are also no IAA schools in the state that are likely to snatch too many blue chip players. The SWAC is interesting football but can not compete in recruiting top notch talent. The conference schedule is a bit dangerous with contests with UCF, Tulsa, East Carolina and Houston. The non conference sked is manageable with only South Carolina, Kansas and just perhaps Prairie View posing a problem. It is not out of the question that they could run the table in non conference play or perhaps go no better than 2-2.
2. UCF: This school has a lot going for it. An attractive location and a very good recruiting base. There is a lot of competition in state with four other D1 teams that have the potential to be powerhouses. There are two Sun Belt squads in Florida also but there are plenty of quality players to go around. George O'Leary has been a bit inconsistent here but should have enough in the tank to make a run at CUSA East. The Knights do meet Houston, ECU, and Southern Miss in conference play but they should go at least 2-2 in non conference play. The potential to sneak up on either Kansas State or NC State not out of the question.
3. ECU: This is supposed to be a down year for the Pirates after having won the CUSA Championship last year. Skip Holtz is gone to USF and Ruffin McNeil assumes the helm. It is interesting that the last two coaches at ECU have had pretty good success before moving on to "bigger and better things." Coach McNeil states that this is a destination job for him. We will see. McNeil should have been given the position at Texas Tech, a fact that will become apparent shortly, but he was not. He appears to be happy at his alma mater and that will most likely translate into success. Whether or not it will happen this season is in question. The non conference sked is pretty rough with trips to Va. Tech and N. Carolina. They also host NC State and Navy. It is possible that all four games will fall into the loser column. They may be able to take one with my guess NC State being the most vulnerable. They meet Tulsa, USM, SMU, and UCF in conference play. Picking this team third may be a bit of a stretch, but I think McNeil will be a winner here.
4. Marshall: The days of the Herd being giant killers have long passed. Coach Doc Holliday likely has his work cut out for him and time will tell if he can be successful. There non conference schedule is very tough with Ohio State and WVU on the schedule. They also meet Ohio and Bowling Green out of the MAC. Perhaps they may be able to take Bowling Green but that is probably it. Look for them to go 0-4 or 1-3 in non conference play. The conference schedule features UCF, Southern Miss, East Carolina and SMU. At least they are spared Houston. No easy feat to end up with a winning record this year.
5. Memphis: The Tigers also sport a new coach in Larry Porter. This is his first year as a head coach in the college ranks but he appears to have the experience and know how to get the job done. He is also and alum and that helps matters a good bit. This looks like it will be a rebuilding year as Tommy West left the place pretty bare. Memphis is also in SEC country and it is hard to recruit blue chippers but not totally out of the question. Memphis is considered the bastard child of Tennessee and people in the area know it. This gives the town somewhat of a siege mentality which may translate into some area players choosing to stay home. The Tigers have a pretty tough non conference slate with games against Mississippi State, Middle Tennessee, Tennessee and Louisville. Perhaps they may take one of these with Louisville or Mississippi State being the most probable. It is unlikely though to be honest and I expect them to go 0-4 in non conference play. They also meet all of the top teams in CUSA save SMU. It will be a tough year for the Tigers.
7. UAB: This program is as tough as any place to recruit blue chip talent. With the Crimson Tide, and Auburn being in state it is almost impossible. If that is not enough there is the University of Troy to contend with. Some pretty good IAA programs are in the state with Jacksonville State being probably the best. Even D2 has North Alabama which will be making their presence known shortly in that division with Tommy Bowden at the helm. All of this translates into losing seasons for the Blazers. The school has really no tradition and very little public support which also is a problem. Tough place no doubt. The non conference schedule is pretty tough with sure losses at Troy and Tennessee and probable losses at Mississippi State and Florida Atlantic. They are spared Houston, but play the rest of the power teams in CUSA. Look for a two or perhaps three (four?) win season here.