By Marc Lawrence 

When Tulsa and UCF each finished in the AP Top 25 season-ending poll last year it marked the first time in 15 years that two teams from the up-and-coming CUSA managed to land in elite company.

A closer examination finds this loop has sent six teams to post-season games in five of the past six seasons, while managing to go 11-7 SU and 13-5 ATS against .666 or greater opposition in those games, including 4-1 SU and 5-0 ATS as dogs of eight or more points (see the Hurricane last season).

And speaking of bowlers, Southern Mississippi will take an eight-year bowl skein into this campaign. In fact, 17 consecutive winning seasons by the Golden Eagles ties the school record and is 4th best in the nation.

Ironically, since the league’s current formation of teams in 2005, East Carolina, Houston, Tulsa and UCF all top the conference with identical 33-15 records in league play.

In closing, remember this about this never-say-die conference: since its inception, CUSA underdogs off a straight up underdog win are 38-24 ATS, including 14-6 SU and 15-5 ATS when taking three or less points.

It’s no wonder when we think of the Conference USA we start thinking about the Jefferson’s while tapping our feet to the beat of, “Moving on up…”

Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.

East Division

EAST CAROLINA - *6 / 7
TEAM THEME: LOOK OUT BELOW

Despite the fact that ECU saw a 5-2 start evaporate into a 1-5 finish, Ruffin McNeill directed the Pirates to a school record 5th straight bowl appearance in his maiden voyage on the Greenville sidelines. Twenty-four players (11 on offense, 13 on defense) making their first career starts likely had a lot to do with the late-season collapse. CUSA Newcomer of the Year QB Dominique Davis returns as does his favorite target, Lance Lewis. Still, big-time flags are up surrounding a bowl team whose defense slipped 22 PPG and over 100 YPG. No thanks to a rough non-conference slate (37-17 record), the Pirates will most likely not be sailing into the post-season for a sixth straight year. Be careful with this bunch. Stat You Will Like: The Pirates set a school record with 60 offensive TD’s last season. The previous record was 50. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Southern Mississippi (11/5)

MARSHALL – 5 / 9
TEAM THEME: FRESHEN UP

After hitting in the alleys in 2009, a 5-7 season wasn’t quite what first-year HC Doc Holliday had ordered. Even a 4-1 finish to the season wasn’t nearly the remedy as the Herd took their medicine early and often during a disastrous 1-6 start. It probably didn’t help that 28 freshman found playing time last year. Fortunately, the Herd will look to nine returning defensive starters, including the entire secondary. Replacing QB Brian Anderson may prove difficult, at least early on, as the Herd open the 2011 campaign against six consecutive bowl teams. With seven house calls (road games) on the slate this season, it may be another down year in Huntington. Stat You Will Like: Returning senior defensive end Vinny Curry, a first team all-CUSA performer, led all defensive linemen in tackles with 94 last season. PLAY AGAINST: at Ohio U (9/17)

MEMPHIS – 4 / 5
TEAM THEME: HAMBURGER HELPER

When a porterhouse steak is put through the grinder it turns into hamburger. HC Larry Porter didn’t even have the opportunity to trim the fat last season as all he inherited in his first year in Memphis was chopped steak. And it showed as the Tigers managed only one victory in 2010. Making matters worse, the lean Cats lost the most letterman (30) of any team in CUSA this season, including QB Ryan Williams (transferred to Miami) who started 11 games as a freshman last year. When the top returning player on the team figures to be a sophomore punter (Tom Hornsey), even Wolfgang Puck would have trouble making these Tigers taste good. Stat You Will Like: The three wins that Memphis owns over the past two seasons have come against Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee-Martin and UTEP. PLAY AGAINST: at Middle Tennessee State (10/1)

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI - *8 / 7
TEAM THEME: GOLDEN STREAKERS
Quickie Quiz: Next to Florida State, Florida and Virginia Tech, name the only other FBS team in the nation with 17 consecutive winning seasons. If you said Southern Miss, then you must be reading what we’re writing. The Golden Eagles have been to nine straight bowl games, the longest streak in C-USA. Led by an offense that scored 30-plus points in 10 of 12 regular-season games, the Eagles’ numbers were up on both sides of the ball last year. Look for more of the same in 2011 as QB Austin Davis and his 53 career TD’s (broke Brett Favre’s record) returns to Hattiesburg. New DC Dan Disch is switching the defense from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5. Hmmm… we say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Stat You Will Like: Southern Miss will face only two teams this season that ended the 2010 season with a winning record. PLAY ON: at UAB (11/17)

UAB - *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: A BETTER GAME BY DESIGN

Callaway golfers are familiar with the slogan above, but it also applies to the UAB head coach. Neil Callaway has designed a game plan that saw the Blazers improve each season under his command before taking a mini-step backwards last year… despite witnessing a 54 YPG improvement from the defense. That’s good news for a team that welcomes back 14 starters, including QB Bryan Ellis (2,940 yards, 25 TD’s in nine games) and RB Pat Shed, the nation’s third best in all-purpose yards. The 5,074 yards of total offense that the Blazers generated last season represents the second highest in school history. Don’t be surprised to see that mark fall this year. Stat You Will Like: The Blazers are 4-0 ATS with revenge in non-conference games under Callaway. PLAY ON: at Florida Atlantic (11/26)

UCF - *7 / 4
TEAM THEME: IN GOD WE TRUST

Don’t look now but CUSA is developing a reputation as a breeding ground for quarterbacks, and Jeffrey Godfrey is one of five top-flight signal callers in the loop this season. Godfrey led all FBS freshmen in passing efficiency and completion percentage while leading the Knights to a conference title and bowl win. George O’Leary’s crew also returns its top two rushers from 2010 along with Brynn Harvey, who missed all of last season. In addition, the returning OL have combined for 87 career starts. And to top it off, the stop unit has led CUSA in total defense each of the last three years. As a result, the Knights finished nationally ranked for the time ever in school history last season. Stat You Will Like: George O’Leary is 26-14 in odd years and 19-30 in even years in his college career. PLAY ON: at Southern Mississippi (11/12)

West Division

HOUSTON - *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: CASE PENDING
Houston fans are ready for take-off after learning that Case Keenum was granted a sixth year of eligibility. The CUSA Player of the Year in both 2008 and 2009 will likely break the all-time NCAA passing yardage and TD mark provided his surgically-repaired knee holds up. RB Bryce Beall and WR Patrick Edwards, 2010 first-team CUSA performers, can only improve with Keenum behind center. A season-ending four-game losing streak will be snapped early as long as Keenum’s knee doesn’t. Regardless, the Cougars will be a ‘Mission Team’ in 2011 as they look to rebound from their first losing season in six years. That commands our respect. Stat You Will Like: The Cougars will face only one FBS opponent that ended the season with a winning record last year (Tulsa in its season finale). PLAY ON: vs. Rice (10/29)

RICE - *9 / 9
TEAM THEME: TWO EYES ON THE BALL

A quick glance at the Owls’ performance last season not only shows a two-game improvement in the record but also better numbers across the board on both sides of the ball. That’s often a strong indicator of a team about to make a move. And with no less than 18 starters and 53 letterman back from last year’s improved model, we think they’ll be joining George Jefferson and ‘moving on up.’ Spearheading the offense is RB Sam McGuffie, one of only three players in the nation to run for 880 yards and catch for 380 yards last year. If you’re a Rice fan, here’s something to really hoot about: the Owls will face only four opponents that ended the 2010 season with a winning record. Stat You Will Like: The Owls are 5-0 SU and ATS as a dog of three or less points under Bailiff. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Tulsa (10/22)
 

SMU - *10 / 8 TEAM THEME:
JONESING FOR MORE
There is a lot to like about June Jones’ Mustangs this year. For openers, they are one of only three teams this year that improved its stats both offensively and defensively while slipping both SU and ATS – and such teams have been known to perform admirably the following season. The Mustangs also return 18 starters from last season, including the entire offensive line and QB Kyle Padron, an All-American candidate who tossed for 3,828 yards and 31 TD’s. Joining Padron in the backfield is RB Zach Line, the leading rusher in C-USA last season. On the defensive front, a 1st-team all-conference lineman is back along with the squad’s leading tackler and sack man. Suddenly, a winning season is just not enough in Dallas. Stat You Will Like: SMU is 1-9 SU and 2-8 ATS in its last 10 games versus military teams. PLAY ON: at Houston (11/19)

TULANE - *7 / 7
TEAM THEME: IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR

Somehow it seems the 20-game win streak that Bob Toledo’s UCLA squad enjoyed in the late ‘90’s was eons ago. This just in: it was! Toledo is 13-35 in his four years with the Green Wave and it was pretty much low tide following last year’s huge win at Rutgers in Week Four of the season. It’s doubtful this year’s Wave will have enough force to impress Ron Jon, but the much-improved offense does welcome back QB Ryan Griffin (60% completion percentage) and RB Orleans Darkwa, who rushed for 925 yards and 11 TD’s as a freshman last season. An improvement on defense also suggests the Waves are ready to make a small splash in CUSA this season. Stat You Will Like: Tulane is 0-7 SU and ATS vs. an opponent with a win percentage of .571 exact. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Houston (11/12)

TULSA - *10 / 8
TEAM THEME: A STORM IS BREWING

Forget the fact that Todd Graham has moved on to Pittsburgh. This Hurricane program is still moving fast. Winners of 10-plus games three of the last four years, Tulsa welcomes back 18 starters from a squad that closed the 2010 campaign on a seven-game win streak. At the head of the class are QB G.J. Kinne, the CUSA Offensive Player of the Year, and WR/KR Damaris Johnson, the nation’s leader in all-purpose yards each of the last two seasons. New head man Bill Blankenship was the senior associate head coach with the Hurricane last season and knows this team like the back of his hand. With new DC Brent Guy on board, expect prevailing ‘wins’ to continue in Tulsa. Stat You Will Like: The Hurricane lost the fewest lettermen (12) of all CUSA teams this season. PLAY ON: vs. SMU (10/29)

UTEP – 2 / 9
Team Theme: THE PRICE OF NUTS

It’s been six years since HC Mike Price last produced a winning season in West Texas, although 2010’s bowl appearance may briefly pacify the El Paso politicos. For now, however, they'll have to settle on knowing that Price is the ninth-winningest active FBS head coach – one of only six with 300 games of experience. Things appear bleak on the offensive front where the Miners slipped 67 YPG last season and return only two starters in 2011, but staunch on the other side of the ball with nine starters back from a defense that improved 34 YPG. With only four winning teams on this year's schedule, the time has come for Price to nut up or shut up. Stat You Will Like: 25 players have starting experience, including eight on offense and 17 on defense. PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Colorado State (10/22)

Be sure to check back here next Monday, July 11th for Marc’s 2011 INDEPENDENTS Football Preview!