College Football is right around the corner and I will look to continue my College Previews with a look at East Division of Conference USA. Here are the current Odds (Courtesy of BetOnline) for teams to win the East Division of Conference USA this year. Central Florida (+100); Southern Mississippi (+215); East Carolina (+360); Marshall (+420); Alabama-Birmingham (+1000); Memphis (+1500). Below is how I see the East Division shaping up this year.
Central Florida: Last year the Knights had a dismal year as they went just 5-7. They were a young team last year as just 10 starters returned and their youth showed in the close games as they had 6 losses by 7 points or less. This year they have 16 starters back and those close losses should turn to wins this year. The offense is set as QB Blake Borties is back after topping Conference USA in passing efficiency last year. The Knights should have an excellent running game this season with Brynn Harvey (2,202 rush yds, 18 TD in career) and Latavius Murray (233 rush yds vs. UTEP) operating behind a solid offensive line. The addition of RB Storm Johnson (Miami, FLA transfer) should further boost this running game. Defensiely they may be the best I Conference USA, with 8 starters back from a group that was 9th in the FBS in both points allowed (18.3 ppg) and yards (303 ypg). George O’Leary has a very solid team that should make a return to the Conference USA Title game.
Southern Mississippi: The Golden Eagles took the East Division last year and then proceeded to cost the conference millions after beating Houston in the Conf USA title game. They won 12 games in a year for the first time in their history, but repeating that feat may be difficult this year. Larry Fedora did a great job here the last 4 years, but he and his entire staff are gone. Making matter worse for New HC Ellis Johnson is the fact that just 10 starters return from last year’s 12-2 team. The Offense must break in a new QB and they lose their top 2 WR’s as well, but the OL may be the best in the Conf and their running game is very good as well, with their top 4 ball carriers back. Last year they allowed just 20.8 ppg, but with just 4 starters back that may be tough to duplicate. The DL is one of the best in the league and the secondary is very solid as well, but they have one of the weakest LB corp in the conference. This is still a very good team and if they beat UCF on the road then they just may return to the Conference USA Title game.
East Carolina: The Pirates were very banged up at season’s end and losses at Utep and Marshall cost them a shot at a bowl bid. The Pirates will be a much different team than they have been in past years with the departure of QB Dominique Davis, who threw for 7,192 yards and 62 TD in two seasons. Junior Rio Johnson (20-for-29, 157 yds, 1 INT in career) will take over under center for Ruffin McNeill’s pass-heavy offense. The Pirates are loaded at the WR spot and have their top 3 RB’s back as well, but they must cut down on the TO’s after being 2nd to last in the FBS in TO margin. On the defensive side of the ball, this team is getting playmakers back in its front seven, as well as the linebacking corps, including C-USA Freshman of the Year middle linebacker Jeremy Grove (45 solo tackles, 77 assists). With 7 starters back I look for big improvement form this unit after allowing 32.3 ppg last year. Normally a when a team deals with many Injuries the year before they end up being healthier the next year and with 15 starters back they could be set for a run at a bowl game.
Marshall: Last year the Thundering Herd had 13 starters return, but with an inexperienced QB and they shocked allot of people by making it to a bowl game. This year they also have 13 returning starters, but with an experienced QB at the helm. Last year Marshall put up 21.8 ppg, but should be more exciting this time around, as 8 starters are back. QB Rakeem Cato is returning after a solid freshman campaign (2,059 pass yds, 15 TD, 11 INT) and back with him is his super talented RB duo of Tron Martinez (649 rush yds, 3 TD) and Travon Van (551 rush yds, 3 TD), as well as 8 players who caught at least 14 passes last year. The OL is solid as well with 3 starters back. Defense was a problem for this team last year as they allowed 405 ypg and 28.6 ppg and they have some work to do this year, but have just 5 starters back and none of their top 4 tacklers from last year. Marshall loses its best pass rusher (Vinny Curry), but the secondary gets a boost from saftey D.J. Hunter returning from a knee injury and Boston College transfers Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okorha contributing. Still a lot of holes to plug on this side of the ball and they may just leave them on the outside looking in when it comes to getting a bowl invite this year.
Alabama-Birmingham: The Blazers have a new HC in Garrick McGee after they went just 3-9 last year under Neil Callaway. McGee has a great offensive mind (he learned under Bobby Petrino) and both he and offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm should be able to make the most out of QB Jonathan Perry (2,042 pass yds, 10 TD, 8 INT). Perry had a rocky start to his freshman year for the Blazers, but played much better down the stretch with 7 TD and 1 INT in his final three games. The OL lost 4 starters, but there is talent at the skill positions with the top 3 RB and top 7 pass caters back from last year. Still this unit could struggle some until the OL gels. Defensively this unit will struggle again as they have just 4 starters back from a unit that allowed 36.8 ppg and 486 ypg. Offensively this team will be fine and will be very good in the 2nd half of the year, but ultimately it will be their defense that keeps them from improving a whole lot on last year’s 3-9 mark.
Memphis: The Tigers were just horrible last year as they went 2-10 overall and 1-7 in Conf USA, while being outgained by 230.9 ypg in their conf games, so they have a ton of ground to make up. New HC Justin Fuente will bring an up-tempo style offense to Memphis and Texas Tech transfer QB Jacob Karam will be asked to run it. He is very athletic and should do well, but the offense has lost their top RB and 2 of their 3 top WR’s from last year, so they have some holes to plug at the skill positions, while the OL is one of the worst in the Conf. The Tigers allowed 35.1 ppg last year and this year they must replace a first round draft pick in DT Dontari Poe. Even with 7 strters back this unit can be expected to struggle after allowing 34.8 ppg or more and 458 ypg or more in each of their last 3 year. With 7 starters back on both sides of the ball they will be improved, but they will be going through new scheme changes and really don’t have enough playmakers on either side of the ball to win more than 2 or 3 games this year.
Overall I expect Houston and Central Florida to meet up in the Conference USA Title game, with the Knights taking the title. Here are the current overall odds to take the Conference Title this year. (Courtesy of BetOnline). UCF (+250); Houston (+450); SMU (+475), Southern Miss (+475); Tulsa (+500); East Carolina (+800); Marshall (+1000); UTEP (+1500); Rice (+2500), UAB (+2500); Tulane (+3000); Memphis (+4000).
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