Conference USA’s Eastern Division is wide open in ways even deeper than the usual meaning when such terminology is applied to a race. Not only is this a balanced division, but the team that’s owned it in recent years—Central Florida—has packed up and left the league. Several teams can make a case to supplant UCF in the Conference USA championship game on December 7, and our college football coverage will run through them all…
SEVERAL CONTENDERS; ONE FRONTRUNNER
There are several contenders, but one stands out more than others, and that’s East Carolina. The Pirates are coming off an 8-4 season and will be strong on both sides of the line of scrimmage. ECU has an experienced offensive front, and a defensive front seven.
Physicality in the trenches is great, but C-USA is one of two leagues—the MAC being the other—where scores can resemble a basketball game. East Carolina is also well-suited to win when the game gets wide open . Junior quarterback Shane Carden can both throw and run, and Justin Hardy is a solid receiver. On the other side of the ball, three starters return in the secondary.
This is East Carolina’s final season in Conference USA before they move on to the American Athletic Conference (formerly known as the Big East). They have a reasonable basis for hoping to depart with a conference championship.
Middle Tennessee, Marshall and UAB are dark horses in varying degrees…
Marshall: I love Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato, and I’m not the only one. Cato won the conference MVP award last season even though his team finished 5-7. Cato averaged 350 pass yards a game and he can make plays with his feet. Still only a junior, Cato has a veteran offensive line, his top four running backs in the fold, and a 110-catch receiver in Tommy Shuler. Marshall should be dropping 45-50 points on a weekly basis.
It’s how many they’re going to give up that will decide this team’s fate. The defense was awful last year, as you might expect if they had a losing record with the conference MVP at quarterback. There are still five underclassmen in this year’s starting lineup, so if you’re skeptical of a turnaround, you have probable cause.
Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders won eight games last year as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. If they repeat that showing in C-USA, they’ll have bowl access. Logan Kilgore is a high-percentage quarterback who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and one of seven senior starters on offense.
MTSU can also defend the pass, with a veteran back seven. Rebuilding the defensive line is the main challenge, but no one in this league is ever going to run it down your throat.
UAB: I know I’m pushing my luck in putting UAB on this tier of teams, after a 3-9 season in 2012. And in truth, I don’t see them as a legitimate challenger to win the division. But I do think the Blazers have enough going for them to potentially rise higher than Marshall or Middle Tennessee.
UAB brings most of its lineman on both sides of the ball back, so they should be physically stronger. They have a good running back in Darrin Reaves, an experienced secondary and a sophomore quarterback Rustin Brown who started as a freshman. I can see the three wins of 2012 becoming the seven or eight victories of 2013.
BRINGING UP THE REAR
Southern Miss: It’s unreal how far this program has fallen in such a short time. The Golden Eagles won the C-USA title in 2011 and head coach Larry Fedora cashed it in for the North Carolina job. Last year, Southern Miss went 0-12. The program immediately hired its third coach in three years.
Normally I would not advocate firing a coach after one year, but with all due respect to Ellis Johnson and his family, this kind of plummeting is almost unprecedented. Southern Miss needed to just move on quickly. New coach Todd Monken has the defensive front seven back and will rebuild everywhere else.
Florida Atlantic: A new arrival from the Sun Belt, Florida Atlantic has a new offensive line, a new quarterback and not much in the defensive trenches.
Florida International: What the hell is this program thinking? FIU had a disappointing year in 3-9, but head coach Mario Cristobal had established himself as a builder and had made bowl games. Instead, Florida International fired Cristobal. Do the administrators think this is Florida State? Don’t ever tell me a coach should show loyalty to his program after this pathetic display.
I’m going to take a flyer on Marshall to win this division. I like Cato too much, and I think the defense has to at least improve enough to be mediocre. If you ask me which division team is most likely to have a decent eight-win season, I’d take East Carolina. But I sense a division whose championship race is going to be crazy, so let’s go with the Thundering Herd.