Conference USA received a lot of early season notice in 2008, thanks to East Carolina's back-to-back, season-opening wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia and Tulsa's 8-0 start.
Alas, ECU suffered a three-game losing streak after starting 3-0, and Tulsa didn't even end up winning the league.
Still, all that early attention was followed by a 4-2 bowl record, which elevated C-USA's profile.
The 4-2 bowl mark gave the league a nice springboard into the offseason. And it was an important offseason for some of the teams that won their bowls, most notably Rice and Tulsa. Both won with powerful offenses last season, but both are looking for new quarterbacks while also breaking in new offensive coordinators. Southern Miss, another bowl winner, lost perhaps the league's best defensive player in linebacker Gerald McRath, who turned pro a year early, and the Golden Eagles' highest priority is rebuilding at linebacker.
The only bowl winner that doesn't have a lot of holes is Houston - and not coincidentally, the Cougars look like the best team in the league. Coach Kevin Sumlin is heading into his second season, and he took what had been a powerful offense under former coach Art Briles and tweaked it a bit. The result? The No. 2 passing offense in the nation.
While the Cougars look to be the favorite in the West, defending league champ East Carolina is the favorite in the East. ECU received a boost when quarterback Patrick Pinkney was granted a sixth season of eligibility because of past injuries. The Pirates have been to three consecutive bowls, and a tough defense will get them to their fourth in a row. ECU may have the best lines in the league.
What gives us pause in picking ECU is that the league hasn't had a repeat winner since 2000-01, when Louisville won back-to-back crowns.
SMU bears watching in its second season under June Jones. The Mustangs were horrible last season, finishing 1-11, mainly because the defense was beyond awful. But SMU showed some signs of life in the passing game, and it's not that big a stretch to imagine the Mustangs getting to the six-victory mark and heading to a bowl. Every league member has been to a bowl since 2002 except the Mustangs.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Houston QB Case Keenum. Keenum, a junior, is the nation's returning leader in total offense after he threw for 5,020 yards last season. He has thrown for at least 300 yards in 13 consecutive games and had five 400-yard games and nine three-touchdown games last season. Keenum has 58 TD passes and 16 touchdown runs in his two seasons. He should put up more big numbers this season, and a 5,000-yard, 40-TD season is easily attainable.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: East Carolina E C.J. Wilson. Wilson, a senior, was a big reason ECU led Conference USA in total defense and won the conference title last season. He tied for the league lead in tackles for loss (18.5) and was second in sacks (10.5). Wilson had a sack in nine of the Pirates' 14 games and had more than a third of the team's total. Wilson finished with 70 total tackles and added five quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: UAB QB Joe Webb. No player is as important to his team in Conference USA as Webb, a senior who threw for 2,367 yards and ran for 1,021 last season. Webb was one of eight quarterbacks in the nation to lead his team in passing and rushing. But he must improve his decision-making skills (10 touchdown passes, 16 interceptions last season). If UAB is to have any hope for a .500 season, Webb must play more consistent football.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Southern Miss DE Roshaad Byrd. Southern Miss had just 20 sacks last season, and in a league where passes fly, that's not going to cut it this season. Byrd started all 13 games last season, yet didn't record a sack and had just 3.5 tackles for loss. He must play better or risk losing his job to Cordarro Law.
PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Rice's new quarterback. Senior John Thomas Shepherd, sophomore Nick Fanuzzi and redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis are battling to replace Chase Clement, who was third nationally in total offense last season at 370.2 yards per game. Clement finished his career as the school's record holder in passing yards, touchdown passes, completions and attempts. Fanuzzi, who began his career at Alabama, has good size (6 feet 3/220 pounds) and mobility. Lewis missed time in the spring playing baseball. Shepherd backed up Clement and is well-versed in the offense, though he's not as athletic as the other two. The decision on the new starter likely won't be made until right before the season, but it's a safe bet that the production won't come close to matching Clement's from last season.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: SMU QB Bo Levi Mitchell. Mitchell, a sophomore, can be expected to make a big jump in his second season in coach June Jones' pass-happy offense. Mitchell threw for 2,865 yards and 24 TDs - with 23 picks - last season as a true freshman; a 3,500-yard, 30-TD season in 2009 is a reasonable expectation. Obviously, he needs to cut down on the interceptions.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Southern Miss LB Korey Williams. Southern Miss is looking to replace two starters at linebacker - including star Gerald McRath - and Williams, a sophomore, looks poised for a breakout season. He missed much of last season with a broken jaw, but he runs well and hits a ton.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: East Carolina RB Brandon Jackson. Jackson, a sophomore transfer from Kentucky, emerged from spring ball as ECU's starter. He's a solid fit for the Pirates' offense because of his versatility. ECU has good depth at tailback, and Jackson has the best mix of tools among those contending for playing time. He's not necessarily going to be a star, but he is going to be a steady producer.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: UCF CB Josh Robinson. A veteran secondary was UCF's strength last season, but all four starters are gone and the unit is a huge question. Robinson, a touted true freshman from the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area who chose UCF over Michigan, enrolled early and emerged from spring practice as a starter at cornerback. Robinson is a good athlete who can run, and he should be a nice fit in UCF's aggressive defense.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Marshall DE Albert McClellan. McClellan had a great 2006, finishing with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He was injured and missed 2007, then returned last season. But he didn't have his same big-play ability, finishing with 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Yet he still was named first-team all-league. Now, C-USA teams are defensively challenged, but the only reason he was a first-team all-league performer last season was that he was living off his old press clippings. The Herd need him to return to form this season.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: UTEP QB Trevor Vittatoe. Vittatoe put up great numbers last season - 3,274 yards, a school-record 33 touchdowns, just nine interceptions - but he was overshadowed in his own division because three quarterbacks threw for more yards. He has thrown for 6,375 yards, with 58 touchdowns and 16 picks, in his two seasons. Given the Miners' receiving talent and his coaching staff, a 3,500-yard, 35-TD season should be his goal.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Marshall's Mark Snyder. Going into last season, most observers assumed Snyder would be fired if the Thundering Herd didn't get a bowl bid. They didn't, but he's still on the job. This time around, though, it really is hard to see him surviving if the Herd doesn't go bowling. He's 16-31 in four seasons and has won seven games combined in the past two. A chance exists for the Herd to finish third in the East - and they had better seize the opportunity, for Snyder's sake.
BEST COACHING STAFF: East Carolina. Skip Holtz has done a nice job rebuilding the Pirates and could be in line for a "bigger" job at the end of the season, especially if he can guide ECU to its second consecutive C-USA title. Greg Hudson is the league's best defensive coordinator - more on him in a minute - and Steve Shankweiler does a solid job with the offense. Secondary coach Rick Smith is a veteran assistant. And defensive tackle coach Thomas "Rock" Roggeman has a cool name, especially for a line coach.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Houston's Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen is entering his second season as the Cougars' offensive coordinator. Before that, he had spent eight seasons at Texas Tech, including the last three as coordinator. But he calls the plays at Houston, something he did not do at Tech. Befitting someone who worked under Mike Leach, Holgorsen is a good teacher of the passing game; Houston was second nationally in total offense (562.8 yards per game) and passing offense (401.6 yards per game) and 10th in scoring (40.6 points per game) last season.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: East Carolina's Greg Hudson. Hudson is entering his fifth season at ECU and also serves as linebacker coach. His defenses make it a priority to stop the run and also thrive on forcing turnovers. Last season's defense led C-USA in total defense and scoring defense. Unlike most C-USA teams, ECU places a premium on having a solid defense, and Hudson has overseen some good units.
1. East Carolina at West Virginia, Sept. 12
2. East Carolina at North Carolina, Sept. 19
3. Texas Tech at Houston, Sept. 26
4. Southern Miss at Kansas, Sept. 26
5. Houston at UTEP, Oct. 3
6. Houston at Mississippi State, Oct. 10
7. Tulsa at UTEP, Oct. 21
8. Southern Miss at Houston, Oct. 31
9. Houston at Tulsa, Nov. 7
10. Southern Miss at East Carolina, Nov. 28
GAME OF THE YEAR: Houston at Tulsa, Nov. 7. These teams should be the leading contenders for the West Division title, and the winner of this game likely represents the division in the Dec. 5 league championship game. Both should be solid offensively, but the defenses are a question. Houston rolled to a 70-30 beatdown of the Golden Hurricane last season; that followed a 56-7 Tulsa romp in 2007.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Rice. The rebuilding Owls open with three consecutive road games, and each of their four non-conference foes went bowling last season. Three of them are "Big Six" foes, and the Owls have lost 14 in a row to such teams. Defense is a concern, and Games 2 and 3 are on the road against high-powered Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. The Owls go on the road to face the preseason favorites in each division - at East Carolina and at Houston. At least they get UTEP and Tulsa at home.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Tulane. It's not going to help the Green Wave have a successful season, but the schedule isn't that difficult. Five of the first six games are at home, and there is just one truly tough league road game. Plus, the Green Wave miss East favorite East Carolina and get the top three teams in the West (Tulsa, UTEP and Houston) at home.
MOST EMBARRASSING GAME: Alcorn State at Southern Miss, Sept. 5. On the one hand, if Southern Miss wants to play a Football Championship Subdivision team, Alcorn makes sense in that the campuses are about 2½ hours apart. On the other hand, this is the first meeting and it comes when Alcorn is coming off a 2-10 season and expected to struggle again. This will be ugly.