When Skip Holtz made the decision to leave East Carolina, it opened up the can of worms that is 2010 Conference USA discussion.
Okay, Okay, I know it's the NFL playoffs, and conference championship week at that. But give me a break, I'll be writing nonstop all week about Peyton vs Rex, and Favre vs Brees, and all the excitement that comes along with what I consider to be "the most exciting NFL day of the year." But for now I'm going to give you my 2010 Conference USA Pre-Preview.
Last year Holtz lead the Pirates to a 7-1 conference record, en route to picking up a C-USA title and Liberty Bowl berth. East Carolina should still compete in 2010, but with Holtz leaving, and a lot of the coaching staff going with him, chances are the Pirates are going to see some sort of decline. I project East Carolina to fall to about a 5-3 conference record next year, giving them a probable second place finish in C-USA East.
The team that should win the East next year are the Golden Eagles of Southern Miss. Although they finished up poorly against Middle Tennessee, the Golden Eagles are returning enough of their core to get back to the top of the East. I'd feel confident projecting a 6-2 finish for them.
The rest of C-USA East I see sorting out as follows; UCF will finish 5-3, Marshall will finish 4-4, UAB will finish 3-5, while Memphis will continue to slip and fall to 1-7.
Conference USA West is far more interesting.
The return of Quarterback Case Keenum sets things up wonderfully for the Cougars of Houston. For much of 2009 they were a Top 25 team, but their fall towards the end of 2009 shouldn't carry over into the new season. Their lone competition in the C-USA West will come from Tulsa, and in-state rival SMU.
Tulsa should be better in 2010 after they had a step-back year in 2009. Though it will take time to adjust to a Western division that now features potent Houston and SMU offenses, Tulsa will likely compete in 2010, and at the very worst finish top 3 in the division and return to a Bowl game.
The Mustangs of SMU on the other hand are the wild cards of not only C-USA, but potentially a lot more next year. Their performance in the Hawaii Bowl has a lot of people looking towards Dallas, and head coach June Jones has pulled off bigger miracles than returning a one-time national powerhouse to prominence. It would be foolish not to fully anticipate a focused, well coached SMU team next year, that will in no way take a step back towards mediocrity.
The way I see C-USA West sorting out is SMU in first at 7-1, owning the head to head with Houston at 7-1. Tulsa will improve to 5-3, while UTEP and Rice will be 3-5. Tulane will be lucky to improve to 2-6.
In a SMU vs Southern Miss match up I would have to love the Mustangs chances. Last year Jones' target was the Hawaii Bowl. This year, Jones' target will be the Liberty Bowl. Losing Shawnbrey McNeal hurts, but the Mustangs will get over that loss. I believe Kyle Padron will be named the Mustang's starting QB, and he'll lead them to a C-USA championship next year.
If there's one thing we should have learned in the last decade it's never bet against June Jones reaching his targets. The man knows how to coach, and he's one of the ten best coaches in the nation. That's a fact.