The Conference USA Preview: Biggest games feature outgoing teams

Can ECU win C-USA Title in last go around? Justin Hardy will figure prominently in that.
(Photo courtesy USA Today Sports)

As Kevin said in our look back at 2012 yesterday, this is a sneaky good conference. Well, at least it was until it was raided and will be raided again by The American. Despite some of the top schools like UCF, SMU, and Houston leaving before this season there's plenty to like about the new look C-USA. 

All of the contenders and the conference champ are back in Tulsa, East Carolina, and Rice (although ECU and Tulsa will be gone after this season) and some of the newcomers could be instant contenders this season in Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee. 

That said, if the new look conference wants respect it can't be the have's and the have not's. Sadly, that's what it appears could happen in 2013 as the list of true contenders is minimal to say the least. On the positive side, almost every true contender takes on each other during the regular season. Add in some very key non-conference games and you actually have a very intriguing list of games to watch for in 2013. 

10. UTEP @ North Texas (Nov. 9): Yes, your eyes aren't deceiving you. Sure, there are some very intriguing non-conference games played by this conference, but these two teams are teams I'll be watching to see if they can become upper division contenders in 2013. UTEP is under the new leadership of former Miner player Sean Kugler and he inherits a decent team, one that returns 94 percent of the rushing yards from last season and has seven starters returning overall. North Texas has eight starters returning on both sides of the ball. To me that can be a recipe for increased success, besides if you don't root for or love Dan McCarney (HC at North Texas) you need to get yourself hip to this great man of college football. The winner of this game may not be the winner of the C-USA West, but they could be setting themselves up to be contenders moving forward in the new look conference coming in 2014 especially.

9. Marshall @ Ohio (Sept. 14): Ohio didn't quite have the season it wanted to in 2012, but that was all about injuries than lack of talent. On the whole this game is really about setting a tone for showing who can be a contender in their own conference. It's also a rematch of one of the best games played in 2012, a 27-24 win for Ohio. This rematch in Athens could go a long way to telling us if Marshall could be a contender to the domination that could be ECU this season. The Herd of Marshall return eight starters on offense and seven on defense and while they were 5-7 last season, a three point swing the other way in this game last season would've made them a bowl eligible team. Can they attain that status in 2013? A win in this one would go a long way.

8. La Tech @ Rice (Nov. 16): Tulsa may be the returning C-USA champion, but don't sleep on the Owls or Bulldogs in the West either. This late season matchup could set up one of these schools as potential spoilers to the expected Tulsa back-to-back championship party. Rice returns 20 of 24 starters on all sides of the ball and while LaTech loses the AirRaid offense and a lot of the firepower behind it they do have a great foundation for new head coach Skip Holtz in running back Kenneth Dixon. The winner of this one is likely to vault themselves into the conference title race to say the least.

7. Marshall @ Middle Tennessee (Oct. 26): Just three weeks after taking on division title favorite ECU, the Blue Raiders take on the team most think they'll have to fight with to be the 2nd best in the East division – Marshall. MTSU returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense, so the cupboard is far from bare and this is a far more even matchup than some think. If the newcomer wants to be taken seriously this season a win here would go a long way. This game has the potential to be an offensive explosion as well and the winner could very well be the only other team in the division that will be bowl eligible. So, there's plenty on the line when the Herd and Blue Raiders meet in late October.

6. East Carolina @ Middle Tennessee (Oct. 5): Middle Tennessee or MTSU as its known in most circles has been one of the most consistent teams in the Sun Belt for the past four years or so and they've been able to pick off a few big boys along the way. However, there are questions about contending in the Sun Belt versus doing the same in C-USA. Well, an early season matchup with fellow East division foe ECU could go a long way in answering that question. A win or at least not getting crushed would tell us MTSU is ready to be a player in the conference, however a bad loss means that MTSU needs a year or two to become a true contender. That's the issue out East, outside of ECU and Marshall, who else matters? 

5. Houston @ Rice (Sept. 21): The old vs. the standby C-USA matchup also happens to be a good indicator of which team could be an actual contender inside their now respective conferences. Of course there's this whole bragging rights in the city of Houston thing on the line… Needless to say a win in this one for Rice is paramount if they want to be the true contenders a lot of people think they could be.

4. East Carolina @ Marshall (Nov. 29): If things go as expected in the East this could be a matchup for the division title. Then again it could all be worth nothing too, but that's what happens when you're playing the final weekend of the season. ECU and Marshall are easily the two most likely contenders in a division that is decidedly weaker than the West. Looking at the schedule I expect both of these two to be in similar positions coming into this game and that makes it hugely important. It also could mean job security for the winning coach. The loser could well be on his way out – so, I'd say this is a vastly important matchup to say the least.

3. Rice @ Tulsa (Oct. 5): No big deal in this one… It's just an early season matchup between the two biggest contenders in the West from last season. Oh, and the winner gets a leg up the rest of the way in the division race. It's not as if this one puts the winner in the drivers seat of their own destiny or anything. O.k., I think you get the point. This is a massive game in the West division and it comes early. Last season these two had a heck of a battle, with Tulsa coming out on top 28-24. What is different in this one is that the defense that was so good for Tulsa last season only sees 3 returning starters in 2013 and a matchup against an offense like Rice can throw at you needs experience and discipline to keep it in check

2. Va Tech @ East Carolina (Sept. 14): Anytime a school from C-USA gets a school like Va Tech in their place it's huge. It's equally huge when said school happens to be a contender for the conference crown and is as loaded as Ruffin McNeill bunch is. Consider this an opportunity for the Pirates to plant their flag against a name program. The issue for ECU was that contending against anyone from the FBS level outside of conference didn't go so well, in fact they got crushed in all four contests against FBS foes from out of conference. Their only non-conference win was against Appalachian State. Redemption time could be here and doing it against a team that is in transition like Va Tech would be huge.

1. Tulsa @ East Carolina (Nov. 9): Returning champ vs. best of the remaining schools in the East in a late season matchup? What's not to love? ECU wasn't exactly down in the dumps, second fiddle to UCF last season, sharing the same 7-1 conference record. This game could end up having a rematch when it's all said and done, but a loss really could hurt either team in their chances against some contenders, especially in the case of the Golden Hurricane. If ECU comes out a winner they're likely to run away with the East and that could also mean a team worthy of Top 25 status. A Tulsa W doesn't have as much steam because they'll still have a few big tests in the much stronger West before a possible rematch at their own house on Dec. 7th for the C-USA title between two future members of The American.

Andrew Coppens

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a contributor to The Comeback as well as Publisher of Big Ten site talking10. He also is a member of the FWAA and has been covering college sports since 2011. Andy is an avid soccer fan and runs the Celtic FC site The Celtic Bhoys. If he's not writing about sports, you can find him enjoying them in front of the TV with a good beer!