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Southern Miss and Houston are each expected to dominate their respective divisions and meet in Houston for the conference title for the second year in-a-row.
Last year, the Cougars prevailed 34-20 and represented CUSA in the Liberty Bowl where they fell 44-36 to South Carolina. Southern Miss defeated Ohio 28-7 at the GMAC Bowl for the league's only postseason win as CUSA teams were a disappointing 1-4 in bowl games.
The Golden Eagles are underdogs twice all year - both in non-conference matches at Tennessee (+8.56) and Boise State (+10.65). Those projected losses are sandwiched around a conference road trip to expected east division runner-up East Carolina where Southern Miss is favored by only 2.83. The Golden Eagles are favored in the rest of their conference games by no less than 6.50.
Houston may rule the west in an even more decisive fashion. After opening the year as an underdog by 3.74 points at Oregon, the Cougars' closest contest is a predicted 3.57-point win at Alabama. Houston's tightest spread in conference play is a 6.30-point edge at Tulsa, the projected second-place team in the west division.
Tulsa raced to a 7-1 start last year before slipping down the stretch with losses in four of its final five games, including a 25-13 setback to Utah in the Armed Forces Bowl. This year, the Golden Hurricane will have to deal with the loss of head coach Steve Kragthorpe who replaced Bobby Petrino at Louisville when Petrino moved to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. Tulsa did well by plucking Todd Graham from Rice as Kragthorpe's replacement. Graham was Kragthorpe's assistant head coach at Tulsa before spending last season as head coach of the Owls, leading them to a 7-6 record and the school's first bowl bid since 1961.
Rice will try and recover from the departure of Graham under the tutelage of David Bailiff. The Texas State head coach led the 1-AA Bobcats to a 21-15 record in his three seasons at the San Marcos school, and reached the division 1-AA semifinals in 2005. His squad was just 5-6 this past season.
Two other CUSA schools - UAB and Tulane - also have new head coaches.
The Blazers nabbed Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway, a Bulldog assistant for six seasons. Prior to his stint with Georgia, Callaway was Alabama's offensive line coach in 1997 and offensive coordinator from 1998-2000.
Tulane inked New Mexico offensive coordinator and former UCLA head coach, Bob Toledo, who has a career head coaching record of 78-68. At UCLA, Toledo was 49-32 and his Bruins set a school record with 20 consecutive wins from September 13, 1997 through November 21, 1998. Two losses at the beginning of the '97 season, and two losses at the end of the '98 season, derailed UCLA's legitimate national title chases in each of those seasons.
Scelfo's tenure with Tulane included a 2-9 record in 2005 when the school had to play all 11 games away from home after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the New Orleans campus.
UAB and Tulane are both projected to bring up the rear of their respective divisions and the Blazers enter the 2007 season with the lowest power rating of all CUSA teams. Out of 119 teams in 1-A football, only Temple and FIU have a lower power rating in the computer's preseason forecast.
East Carolina's Skip Holtz is only in his third season as head coach, but has already brought the Pirates back to respectability. In the three years prior to Holtz' arrival, East Carolina was a cumulative 7-28 and its best season was a 2003 mark of 4-8. Holtz' first team went 5-6 and upgraded to 7-6 last year with a loss to former CUSA member South Florida (now in the Big East) in the inaugural PapaJohns.com Bowl. It was East Carolina's first bowl appearance since the 2001 debacle at the GMAC Bowl where the Pirates blew a 38-8 halftime lead over Marshall to lose 64-61 in two overtimes.
The computer sees further improvement for East Carolina this year, projecting a record of 8-4 and a second consecutive second-place finish in the east division. One of ECU's two projected conference losses is at home to Southern Miss by less than 3 points.
The big news in Central Florida is the new 45,000-seat on-campus stadium in Orlando. The Golden Knights will christen the facility on Sept. 15 against Texas at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN2. UCF is picked to go 4-2 in its new digs and the projected loss to Tulsa is by less than a point.
Memphis was the computer's preseason favorite to win the east division and the CUSA title last year. But the Tigers were plagued by a rash of injuries and lost three league games by 6 points or less to limp in with a 2-10 finish, 1-7 in CUSA. It may be a good omen for Memphis that the computer is forecasting a 4-8 season this year. The last time the computer projected a 4-8 campaign for the Tigers was in 2003 when they finished the regular season 8-4 and then won the New Orleans Bowl.
UTEP also severely contradicted the computer the last time they were forecasted to get just two wins. It was only three years ago in 2004 that the computer saddled Mike Price's first Miners squad with a 2-9 projection. Instead, UTEP went 8-3 before losing to Colorado in the Houston Bowl.
SMU is a different story. In the last two seasons, the computer called for Phil Bennett's squad to turn in records of 8-3 and 9-3 but they came in three wins below expectations each time. This year, the computer is projecting an 8-4 season for the Mustangs.
Marshall never had a losing season during eight years in the MAC and claimed five MAC titles during its first six 1-A campaigns. Unfortunately for the Herd, head coach Bob Pruett's retirement announcement was a late surprise when it came in April of 2005, just months before Marshall's CUSA debut. Mark Snyder took the reigns on April 14th of that year and has actually outperformed the computer's forecast by three wins in each of his first two seasons, turning in records of 4-7 and 5-7 against predictions of 1-10 and 2-10. If the former Ohio State defensive coordinator and Marshall defensive back does that again this year, the Thundering Herd would finish 7-5 and be on their way to a bowl game.