BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Southern Miss tailback Damion Fletcher. Fletcher has rushed for 2,974 yards and 26 TDs in his first two seasons as a Golden Eagle. He's not that big (5 feet 10/175 pounds) and lacks elite speed, but he's tougher than he looks and at times it's as if he's gliding over the ground. He also doesn't mind carrying 20-plus times a game. Fletcher is an excellent receiver, making him a great fit for new coach Larry Fedora's spread offense.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Southern Miss linebacker Gerald McRath. Southern Miss always seems to have a star defender. This season, it's McRath - who has excellent size (6-3/220) and great instincts. He can run and always seems to be around the ball, the major reason he had 139 tackles last season. Those numbers were posted with a solid line in front of him. This season's line is all new, so McRath can expect to have to fight off more blockers.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: SMU quarterback Justin Willis. Willis, a junior, has thrown 51 TD passes in his two seasons as the starter. In new coach June Jones' offense, he could throw 40 or so this season. Willis was suspended for spring ball, but has been reinstated. The job isn't his for sure, but he's the most talented of the candidates. If he cuts down on his propensity to throw picks, he could have a tremendous season. If he can't curtail his mistakes, he'll find a seat on the bench.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Marshall end Albert McClellan. McClellan had a tremendous season in 2006, finishing with 77 tackles and 11.5 sacks en route to being named the league's defensive player of the year. He missed last season with a torn ACL, but is expected to be 100 percent this season as a junior. If he flashes his 2006 form, the Herd could be a surprise team in the East Division race. If he struggles, the defense will lack a playmaker and coach Mark Snyder could find it hard to keep his job.
PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: UCF tailback Ronnie Weaver. All UCF running back Kevin Smith did last season was rush for 2,567 yards – the second-best single-season total in Division I-A history – and 29 TDs. He turned pro after his junior season and could start this season for the Detroit Lions. Bad news for the Knights is that there isn't a back on campus who has had a college carry. Phillip Smith – who had been the likely candidate to replace Kevin Smith – was booted from the team in July. Weaver, a redshirt freshman who began his career as a walk-on, appears as if he'll be the starter. It wouldn't be a surprise, though, to see one of the four freshman tailbacks signed by the Knights eventually become the No. 1 guy during the season. One other thing to consider: Smith ran behind a veteran line that was the best in the league last season. This season's tailback will run behind a line with three new starters.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: UTEP quarterback Trevor Vittatoe. As a redshirt freshman last season, Vittatoe had his ups and downs. However, he still threw for 3,101 yards with 25 TDs and seven interceptions. Expect his completion percentage to climb into the low 60s from last season's 55.0 percent. He and wide receiver Jeff Moturi should form an explosive and productive duo.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: UCF end Bruce Miller. Miller is undersized (6-2/249), but he's a heady player with superb instincts. Those instincts helped him rack up seven sacks last season as a redshirt freshman. He benefited last season in that two senior linemen were the focal point of opposing offensive lines. This season, Miller will be the focal point of blockers. He'll handle it just fine.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Memphis quarterback Arkelon Hall. A junior college transfer, Hall is a California native who began his career at Washington State. He redshirted there as a freshman, then left for greener pastures. Hall has good size (6-3/220), good mobility and a strong arm. He is battling for the starting job, but he has the most upside of the three contenders. If he wins the job, he has an excellent receiving group to work with, so big numbers are possible.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: SMU strong safety Rock Dennis. Hey, if nothing else, the guy has a great name for a strong safety. Actually, he has more than that. Dennis signed with SMU as a junior college transfer in 2007, then had to sit out with a shoulder injury. He has tremendous speed and should be a force in an SMU secondary that has the potential to be one of the best four or five in the league.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Marshall's Mark Snyder. Marshall fans are passionate, and they don't like it that Snyder has had a losing record in each of his three seasons as the Herd's coach and is 12-23 overall. Marshall has been especially putrid on the road under Snyder, going 2-16. Things could change this season, as long as coaches can find a quarterback. Still, definite improvement likely needs to be shown in the win-loss columns if Snyder wants to stick around. It doesn't help Snyder's cause that the Herd face a brutal schedule (more on that in a minute).
BEST COACHING STAFF: As usual, there were some offseason defections from the staff, but George O'Leary still has a steady hand on the tiller. O'Leary is an old-school coach, and his Knights have won with ground-gobbling rushing offenses and physical defenses. Because the offense is in transition this season, new defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable – promoted from linebacker coach – needs to make sure his unit plays well.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: SMU's June Jones. Jones serves as his own coordinator, and he's confident his pass-first – and -second and -third and -fourth – system will work in this league. Actually, if you've watched much C-USA football over the past few seasons and seen some of these "defenses" in action, you have to think Jones is 100 percent correct.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Marshall's Rick Minter. This guy has been around for a while, no doubt. This will be his 30th season as a college coach, and he has made stops at Notre Dame and South Carolina - among others. This will be his first season with the Thundering Herd, and he has a standout player at each level of the defense – end Albert McClellan, linebacker Maurice Kitchens and free safety C.J. Spillman. If McClellan provides a pass rush, Minter's scheming ability will produce results.
ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Tulsa co-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Malzahn's pass-happy offense at Springdale (Ark.) High earned him notice earlier this decade, and he's heading into his third season as a college assistant - including his second with Tulsa. He is listed as the co-coordinator, but he calls the plays and his fingerprints are all over the offense. Tulsa led the nation in total offense last season and became the first team in history with a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers. The quarterback will be new this season, but the other guys are back and Tulsa will put up big numbers again. And putting up big numbers will earn Malzahn even more notice – perhaps enough to get him a head-coaching job.
GAME OF THE YEAR: UCF at Tulsa, Oct. 26. This is the toughest interdivisional game for the Golden Hurricane, who lost twice at UCF last season (including the league title game). This also is the toughest league road game for the Knights, so if they win this Sunday night ESPN showdown, it'll make things mighty interesting in the East because East Carolina and Southern Miss have to play in Orlando.
West Virginia at East Carolina, Sept. 6
Texas at UTEP, Sept. 6
East Carolina at NC State, Sept. 20
Houston at East Carolina, Sept. 27
UCF at Miami, Oct. 11
UCF at Tulsa, Oct. 26
East Carolina at UCF, Nov. 2
Southern Miss at UCF, Nov. 8
East Carolina at Southern Miss, Nov. 15
Tulsa at Houston, Nov. 15
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: East Carolina. There are two contenders in this category – ECU and Marshall. We'll give the "edge" to the Pirates because all four of their non-conference opponents are from "Big Six" conferences, including games against West Virginia and Virginia Tech. However, neither of those two biggies are on the road – ECU plays the Mountaineers at home and the Hokies in Charlotte, N.C. ECU also is at Virginia and NC State and must go on the road to take on its biggest challengers in the East Division, Southern Miss and UCF. Marshall opens with I-AA Illinois State, but has to play at Wisconsin and West Virginia and at home against Cincinnati. The Herd also is on the road against Southern Miss and ECU and plays host to Tulsa and Houston.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane play a navigable non-conference schedule. There is just one "Big Six" foe, and that's an Arkansas team that could really struggle this season as it adapts to a new offense. There's a road game against a North Texas team that won't be able to slow Tulsa's offense. There's a game against I-AA Central Arkansas. The toughest non-conference game might be against New Mexico, and that's at home. Tulsa misses out on playing East Carolina and Southern Miss and gets UCF at home. The toughest conference road game is a trip to Houston.
WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Tulsa. "Worst" is a relative term. It's not really that bad a non-conference schedule. The slate features games against Arkansas and New Mexico. But it is the worst non-conference schedule among C-USA teams, so the Golden Hurricane get the nod.
BIGGEST MISMATCH: Central Arkansas at Tulsa, Sept. 27. Central Arkansas – from the Southland Conference – was 6-5 last season in its first season in Division I-AA after moving up from Division II. They return 19 starters, including star quarterback Nathan Brown. But their defense wasn't very good last season, which isn't a good trait when Tulsa is the opponent.
PROGRAM ON THE RISE: SMU. June Jones' hiring has energized the fan base, and the hope is that he quickly can make Mustangs football relevant again. He recruited relatively well in a short amount of time for the '08 class. If SMU has any kind of success this season, expect the recruiting to go easier for the Mustangs. Jones obviously has a far larger recruiting base in Texas than he did at Hawaii.
PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: UTEP. After a lot of initial success under Mike Price, the Miners have slipped the past two seasons (going a combined 9-15). Those losing records have come when the conference has not been at its best. Price has a potential big-timer in quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, but new defensive coordinator Osia Lewis – who had the same title at New Mexico – has a lot of work to do on his side of the ball. Until the defense gets fixed, the Miners are going to suffer. Still, the C-USA West is such that even with as many problems as the Miners have, they easily could finish third or even second this season.
IN THREE YEARS, SMU WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: What the heck – in for a penny, in for a pound. Jones resurrected a Hawaii program that was on life support, culminating in a Sugar Bowl appearance after last season. Yes, the Warriors got mugged, but so what – they were in a BCS bowl. You don't think a lot of old-time SMU fans weren't willing to empty their deep, deep pockets to get Jones in the chance he can restore Mustangs pride? It all goes back to recruiting: If SMU wins, the recruits will head to Dallas. Given the state of the defense in this league, SMU's offense is going to put up huge numbers. That means if SMU's defense can improve to middle of the pack in the league, the Mustangs will be just fine.