Conference USA Preview: East Division

With last year's East division champion moving on to the American Athletic Conference, ECU and Marshall are the early favorites to win the division in 2013. Michael Prunka has more.

With schools moving in and out of Conference-USA, things are going to be awfully shaken up in East Carolina's division. Unlike the West Division, the East's powerhouse isn't as well-defined.

With eight returning offensive starters, ECU was voted by C-USA's head coaches to win its division. Quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy led the team into the top-50 for points per game in 2012. There's no reason to believe they can't do the same this season.

To get to the top, though, the Pirates need to work on their secondary. Thankfully, the defensive backs are again under the direction of defensive coordinator Rick Smith. In 2005, during his first year at ECU, Smith's defense cracked the top-20 for fewest points allowed per game.

Marshall is in a very similar place as ECU.

Last season, the outstanding tandem of QB Rakeem Cato and WR Tommy Shuler led the Thundering Herd's to a phenomenal 40.9 points per game. In addition, they have six returning starters on offense.

Marshall is also rolling out a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Heater, who has seven returning starters and inherits the nation's second-worst defense in terms of points allowed per game. Among the teams making their C-USA debuts are bitter rivals Florida Atlantic and Florida International. Neither of which seem poised to make a big splash, though.

FAU scored just over 13 points per game in the first half of the season while FIU recorded 19 points per game throughout the same stretch. Come week 7, both teams tallied at least 30 points in strong losing performances.

On paper, FIU appears to be in much rougher shape. They only have six returning starters to FAU's 12. That said, they're both expected to finish towards the latter half of the division.

Another new member of the East is Middle Tennessee. With the majority of its starters returning, the Blue Raiders are ready to build on their impressive 8-4 farewell season in the Sun Belt. While the Blue Raiders allowed almost 441 yards per game, they did a pretty good job at protecting QB Logan Kilgore by allowing only 14 sacks.

Their offense, however, could use some work. The Blue Raiders posted just 26.6 points per game in 2012, but should benefit from the return of wide receiver Tavarres Jefferson, who sat out all but one game last season with a hamstring injury.

UAB and Southern Miss go into this season aiming to bounce back from disappointing 2012 campaigns.

After a 12-win season in 2011, Southern Miss couldn't buy a win. The Golden Eagles went winless in 2012 and lost most of their games by double digits. Among their 13 returning starters, though, is running back Jalen Richard. After leading the team in rushing yards, his performance will be vital to Southern Miss climbing out of the basement of C-USA.

UAB also desperately seeks momentum this season. During head coach Garrick McGee's first season at the helm, the Blazers finished with a disappointing 3-9 record. They're in a better position heading into McGee's sophomore season, though.

Part of that is because of QB Austin Brown, who will also be heading into his sophomore season. With a year under his belt comes valuable experience and increased confidence in leading UAB's offense. Brown set records as a freshman with his 2,673 passing yards and returns two of his favorite targets – wide receiver Jackie Williams and tight end Kennard Backman. Add junior running back Darrin Reaves and UAB is looking at a well-rounded offense.

On the other side of the ball, UAB's defense is in poor shape. The Blazers allowed 37.5 points per game last season and head into this season without nation-leading tackler Marvin Burdette. Just like Louisiana Tech in the West division, Middle Tennessee is the only new team that is looking at making an impact in the East Division.

But the top is crowded. East Carolina and Marshall enter this season coming off strong offensive performances in 2012 and with plenty of defensive upside. The East Division looks more competitive on paper than the West.

Predicted final rankings

1. East Carolina

2. Marshall

3. Middle Tennessee

4. Southern Miss

5. UAB

6. FAU

7. FIU

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