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After spending the past five days previewing Conference USA, it's time for our staff to pick the 2013 conference champion, player and coach of the year.
Allen Kenney's Take: If the other mid-major conferences that we've covered have been surprisingly deep, Conference USA is, well... the opposite. Realignment has robbed the league of a handful of its top programs that have been replaced with, well... the opposite.
All that dilution makes it tough to figure out who will come out on top.
In the West division, I'll go with my hometown Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Since Todd Graham left two years ago for his Pittsburgh sabbatical, TU's program has, arguably, taken a step up under former Union High School head coach Bill Blankenship. The 'Cane return some key veterans on the offensive side of the ball, including quarterback Cody Green, which should take some heat off of a defense that will be looking to rebuild... Fine, I admit it - I'm picking Tulsa just 'cause.
I like Marshall coming out of the East. The Thundering Herd are led by the most dynamic offensive player in the league in junior quarterback Rakeem Cato. He'll have an experienced offensive line paving the way in front of him, too. Can't say much for the D, which was one of the worst in the country last year. With the O putting up so many points, I don't know if it will matter.
Champion: Marshall over Tulsa
MVP: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall
Coach of the Year: Larry Coker, Texas-San Antonio
Dave Singleton's Take: As I wrote about earlier today, Conference USA was a league that was attacked by conference realignment, but also went on the offensive, picking up cast offs from (primarily) two different conferences.
But getting bigger doesn't always mean getting better, although C-USA has at least stabilized itself in the grand scheme of things.
In the West, I expect Tulsa to continue their winning ways with only really a token challenge from divisional foes. In the East, I like Middle Tennessee as a dark horse to win the division, beating East Carolina in their head to head matchup to serve as the tiebreaker. But Tulsa will ultimately come out on top and take the conference title in their final year in the league.
Champion: Tulsa over Middle Tennessee
MVP: Trey Watts, Tulsa
Coach of the Year: Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
Andy Coppens' Take: It's a bit of shame to see what has happened to this league and will happen until hopefully all membership stabilizes in 2015. Lord knows Conference USA has had enough of its teams stolen over the past half a decade.
Moving on to 2013 though it's hard to see this year as anything but title or bust for East Carolina. They return a ton of starting talent and with the new guys from the Sun Belt not exactly setting the world on fire in their previous home, its hard to see anything but a cakewalk happening for them in the East. Sleepers for me could be a stout Middle Tennessee squad along with Conference-USA standby Marshall. Otherwise it'll be awhile before anyone from the East is seen as a serious conference title contender.
Out West its a different story all together. Sure, Tulsa was good last season, but with only three defensive starters back this won't be anywhere near the team that was able to make up for some of its troubles on the offensive side of the ball. Rice is the team that could really put a scare into the hopes of the Golden Hurricane with a ton of returning talent and a bit of an easier schedule in front of them. Add in a LaTech team that has been stockpiling more talent than they've ever had before and you could have a three way race. However, for me it comes down to Rice vs. Tulsa and I like the Owls in a bit of surprise out west.
Champion: East Carolina over Rice
MVP: Kenneth Dixon (RB, La Tech)
Coach of the Year: David Bailiff, Rice
Kevin McGuire's Take: Looking over what is happening in Conference USA right now it would be difficult to go with anyone as a leading contender over Tulsa. TThe Golden Hurricane should get enough of a solid season from their quarterback, Cody Green, and running back Trey Watts has player of the year within the conference written on the back of his jersey, metaphorically of course. Tulsa will still have one of the better defenses in the conference as well (second in Conference USA in total scoring, rushing defense and third in pass defense). If you throw in the fact that some of the biggest threats to Tulsa last season are now in The American (Central Florida, SMU and even Houston), and things look a little easier for Tulsa in their final year in the conference, at least on paper.
In the East, now with Central Florida out of the picture, I think we are ready to see either East Carolina or Marshall take over the top spot. I think the East will come down to the final week of the regular season between these two, when they face each other in Huntington. For now I'll go with Marshall, who I believe will be more battle-tested at the start of the year and has a slightly more favorable conference schedule.
Champion: Tulsa over Marshall
MVP: Trey Watts, Tulsa RB
Coach of the Year: Larry Coker, UTSA
Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun.