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Conference USA 2012 preview

Conference USA 2012 Report
Can Houston win big without its stars? Is Zach Line one of the nation's best running backs? What's going on with Central Florida's bowl ban? Holly Anderson answers that and more in her Conference USA preview. For more coverage, visit our preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.
 
How They'll Finish
 
EASTConferenceOverall
UCF8-010-2
Southern Miss7-18-4
East Carolina5-37-5
Marshall4-46-6
Memphis1-72-10
UAB1-72-10
 
WESTConferenceOverall
Houston7-110-2
Tulsa6-28-4
SMU4-45-7
UTEP2-63-9
Rice2-63-9
Tulane1-71-11
Conference championship: UCF defeats Houston if Knights are eligible
Conference championship: Houston defeats Southern Miss if UCF is not eligible
 
Offensive MVP
 
RB
Zach Line
2011 stats: 208 carries, 1,224 yards, 17 TD
2012 projection: 250 carries, 1,400 yards, 20 TD
It's difficult not to hand this off (see what we did there?) to a guy who's just earned his third consecutive all-conference selection. Line finished seventh nationally in rushing yardage last season despite missing the final three games of the year with a torn tendon in his foot. His 122.4 rush yards per game and 5.88 yards per rush were the best marks in Conference USA, earning him a spot among the 10 Doak Walker Award semifinalists.
 
Defensive MVP
 
DB
Dexter McCoil
2011 stats: 48 solo tackles, 2 TFL, 6 INT, 1 TD, 7 PBU
2012 projection: 45 solo tackles, 3 TFL, 8 INT, 1 TD, 8 PBU
This is normally where we'd turn to Tulane linebacker Trent Mackey, the nation's fourth-leading tackler in 2011 ... only when we turn, he's not with the Green Wave. Mackey is serving an indefinite suspension following his arrest on suspected involvement in an armed robbery. Onward, then, to rising senior McCoil, who tied for ninth nationally in 2011 with six interceptions. With 13 career picks, he's one away from setting the new Tulsa mark.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
UCF at Ohio State
Saturday, Sept. 8
Noon ET, ESPN2
If the Knights hope to fulfill preseason prophecies and make a run at a well-regarded bowl game, they'll need strong showings against nonconference opponents Ohio State and Mizzou before slogging through a gummy conference schedule. (And if they lose their NCAA appeal early but win this game, well, that'll be fun too.)
 
Louisiana Tech at Houston
Saturday, Sept. 8
8 p.m. ET, CBS Sports
This is the only real test Houston's new regime will face on the field between now and November.
 
Boise State at Southern Miss
Saturday, Oct. 6
TBD
This is a key game on both sides, really, thanks to voters who are overly fond of dinging mid-major teams for even "quality" losses.
 
Key Conference Game
 
Southern Miss at UCF
Saturday, Oct. 13
8 p.m. ET, CBS Sports
With two of the league's best teams facing off in October, C-USA East's victor could be as good as decided by the season's midpoint.
 
Three Key Questions
 
Houston? Again? Seriously? Maybe? The Cougars have big names to fill, position-wise, and also lost their head coach, but promoting Tony Levine from within makes for a smoother transition. And apart from the above-mentioned Louisiana Tech game, here's what Houston's schedule looks like from September to November: Texas State, UCLA, Rice, North Texas, UAB, SMU, UTEP. That's a lot of practice snaps.
Why not a similarly lofty win-loss prediction for Southern Miss, hater? UCF may or may not be in the way, division-wise (see next question), and the Golden Eagles have some nasty nonconference tests in the first half of the season, including a season opener at Nebraska and an early October date with Boise State.
What is the deal with Central Florida, anyway? UCF asked the NCAA for an expedited appeals process regarding its one-year postseason ban, which is a pretty neat way of counting on the NCAA's slow-grinding wheels to let this year's highly regarded team go bowling. Of course, there's also the possibility of a fast denial, which would knock UCF out of both the division race and bowl contention.
 
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