This is a fairly obvious choice, as Cato was named conference MVP after throwing for an eye-popping 37 touchdowns in 2012. He commands an offense that returns eight starters and two all-conference selections (WR Tommy Shuler and TE Gator Hoskins), and in a year in which Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater is garnering preseason Heisman hype, Cato has a comparable, if slightly less developed, skill set. Cato will need to cut down on his picks (11), but he threw for at least 318 yards in 10 of 12 starts last season.
A first-team all-conference selection last season, Gaines may well develop into one of the most coveted defensive backs heading into next spring's NFL draft. He's the frontrunner to win Conference USA's Defensive Player of the Year honors and finished second in the nation with 18 pass breakups in 2012. Gaines will be on national display when the Owls take on Texas A&M and (possibly) defending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to open the season on Aug. 31.
Three Key Nonconference Games
Tulsa at Oklahoma
Saturday, Sept. 14
Noon ET, ABC
Tulsa rarely wins its matchups against the Sooners -- it has been shutout three times in the last six meetings -- but Oklahoma is breaking in an inexperienced quarterback, secondary and defensive line in 2013. Tulsa may have what it takes to compete deep into the second half. This weekend also features the Virginia Tech at East Carolina clash, a game to keep an eye on since Ruffin McNeil has what appears to be his deepest team since he arrived in Greenville.
Marshall at Virginia Tech
Saturday, Sept. 21
Frank Beamer isn't typically susceptible to any kind of gimmickry, but the Thundering Herd play fast. Cato is difficult to stop, and he'll get to showcase his talents on a national stage.
UAB at Vanderbilt
Saturday, Sept. 28
This is the best chance the C-USA has to beat the SEC, and it's an intriguing matchup. UAB outplayed Ohio State at points during their matchup last year (UAB eventually lost 29-15), and it outgained South Carolina in the first half of their Sept. 15 showdown. The Blazers return 16 starters, and will already have played an SEC power (LSU) before arriving in Nashville. The Blazers could have a shot at a program-altering win before they enter conference play.
Key Conference Game
East Carolina at Marshall
Friday, Nov. 29
Noon ET, CBS Sports Network
In what could potentially serve as a play-in to the conference championship, the Pirates and Thundering Herd meet to close the regular season. It could turn into a shootout. East Carolina averaged more than 408 yards per game in 2012, but it will be only be six days removed from a test at NC State.
Three Key Questions
Can any C-USA team win 10 games in 2013? Marshall and East Carolina seem to have a shot, but the best chance belongs to Marshall. Cato is the conference's best offensive player. All four nonconference games are winnable (though it'll be an underdog at Ohio and against Virginia Tech). The defense returns seven starters and the toughest road game comes in a conference showdown with Tulsa. The Thundering Herd could turn some heads this fall.
Can Southern Miss bounce back from a winless season? The Golden Eagles went 0-12 last year, leading to the firing of Ellis Johnson and the hiring of former Oklahoma State coordinator Todd Monken. The program is certainly anxious to turn the page, but Monken said that he doesn't plan on naming a starting quarterback before the opener against Texas State.
What should fans expect from Louisiana Tech? Sonny Dykes took the Air Raid to Cal in the offseason, and while the Bulldogs hang on to star running back Kenneth Dixon (1,228 rushing yards in 2012), it's unlikely he'll put up such gaudy numbers without record-setting quarterback Colby Cameron or the attack that finished first nationally in total offense last year. Expect growing pains. New coach Skip Holtz doesn't run such a frenetic attack, and Tech returns just four starters from a defense that surrendered more than 526 yards per game last season.
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