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Conference USA Football Preview

   by Matt Fargo - 08/17/2009

Conference USA is another non-BCS conference that does not get the respect it deserves. There have been five ten-win teams over the least three seasons and there are five teams with the potential to win double-digit games this year. Not all five can do it but there is a lot of power at the top. In the East Division, the title will most likely come down to Southern Mississippi and East Carolina and it just so happens that these two meet in the final regular season game of the year. After that we have Marshall and Memphis with both having opportunities to make it to a bowl game. Central Florida and UAB are bringing up the rear as both are in rebuilding mode once again.

East Carolina Pirates 9-5 SU, 5-9 ATS, 7-7 O/U

Summary: East Carolina was the surprise of the conference last season as not many saw the type of season that was coming. The Pirates started the season with two big upsets over Virginia Tech and West Virginia and they made it to 14th in the nation. A three-game losing streak halted a really big year but East Carolina was able to keep things together despite losing a ton of players and numerous starts due to injuries. This year they bring back 16 starters and I give them the nod to repeat based on the more favorable schedule. It won’t be easy by any stretch especially now that no one will be looking past East Carolina.

Schedule: The Pirates have games against West Virginia and Virginia Tech once again and they add a game at North Carolina so the non-conference portion is not easy. East Carolina should be 4-0 in the conference once it faces the Tigers at Memphis and the Golden Hurricane at Tulsa. It closes C-USA action with back-to-back home games, the final being the showdown with Southern Miss.

Bottom Line: It is that final game which should propel the Pirates to the top as it is at home and that is a huge edge after losing at Southern Miss last season. East Carolina also doesn’t have to play Houston and UTEP, two power teams from the West. Since C-USA split into two divisions in 2005-06, there has never been a team to win consecutive East Division titles. That could change this year.

Betting Forecast: Despite a great record, the Pirates went just 5-9 ATS. That included a 0-5 ATS mark as a road chalk, something that will likely continue this year.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles 7-6 SU, 8-5 ATS, 7-6 O/U

Summary: Southern Miss has never had a losing season in C-USA but last season came close to being the first. The Golden Eagles started 0-4 in the conference before rallying to win their last four games and earn a .500 record as well as secure a bowl berth for the 11th straight season. With 18 starters coming back this season, it likely will not be as difficult to become bowl eligible but nothing is easy in the conference. Southern Miss is part of the class of the East Division along with East Carolina and the title very could come down to the final game of the season. The Golden Eagles are vying for their 5th C-USA Championship.

Schedule: Southern Miss starts the season with three straight home games with Virginia being the only test of the trio. It then hits the road for three straight games including contests at Kansas and at Louisville. Conference action then fully takes over and five of the final six games are against teams that should be going after bowl bids. This includes games at Houston, Marshall and East Carolina.

Bottom Line: Southern Miss arguably has the best talent in the conference but that does not always mean automatic victories and championships. The schedule is tough from all angles and that could be the main reason the Golden Eagles are kept out of the C-USA Championship game. They cannot be counted out however which is what is said just about every year when it comes to Southern Miss football.

Betting Forecast: Southern Miss is 14-4 ATS as a road favorite over the last six years. They will be limited in that role this year but look for those moneymaking chances.

Memphis Tigers 6-7 SU, 5-6-1 ATS, 6-6 O/U

Summary: Memphis has had a losing record in C-USA play only once in the last six years and has made it to a bowl game in all but that one year. It failed to win the division or conference championship however and the Tigers are the only team of all the original members to have never won either of those. This should be one of the more talented teams that head coach Tommy West has assembled in his nine years at Memphis but the problem is there are teams that are better than his. It will take some upsets along the way in order for Memphis to contend and while possible, it isn’t likely to happen. The Tigers will however be in a third straight bowl game.

Schedule: Upsets are one thing but the schedule is a tough one. The Tigers get Mississippi and Tennessee in non-conference action but it is the C-USA schedule that is daunting. Memphis faces UTEP, Southern Miss and East Carolina in consecutive weeks in October and then closes the season with back-to-back road games at Houston and Tulsa. With those tough games bunched, it is hard to keep up momentum.

Bottom Line: Memphis returns only five players on offense but four of those are at the skill positions and all are above average. The problem is that only one starter is back on the offensive line and that will hurt both the running and passing games to start the year. Offsetting that could be the best defense in the league and that is huge since the conference is loaded with potent offensive attacks.

Betting Forecast: Memphis is 14-28-1 ATS when coming off a win under West. That means plenty more letdowns this season so do not ignore these spots.

Marshall Thundering Herd 4-8 SU, 4-7 ATS, 4-7 O/U

Summary: Marshall has not been to a bowl game since it was affiliated with the MAC back in 2004. This is the fifth year in C-USA and it is also the fifth year for head coach Mark Snyder who may starting to feel the heat to bring this program back to life and this will likely be his final chance to get it done. To his credit, the Thundering Herd have played very tough non-conference schedules and because of that, getting bowl eligible meant needing to win the conference. In his four years, Marshall is 13-19 in C-USA which isn’t horrible and the worst record in those years was 3-5. The problem is that the best was 4-4 and that is what it looks like will happen again.

Schedule: The non-conference schedule should see a 2-2 record and that would be the best in the Snyder era. The conference schedule is far from impossible but it will take some road wins along the way to be successful. Marshall catches both Southern Miss and East Carolina at home while its toughest road games are at Memphis and UTEP. It misses Houston and Tulsa from the West.

Bottom Line: Marshall is 3-21 on the road under Snyder and it needs to go 2-2 in the conference to have any chance for a winning record. That also means it is going to have to pull off an upset at home against either the Golden Eagles or the Pirates. It is more than possible but still unlikely. A 6-6 record could mean a bowl game but that still might not be enough to save Snyder’s job.

Betting Forecast: Marshall is 0-8-1 ATS in non-conference action the last three seasons. It will have three chances to get break that string which it will definitely do.

Central Florida Knights 4-8 SU, 5-5-1 ATS, 5-5-1 O/U

Summary: Central Florida won the East Division in both 2005 and 2007 but it stumbled the following years to repeat. It is likely going to struggle again unless the offense can quickly get a grasp of the new spread offense put into place by new offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe who was imported from the CFL. Central Florida finished deal last in the nation in total offense last season, averaging a mere 229.5 ypg. 10 starters are back on the unit so things should get better. How much better it gets will determine if the Knights are the sleeper team in the conference or if they are in for another long season. I say it will be somewhere in-between.

Schedule: The good news is that the first two non-conference games are against Samford and Buffalo. The bad news is that the last two are against Miami, Florida and Texas. As for C-USA action, the Knights’ first two games are on the road at Southern Miss and at East Carolina. They do get Rice, UAB and Tulane so the potential for some wins are there.

Bottom Line: The defense was decent last season and six starters are back but the problem is that the entire secondary needs to be replaced and that is an issue because of the offenses the Knights will be facing. This team is still young as only six of the projected 22 starters are seniors. That means we may not see much improvement from the 4-8 record from last season but this is going to be a much better team in 2010.

Betting Forecast: Because of the horrible offense last season, the totals were kept low and resulted in a 5-5 year. I see low totals again but we should see higher scoring games.

UAB Blazers 4-8 SU, 6-4-1 ATS, 4-6-1 O/U

Summary: UAB closed last season by winning three of its final five games to bring some solid momentum and confidence into this season. Offensively, the Blazers bring back all 11 starters to a unit that finished a respectable 56th in the country in total offense last season. Scoring will certainly not be an issue. The problem is allowing too many points will. The defense actually improved from 2007 but still finished 106th overall and 95th in scoring and it will take a big effort to make a drastic improvement. That will be what it takes to get the Blazers out of the basement but it may be too much to ask this season.

Schedule: UAB faces an odd schedule as it starts the year with consecutive conference games. Both are at home and against Rice and SMU so a 2-0 start is definitely feasible. Two non-conference games are against Texas A&M and Mississippi while the other two are against Sun Belt teams but they are against two of the best in Troy and FAU. Tulsa and Houston are not on the schedule.

Bottom Line: An upset here or there and the Blazers could be staring at a possible bowl bid. The problem is that five of the final seven games are on the road and UAB will be sizable underdogs in all of them. Like Central Florida, the Blazers are still a very young team so while they may put a scare into some teams, they are not quite in position to make a serious move.

Betting Forecast: This is another team where we need to look at totals to start the season as we should see points all over the place with this potent offense and below average defense.

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