A year after finishing second in the East Division of Conference USA, East Carolina was picked to finish second in the division in 2007 by the league's 12 head coaches. The Pirates, who made their first bowl appearance since 2001 when they played in the inaugural Papajohns.com Bowl in 2006, picked up 48 points trailing only Southern Miss.
Southern Miss was picked to finish second in the East Division in last year's poll, but behind freshman running back Damion Fletcher, the Golden Eagles finished the year 6-2 in the league and advanced to the second annual C-USA Football Championship game. USM fell 34-20 to Houston, but rolled to a 28-7 win over Ohio in the GMAC Bowl. The bowl win was the team's third straight and Southern Miss closed out its 13th straight winning season with a 9-5 record, the schools fourth nine-win season since 1997.
Houston won the 2006 C-USA Championship game and faced South Carolina in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Despite losing a 44-36 shootout, the Cougars finished the season 10-4, the most wins since 1990 when the team went 10-1. The league title was the first for UH since winning inaugural C-USA Championship in 1996. Senior running back Anthony Alridge returns for the Cougars after shattering the conference's yards per carry average of 7.78 in 2006. The Texas native rushed 95 times for 959 yards, good for a 10.1 average.
Tulsa was voted a close second in the West after finishing third in 2006 with an appearance in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. TU finished the season 8-5 and won eight games or more in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1982-83 and made back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1964-65. Senior quarterback Paul Smith returns to lead the Golden Hurricane offense. Smith enters his final campaign in second place on the school's career total offense list and also ranks second on the all-time passing yardage list and is third in touchdown passes.
SMU, coming off its first non-losing season since 1997, was chosen to finish third in the West. The Mustangs are led by sophomore quarterback Justin Willis. Willis re-wrote the SMU annals last season and earned C-USA Freshman of the Year honors. He broke the 38-year old school record for touchdown passes with 26 in 2006 and his quarterback rating for the season was 158.4, good for 10th-best in the nation.
East Carolina, who was picked to finish sixth a year ago, returns 73 percent of its letterman and nearly 60 percent of its starters in 2007. Senior running back/wide receiver Chris Johnson was a first team All C-USA selection as a return specialist last season and was chosen to the preseason list as a kick returner in 2007. He is joined by junior defensive lineman Marcus Hands as a preseason pick.
UCF was tabbed to take third in the East. The Golden Knights finished in fourth in 2006 after advancing to the inaugural C-USA Football Championship game and the school's first-ever bowl appearance in 2005. Junior running back Kevin Smith has rushed for 2,112 yards in his first two seasons at UCF and ranks eighth among all Division I juniors in total rushing yards and sixth in average yards per game at 96.0. The Golden Knights will open their brand-new on-campus stadium, Bright House Networks Stadium, on Sept. 15 in a nationally-televised game against Texas.
Junior wide receiver Jarrett Dillard of Rice was chosen as the league's preseason Offensive Player of the Year after establishing Rice single-season receiving records last season. Dillard caught 91 passed for 1,274 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2006. The 21 TD catches also set a C-USA record and he enters the 2007 season with an overall streak of 15 consecutive games with a TD catch, just three off the record of 18.
Reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Albert McClellan of Marshall was picked as the preseason favorite to repeat as the conference's top defensive player. He led C-USA in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (19), while registering 77 total tackles in 2006.
UCF cornerback Joe Burnett was tabbed as preseason Special Teams Player of the Year. Burnett had 11 punt returns for 132 yards, good for a 12.0 per return average and was named first team punt returner by the C-USA coaches in 2006.
The 2007 C-USA Football season kicks off on Thursday, August 30 when Tulsa travels to Louisiana-Monroe in a game that will be televised by ESPN2 at 6 p.m. CT. Nine more games will take place on Saturday, September 1, with five of the contest set to air on national television. SMU will take on Texas Tech on Monday, September 3 on ESPN to round out the full slate of opening weekend games.
2007 C-USA FOOTBALL COACHES PRESEASON POLL
Predicted Order of Finish
EAST DIVISION (Points)
Southern Miss (69)
East Carolina (48)
WEST DIVISION (Points)
2007 C-USA FOOTBALL COACHES PRESEASON SPECIALTY AWARDS
Offensive Player of the Year
Jarret Dillard, WR, Rice (91 catches, 1,247 yds., 13.7 avg., 21 TD)
Defensive Player of the Year
Albert McClellan, DE, Marshall (77 tackles, 19.0 TFLs, 11.5 sacks)
Special Teams Player of the Year
Joe Burnett, PR, UCF (11 returns, 132 yds., 12.0 avg.)
First Team Offense
QB - Paul Smith, Sr., Tulsa
RB - Damion Fletcher, So., Southern Miss
RB - Kevin Smith, Jr., UCF
OL - Doug Legursky, Sr., Marshall
OL - Jeff Akeroyd, Sr., Houston
OL - Chris Clark, Sr., Southern Miss
OL - Brandon Pearce, Jr., Memphis
OL - Robby Heos, Sr., Rice
WR - Jarrett Dillard, Jr., Rice
WR - Emmanuel Sanders, So., SMU
WR - Donnie Avery, Sr., Houston
TE - Shawn Nelson, Jr., Southern Miss
First Team Defense
DL - Albert McClellan, Jr., Marshall
DL - Martavius Prince, Sr., Southern Miss
DL - Marcus Hands, Jr., East Carolina
DL - Philip Hunt, Jr., Houston
LB - Robert Henderson, Sr., Southern Miss
LB - Cory Muse, Sr., SMU
LB - Brian Raines, Jr., Rice
LB - Nelson Coleman, Sr., Tulsa
DB - Quintin Demps, Sr., UTEP
DB - Brandon Sumrall, Sr., Southern Miss
DB - Will Dunbar, Sr., UAB
DB - Kenneth Fontenette, Jr., Houston
First Team Special Teams
K - Ben Bell, Jr., Houston
P - Thomas Morstead, Jr., SMU
KR - Chris Johnson, Sr., East Carolina
PR - Joe Burnett, Jr., UCF