Conference USA - Upset winners are likely

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Updated: 7/25/2013 1:27 pm

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Tulsa (West) and East Carolina (East) were the two predicted division winners at Conference USA Football Media Day. However, both clubs have a division rival that has a solid chance of pulling off an upset.

Time now to take a deeper look into the league, along with predicted straight- up (overall and conference) records for those wagering on over/unders for total team victories. The over/under number posted is for the entire season, not conference totals. In addition, all statistics provided in the offensive and defensive sections are from conference-only play unless otherwise indicated (all odds to win the league title and totals courtesy of 5Dimes).

EAST

7) FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (38-1) - The Panthers are 9-17 ATS off a straight-up (SU) loss the last four years.

Offense - Trending down. FIU will have a difficult time scoring with just three returning starters as well as the change from the Sun Belt to Conference USA.

Defense - Trending down. The Panthers lost their top three tacklers and six of their top eight. Last season's disappointing numbers will be nothing compared to what opponents will put on the board against them this year.

Prediction - The SU record will be pitiful, but don't be surprised if the Panthers finish above the .500 mark against the spread (ATS). Over/under total - 2.5 (1-11, 0-8).

6) FLORIDA ATLANTIC (30-1) - The Owls are 0-8 as home favorites the last four years.

Offense - Trending down. Last year's squad scored over 24 points just three times and the Owls do not play any of those three opponents in 2013. In addition, a new quarterback must be found to replace Graham Wilbert.

Defense - Trending steady. The defense finished first in Sun Belt play with a 55 percent quarterback completion mark. It is doubtful the Owls will sustain that type of performance in the new conference, but the defense returns nine starters.

Prediction - FAU is 1-13 on the road the last two years, and six of its first eight games are away from home. Don't expect any more than two victories. Over/under total - 3.5 (2-9, 2-6).

5) MIDDLE TENNESSEE (11-1) - The Blue Raiders are 0-6 as home underdogs the last four years.

Offense - Trending steady. One reason the offense moved from next-to-last to sixth in scoring was the lack of turnovers lost. The Blue Raiders had just nine in 2012 compared to 20 the year before. Even though almost all key parts return, it is doubtful the offense will improve.

Defense - Trending down. The Blue Raiders held opponents to 13 fewer ppg last year as opposed to 2011. However, they allowed an average of 13 more yards per game (ypg). Despite the return of five of the top seven tacklers, the defense will allow around a touchdown more per game this season due to the opposition.

Prediction - Middle Tennessee was a plus-10 overall in turnover margin last year, and the last three times the club hit that mark, it averaged a minus-7 the following year. Over/under total - 5.5 (4-8, 3-5).

4) SOUTHERN MISS (20-1) - The Golden Eagles are 5-11 ATS in non-conference play the last four years.

Offense - Trending up. Look for an upgrade in points scored (and wins), especially since Southern Miss replaces games against UCF, SMU, Memphis and Rice with four teams from the Sun Belt.

Defense - Trending up. Ten of the top 13 tacklers return after bringing back just five the previous campaign. Unfortunately, leading tackler Jamie Collins has taken his 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss to the NFL.

Prediction - The Golden Eagles dropped from 9-5 to 3-9 ATS, their worst mark since 2002. Expect a few more ATS victories this season. Over/under total - 5.5 (4-8, 4-4).

3) UAB (27-1) - The Blazers are 7-14 as home favorites the last eight years.

Offense - Trending steady. UAB returned just one starting lineman a year ago and it showed as only three teams in the country allowed more sacks. Still, the scoring average improved by seven points. Despite a more experienced line, don't expect another increase in production.

Defense - Trending up. After ranking 119th nationally in tackles for loss, the Blazers jumped all the way up to 36th. Nevertheless, the defense allowed at least 40 ppg for the second straight season. Look for marked improvement without Tulsa, UCF and Houston on the schedule.

Prediction - The Blazers should reach six wins for the first time since 2004. Over/under total - 5.5 (6-6, 4-4).

2) EAST CAROLINA (7-2) - The Pirates are 5-11 as road underdogs the last four years.

Offense - Trending steady. The offense would have trended down, particularly after it scored an amazing 11 more ppg despite averaging just 30 more ypg (compared to 2011). However, with the easier schedule, the Pirates will remain the same.

Defense - Trending up. East Carolina has seen its scoring average improve each year under Ruffin McNeill's watch from 41 to 31 and down to 28. With the top seven tacklers back in uniform, another dip is expected.

Prediction - The Pirates have had three straight 6-6 ATS regular seasons. A fourth will not come as a big shock. Over/under total - 7.5 (7-5, 6-2).

1) MARSHALL (7-2) - The Thundering Herd are 5-8 as home favorites the last five years.

Offense - Trending steady. Marshall ranked seventh nationally in scoring, sixth in total offense and second in third-down efficiency. With a ton of returning starters, as well as some key wide receiver transfers, the offense will top the 40-point mark for a second straight season.

Defense - Trending way up. Coming into last year, the defense returned just 31 percent of its sacks. This year, it brings back about 80 percent. Marshall allowed 13 more ppg last year than in 2011 so expect a massive reduction in 2013.

Prediction - The Thundering Herd will win the East for the first time in school history. Over/under total - 9.5 (9-3, 6-2).

WEST

7) UTSA (75-1) - The Roadrunners went 4-1 ATS on the road last year.

Offense - Trending down. The Roadrunners lost just two lettermen after averaging 29 ppg in the Western Athletic Conference. Nonetheless, it is doubtful they will match that number in Conference USA.

Defense - Trending steady. Seven starters return to a unit that ranked first in rushing. Still, the defense had its least-effective game against Rice, which doesn't bode well for the move into the new league.

Prediction - A much tougher schedule means UTSA is at least a year away from getting over the .500 mark. Over/under total - 2.5 (3-9, 2-6).

6) LOUISIANA TECH (16-1) - The Bulldogs are 9-2 ATS in non-conference play the last two years.

Offense - Trending down. With a new coaching staff, starting quarterback, four new starting linemen and a change in conferences, the offense will tumble from 49 ppg down to around 27.

Defense - Trending steady. The Bulldogs ranked 119th nationally in scoring and dead last in total defense. Improvement will be hard to come by with the loss of their top seven tacklers.

Prediction - This is a transitional year for Louisiana Tech, one that should be less successful than last season's 9-3 campaign. Over/under total - 5.5 (4-8, 3-5).

5) TULANE (34-1) - The Green Wave are 2-8 as home favorites the last six years.

Offense - Trending steady. The offense improved 11 ppg (from 17 to 28) despite just one returning starting lineman and an injury-plagued season for running back Orleans Darkwa. This year's unit is much more experienced, but needs Nick Montana to duplicate Ryan Griffin's solid senior season.

Defense - Trending steady. Tulane lost four of its top six tacklers but catches a break with the inclusion of UTSA and Florida Atlantic on the schedule, replacing Houston and UAB.

Prediction - The Green Wave finished above .500 ATS last year for the first time since 2003. A repeat performance is not in the cards. Over/under total - 5.5 (6-6, 4-4).

4) NORTH TEXAS (19-1) - The Mean Green are 3-8 ATS off a SU win the last three years.

Offense - Trending up. The offense averaged eight fewer points last year than in 2011 even though it averaged 42 more ypg. The Mean Green also were 115th nationally in both third-down and red zone efficiency. Given all that, look for much-improved numbers across the board.

Defense - Trending steady. The move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA, and the expected drop-off in defensive numbers that go with it, will be halted with the return of the top six tacklers.

Prediction - The Mean Green will reach the .500 SU mark for the first time since 2004. Over/under total - 5.5 (7-5, 5-3). Take the over at +170

3) TULSA (2-1) - The Golden Hurricane are 20-7 ATS in conference play the last three years.

Offense - Trending up. Cody Green threw the fewest number of touchdown passes by a Tulsa starting quarterback since Paul Smith threw 15 back in 2006. Also, the team had its worst completion percentage since 2000. Even with those numbers, the offense still averaged 36 ppg. Expect improved numbers in 2013.

Defense - Trending down. Just three starters return this season. In 2010, the Golden Hurricane brought back only four starters and the ppg average actually got better. However, that defense returned four of its top seven tacklers. This one lost seven of its top nine.

Prediction - Tulsa is 17-9 to the under the last two years. Look for a reversal of form with a stronger offense and a weaker defense. Over/under total - 8.5 (8-4, 5-3).

2) TEXAS-EL PASO (27-1) - The Miners have finished below .500 ATS in six of the last eight years.

Offense - Trending way up. With two starters back in 2010, the Miners ppg average improved by four points. With eight back last year, they scored six fewer ppg but averaged more yards per game than the year before. Look for an explosion of points in 2013 with former Texas A&M quarterback Jameill Showers running the show.

Defense - Trending down. The defense lost seven of its top eight tacklers. The major weakness is a secondary that returns just one starter.

Prediction - UTEP will go from 4-7-1 ATS to above the .500 mark. Over/under total - 4.5 (8-4, 5-3). The Miners are worth a flyer to win the conference at 27-1. In addition, take over 4.5 wins at +120.

1) RICE (9-2) - The Owls have covered just one of their last seven games as home favorites.

Offense - Trending steady. Rice has averaged 30 points or more five of the last seven seasons, including last year when it hit for 33. With nine starters back, look for the offense to remain above the 30-point mark.

Defense - Trending up. Only four lettermen depart giving the defense a great chance to lead the conference in scoring. That would be an amazing feat since Rice has not allowed fewer than 33 ppg (overall) since the 2003 campaign.

Prediction - The Owls are the choice to win Conference USA at the generous odds of 9-2. Over/under total - 7.5 (9-3, 7-1).

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