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Tulsa, ECU chance to exit C-USA with another title

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Tulsa and East Carolina get one more chance to win another Conference USA title before moving to a new league.

Or maybe a newcomer like Louisiana Tech or Middle Tennessee can get started with a championship in C-USA, which still has plenty of teams coming and going.

The Bulldogs and Blue Raiders are among six new teams this season in Conference USA, those additions more than offsetting the four that left. Tulane joins Tulsa and East Carolina as schools in their final season in the league - and that trio will be fully replaced over the next two years.

''Honestly, it's exciting to me. I think that having the fact that it's already out there that there's going to be transition when the year's over, it takes away the concern,'' said Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship. ''What I'm more excited about is getting to play Texas-San Antonio and Larry Coker, and North Texas and Dan McCarney, and Skip Holtz and Louisiana Tech.''

Defending C-USA champion Tulsa lost eight starters from the league's top defense but is still the West Division favorite. The Golden Hurricane also won the league's first championship game in 2005. East Carolina, which has also won two titles in that span, returns eight starters on both offense and defense and is favored in the East on its way out.

''It's not that awkward and being picked always just makes it a real challenge, but it shows great respect for your program,'' Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said.

McNeill is in his fourth season at East Carolina, where he replaced Skip Holtz, who is back in C-USA in his first season at Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs didn't play in a bowl last season even after going 9-3 while averaging 51 points and 578 yards per game. Sonny Dykes, another son of a well-known head coach, left for California and there are also 32 seniors gone from that squad.

The only way Holtz faces East Carolina is if both teams make it to the league championship game.

When Tulsa, East Carolina and Tulane head to the American Athletic Conference, there will be seven former C-USA teams next season in the league that used to be the Big East.

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FIVE THINGS TO WATCH:

1) WELCOME - AND STAY AWHILE: There are four first-year coaches in C-USA, and all are at schools set to still be in the league next season. Sean Kugler is a UTEP alum and former assistant (1993-2000) who then coached for three NFL teams before getting his first head coaching job as Mike Price's replacement. Former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken takes over at Southern Miss, which was the only winless FBS team last season at 0-12, coming a year after the Golden Eagles were 12-2 and C-USA champs. Southern Miss next season will be the only team remaining from the original 1996 C-USA lineup. Holtz spent the last three seasons in the Big East with South Florida. Ron Turner is in his first season at FIU after working for three different NFL teams since his stint at Illinois' head coach from 1997-2004.

2) LOT OF LONE STAR: Four of the league's 14 teams are in Texas - North Texas, Rice, UTEP and UTSA. That should help build some regional rivalries, especially with all of them in the West Division. ''You look back at the Southwest Conference days, all the great rivalries existed because of the locations of the universities,'' Rice coach David Bailiff said. And Louisiana Tech, which had been in the WAC, isn't too far away. ''All of a sudden you've got car-ride trips for your fan base, where people get in the car and put the flag in the window,'' Holtz said. ''Their fans can also come to our place, which I think is going to be a completely different atmosphere for Louisiana Tech. Because being in the WAC, every trip's been a plane ride.''

3) PASSING HERD: With Rakeem Cato throwing the ball at Marshall, expect more video game-like numbers the offense. Cato led the FBS last year with 350 yards passing and 34 completions a game, along with a league-best 37 touchdowns. His career 66 percent completion rate is current the best in school history, ahead of Byron Leftwich or Chad Pennington. And Cato has his top receiver back in junior Tommy Shuler, who had a school-record 110 catches last season for 1,138 yards and six touchdowns.

4) SUNNY OUTLOOK?: Middle Tennessee, going into its 99th football season, was part of a three-way tie for second in the Sun Belt Conference last season. Florida Atlantic and FIU were both 2-6 in the Sun Belt, and the only team to finish below them in that league was South Alabama, a transitioning FBS team that wasn't even eligible for the league title. FIU lost eight starters on both sides of the ball, but Florida Atlantic has 15 starters back (seven on offense, eight on defense).

5) NOW FOR THE KICKER(S): Tulane kicker Cairo Santos made all 21 of his field goal attempts last season, including a 57-yarder that matched Rice's Chris Boswell for the longest in the conference. Boswell made an FBS-high six kicks of at least 50 yards last season and has 11 in his career. UAB's Ty Long was 14 of 17 with a 54-yarder. Half of the league's teams have returning kickers who made kicks of at least 51 yards. The others are UTSA's Sean Ianno, Southern Miss' Corey Acosta, Florida Atlantic's Mitch Anderson and East Carolina's Warren Harvey.

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Predicted order of finish:

East

1. East Carolina

2. Marshall

3. Middle Tennessee

4. UAB

5. Southern Miss

6. Florida Atlantic

7. FIU

West:

1. Tulsa

2. Rice

3. Louisiana Tech

4. North Texas

5. UTSA

6. UTEP

7. Tulane

Title game winner: East Carolina

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Online:

AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/

Tagged: Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Marshall, Florida, Tennessee, Tulsa, Rice, UTEP, Louisiana Tech, Texas, Tulane, East Carolina, UAB, Rakeem Cato, Ty Long

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