East Carolina is the prohibitive favorite in the Conference USA East Division coaches poll, having received 11 of a possible 14 first-place votes at the league's recent Media Day.
High-powered Marshall and perhaps league newcomer Middle Tennessee State are expected to challenge the Pirates for divisional supremacy.
The projected order of finish:
1, East Carolina (8-5, 7-1) — With eight returning starters on both sides of the ball, the Pirates appear well-equipped to challenge for the conference championship. Coach Ruffin McNeill welcomes back 76 percent of last year's rushing production and 78 percent of the team's tackles from 2012.
Assuming the starting role in Week 3, Shane Carden brought stability to the quarterback position. His final numbers included 3,116 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Also back are the team's leading rusher, Vintavious Cooper (20 carries, 1,049 yards, 7 touchdowns) and top receiver Justin Hardy (88 receptions, 1,105 yards, 11 touchdowns). Hardy also returned 18 punts for a 9.7-yard average.
Right guard Will Simmons, a first-team All-Conference selection last season, is the pillar up front. Simmons has started 25 consecutive games.
Outside linebacker Derrell Johnson, the Pirates' 2012 Defensive MVP, is among four of the top five tacklers returning from last season. Johnson produced 62 tackles, 11 tackles for negative yardage, seven sacks and eight quarterback hurries last fall.
Other key returnees include inside linebacker Jeremy Grove (83 tackles), free safety Damon Magazu and strong safety Chris Thompson (57 tackles, 3 INTs).
2. Marshall (5-7, 4-4) — If you are looking for a stereotypical C-USA team, look no further than the Thundering Herd. Averaging 40.9 points per game, the Herd led the league in scoring. From one extreme to another, Marshall ranked dead last in points allowed at a 43.1 clip. Marshall surrendered 40-plus points in seven games, including a 65-59 double overtime loss to East Carolina in the regular season finale.
Featuring eight offensive incumbents, most notably quarterback Rahkeem Cato, the Herd is likely to boast one of the nation's most prolific offenses.
En route to becoming the first underclassman to earn C-USA Offensive MVP honors, Cato completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 4,201 yards, with a staggering 37 touchdowns and 11 picks.
Two of Cato's favorite targets return after gaining first-team All-C-USA recognition a year ago. Wide receiver Tommy Shuler snagged a school-record 110 passes last season for 1,138 yards and six TDs, while tight end Gator Hoskins caught 35 balls for 374 yards and 10 scores.
Also back are Kevin Grooms, last year's leading rusher with 737 yards and eight TDs, and four O-linemen.
D.J. Hunter (102 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss), the team's top returning tackler, has moved from linebacker to free safety. Among the remaining seven defensive starters are end Alex Bazzie (82 tackles) and middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes (80).
Page 2 of 4 - Arguably the best punter in the conference, Tyler Williams averaged 45.2 yards per kick, with 16 of his 43 punts killed inside the 20.
3. Middle Tennessee (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) — Following a six-victory improvement from 2011, the Blue Raiders enter their first season in C-USA with 18 returning starters (9 offense, 8 defense, 1 special teams).
Quarterback Logan Kilgore is back to direct the attack after throwing for 2,571 yards with 16 touchdowns vs. six interceptions last year.
Kilgore's No. 2 receiver, Kyle Griswould, returns after catching 45 passes for 531 yards and six TDs.
Running back Jordan Parker ran for a school freshman record 851 yards and three scores to lead the Blue Raiders' ground game.
The offensive line remains virtually intact after allowing only 12 sacks in 2012.
While Parker made an impact on offense, a fellow freshman was a difference-maker on defense. Kevin Byard logged 74 tackles, four interceptions, a pair of pick-6s and forced two fumbles en route to garnering Freshman All-American honors.
Led by linebackers Craig Allen (82 tackles) and Roderic Blunt (75), the top three tacklers are back from last season.
4. Alabama-Birmingham (3-9, 2-6) — Like many of its C-USA brethren, the Blazers should be salty offensively, but are searching for answers defensively.
Versatile running back Darrin Reaves is the centerpiece of UAB's offense. Last season, he led the team in rushing (215 carries, 1,037 yards, 13 TDs) and was fourth on the squad in receiving (41 receptions, 302 yards, 1 TD).
In nine games as a starter, freshman Austin Brown threw for 2,673 yards with 15 touchdowns and 12 picks.
Jackie Williams (52-799-1) has caught at least one pass in 35 straight games, the longest active streak in the nation.
Junior kicker Ty Long has made 30-of-36 career field goal tries and is perfect from inside 43 yards.
Safety Calvin Jones (39 tackles) is the top returning tackler from a defense which surrendered 45 or more points in six games last fall.
5. Southern Mississippi (0-12, 0-8) — One year removed from a school record 12-victory season, the Golden Eagles plummeted to 0-12. After one year with Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss went back to what has worked in the past, plucking an offensive coordinator away from Oklahoma State. Todd Monken was hired as the new head coach in Hattiesburg, following the same path taken by Jeff Bower and Larry Fedora.
Page 3 of 4 - Though the Golden Eagles should be vastly improved this go-round, early success may be elusive as they visit Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State in pre-conference action.
After ranking 117th nationally in passing, the quarterback race is wide open. California transfer Allan Bridgford will push three holdovers for the starting job.
Regardless of who emerges as the starter, the Golden Eagles must take better care of the football after posting an awful minus-16 turnover margin in 2012.
Jalen Richards (87 carries, 426 yards, 4 TDs) is the top returnee in the backfield. Senior Kendrick Hardy rushed for 903 yards and 7 TDs as a freshman, but has been hindered by shoulder problems ever since.
While only four starters return on offense, USM will field a veteran defense with nine incumbent starters.
Nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches (37 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 1 blocked kick), USM's lone preseason All-Conference selection, and linebacker Alan Howze (66 tackles, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), the top returning tackler, headline a unit looking to redeem itself after allowing a whopping 38 points per game.
6. Florida Atlantic (3-9, 2-6 Sun Belt) — Taking the step from the Sun Belt to C-USA, the Owls return 17 starters (7 offense, 8 defense, 2 special teams) in their second year under coach Carl Pelini.
FAU returns its top two receivers in William Dukes (63 receptions, 979 yards, 4 TDs) and Daniel McKinney (48-497-2), but the Owls' quarterback battle will continue into preseason practice, if not beyond.
Running back Jonathan Wallace (175 carries, 673 yards, 6 TDs) is seeking to lead the team in rushing for the second straight year. However, the Owls are looking for better results from and against the run after averaging 114.8 yards per game, while allowing 205.
Defensively, Pelini is looking to bolster the pass rush after the Owls registered only 12 sacks for the entire season.
Linebackers Adarius Glanton (75 tackles) and Andre Kirk (70 tackles, 4 TFL) will be asked to spearhead the unit.
7. Florida International (3-9, 2-6 Sun Belt) — Ron Turner, whose resume includes head coaching stops at Illinois and San Jose State, inherits only six returning starters (3 offense, 3 defense) as the Golden Panthers move from the Sun Belt to C-USA.
Though three established players return at the skill positions, the offensive line is entirely new.
Quarterback Jake Medwick was a bright spot for the Panthers, who experienced a five-win dropoff after going 8-5 in 2011. Despite being sacked an alarming 37 times, Medwick threw for 2,127 yards and 13 touchdowns. He threw only two interceptions in 263 attempts.
Page 4 of 4 - Also back are the team's top rusher, Kedrick Rhodes (167 carries, 714 yards, 4 TDs), and second-leading receiver, Willis Wright (25-633-5).
LSU transfer Jakhari Gore will also figure into the backfield mix.
Holdover starters on defense are cornerbacks Sam Miller (62 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBUs) and Richard Leonard (55 tackles, 7 pass breakups) and end Greg Hickman (30 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles).