E. Carolina, Houston favorites in Conference USA

Conference USA coaches don’t bother to scrutinize a preseason poll. Who has time to sort out that mess?

As usual, there’s three or four teams that look as if they have a legitimate shot to win the conference championship this season, and a few more with reasons to dream big.

East Carolina coach Skip Holtz knows it’s not even safe to pick his Pirates to repeat.

“When you look at the last four years we haven’t had a back-to-back conference winner,” Holtz said.

East Carolina and Houston, both teams with talented, experienced quarterbacks, head into the season as the C-USA favorites. The Cougars are led by Case Keenum, who threw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns last season. The Pirates get Patrick Pinkney back for a sixth year because of injury.

“That’s a nice little Christmas present for us,” Holtz said.

It was Pinkney who led the Pirates to an attention-grabbing start last season. East Carolina jumped into the rankings after consecutive wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia and a 3-0 start. After faltering midseason, the Pirates rallied and beat Tulsa in the conference title game, finishing 9-5.

Holtz doesn’t see a clear path to return to the championship. Southern Mississippi and Memphis stand in the way in the East.

Memphis has stocked up on transfers to make a push.

After finishing with five consecutive wins, Southern Miss expects to pick right back up with three of the league’s most dynamic offensive players — running back Damion Fletcher, wide receiver DeAndre Brown and quarterback Austin Davis.

The West race featured the nation’s No. 1 and 2 offenses — Tulsa and Houston — last season. With Keenum leading the way, Houston will likely be up there again. The Cougars averaged 562 yards per game last season.

Tulsa, 11-3 last year, will be trying to replace one of the nation’s top quarterbacks for the second year in a row. David Johnson passed for 4,059 yards and 46 touchdowns after taking over for Paul Smith. Coach Todd Graham is expecting similar production from Johnson’s successor — early leader G.J. Kinne is competing with two others for the job. He won’t be making many changes.

“If we do, we’re not very smart,” Graham said. “We’ve been the No. 1 offense in the nation the last two years.”

A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:

EAST

EAST CAROLINA — Key players: QB Patrick Pinkney, DE C.J. Wilson, WR Dwayne Harris, FS Van Eskridge. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 8.

Notes: Tough nonconference schedule includes West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. … A shoulder injury and multiple surgeries two seasons ago qualified Pinkney for a sixth season. He started 13 games last year, passing for 2,675 yards and 13 touchdowns. … Wilson had 10.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss last year.

SOUTHERN MISS — Key players: RB Damion Fletcher, WR DeAndre Brown, QB Austin Davis, LB Korey Williams. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 8.

Notes: Fletcher tries to become ninth RB to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons after troubled offseason. … Golden Eagles aiming for 16th straight winning season. Only Florida State, Florida and Virginia Tech have more. … Davis set a school record with at least 200 yards passing in nine games.

MEMPHIS — Key players: QB Arkelon Hall, RB Curtis Steele, DB Alton Starr, LB Jamon Hughes. Returning starers: offense 4, defense 7.

Notes: Several transfers from programs such as Miami, Auburn and Wisconsin could have significant playing time. … Conference newcomer of the year Steele rushed for 1,223 yards and running game should be bolstered by addition of transfer Lance Smith. … 6-foot-8 Carlos Singleton needs 1 more TD catch to set school career record with 20.

CENTRAL FLORIDA — Key players: QBs Rob Calabrese and Joe Weatherford, LB Lawrence Young, DT Bruce Miller. Returning starters: offense 10, defense 6.

Notes: Good news-bad news — UCF returns 10 players on an offense that was last in the nation. … Calabrese completed 39 percent of passes for 664 yards, seven TDs as freshmen last year. … Four starters lost to injury during last season — LBs Cory Hogue and Jordan Richards and WRs A.J. Guyton and Rocky Ross — return.

MARSHALL — Key players: TE Cody Slate, DE Albert McClellan, LB Mario Harvey. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 8.

Notes: QB Brian Anderson appears to be starter going into season. … Marshall expects a dominant defense with seven of top 10 tacklers back. … Slate has 2,012 career yards receiving and 19 TDs. … Herd is 115-17 — an FBS-leading .871 winning percentage — at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM — Key players: QB Joe Webb, DE Bryant Turner, RB Rashaud Slaughter. Returning starters: offense 11, defense 7.

Notes: Blazers have won total of six games last two seasons. … Webb one of three QBs to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 last season. Accounted for 21 of 29 UAB scores.

WEST

HOUSTON — Key players: QB Case Keenum, RB Bryce Beall, WR Tyron Carrier, LB Marcus McGraw, CB Brandon Brinkley. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 6.

Notes: Conference offensive player of the year Keenum threw for more than 300 yards 12 times last season. … Cougars must replace conference defensive player of the year, OLB Phillip Hunt. … Beall ran for 1,247 yards.

TULSA — Key players: QB G.J. Kinne, WR Damaris Johnson, LB Mike Bryan, S James Lockett. Returning starters: offense 6, defense 8.

Notes: Tulsa has played for the championship in three of its four years as a league member. … Hurricane led the nation with 569.9 yards per game and was second with 47.2 points per game. … Tulsa set school record with 11 wins, second straight 10-win season.

UTEP — Key players: QB Trevor Vittatoe, WRs Jeff Moturi and Kris Adams, DB Braxton Amy. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 7.

Notes: Vittatoe has thrown for more than 6,300 yards and 58 TDs in two seasons with just 16 INTs. … The 23 combined TDs of Moturi and Adams are the most of any returning receiving duo. … Mike Price has been right for the Miners, who have scored more than 40 points in 17 games and more than 30 in 38 games in the 60 they’ve played since he became coach.

RICE — Key players: S Andrew Sendejo, WR Toren Dixon, QB John Thomas Shepherd. Returning starters: offense 4, defense 8.

Notes: Rice won 10 games last season and won first bowl game since 1954, but must replace 97 percent of its passing yards and 94 percent of its rushing yards. … Also in the mix at QB are Alabama transfer Nick Fanuzzi and Ryan Lewis.

SMU — Key players: QB Bo Levi Mitchell, WRs Aldrick Robinson and Emmanuel Sanders, LB Pete Fleps. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 8.

Notes: The Mustangs are coming off second straight 1-11 season. … Mitchell was one of 13 freshmen on two-deep depth chart last season. … SMU had 29 TD passes, 3,275 yards passing — both school records.

TULANE — Key players: RB Andre Anderson, WR Jeremy Williams, DE Reggie Scott, QB Kevin Moore. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 6.

Notes: Anderson returns from knee injury, one of 17 players to suffer season-ending injury. He rushed for 864 yards in seven games last season. … Coach Bob Toledo adds new defensive coordinator Steve Stanard after 10-loss season.

Chris Talbott/The Associated Press