For a league that was once considered an afterthought to its neighbors, times sure have changed.
Rice leads the C-USA charge, while East Carolina and Southern Miss try to find a way to derail them. Meanwhile, Tulane hopes to rebound from a disappointing 2007 campaign.
Looking at the rest of the league, Houston needs productive campaigns from third baseman Jimmy Cesario and pitcher Wes Musick, while UAB and Memphis fight for position.
We preview the C-USA.
Rivals.com's Conference USA Preview
Predicted order of finish
2. Southern Miss
3. East Carolina
1B. Kiko Vazquez, UCF
2B. Jess Buenger, Rice
3B. Jimmy Cesario, Houston
SS. Brian Dozier, Southern Miss
OF. Aaron Luna, Rice
OF. Harrison Eldridge, East Carolina
OF. Jordan Dodson, Rice
C. Jared Dyer, Tulane
SP. Ryan Berry, Rice
SP. Matt Langwell, Rice
SP. Shooter Hunt, Tulane
RP. Cole St. Clair, Rice
DH. Trey Sutton, Southern Miss
Conference USA breakdown
Team on the rise
Even without making a huge splash on the national stage in recent years, East Carolina has several reasons to be optimistic. For starters, the Pirates have a rabid fan base and one of the nation's best stadiums. They also have an outstanding coaching staff with Billy Godwin leading the charge. After guiding the Pirates to a 33-26 finish in his first season (2006), Godwin took the next step in 2007. Not only did the Pirates finish second in the league behind CWS participant Rice, they also won 40 games. ECU hopes to take yet another step in 2008. Though ECU might take a backseat to North Carolina and N.C. State in other sports, it won't ever happen in baseball. To say the least, ECU is a sleeping giant.
Coach on the rise
When Daron Schoenrock took the reigns of the Memphis program three years ago, he did it with the realization that they had one of the league's worst programs. Perhaps that's what attracted him to the opening. The Tigers experienced tough times in Schoenrock's first season, but turned the corner in 2006. The Tigers finished the year fourth in the C-USA and had 32 total wins. In 2007, the Tigers took another giant step by reaching the NCAA Tournament. Additionally, they finished the year with an improved 36-27 record. Though Schoenrock has the Tigers headed the right direction, they have some key offensive contributors to replace. If they want to return to the NCAA Tournament, the pitching staff must rise to the occasion. However, nothing surprises me when it comes to Schoenrock and his coaching staff.
When it comes to developing pitchers, it doesn't get much better than Rice coach Wayne Graham. Just ask sophomore right-hander Ryan Berry. In just his first season with the Owls, Berry joined an elite list of pitchers. The talented righty went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 122 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 125 and walked 34, while opponents hit him at a .248 clip. In addition to those numbers, Berry finished the year with 20 starts and 23 total appearances. With the Owls hoping to win their second national title this spring, Berry promises to have another productive campaign.
The Golden Knights haven't experienced much success in recent years, but Vazquez has them believing this spring. Though Vazquez has flown somewhat under the radar at UCF, the hard-hitting first baseman compiled impressive numbers as a sophomore last season. He batted a team-leading .364 with nine homers and 57 RBIs. He also slugged .587 and had a .467 on-base percentage. Additionally, he recorded 17 doubles, one triple and finished the year with 121 total bases. The Knights have much work to do in the C-USA, but Vazquez is one of the nation's best.
Like many leagues in college baseball, the C-USA continues to make improvements across the board. Though several teams have risen to the occasion in recent years, Rice has been a constant. Despite the loss of a few key players, the Owls should once again contend for the national title in 2008. The Owls are led on the mound by sophomore right-hander Ryan Berry, while fellow righty Matt Langwell has also tallied impressive numbers ? East Carolina and Southern Miss are intriguing teams to watch. The Pirates must replace a few key players, but are excited about Auburn transfer Justin Bristow and returning staff ace T.J. Hose. The Pirates should have a productive offensive lineup with outfielder Harrison Eldridge leading the charge. Meanwhile, Southern Miss should have a solid team with infielders Trey Sutton and Brian Dozier leading the charge. Both Sutton and Dozier put up impressive numbers last season. Perhaps most encouraging for the Golden Eagles is the return of several pitchers ? Tulane hopes to rebound from last year's woes with weekend starter Shooter Hunt as the headliner, while Houston expects productive campaigns from third baseman Jimmy Cesario and weekend starter Wes Musick ? Memphis and UAB should battle it out in the middle of the pack, while UCF and Marshall hope for some luck.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.