When Rice joined Conference USA, members and conference administrators expected an immediate boost to its improving reputation.
That has certainly been the case for baseball.
The Owls are the consensus No. 1 team in the land and have two of the nation's top players – reliever Cole St. Clair and two-way star Joe Savery.
While the Owls lead the charge, several teams in the conference continue to improve their stock.
Tulane and Houston should once again find a postseason home, while Southern Miss, Memphis and East Carolina will likely fight for the league's final postseason spot.
As the season draws closer, the C-USA is a conference on the move.
Rivals.com's Conference USA Predictions
The Owls enter the season with hopes of claiming the school's second national title. While Rice is a team that is generally known for its pitching, the Owls pack a powerful punch at the plate. Aaron Luna, Tyler Henley, Brian Friday and Joe Savery lead the way offensively, while Jordan Dodson and Danny Lehmann gives the Owls additional production. They also expect immediate production from newcomers such as J.P. Padron, Diego Seastrunk and Jared Gayhart, among others. The pitching staff is also in great shape with stud reliever Cole. St. Clair the headliner. The Owls are in business.
In a year that was supposed to be a rebuilding campaign, the Green Wave surprised many by compiling an impressive 43-21 record last season. Though the Wave's season ended at the Oxford Regional, head coach Rick Jones and his young troops had much to look forward to. That brings us to a 2007 season that is promising. Tulane welcomes back weekend starters Sean Morgan and Brandon Gomes, while veteran Daniel Latham serves as a solid arm out of the bullpen. They also have much to look forward to offensively with the return of Brad Emaus, Warren McFadden and Tim Guidry, among others.
With one of the nation's top pitchers in tow, the Houston Cougars put together an impressive 2006 campaign. The Cougars finished the year with a 39-22 record and made an appearance at the Norman Regional. As the Cougars press forward, they do so without two-way star Brad Lincoln and power hitter Matt Weston. However, that hasn't kept head coach Rayner Noble and his troops from remaining confident. Houston returns weekend starters Ricky Hargrove and Luis Flores. They also welcome back Bryan Tully, Josh Stirneman, Dustin Kingsbury, Jake Stewart and others at the plate.
4. Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles reached the NCAA Tournament with a 39-23 record last season and hope to improve on that mark in head coach Corky Palmer's tenth season. While the Eagles have some questions to answer on the mound, their offense is in great shape with middle infielders Trey Sutton and Brian Dozier leading the way. Sutton batted .375 with four home runs and 32 RBIs last season, while Dozier wasn't far behind at a .368 clip. The Eagles also return Michael Ewing, while brother James Ewing is slated to play third base after transferring from Arkansas. The season comes down the pitching staff.
When Daron Schoenrock took the reins of the Memphis program, many chuckled at the idea that he could turn them into a winner. Those people are no longer laughing. In just two seasons at Memphis, Schoenrock has turned the Tigers into a respectable program. They finished the 2006 season with a 32-28 record. As the Tigers press forward, they have one of the nation's top lineups with Adam Amar, Bill Moss, Will Petersen, Kyle Norrid and K.K. Chalmers leading the way. Amar and Petersen are power producers, while Chalmers is a speedster. If the pitching holds up, the Tigers could surprise.
6. East Carolina
East Carolina head coach Billy Godwin took over a less than desirable situation last fall, but with the help of his troops, the Pirates proceeded to have a successful campaign. As Godwin enters his second season at ECU, they're becoming increasingly confident. The Pirates must replace stud catcher Jake Smith, but return hitters Harrison Eldridge, Stephen Batts, Brandon Henderson, Jake Dean, Dale Mollenhauer, among others. The Pirates also have an impressive pitching staff with T.J. Hose, Dustin Sasser and Shane Mathews leading the charge. Can Godwin turn the corner in his second year?
It's not everyday that you can lose one of the nation's top pitchers and your best reliever and still have a successful season. But in 2007, long-time head coach Jay Bergman and Central Florida will try to do so. The Golden Knights are without staff ace Tim Bascom and stud reliever Dominic Petracca. Bascom recorded 90 strikeouts in 80 innings last season, while Petracca made 27 appearances. Hoping to bounce back from those losses, the Knights will lean heavily on Mitch Houck, Brian Brooks, Kyle Sweat and Mitch Herold. The Knights have work to do, but the talented arms are there.
New UAB head coach Brian Shoop built a winning tradition at Birmingham Southern. He hopes to do the same thing at UAB. As the Blazers prepare for the upcoming season, they do so with a talented lineup and a less than stellar pitching staff. Though the Blazers hit .267 last season, they return several players from that team. The list includes Danny Sawyer, Steven Turner, Jorge Gutierrez and Ryne Lovedahl, among others. They also expect significant contributions from newcomers Jonathan Merritt, Ryan Keedy and Birmingham Southern transfers Allen Aubin and Brint Hardy.
After finishing last season with a 22-32 record, Marshall decided to make a coaching change. At the end, they hired Jeff Waggoner from N.C. State. Waggoner brings a wealth of experience to the table, but has his work cut out. The Thundering Herd enters the season with question marks at nearly every position. They must replace the two leading hitters from last year's team, but do return hard-hitting Brendan Murphy and Brit Vincent, among others. On the mound, Marshall has some work to do. This staff had a 6.95 ERA last season and that must improve if they want to make a move.