Published: Aug 08, 2010 1:57 PM EDT
Updated: Aug 09, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

Case Keenum and his talented trio of receivers will give Houston a strong chance at proving offense, every now and then, really can win championships.

"There's no secret, for us to be successful he's got to play at a high level, and I think our team likes that," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said.

Conference USA's most valuable player is back for his senior year coming off a season in which he threw for 5,671 yards — the third-highest total in Football Bowl Subdivision history. He threw for 44 touchdowns with only 15 interceptions in 2009.

James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards all are back as his targets after each had more than 1,000 yards receiving for the nation's top scoring offense last season. The Cougars averaged 42.2 points a game in 2009, a figure that shouldn't dip much this year.

Houston lost the C-USA championship to East Carolina last year on the road in a 38-32 shootout. But Keenum is among nine offensive starters back, and Sumlin has a new defensive coordinator in Brian Stewart.

Conference USA is a league where the West is dominated by offense and the East filled with bruising defenses. That is why UCF, which has led C-USA in total defense each of the past two seasons, is the favorite in the East. UCF has the league's 2009 defensive player of the year back in end Bruce Miller for his senior season.

"The team with the best defense will always win the Conference USA title," said Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora, who has nine defensive starters back himself.

Two-time defending champ East Carolina is in rebuilding mode with Ruffin McNeill, one of three new coaches in the league — along with Larry Porter at Memphis and Doc Holliday at Marshall.

C-USA might have the toughest non-conference schedule in the FBS with 24 games against bowl teams, including Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Rutgers, South Carolina, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. That could make it challenging to fill the league's now seven bowl tie-ins after going 2-4 in bowls last season.

A look at the teams in predicted order of finish:

EAST

UCF — Key players: DE Bruce Miller, CB Josh Robinson, RB Brynn Harvey, WR Kamar Aiken, QB Rob Calabrese. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 7.

Notes: The Knights have one of the easier nonconference slates with a visit from N.C. State and trip to Kansas State. UCF also hosts East Carolina and Southern Miss, which could balance their visit Nov. 5 to Houston. ... Miller ranked fifth nationally with 13 sacks but will face more double-teams without tackles Torell Troup and Travis Timmons.

SOUTHERN MISS — Key players: WR DeAndre Brown, QBs Martevious Young and Austin Davis, and LBs Ronnnie Thornton, Korey Williams and Martez Smith. Returning starters: offense 4, defense 9.

Notes: After tearing a ligament in his left foot last season, Davis now has to fight off Young, who threw for 1,861 yards and 16 TDs. Coach Larry Fedora also has Brown, who is expected to return to his 2008 form when he set the single-season record with 67 catches. ... Schedule tough starting Sept. 2 at South Carolina, but Houston visits Nov. 20.

MARSHALL — Key players: LB Mario Harvey, WR Antavious Wilson, RB Martin Ward. Returning starters: offense 7, defense. 7

Notes: Tough nonconference schedule starting at Ohio State and includes a visit from West Virginia and trip to Bowling Green. The Thundering Herd hosts UCF and won't play Houston... Harvey had 117 tackles and seven sacks. ... Ward, a sophomore, replaces Darius Marshall, who ran for 1,131 yards and 11 TDs.

EAST CAROLINA — Key players: WR Dwayne Harris, FS Emmanuel Davis, CB Travis Simmons. Returning starters: offense 5, defense 2.

Notes: McNeill at least has three offensive line starters back, and Harris, who had 83 catches for 978 yards last season. But QB Patrick Pinkney is gone.

UAB — Key players: WR Frantrell Forrest, FS Hiram Atwater, LB Lamanski Ware. Returning starters: offense 8, defense 9.

Notes: Replacing QB Joe Webb is the biggest challenge after he provided 73 percent of the offense, though David Isabelle likely has the edge. He ran 32 times for 288 yards last year. ... UAB has 11 of its top 12 tacklers back.

MEMPHIS — Key players: RG Dominik Riley, DE Winston Bowens, LB Jamon Hughes. Returning starters: six offense, six defense.

Notes: Porter must find offense after losing Curtis Steele and receivers Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton, who scored 24 of 33 TDs last season. All five offensive line starters return. ... Tyler Bass is the only QB who has taken a snap for Memphis and may be moved to receiver.

WEST

HOUSTON — Key players: QB Keenum; WRs Cleveland, Carrier and Edwards; RB Bryce Beall, LB Marcus McGraw. Returning starters: offense nine, defense seven.

Notes: The Cougars are switching to a 3-4 defense with new coordinator Stewart, trying to trim the 33 minutes opponents held the ball per game in 2009. ... Mississippi State visits on Oct. 9, and Houston wraps up the regular season with a trip to Texas Tech on Nov. 27.

SMU — Key players: QB Kyle Padron, DT Margus Hunt, WRs Aldrick Robinson and Cole Beasley. Returning starters: offense 6, defense 7.

Notes: SMU had the biggest win improvement in FBS with seven more victories in 2009. ... Padron completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,922 yards and had a school-record 460 yards in beating Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. ... The Mustangs open at Texas Tech on Sept. 5 and host Washington State on Sept. 18 while dodging both UCF and Southern Miss in league play.

UTEP — Key players: RB Donald Buckram, QB Trevor Vittatoe, WR Kris Adams, LB Royzell Smith. Returning starters: offense 7, defense 4.

Notes: Buckram averaged 132.8 8 yards per game last season. ... Vittatoe is second among returning players to Keenum in career yards passing with 9,683 and career TD passes with 75.

TULSA — Key players: WR/KR Damaris Johnson, QB G.J. Kinne, DE Odrick Ray, DE Cory Dorris. Returning starters: offense 9, defense, 5.

Notes: Johnson totaled 2,693 yards catching passes, running and returning punts and kicks. ... Schedule isn't easy with trips to Oklahoma State and Notre Dame in nonconference play.

RICE — Key players: RB Sam McGuffie; QB Nick Fanuzzi; DE Cheta Ozougwu; DT Scott Solomon. Returning starters: offense 9, defense 9.

Notes: The Owls are a year older after matching Louisiana Tech in 2009 with the youngest starting lineup in the nation. ... McGuffie sat out 2009 following his transfer from Michigan. ... Schedule is brutal starting with Texas at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

TULANE — Key players: QB Ryan Griffin, WR Casey Robottam, CB Phillip Davis. Returning starters: offense 7, defense 4.

Notes: Coach Bob Toledo must replace RB Andre Anderson and WR Jeremy Williams, who combined for 56 percent of offense. ... Schedule features seven home games.