The Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Conference USA will look a lot different next year, but that doesn't mean much for this football season, league coaches said Tuesday.
"We'll worry about that next year," said Randy Butler, assistant head coach for Southern Mississippi. "The league's going to change, but until Dec. 31, it's going to be like it's been."
Five of C-USA's 11 members are leaving for other leagues, including Louisville, the coaches' pick to take the conference championship this season.
The coaches' poll put Memphis second and Southern Mississippi third.
But the Golden Eagles, the league's defending champions, aren't worried about those predictions. They've been league champs four times in C-USA's eight-year history.
"We go into every season believing that, and more importantly, our kids believe that," Butler said at the league's preseason media day.
Butler, represented the Southern Mississippi because Coach Jeff Bower was unable to attend. Bower's father died late last week and the coach was home with his family.
Joining Louisville in a move to the Big East next year will be Cincinnati and South Florida. TCU is headed to the Mountain West and Army is going independent.
But C-USA coaches said league play will be particularly competitive this year, nevertheless.
"From top to bottom, it's going to be as balanced as it's ever been," Butler said.
While Memphis coach Tommy West agreed that the league is at its strongest, he was not worried about the coming changes.
"I like this league, but if you don't like it here, then move on," West said. "We wish you the best of luck, but I'm excited about the teams that'll be coming into this league."
West has built the strongest offense Memphis fans have seen in a long time, and he led Memphis to postseason play for the first time in 32 years. The Tigers beat North Texas 27-17 in the New Orleans bowl.
Like Butler, West, too, expects his team to reach for the conference championship.
"Five years ago, the goal was to beat Tennessee or beat Ole Miss, beat Mississippi State. That was what turned everybody on," West said. "Now, I want to win this league."
East Carolina was selected next to last in the preseason poll, and coach John Thompson said his focus will be winning respect from the rest of the conference.
Thompson said he made a mistake common to college coaching in letting off-field duties take up too much of his time.
"Every guy sitting in here realizes we don't coach as much as we used to coach," Thompson said. "I'm definitely going to coach more. I'm going to be hands on."
As for conference champion, Thompson said, Southern Mississippi is still the team to beat.
"Until somebody knocks them off, they're the reigning champion, and I look at it that way," he said.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said his team wants to win the championship, too, and not just because it's the last year in the league.
"If this was not our last year, that would still be one of our goals," Petrino said. "I think what you're going to see is there might be some hostility in some of the crowds we go into, give them something to yell and cheer about, which to me is good. I think the players feed off of that, get energy and excitement from it."
2004 C-USA FOOTBALL COACHES PRESEASON POLL
Predicted Order of Finish (1st place votes) Pts.
1. Louisville (2) 106
2. Memphis (3) 101
3. Southern Miss (2) 100
4. TCU (4) 99
5. Houston 70
6. UAB 61
7. USF 56
8. Cincinnati 45
9. Tulane 39
10. East Carolina 37
11. Army 12
First Team Offense
QB Stefan LeFors, Louisville
RB Robert Merrill, TCU
RB DeAngelo Williams, Memphis
OL Anthony Alabi, TCU
OL Chase Johnson, TCU
OL Travis Leffew, Louisville
OL Jeremy Parquet, Southern Miss
OL Kyle Takavitz, Cincinnati
WR Maurice Avery, Memphis
WR J.R. Russell, Louisville
WR Roydell Williams, Tulane
TE Stephen Cucci, Houston
First Team Defense
DL Joe Clay, Houston
DL Trent Cole, Cincinnati
DL Andre Frazier, Cincinnati
DL Marcus Jones, Louisville
LB Michael Boley, Southern Miss
LB Chris Moore, East Carolina
LB Zac Woodfin, UAB
DB Tra Boger, Tulane
DB Marvin Godbolt, TCU
DB Daven Holly, Cincinnati
DB Wesley Smith, Memphis
DB Mark Walker, TCU
First Team Special Teams
K Nick Hayes, UAB
P Ryan Dougherty, East Carolina
KR John Eubanks, Southern Miss
PR Marvin Young, Southern Miss
Offensive Player of the Year
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Memphis
Defensive Player of the Year
Michael Boley, LB, Southern Miss
Special Teams Player of the Year
John Eubanks, KR, Southern Miss
BENGALS / NFL
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REDS / BASEBALL
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Griffey getting back in Reds' lineup
Healthy team on horizon
Detroit earning respect
Former voice of the Mets, 79, dies
Yankees look to fill hole at first by signing Olerud
NL: Batista's slam tops Cards in 12
AL: Boston's Schilling controls Tampa Bay
AAA: Charlotte 9, Louisville 8
Federer is frustrated again
Photos of Tuesday's action
Down a set, Roddick finds game in time
Hrbaty downs No. 1 player - again
Henman happy as spotlight goes past
Upstart Kiefer keeps winning
Family, success on court link coaches
Masters schedule, results
Cardinals aim to go out on a high
RedHawks picked 2nd in MAC East
College football notebook
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Mavericks' Walker reportedly Hawks-bound in 4-player deal
Games matter, but they could mean more
Italy surprises young U.S. with upset in Athens tuneup
Olympics special section
Photo gallery: A look at local Olympians
Editorial: Congratulations to our local Olympians
2004 Summer Olympics schedule
Olympics guide, multimedia
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What will be the Bengals' record this coming season?