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Conference USA teams can pull off early stunners

Evan Habeeb / USA TODAY Sports
Jeremy Grove leads an East Carolina defense looking to make a statement against Virgina Tech.

The 2013 season's first games are four weeks from today -- we'll pause a moment to let your tears of joy dry -- and there are numerous early-season opportunities for Conference USA teams to make national noise.

Let's bypass those games where the C-USA team will serve as cannon fodder -- such as UT San Antonio playing host to Oklahoma State (yes, that game really is in San Antonio), UAB at LSU and North Texas at Georgia. Instead, let's focus on games where a C-USA team has a legit shot at a victory over a school from one of the "Big Six" conferences.

Here are five such contests:

Virginia Tech at East Carolina, Sept. 14: This will be the sixth meeting in seven seasons between the teams and the Hokies are 4-1. But the Hokies' offense is a big concern. Will QB Logan Thomas bounce back from a horrible 2012 season? Who is the featured back? Do the Hokies have a go-to receiver? And will two new starting tackles hold up? The Hokies' defense should be fine -- the same goes for ECU's defense, which is headed by LB Jeremy Grove. Can ECU's receivers get open against Tech's solid secondary? That should determine the outcome.

Memphis at Middle Tennessee, Sept. 14: A C-USA newcomer (MTSU, from the Sun Belt) takes on a team that just left the league for the AAC (Memphis). This will be the fifth consecutive season the teams have met, and MTSU has won three of the first four. MTSU looks really good on offense, and Memphis' strength is its front seven on defense. Memphis' offense is a big concern, especially the passing attack. MTSU's secondary looks strong, headed by sophomore SS Kevin Byard.

Kansas at Rice, Sept. 14: Kansas has won six games in the past three seasons, and even though five of its first seven games are at home, it is going to be bad again this season. Rice, on the other hand, looks as if it should be one of the top three or four teams in Conference USA. The Owls' running game should have a big day, and a better-than-you-think defensive line headed by DTs Christian Covington and Hosam Shahin should rule the day up front. Plus, Rice has big-legged senior K Chris Boswell, who has 11 field goals of 50-plus yards in his career.

Louisiana Tech at Kansas, Sept. 21: Not that we're picking on Kansas -- but, yeah, we're picking on Kansas. Even a rebuilding Louisiana Tech team with a new coach has a shot at beating the Jayhawks. Bulldogs sophomore TB Kenneth Dixon -- he of the 27 rushing TDs last season -- has to like it that the Jayhawks look as if they will be shaky against the run again. And Tech's defensive front four should be able to hold up against a rebuilt KU offensive line.

Iowa State at Tulsa, Sept. 26: Tulsa is C-USA's premier program, and the Golden Hurricane split two games with the Cyclones last season (losing at Iowa State in the regular season, then winning in a rematch in the Liberty Bowl). Tulsa had success on the ground against Iowa State last season, and it's unlikely the Cyclones will be any better against the run this fall. The question is whether Tulsa's defense, led by LB Shawn Jackson and FS Marco Nelson, can stymie Iowa State's rushing attack.

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