MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Conference USA football enters the 2008 season a league in search of a new set of marquee players — and perhaps a marquee team to push it onto the Bowl Championship Series radar.

Gone are consensus All-America running back Kevin Smith of defending league champion Central Florida, NFL first-round draft pick running back Chris Johnson of East Carolina and 5,000-yard passer Paul Smith of league runner-up Tulsa.

George O’Leary, 0-11 his first season at UCF in 2004, coached the Knights to the league title a year ago, led by Smith’s 2,567 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns.

O’Leary told reporters at the league’s media day on Sunday that he believes his team will keep its balance.

“You don’t replace a consensus All-America, but we have two-three guys who can produce by committee, and a defense with nine starters who we think will be very, very good,” said O’Leary of a unit led by cornerback Joe Burnett, who intercepted six passes last season. He is also the preseason C-USA Special Teams player of the year.

“Coach O’Leary has taught us the things we needed to do to win,” Burnett said. “To see it happen has been special.”

UCF is favored in the coaches’ poll to win the league’s East Division title again over East Carolina and Southern Mississippi. Tulsa is a unanimous choice of the league’s 12 coaches to repeat in the West, ahead of Houston.

“Stars will emerge, or in our case, re-emerge,” said second-year Golden Hurricane coach Todd Graham. “Everybody’s talking about Don here. But we had three different 1,000-yard receivers last year, including Brennan Marion, who broke a 30-year NCAA record for yards per catch (31.9 on 39 receptions). The stars are there.”

Skip Holtz, in his fourth season as head coach at East Carolina, said the Pirates will have to reconfigure without Johnson, who had 1,950 total yards and 20 scores a year ago.

“We have players on offense who can step up. We have a strong, experienced de-fense,” Holtz said. “And I know we’re light years away from when we started here with a team that had won three games in the previous two seasons.”

Both UCF and Tulsa finished last season 10-4, and no league team has equaled the 11-1 record Louisville put together in 2004, the year before it bolted to the Big East Conference along with Cincinnati and South Florida.

One reason coaches pointed to is an ambitious nonconference slate that has seen C-USA teams played at least two dozen games against BCS foes each of the past two years, with the same setup this year.

But C-USA teams have won just six of their BCS matchups in 2006 and 2007, and went 3-8 in bowl games.

“Short-term it hurts us I’m sure, but I’m still convinced it pays long-term dividends,” said East Carolina’s Skip Holtz, whose 8-5 team went 1-3 against BCS teams last year, beating North Carolina. They also upended former BCS bowl winner Boise State in their bowl game in Hawaii last December.

But O’Leary said, “If we want to move this league forward, we as a group are going to have to focus on the BCS games, and get ourselves noticed.”

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