SB Nation Houston's preview of this weekend's UH-Tulsa football game will be up later this week, but for now, let's take a look around the rest of our conference. With SMU off, and UCF having virtually wrapped up the East, there isn't much at stake in terms of division races in the "other" games. But plenty of teams are fighting to keep their shots at bowl games alive, and fighting for bowl position, while everybody else...is playing for pride.
Here are the week's games, with a more in-depth look at the Conference USA bowl picture at the bottom.
East Carolina Pirates (5-4, 4-1 C-USA) @ Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (3-6, 2-3)
Who to cheer for: UAB. When do they win at anything?
Vegas Says: UAB by 2
I had to triple-check that line to make sure it was correct, but there it is. The Blazers, having graduated running quarterback Joe Webb and lost running quarterback David Isabelle to injury, were forced to switch to a more traditional offense on the fly, and have had some success with it. Passing quarterback Bryan Ellis has looked respectable, and running back Pat Shed has shown some flashes, most notably a 176 yard performance in the upset of Southern Miss two weeks ago. Perhaps it is Shed the Vegas oddsmakers had in mind, especially given ECU's historically bad performance against Navy's run game last weekend - the Pirates surrendered 76 points on 521 Midshipmen rush yards, with an average of 8.4 yards per carry. Yikes. Still, UAB's 14-point loss to Marshall last weekend wasn't much more impressive, albeit less statistically mind-blowing. I don't think the Blazers will be able to slow down the formidable Pirate passing attack any more than ECU will stop the run.
Dustin says: ECU by 7
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (6-3, 3-2 C-USA) at Central Florida Knights (7-2, 5-0)
Who to cheer for: Southern Miss, just to make things interesting in the East.
Vegas says: UCF by 9.5
The Knights virtually cemented their East Division title with the win over Houston on Friday. Even if they are upset at home this weekend, they would need only to win their remaining games against weaklings Tulane and Memphis to clinch the division. Still, there have been some chinks in the armor. The Knights' two worst defensive performances of the year have come in the last two games - surrendering 33 points to East Carolina and 35 points (on 532 total yards) to Houston. At the same time that UCF's defense has begun to look vulnerable, the Golden Eagle offense is soaring. USM has scored over 40 points in five straight contests, while relying on a plethora of offensive options. Five different players for Southern Miss have carried the ball 40+ times on the year, while nine different players have caught 10 or more passes. Ultimately, I think the Knights pull this one out at home, but the Golden Eagles could turn this one into a shootout.
Dustin says: UCF by 7
Memphis Tigers (1-8, 0-5 C-USA) at Marshall Thundering Herd (3-6, 2-3)
Who to cheer for: Memphis. Because seeing anybody go 1-11 is depressing.
Vegas says: Marshall by 16.5
Honestly, can you set a line high enough against Memphis at this point? In its last five contests, it's failed to score 20 points in any game, and failed to hold any opponent under 40. Meanwhile, Marshall is riding a two-game winning streak, and has an outside shot at six wins after a 1-6 start. (The SMU game next week will be a toughie.) An all-around yawner, Marshall cruises.
Dustin says: Marshall by 21
Rice Owls (2-7, 1-4 C-USA) at Tulane Green Wave (3-6, 1-4)
Who to cheer for: The hometown Owls, of course.
Vegas says: Tulane by 5.5
One wonders how hot Rice coach David Bailiff's seat would be if not for the Owls' upset win over Houston this year. Rice was supposed to improve with the return of Nick Fanuzzi at quarterback, and the emergence of running back Sam McGuffie, but it doesn't look like they will top last year's 2-10 mark by much, if at all. In year four of the Bailiff era, there isn't much evidence to suggest that he can win without being handed Rice's most talented trio of players in 40 years. I expect he'll get another year to develop a still young team, but showing that the Owls aren't the absolute bottom of the C-USA barrel (i.e. beating Tulane) would sure be a nice step in the right direction. However, with the Owls playing non-competitive football in two contests since the UH win, and Tulane having been tied or leading at the end of three quarters each of the last three weeks, I have to anticipate another Owl loss.
Dustin says: Tulane by 10
Texas-El Paso Miners (6-4, 3-4 C-USA) at Arkansas Razorbacks (7-2, 4-2 SEC)
Who to cheer for: UTEP. They did UH a huge favor by beating SMU last weekend, so I'm cheering for the Miners for the foreseeable future.
Vegas says: Arkansas by 30.5
Don't look now, but the Miner defense has carried them to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2005. After getting smacked around by the Cougars in week two, UTEP has held seven of its last eight opponents under 30 points. However, none of those teams (C-USA teams and the laughably bad New Mexico schools) will be any sort of preparation for what the Miners will face this week from the powerful Arkansas offense. This isn't a winnable game for UTEP, but if they can keep Ryan Mallett and Co. from completely running them off the field, it will be a positive sign that the Miners' three-game conference losing streak was a fluke.
Dustin says: Arkansas by 24
Making sense of the bowl picture
Conference USA has six official bowl tie-ins for the 2010 season. C-USA also has a secondary bowl contingency for the first-year Dallas Football Classic, however it is unlikely that the Big XII or Big Ten will fail to meet their bowl tie-ins for that game.
So who's going to grab those six spots? It breaks down like this:
Central Florida, Southern Miss, Tulsa, UTEP
Almost there, aka sitting on five wins
ECU (5-4), Houston (5-4), SMU (5-5)
I'm not quite dead, aka 3-6
Marshall, UAB, Tulane
Put a fork in 'em
So assuming that the Thundering Herd, Blazers and Green Wave fail to win out, there are seven teams competing for six likely spots. If one of the five-win teams fails to win another game, that clears the picture up considerably. ECU has remaining games against UAB and Rice, so they're golden. SMU hosts Marshall before a season-ending roadie at ECU, so they could be in trouble if they can't handle "We Are", but with a bye week to prepare, they ought to be able to pull that one out. Finally, your Cougars have the toughest road remaining, with Tulsa at home, and Southern Miss and Texas Tech on the road. There's not a guarantee win in that group by any stretch.
But assuming that the unthinkable doesn't happen, and the Cougars do get to six wins, let's take a look at how the bowl picture might end up. The bowls are listed in order of preference. I.e. the Liberty Bowl gets first pick of C-USA team, the St. Petersburg Bowl gets second pick, etc.
Liberty Bowl: UCF. We'll assume that the Knights win the conference and end up here, both a) to jinx them, and b) because they're earned it.
Beef O'Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl: East Carolina. The Pirates should end up with seven or eight wins, they're on the East Coast, and they are one of the more recognizable brand names in C-USA, thanks to plenty of victories over BCS foes in recent years. They seem like the obvious choice.
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl: SMU. I steadfastly refuse to believe that the Cougars will end up here for a third year in a row, so I see them grabbing the local guys.
EagleBank Bowl, aka Military Bowl: Houston. With East Coast teams UCF and ECU already taken, the Military Bowl grabs the most nationally known team remaining. Hope you like D.C. in December, Coogs.
R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Tulsa. Same logic applies here with UH and the Armed Forces Bowl. I don't think anybody wants Southern Miss going to the same bowl for a third straight year (and fifth time in seven years). So they grab the next-closest remaining school.
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl: Southern Miss. Seven-win teams are always more likely to get the call than 6-6 squads, so this one may come down to which team, between UTEP and USM, can get that seventh win. The Miners have roadies with Arkansas and Tulsa, while the Golden Eagles travel to UCF, host Houston, and travel to Tulsa.
So suppose UTEP gets snubbed for a second. They could have a shot at the New Mexico Bowl, despite its lack of C-USA affiliation. The Mountain West is going to come up at least one team short of its five bowl tie-ins, assuming that TCU goes to the BCS, which looks like a foregone conclusion at this point. Filling up those five spots will be bowl-eligible Utah, Air Force and San Diego State. The potential fillers for the last two would be Army (5-4) going to the Armed Forces Bowl and BYU (4-5). If at least one of those two schools fails to reach bowl eligibility, the New Mexico Bowl (which has fifth and last pick of MWC schools) may be looking for a team. The bowl eligible, nearby Miners could be a perfect fit. What the heck, I'll just say it:
New Mexico Bowl: UTEP.