Saturday started out looking like it would be a banner week for Conference USA. At least compared to how the rest of the year has gone. Up-and-down Marshall took a first quarter lead on Louisville. SMU took a big early lead on TCU. Even the two teams living at the bottom of our rankings took early leads over 1-A opponents. And while the teams in question - Memphis and UAB - both ended up blowing their leads, and East Carolina had its least impressive non-conference performance, Marshall and SMU still held on to pull upsets that made this one of the more impressive weeks for the conference thus far.
One of those upsets even prompted me to drop the undefeated Cougars from the top spot.
1. Southern Methodist Mustangs (4-1, 2-0 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat TCU, 40-33 (OT)
After a season-opening embarrassment at the hands of Texas A&M, the Mustangs were handed three straight cupcakes, and apparently it helped them get well. SMU garnered the most impressive non-conference win among C-USA teams this year with the victory over the Horned Frogs. The Mustangs actually took a 33-17 lead in the fourth quarter, and lost it all before pulling it out in overtime.
After a so-so start to the season, quarterback J.J. McDermott has thrown for seven touchdowns against just two interceptions in the last two weeks, and bruising running back Zach Line has rushed for at least 114 yards against every 1-A opponent thus far. The Mustang offense is starting to look as balanced and talented as anybody's in the conference.
This week: Idle. After the bye week, SMU gets their real conference tests, with UCF, Southern Miss and Tulsa in consecutive weeks.
2. Houston Cougars (5-0, 1-0 C-USA) - Down 1
Last week: beat UTEP, 49-42
While I would put SMU just ahead of Houston based on results thus far, the schedule definitely favors the Cougars going forward in the West Division race. The Coogs don't face UCF or Southern Miss, and get the showdown with SMU at home. The run defense will definitely have to get shored up before facing Line and the Mustangs, however. Let's see if defensive line coach Carlton Hall, in his first year with the Coogs, can coach the boys up a little.
Like us, the pollsters don't seem too impressed with Houston just yet, as the Cougars still managed to stay outside of the top 25 for another week, despite winning their conference opener on the road to stay unbeaten. Hopefully the lack of respect in the polls (and the drop in our power rankings) will motivate the team to start dominating some of the inferior competition upcoming.
With all of the much-deserved praise being heaped on the offense, which currently leads the NCAA in passing and total yardage, and on senior linebacker Sammy Brown, who leads the nation in tackles for loss, it's worth pointing out that sophomore punter Richie Leone is having a fantastic year. He's been hitting the ball consistently high and deep, and Houston has played good enough punt coverage to stand at #3 nationally in net punting.
This week: vs East Carolina, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. The Cougar secondary will get its biggest test of the year thus far against the ECU passing game. Houston dropped games against UCF and Tulsa at home last year, snapping a 13-game home conference winning streak. The last home C-USA loss prior to those two? That'd be ECU in 2007, when Cougar kicker T.J. Lawrence missed two field goals inside of 40 yards in the waning minutes to seal a 37-35 loss.
3. Central Florida Knights (2-2) - No Change
Last week: Idle
The Knights got a very fortuitously-timed bye week to work on shoring up the run game heading into conference play. While UCF's defense remains the elite unit in the conference, and should be able to shut down a tepid Marshall offensive attack, the Herd feature a front seven at least as talented as those belonging to FIU and BYU, who dominated that aspect of the Knight offense en route to victories.
This week: vs Marshall, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST.
4. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (4-1, 1-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Rice, 48-24
The Golden Eagle offense is officially back in high gear after a slow start, scoring 48 points despite hurting themselves with turnovers on Saturday. The defense looked pretty good, as well, holding the Owls to 24, with 14 of those points being surrendered by the offense on Rice fumble returns. So despite the disappointing conference-opening loss to Marshall, USM has a full head of steam, making it almost a shame to see them have to wait two more weeks before hitting the rest of the conference schedule.
This week: at Navy, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. The Golden Eagles know they'll have to go through UCF to win the East, and while there's a huge difference between UCF's run game and Navy's option attack, this will be a good test of the strength of Southern Miss' front seven against the run.
5. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (2-3, 1-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat North Texas, 41-24
Before the season began, I remember thinking something to the extent that, come hell or high water, the Golden Hurricane would begin the season with a 2-3 record. And sure enough, despite the injury and subsequent near-miraculous recovery of quarterback G.J. Kinne, and despite losing uber-playmaker Damaris Johnson to some bizarre legal circumstanes, Tulsa won the games we knew they would win (Tulane, North Texas) and lost the games we knew they would lose (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State). Unforeseen circumstances actually ended up benefitting Tulsa for once on Saturday, as UNT's starting quarterback missed the game with an injury, and the Golden Hurricane recorded a pair of pick-sixes against the back-up.
This week: Idle. After the bye week come two more games in which Tulsa will be heavily favored (UAB and Rice) before a mammoth showdown with SMU.
6. East Carolina Pirates (1-3, 1-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to North Carolina, 35-20
I kind of feel like I'm overvaluing the Pirates by putting them here, given that the two close losses they were hanging their hat on (South Carolina and Virginia Tech) are starting to lose some of their luster as those teams flounder. ECU's near-disaster against winless UAB is starting to ring closer to the actual talent level of the Pirates, after a less-close-than-the-final-score-makes-it-look loss to rival North Carolina.
Quarterback Dominique Davis has thrown for 778 yards in the past two games, and will get the opportunity to go up against a Houston secondary that hasn't really been tested by a good passing team thus far. The ECU defense, which has looked less awful than their nation-worst performance last year, will get a stiff test against Case Keenum and company.
This week: at Houston, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. The Pirates aren't going to be able to hang with the Cougars at the Rob if they don't start doing a better job of holding on to the football. They've turned the ball over 17 times in four games, worst in the country.
7. Marshall Thundering Herd (2-3, 1-0 C-USA) - Up 2
Last week: beat Louisville, 17-13
The Herd have been the mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma so far. How else do you explain a win over East division hopefuls Southern Miss, followed by a blowout loss to MAC foe Ohio, followed by a respectable performance against Virginia Tech and a win over Louisville? My best guess is that Marshall basically is who we thought they were (language warning in link) to begin the season - the second-most talented defense in Conference USA (the Ohio disaster notwithstanding) and a middling offense that would probably need to win the turnover and special teams battles to score enough points to win.
Still, if I'm a UCF fan, Marshall scares the heck out of me heading into this weekend's match-up, given the vulnerability of my offensive attack, and my school's inability to do the little things necessary to win the last couple of weeks.
This week: at UCF, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. How crazy is it that the Herd are one good performance away from a 2-0 start in conference, with wins over the two heavy favorites in their division?
8. Texas-El Paso Miners (2-3, 0-2 C-USA) - Up 2
Last week: lost to Houston, 49-42
I think Houston's jaw-dropping, 700+ yard performance speaks as much to the fact that UTEP's experience on defense does not equate to talent, as it does to the might of the Cougar offensive attack. Granted, it's all downhill difficulty-wise for the Miner D after having to go up against UH, but I think it's fair to say that the defense will not turn out to be the strength that UTEP fans had hoped. With two losses to divisional rivals, UTEP's season now officially consists of peering at the remaining schedule, and trying to map out a way to scratch out six wins for a chance at a bowl. But if the Miner offense is actually half as good as the Cougars made it look on Thursday, that's not outside the realm of possibility.
This week: Idle. After the bye week, the Miners get two must-win games (at Tulane, vs Colorado State) for them to have a shot at those six wins.
9. Rice Owls (1-3, 0-1 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to Southern Miss, 48-24
Maybe the Owl secondary really is missing Travis Bradshaw that much, or maybe they were just never that good in the first place. Either way, after getting shredded by Southern Miss on Saturday, Rice will have to be getting awfully introspective about how they're going to find a way to at least start to slow down the powerful air attacks they still have left to face.
If things don't start improving in a hurry, the question is going to start looming larger and larger - can David Bailiff field a competitive team consisting of his own recruits? On paper, the 2011 Owls have enough talent and experience to compete in Conference USA, but they aren't showing it on the field.
This week: vs Memphis, Saturday, 11:30 AM CST. Not just a must-win, this is a must-dominate game for the Owls.
10. Tulane Green Wave (2-3, 1-1 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to Army 45-6
After a second straight blowout loss to a beatable non-conference foe (with another such game upcoming), the UAB win is starting to look more and more like a blip on the radar of the Green Wave season. I've said in this space before that I'd like to see Bob Toledo have the chance to continue to develop Ryan Griffin and Orleans Darkwa for another year after this one, but it's going to be difficult to justify keeping him around if the team doesn't start playing semi-competitive football.
This week: vs Syracuse, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST.
11. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (0-4, 0-2 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to Troy, 24-23
The Blazers just had too much talent to be playing the way they were playing through the first three games, not just losing, but losing badly. The kinds of losses you can't even pretend to take something away from. Getting blown out by Tulane. Losing despite being handed seven turnovers by ECU. So there's one last chance to begin to salvage a respectable season, and maybe even save coach Neil Callaway's job. And UAB took a 23-14 lead into the fourth quarter against Troy, without the benefit of starting quarterback Bryan Ellis, who missed the game with an injury. Then it all fell apart, and UAB suffered a fourth-straight gut-punch loss. A shutout, a blowout at the hands of a conference bottom-feeder, the inability to capitalize on seven turnovers, and a come-from-ahead loss to an in-state rival. I'm not sure how many other ways the Blazers can find to lose.
Still, I meant what I said about the team having too much talent to keep playing like they're playing. UAB will win a couple games this year. Just not enough to keep Callaway around.
This week: vs Mississippi State, Saturday, 11:00 AM CST. The Bulldogs were expected to compete in the stacked SEC West this year, but they have struggled mightily, with an 0-3 conference record, and their only wins coming against Memphis and Louisiana Tech, the latter in overtime. Still, it's hard to fathom UAB hanging with them.
12. Memphis Tigers (1-4, 0-1 C-USA)
Last week: Lost to Middle Tennessee State, 38-31
The Tigers took on MTSU on Saturday, AKA the only team they beat last year, AKA their last realistic chance to win another game this year. Memphis jumped out to a 17-0 lead, gave it all back, took a fourth quarter lead, lost it, rallied from a fourth quarter deficit to tie, and then surrendered a game-losing 33-yard score with 11 seconds to go. Go ahead and mark the Tigers down for a second straight 1-11 season.
This week: at Rice, Saturday, 11:30 AM CST.