David Hunter, Marcus McGraw and the rest of the Cougar defense pitched their first shutout in 12 years on Saturday, easily enough to earn the top spot in our power rankings for the second straight week.
It was a less than impressive week for Conference USA football, continuing a less than impressive season thus far. The conference only went 2-6 against non-conference opponents in week four, and one of those wins was Houston's victory over a 1-AA opponent.
Can conference play just start in its entirety, so that we can stop seeing how bad we are in comparison to the rest of the country? Thanks.
1. Houston Cougars (4-0) - No Change
Last week: Beat Georgia State, 56-0
Probably more impressive than the dominating victory over the Panthers was the week that Houston's past opponents had. Maybe our non-conference schedule will look slightly more impressive after UCLA beat Oregon State, North Texas beat Indiana, and Louisiana Tech took Mississippi State to overtime before losing.
It wasn't always pretty, but the Cougars did escape their non-conference schedule unscathed. They are one of only two schools from non-AQ conferences with undefeated records at this point in the season, the other being Boise State. Houston has had a difficult time avoiding "Coogin' It" in conference play lately, but the schedule shapes up pretty nicely for them, with Southern Miss and Central Florida off the schedule.
This week: at UTEP, Thursday, 7:00 PM CST. The Miners have looked woeful to begin the year, but their most impressive performance may have been in a loss this past week. Now the Cougars get a UTEP team with a sense of confidence as they head to the Sun Bowl. This is a good test of the mental toughness of Houston. This is a game that, on paper, shouldn't be close. But there are a hundred excuses to be made if it ends up being close. Can the Coogs avoid the excuses and play a complete game?
2. Southern Methodist Mustangs (3-1, 2-0 C-USA) - Up 2
Last week: Beat Memphis, 42-0
UTEP, Memphis and Northwestern State aren't exactly marquee wins, but sadly, that's good enough for #2 at the moment. The real opponents are up next, with a chance to make a statement in non-conference, followed by east favorites UCF and Southern Miss. J. J. McDermott seems to have taken a hold of the quarterback job, but has put up just three touchdowns and three picks in the three previously mentioned victories. So June Jones and SMU are depending on star running back Zach Line for much of their offense, in lieu of a big-time passing game. I'll wait while your head explodes.
This week: at TCU, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. An inexperienced Horned Frog defense hasn't looked quite like the dominant force we're used to, while the offense, under new quarterback Casey Pachall, has been flying high. So tune in on Saturday, we could see some fireworks.
3. Central Florida Knights (2-2) - Down 1
Last week: Lost to BYU, 24-17
Sure, the Knights have the best defense in C-USA, but the offense looks awfully feeble if you have the big bodies up front to slow down their run game. The teams who have proven that? Sun Belt foe Florida International, and a BYU squad that was fresh off giving up 50+ points to Utah. Yikes.
Still, things will probably be a little bit easier against C-USA defenses, and while quarterback Jeff Godfrey probably can't single-handedly beat you through the air, at least he won't beat himself. He has completed 60 of 87 passes so far, with just one interception, although he has yet to throw for a touchdown.
This week: Idle
4. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (3-1, 0-1 C-USA) - Up 3
Last week: Beat Virginia, 30-24
While I have criticized QB Austin Davis in this space earlier this year, I will give credit where credit is due. Against an AQ-conference foe, with no running game to speak of (outside of a fake punt that worked, USM gained just 30 yards on 34 carries), Davis took the offense on his shoulders, and won the game for the Golden Eagles. If he can get things going, considering how well USM has played against UCF recently (three straight wins, and five-of-six all-time), the folks in Hattiesburg have to feel okay about their chances in the East, even with the ugly loss to Marshall on the resume.
This week: vs Rice, Saturday, 6:30 PM CST. And Davis will have a great chance to keep things rolling this weekend, against a weak Owl secondary. With games against SMU, ECU and UCF still left, this one is pretty close to a must-win for Southern Miss.
5. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (1-3, 1-0 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: Lost to Boise State, 41-21
Maybe I'm overreacting by dropping Tulsa after they lost to a team that nobody in C-USA would likely be able to beat, but if you're going to schedule some of the top teams in the country, you should at least be able to give one or two of them a close game. The Golden Hurricane haven't done that in any of their three losses.
Expect Tulsa to be one of the toughest teams in conference in the trenches this year, however. Even against the Broncos, Tulsa gained over five yards per carry, and allowed less than three.
This week: vs North Texas, 6:00 PM CST. On paper, this should be an easy win for Tulsa, but keep in mind that the Mean Green gave Houston all they could handle for a half, and are fresh off a win over Indiana.
6. East Carolina Pirates (1-2, 1-0 C-USA) - Down 1
Last week: Beat UAB, 28-23
The Pirates opened the season by playing some top national teams very closely, but committed seven turnovers and barely scraped by a Blazer squad that got it brains bashed in by lowly Tulane. That's how you get dropped in the power rankings after a win. Ultimately, they are 1-0 in conference play, but there's a long way to go.
This week: vs North Carolina, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST. But before they get another shot at conference play, they get another shot at a good AQ-conference program. UNC has a lot of talent on defense, so this will be a stout test for Dominique Davis and ECU. Can the Pirates get that elusive non-conference win?
7. Rice Owls (1-2) - Down 1
Last week: Lost to Baylor, 56-31
Yes, Robert Griffin III is very good. But 29-of-33 for 338 yards and five scores? Oy. That's not just a good quarterback, there's some bad defense being played there, as well. Even if Baylor is the best offense the Owls will have to play this year, that's not a good sign with some high-powered passing attacks still ahead of them in conference play.
This week: at Southern Miss, Saturday, 6:30 PM CST. After a trio of AQ-conference opponents to open the year, the Owls will finally get an idea of where they stack up in C-USA.
8. Tulane Green Wave (2-2, 1-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: Lost to Duke, 48-27
A 21-point loss to the ACC doormat Blue Devils, that wasn't even as close as the score indicates? No bueno. The offense has been respectable, but the defense has put up three very poor performances in four games. Still, there are four very winnable games coming up for Tulane. The time to work towards that elusive bowl game (Tulane hasn't been appeared in one since 2002) is now.
This week: at Army, Saturday, 11:00 AM CST. The Black Knights have struggled, with just a 1-3 record, although the one win came against Big Ten foe Northwestern. Playing a service academy, with their option offenses, always presents a unique challenge for a defense. The Green Wave have allowed just 3.5 yards per carry thus far.
9. Marshall Thundering Herd (1-3, 1-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: Lost to Virginia Tech, 30-10
It wasn't realistically a winnable game for Marshall, but there were some bright spots in the loss. Quarterback Rakeem Cato threw for 245 against the stout Hokie defense, and the Herd D allowed 14 fewer points this week compared to last, despite going from a MAC opponent to an ACC opponent.
This week: at Louisville, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. The Cardinals are 2-1, but have looked shaky on offense, scoring just 21, 17 and 24 points, respectively, against Murray State, Florida International and Kentucky. The Marshall D, while it has struggled at times, is talented enough to keep them in the game this weekend. Hopefully the Herd can get C-USA a rare non-conference win against an AQ-conference opponent.
10. Texas-El Paso Miners (2-2, 0-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: Lost to South Florida, 52-24
Much like Marshall against Virginia Tech, this wasn't a game anybody really expected that UTEP might win, but they did have some moral victories to build on. The rushing offense, which has been utterly non-existent, did get going a little bit against a solid Bull defense. Third-string quarterback Carson Meger did hurt himself with three interceptions, but at least he moved the ball, throwing for 240 yards.
This week: vs Houston, Thursday, 7:00 PM CST. Seeing some signs of Miner life before heading to El Paso on a short week was not what Cougar fans wanted. Houston has more talent, but that was the case two years ago, as well. Let's see if we've learned anything since then.
11. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (0-3, 0-2 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: Lost to ECU, 28-23
The good news - after two blowout losses, UAB lost by a single score against a respectable Pirate team. The bad news - if your opponent hands you seven turnovers, you should never lose, but that's what UAB managed to do. The worse news - quarterback Bryan Ellis left the game with an injury.
This week: at Troy, Saturday, 6;00 PM CST. It's a winnable rivalry game for the Blazers, and they're going to need to this one to salvage anything resembling hopes of a bowl game, with some tough match-ups with Mississippi State, Tulsa and UCF to follow.
12. Memphis Tigers (1-3, 0-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: Lost to SMU, 42-0
It's too depressing to talk about Memphis Tiger football. So instead, here's a great song with a great video. Enjoy.
This week: at Middle Tennessee State, 6:00 PM CST. The Blue Raiders were the only team to lose to Memphis last year, but I'd be surprised if the Tigers can pull off the upset two years in a row. Dang it, I'm talking about Memphis Tiger football. Shutting up.