Houston Cougars (5-5, 4-3 Conference USA) at Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (7-3, 4-2)
Kickoff: 7:00, 11/20/10
TV: CBS College Sports
The Line: Southern Miss by 4
Houston closed out Robertson Stadium with three straight home losses. The last two, against conference foes Central Florida and Tulsa, each knocked UH out of its lead atop Conference USA West. With hopes of a division title all but gone, the Cougars have a different, very important goal in mind as they travel to Hattiesburg this weekend - bowl eligibility.
The Cougars have just two more chances to get that all-important sixth win - which, we should note, does not guarantee a bowl invitation - and the path doesn't get any easier, with a roadie at Texas Tech next weekend.
The Golden Eagles have won seven of nine since a season-opening butt-whupping at the hands of South Carolina. Their two losses have been by a point apiece. Last week, USM got its signature win of the season, going on the road and knocking off #25 UCF by 10. USM has been a model of consistency, the UCF win clinching the school's seventeenth consecutive winning season, the fourth-longest such streak in the country.
However, the story overshadowing Saturday's game will have nothing to do with Houston's bowl hopes, or Southern Miss' impressive run. On early Sunday morning, three current Golden Eagle players - Martez Smith, Tim Green and Deddrick Jones - were shot at a nightclub. Smith suffered spine damage, and is paralyzed from the waist down.
Our thoughts and prayers are with those three players, and the Southern Miss family. It seems almost silly, in that context, to even play a football game, let alone obsess over the details of who might win. But the show must go on. Here's how we see Saturday's game unfolding:
Southern Miss offense vs Houston defense
Call it the no-name offense. Aside from quarterback Austin Davis, the Golden Eagles do not heavily rely on any one individual player. Receiver Kevin Bolden leads the team with 601 yards of total offense. The most touchdowns scored by an individual? Just six - a lead held by running back Desmond Johnson, and, believe it or not, Davis himself. (By way of comparison, the Cougars have four offensive players with better than 601 yards of offense, and three who have scored eight or more touchdowns.)
Make no mistake, I mean "no-name offense" as a compliment. The Golden Eagles have scored better than 30 points in eight of their nine contests since the South Carolina stinker. I would hate to be a defensive coordinator, and know that you could shut down their top three or four offensive weapons, and still have another guy step up and beat you.
However, given the results of the last two games, it is Davis' running ability that is keeping me up at night. In both games, it was quarterbacks repeatedly running for big gains and first downs that did the Cougars in. If the Cougars had done a good job of pocket containment in those two games, we'd be 7-3 and raving about how good the defense was. Every other defensive element has been there. I'll resist the urge to play the know-it-all and just yell, "Why doesn't Brian Stewart put a spy on the QB?!?!?!", but suffice it to say, the Cougar DC needs to find a way to keep Davis in the pocket.
Houston offense vs Southern Miss defense
While the USM offense has been consistently impressive, it's been the defense that has determined the outcomes of the games. In the team's seven wins, their defense hasn't given up more than 30 points in a game, and in six of seven victories, has allowed 21 or less. In the three losses, Southern Miss has given up 41, 44 and 50 points.
I'm stating the obvious here, but the key to Houston having offensive success will be quarterback David Piland not turning the ball over. The Southern Miss secondary have been ball hawks this year, picking off 14 passes. And Piland, after leading three straight stellar offensive performances, threw five picks against Tulsa last Saturday. Head Coach Kevin Sumlin showed faith in his true freshman signal caller by not taking him out of the game. So on Saturday, we'll see how short a memory Piland has. Watching him develop has been one of the few bright spots for the Coogs this year, and the next, necessary step in his development is putting a bad game behind him.
This is nothing more than a hunch, but it feels like Tyron Carrier might finally have his breakout game this weekend. Dude caught 171 passes for 2,055 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman and sophomore. In his junior season, he's averaging four catches for 35 yards per game, and hasn't caught a TD pass. (He has returned a kick for a score.) The first ten games have been no indication of the kind of receiver Carrier is. It's time for him to show us something.
The Bottom Line
There are three keys to this game, two of which I have mentioned - the Cougars must keep Austin Davis from running, and David Piland must not throw interceptions. But most important will be resisting USM's initial surge to start the game. In every single one of Houston's losses this season, they have built up halftime deficits of 13 points or more. Southern Miss has made their living off of smacking the other team around in the first half, and then holding onto leads in the second. Before halftime, the Golden Eagles have outscored opponents by 85 points, as opposed to just a +12 margin after the half. It's also likely that Southern Miss will come out of the gates extra fired up, wanting to win one for their injured teammates. The Cougars will have to find a way to keep this one competitive early. If they can do that, if they can keep Davis in the pocket, and if Piland has a great game against a very good secondary, the Cougars will win. But I think that's one too many ifs.
Southern Miss 38
Both divisional leaders took a tumble in week 11, as Houston and Central Florida both lost home games. The Knights were dropped into a East Division tie with East Carolina at one conference loss apiece, while the Cougars surrendered the West lead to SMU and Tulsa - the Mustangs hold the tiebreaker there.
How will the leaders fare this week? How does the bowl picture look? Let's dive right into it. We'll take a peek at some of the big basketball games featuring Conference USA squads this weekend, too.
Who to cheer for: Rice. Represent the city of Houston.
Vegas says: ECU by 9.5
The Owls trailed by 17 at the half last week against Tulane, rallied to take a one-point lead late, but then quickly surrendered a 73-yard touchdown pass for their eighth loss of the season. The offense moved the ball consistently, with the Owls rushing for 252 yards, and throwing four four touchdowns. However, Nick Fanuzzi's three picks helped dig Rice in that early hole. Sophomore quarterback Taylor Cook has seen significant action each of the last two weeks, and has thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions in that stretch, so he may well get the nod. The Owls can probably move the ball against an ECU defense that hasn't stopped much of anybody this year, but the Rice defense, which has surrendered 30+ points in every game this year, only seems to be getting worse. This game should live up to the shootout expectations we had for Houston-Tulsa a week ago.
Dustin says: ECU by 11
Texas-El Paso Miners (6-5, 3-4 C-USA) at Tulsa Golden Hurricane (7-3, 4-2)
Who to cheer for: UTEP. The Cougars don't have much hope of getting back in the West race, but you should always a) cheer against the team ahead of you, and b) cheer against Todd Graham.
Vegas says: Tulsa by 17.5
After UTEP came up with the upset of SMU to achieve bowl eligibility, they actually took leads of 7-0 and 14-7 against Arkansas before getting slapped around to the tune of a 58-21 final. Tulsa actually has the best point differential of any C-USA team this year at +104 in conference tilts, and is fresh off a big win at Houston. Tulsa needs a victory, and needs SMU to falter to have a chance at the West division title. I think they'll get it, but UTEP's defense, against teams who don't have Ryan Mallett or Case Keenum at quarterback, has been quite good this year. That line looks a little high to me.
Dustin says: Tulsa by 8
Marshall Thundering Herd (4-6, 3-3 C-USA) at Southern Methodist Mustangs (5-5, 4-2)
Who to cheer for: Marshall. See the logic of the above game, except substitute "June Jones" for "Todd Graham".
Vegas says: SMU by 13.5
It's hard to believe that after ten games, SMU is both the leader in C-USA West, and not yet bowl eligible. But it's been that kind of year in Conference USA. Neither team is exactly soaring heading into this one. The Mustangs have lost three of four, and while the Thundering Herd have actually won three straight to keep their longshot bowl hopes alive, they trailed 10-0 at the half last week against one of the worst teams (Memphis) in 1-A college football. At home. The Mustangs have more talent, but I don't think there will be enough total points scored by either team to justify that high of a line.
Dustin says: SMU by 9
Who to cheer for: Tulane, just to create some mayhem in the East.
Vegas says: UCF by 17
The Green Wave outlasted Rice a week ago to keep their shot at six wins alive, but they face the conference's best this week. For once, Tulane looks like it might have something to look forward to, as they seem to have discovered a talented, young QB-RB combo in sophomore Ryan Griffin and freshman Orleans Darkwa. I don't think they have the defense to compete with the Knights, but stranger things have happened this year.
Dustin says: UCF by 14
Memphis Tigers (1-9, 0-6 C-USA) at Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (3-7, 2-4)
Who to cheer for: I can't think of a legitimate reason to care one way or the other.
Vegas says: UAB by 20
The Tigers finally put up a respectable defensive performance against Marshall last week, but have still gone seven straight games without reaching 20 points. UAB's on-again, off-again offense was on again last week against ECU, but the defense couldn't slow down the Pirates' air attack. Despite playing a half of good football, I'm not sold on the idea that Memphis can compete with anybody, and the Blazers have some good pieces on offense.
Dustin says: UAB by 24
The Bowl Picture
Bowl Eligible (five teams): UCF, ECU, Southern Miss, Tulsa, UTEP
Needing One More Win (two teams): SMU, Houston
On Life Support at 4-6 (two teams): Marshall, Tulane
Looking Forward To Basketball Season, and/or Next Year (three teams): UAB, Memphis, Rice
As previously mentioned in this space, Conference USA has six bowl tie-ins for the 2010 season, but as it turns out, depending on what the SEC does, C-USA may get shut out of the Liberty Bowl, which has traditionally hosted the conference champion.
With the possibility of only five guaranteed bowls for C-USA teams, and a whopping nine teams still fighting for the chance to make a bowl, the pressure is on not only the SMUs and Houstons of the world to get that sixth win, but on teams like UTEP and ECU to get that seventh win, and greatly increase their chances of getting invited to postseason football.
This weekend's games should clear up the conference bowl picture significantly.
C-USA Early Season Hardwood Match-Ups
Here's a pair of games to keep an eye on this weekend:
UAB @ Arizona State - The always-competitive Blazers have their first of several non-conference tests.
Memphis vs LSU - The Tigers managed to sneak past Miami this week despite poor rebounding and outside shooting, but they know it's not a long-term recipe for success. Can Josh Pastner and his young team come up with another big win?