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Battle Of The Frontrunners As UCF Comes To Town

Central Florida Knights (6-2, 4-0 Conference USA) at Houston Cougars (5-3, 4-1)

Kickoff: 7:00 PM, Friday, 11/5/10

TV: ESPN2

Call it the "The Big East Doesn't Want Us Bowl".

Eh, let's stick with Battle of the Frontrunners. After consecutive dominant road victories over SMU and Memphis, the Cougars are sitting atop Conference USA's West Division, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Mustangs. Meanwhile, in the East, UCF just dusted East Carolina in a showdown between C-USA's last two unbeatens. Not only is Saturday's game a potential preview of the C-USA championship game, it's a face-off between two teams playing their best football of the year.

The Cougars have won their last two games by a combined score of 101-37, true freshman quarterback David Piland is already showing a powerful grasp of the offense, and the team seems to be truly gelling around him.

On the other hand, the Knights, who have been known to play some of the best defense in the conference the last few years, have surprised many with an offense that is looking equally impressive. After a mediocre non-conference slate, UCF has averaged just a hair under 42 points per game against conference foes, despite torn ACLs claiming the seasons of Rob Calabrese and Brynn Harvey. Calabrese was the team's starting quarterback to begin the season, before giving way to freshman Jeffrey Godfrey, while Harvey was an all-C-USA selection at running back a year ago, and is taking a redshirt after a Spring injury.

For the superstitious Cougar fan, there's both good and bad news heading into this one. The good news being that Houston is riding a couple of impressive streaks. The bad news is that both streaks stand at an ominous 13 games. Despite a loss at home to Mississippi State this year, the Cougars are still riding a 13-game home winning streak in C-USA play. Houston has also won 13 straight revenge games - when the team gets a chance to play an opponent within a season after losing to them.* And the Knights did beat the Cougars last year in Orlando, 37-32.

*Bonus points if you know the last team to beat Houston two straight times within the span of a season, without looking it up.

Okay, I'm starting to look around for black cats. Enough. Here's the cold, hard analysis:

Houston offense vs. UCF defense

As previously mentioned, the Knights have consistently been one of C-USA's best defensive squads (which is, admittedly, kind of a backhanded compliment) and UCF is putting together another solid season on that side of the ball. Their scoring defense has dropped for a fourth straight season, to a paltry 16.5 points per game so far this year. Yes, that's partly due to a fairly weak strength of schedule, but that doesn't tell the entire story. Just ask North Carolina State, who eked out a 28-21 victory over the Knights, despite seeing its powerful offense go dormant. Stud quarterback Russell Wilson, averaging 314 yards through the air on the season against everybody else, put up a whopping 10-for-30, 105 yard performance. Had the Knights done anything to control the ball in that game (the turnover margin was 5-to-0) they would have easily beaten a team that is contending for an ACC title.

The Knights use a 4-3 defense, and have had much success up front, led by defensive end and reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Miller. They're allowing just 3.1 yards on the ground, and have recorded 19 sacks, led by junior end Darius Nail's 7.5. The defensive pressure on the quarterback doesn't scare me too much - Piland has proven very adept at dealing with a pass rush, and the Houston offense focuses on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly - but the run defense does. Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes have played a huge role in the Coogs' last two victories, and I'd much rather not rely on Piland to single-handedly win the game. Keep an eye early on whether or not the offensive line can get Beall and Hayes going.

(Officially, Kevin Sumlin is keeping mum on whether or not Beall can go after being injured in the Memphis game, but I'd be shocked if "Brick" isn't out there on Friday. Even if not, Chris Wilson has looked very good as a replacement.)

The Knight secondary has been very good, as well, including the previously-mentioned shutting down of Wilson and NC State. However, the game against the Wolfpack was one of only two contests the Knights have had against a true passing offense so far. The other was last week, and while that game resulted in a UCF victory, ECU quarterback Dominique Davis was able to throw for 310 yards and three touchdowns.

If there's one aspect where the UCF defense has been sub-par, it has been turnover creation - Knight opponents have coughed the ball up just ten times in eight games. That trend has to continue. If safeties Reggie Weams and Kemal Ishmael can get their hands on some of the deep passes Piland likes to throw, it will be a very long game.

UCF offense vs Houston defense

For the armchair analyst, Houston's defensive mission on Friday is quite simple: stop the run. UCF runs the ball about twice as often as they pass, and their freshman quarterback's numbers (63.6% completion, 4 TD, 4 INT) are decent but not great, so make him beat you. If only it was that easy.

It has been quite some time since stopping the run has been a forte of UH, and this year has been no different. If you look at the numbers put up by opposing running backs the last two weeks (23 carries for 176 yards; 19 carries for 106 yards) you might have a hard time believing that a) Houston won those games, and b) they surrendered a grand total of 37 points in the two games combined.

UCF running back Ronnie Weaver has looked every bit as good as Harvey, and the quarterback Godfrey is a threat to keep it himself (76 carries, 394 yards, 5 TD). Unlike the Memphis and SMU games, Houston will not benefit from an offense that decides to try and win the game through the air, despite having success on the ground. A mediocre performance won't cut it, a good performance won't cut it, the Cougar front seven will have to be stellar for Houston to have a chance to win. UCF's offense, rush-oriented and ball-controlling, is exactly the kind of offense that has been Houston's Achilles' heel. It's how UTEP, UCF and Air Force beat us last year, it's how UCLA and Mississippi State beat us this year. Time to see if defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has figured out an answer.

A big piece of that puzzle could be Matangi Tonga, Houston's big-time defensive line recruit who has missed time with injury. Tonga returned to practice this week for the Cougars. Like Beall, Sumlin isn't saying one way or the other whether or not Tonga will play, but it's probably safe to expect him out there.

The Bottom Line

I hate to be the pessimist, but even with Robertson Stadium rocking, the match-ups quite simply favor the Knights. Sure, the match-ups favored SMU two weeks ago, too. But I picked a Houston loss in that one, and that seemed to work out pretty well, so here's hoping the Coogs make me look dumb again.

UCF 42

Houston 31

Around Conference USA

Rice (2-6, 1-3) at Tulsa (5-3, 2-2). The Golden Hurricane looks to keep its slim C-USA West hopes alive, while Rice looks to keep its slim bowl eligibility hopes alive, and exact revenge against former coach Todd Graham. This could be a trap game for Tulsa, coming off a win against Notre Dame, the week before a showdown with the Cougars, so don't be surprised if the Owls keep this one close.

Vegas says: Tulsa by 18

Dustin says: Tulsa by 7

Navy (5-3) at East Carolina (5-3, 4-1). The Pirates are undefeated at home, but are weak against the run. Navy controls the ball enough to keep ECU's powerful offense off the field.

Vegas says: ECU by 3

Dustin says: Navy by 3

Southern Miss (5-3, 2-2) at Tulane (3-5, 1-3). Before the year, this would have been a bet-the-farm sure thing for the Golden Eagles, but now I'm not so sure. Tulane already has a shocking victory over Rutgers on the resume, and in the last two weeks has beaten UTEP on the road, and taken SMU down to the wire. With games against Rice and Marshall still on the schedule, if Tulane ekes this one out, a bowl game isn't out of the question. Still, USM is the more talented team, and if they come out ticked off about two, one-point losses in the last three weeks, they could roll.

Vegas says: Southern Miss by 10

Dustin says: Southern Miss by 17

Marshall (2-6, 1-3) at UAB (3-5, 2-2). I don't care, and neither do you. But anyway, the Blazers will win, and they have a great shot at six wins, with Memphis and Rice still to come. That could spell their second bowl appearance ever. (The first came in 2004.)

Vegas says: UAB by 9.5

Dustin says: UAB by 13

Tennessee (2-6, 0-5 SEC) at Memphis (1-7, 0-5). Oh man, I cannot wait for this game, this looks like a great match-up. Oh wait, this is football, not basketball? Nevermind.

Vegas says: Tennessee by 20

Dustin says: Tennessee by 30

SMU (5-4, 4-1) at UTEP (5-4, 2-4). With Mike Price's job on the line, can the Miners play the role of spoiler, help out the Cougars, and get bowl eligible for the first time since 2005? Here's a hint: UTEP has scored 42 points combined the last three weeks in losses to UAB, Tulane and Marshall. Those three teams have one combined C-USA win over teams not named UTEP. (Did you get it? The answer was 'no'.)

Vegas says: SMU by 7

Dustin says: SMU by 14

Around Texas

#3 TCU (9-0, 5-0 MWC) at #5 Utah (8-0, 5-0 MWC). A battle of the unbeatens, and nobody seems to be giving the Utes any love. I don't get it. They opened the season with a tough win over Pitt, they earned a tough win at Air Force last week, and they've shredded everybody in between, including an absolute demolishing in Ames of an Iowa State team that has won its other four home games this year. I think the "no respect" factor, plus the home field pushes this one in Utah's favor.

Vegas says: TCU by 4.5

Dustin says: Utah by 4

#21 Baylor (7-2, 4-1 Big XII) at #17 Oklahoma State (7-1, 3-1 Big XII). Raise your hand if you thought this game would have serious Big XII South title implications before the season began. Okay, right now, I want you to look at your hand. Is it raised? If so, you are a liar.

Vegas says: Oklahoma State by 7.5

Dustin says: Baylor by 3. If you think I'm trying to jinx Art Briles's team by picking them...I won't argue with you.

Texas-Austin (4-4, 2-3 Big XII) at Kansas State (5-3, 2-3 Big XII). No real analysis here, just wanna point out that the Longhorns have lost four of their last five games, including two straight losses over "power" programs Iowa State and Baylor. Garrett "The Next Big Thing" Gilbert has thrown for six touchdowns and nine picks.

Vegas says: Texas by 3.5

Dustin says: Texas by 10

#8 Oklahoma (7-1, 3-1 Big XII) at Texas A&M (5-3, 2-2 Big XII). Combined score of the last three times these teams met: Oklahoma 173, Texas A&M 52. Aggie record this year against teams that do not suck: 0-3. And two of those games were at home, so let's not pretend like Kyle Field is going to make the difference here.

Vegas says: OU by 3.5

Dustin says: OU by 17

Around the Nation

My top national storylines for the week:

-Some cupcakes for the unbeatens. Oregon faces a Jake Locker-less Washington, and Auburn faces Chattanooga. Yawn. Boise faces Hawaii, who is playing well, but the game is on the smurf turf, so I just can't see the upset there, either.

-Alabama plays at an LSU team that isn't as good as their record indicates. I expect the Crimson Tide to get the victory there. I'm not going to predict that 'Bama will win out, knock off Auburn, and jump an unbeaten non-AQ school or two to get into the national title game, but I wouldn't bet my life against, either.

-Iowa State will beat Nebraska this weekend, then beat Colorado and Missouri the last two weeks to claim a spot in the Big XII championship game, where they will face the current Big XII South leaders Baylor. Then the world will end.

But come on, isn't it kinda wacky that, with just three games to play, the above is an actual logistical possibility?

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.