Coming into the final weeks of the season, most teams either have either nothing or everything left to play for. This weekend, Conference USA features two match-ups of teams desperately fighting for a chance at a conference title, two match-ups of teams playing for nothing more than pride, one potential laugher that would have enormous implications if it goes the way of Appalachian State-Michigan, and of course the Cougars fighting for bowl eligibility up in Lubbock. Let's dive into the games, and take a look at the bowl picture.
Southern Methodist Mustangs (6-5, 5-2 C-USA) at East Carolina Pirates (6-5, 5-2)
Vegas says: SMU by 1.5
The Mustangs would clinch a West division title with a win, while ECU blew its already-slim chances with a big loss to Rice last weekend. Technically, the Pirates might still have a chance if UCF loses, Southern Miss wins, and the three-way tiebreaker somehow comes out in their favor, but realistically, they're playing to enhance their bowl chances, and not much more. The Pirates have only one home loss this year, but given the way their defense is playing recently (49 points to UCF, 76 points to Navy, 42 points to UAB, 62 points to Rice), they're going to have a hard time beating anybody.
Dustin says: SMU by 10
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (8-3, 5-2 C-USA) at Tulsa Golden Hurricane (8-3, 5-2)
Vegas says: Tulsa by 3.5
After slaughtering the Cougars, Southern Miss has a slightly more likely shot at the East title, albeit a title that still rests on the hopes of Memphis doing the unthinkable this weekend - USM does have the head-to-head tiebreaker over UCF if they falter. Tulsa has a more realistic shot - a victory for them, and an ECU win over SMU would put the Golden Hurricane in the conference title game for the third time in four years. Tulsa is undefeated at home, but has faced a 1-AA school, three teams that will finish the season with losing records in non-BCS conferences, and 6-6 UTEP. Tulsa has kept eight straight opponents under 30 points, so we're about to find out if Southern Miss is as good as they looked last weekend, or if Houston was just that bad.
Dustin says: Southern Miss by 3
Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (4-7, 3-4 C-USA) at Rice Owls (3-8, 2-5)
Vegas says: Rice by 3.5
This will be a match-up of two enigmatic young teams looking to build some consistency heading into next year, and two head coaches starting to test the patience of their fan base. Former UH assistant Neil Callaway became UAB's second-ever head coach at the 1-A level in 2007, and has seen his team's drive for a bowl bid come up short again. However, despite a tricky quarterback situation, he has put together a respectable, occasionally-good team this year. Much to David Bailiff's relief, the Owls' upset of ECU last weekend prevented them from the possibility of suffering a second-straight ten-loss season. That, plus another home win over the rival Cougars will likely buy him another year, or two. But he has to start proving he can win with his own players soon. So this game might not mean much this year, but with young teams and hungry coaches on both sidelines, watch out for these guys in 2011.
Dustin says: UAB by 3
Central Florida Knights (8-3, 6-1 C-USA) at Memphis Tigers (1-10, 0-7)
Vegas says: UCF by 25.5
All UCF has to do to wrap up their first East division title since 2007 is beat the lowliest of the low. The Tigers have strung together two straight respectable defensive performances on the road, but have still yet to score more than 27 points in a game all season. As much as I'd love to see an upset here to throw the East into chaos, Memphis just doesn't have the horses. Maybe stranger things have happened, but I can't think of any.
Dustin says: UCF by 35
Tulane Green Wave (4-7, 2-5 C-USA) at Marshall Thundering Herd (4-7, 3-5)
Vegas says: Marshall by 8
Both teams will be looking at this last, winnable game on the schedule and wondering, "What if we had won one more game somewhere along the way?" But neither did, making this the Yawner of the Week. If Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin's wrist is healed in time for this one, the Green Wave have a chance. If not, look for Marshall's imposing pass rush to trouble the backups.
Dustin says: Marshall by 10
The Bowl Picture
Things have actually cleared up considerably on this front. As previously mentioned, the extremely confusing scenario in which Conference USA could be forced out of the Liberty Bowl is still in play, depending on how the SEC does in filling up its bowl spots. In short, cheer for Alabama to beat Auburn and/or Tennessee to beat Kentucky and/or Arkansas to beat LSU this weekend if you want the C-USA champ to get the Liberty Bowl bid. Just trust me.
Assuming that the Liberty Bowl takes the conference champ, the next big question mark becomes the Cougars. There are six bowl eligible teams in Conference USA, five teams incapable of reaching bowl eligibility, and the 5-6 Cougars. If they can knock off Texas Tech again, C-USA will have seven teams for six (assuming the Liberty Bowl) bowl spots. Given the way Houston is playing, that has to be seen as an unlikely scenario. So here's how we see things playing out currently, while praying for the Coogs to throw a monkey wrench into the works:
Liberty Bowl: Central Florida vs. Mississippi State
Despite stumbling against Southern Miss, UCF is still a mortal lock to win the East, and looks better than anybody in the West this year.
Beef O'Brady's St Petersburg Bowl: Southern Miss vs. South Florida
The next most impressive teams after UCF have been USM and Tulsa, and I think that the Golden Eagles get the nod for being closer geographically. Some have SMU slotted here, under the assumption that the bowl with the second shot at a C-USA team will take the likely West champs, but given SMU's unimpressive overall resume, small fan base, and geographic distance, I don't think they're a good fit.
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl: SMU vs. Army
The Mustangs are, as mentioned, the likely West division champs, and the hometown team, making them the obvious pick for the Black Knights' first bowl opponent in 14 years.
EagleBank Military Bowl: East Carolina vs. Boston College
The Washington, D.C. game will likely select the high-profile Pirates, who will also be the only remaining east coast team.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Tulsa vs. Florida International
Between the two remaining bowl-eligible teams, Tulsa gets the nod on the basis of having a more impressive overall record.
Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl: UTEP vs. Hawaii
It wasn't always pretty this year for the Miners, but they'll have some pretty surroundings when they get their first shot at postseason football since 2005.