Trying to put together these power rankings has been a tricky proposition. Last week, I dropped Houston out of the top spot, even though they were coming off of a win. This week SMU loses its #1 ranking in an off-week. And if you can see a significant difference between the teams in spots six through ten, you have better eyes than me.
So this week, to try and make some sense of it all, I'm instituting a tier system. And I'll admit that you could probably rank any of the teams within any of the tiers in any order you want. Of course, my order is still the correct one.
1st Tier - Legitimate Conference Championship Contenders
1. Houston Cougars (6-0, 2-0 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat East Carolina, 56-3
The scary thing that threatens to put the Cougars in a tier of their own is the fact that the Cougar defense doesn't have to be as good as it looked on Saturday. If just has to be decent, and the Houston offense will do the rest. But if the defense can't put up some repeat performances, or if the team continues to come out of the gates slow in road games, there are still a number of teams who can and will trip up the Cougars.
This week: Idle.
2. Southern Methodist Mustangs (4-1, 2-0 C-USA) - Down 1
Last week: Idle.
The Mustangs can still claim the single most impressive victory of the year with the TCU upset, but their other two games against "real" teams (no, I'm not including Memphis) are a 32-point loss to a Texas A&M team that's looking less formidable by the week, and an 11-point sneaking past of UTEP at home. At least Houston has the excuse that their all-too-close win over the Miners was in the Sun Bowl. SMU's next three games are against the next three teams in our rankings, so we'll have a pretty good idea of where they stack up in the very near future.
This week: vs UCF, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. Both the Mustangs' balanced offense, and UCF's stout defense get their respective biggest tests of the year on Saturday, with a continued perfect conference record at stake.
3. Central Florida Knights (3-2, 1-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Marshall, 16-6
It wasn't exactly a dominant win, and the game won't do much to calm fears that UCF's tepid offense doesn't have the firepower to compete with the top dogs in C-USA. But the Knights did escape a dangerous Herd team, and holding anybody to 130 total yards and six first downs is pretty impressive.
But come on, how am I supposed to take a team seriously that has one passing touchdown through five games? One?
This week: at SMU, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST.
4. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (5-1, 1-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Navy, 63-35
It's not often you see a service academy get taken to the woodshed quite that badly. In fact, it's been nine years since Navy allowed that many points in a game. But that's a testament to how far USM's offense has come since it sputtered out of the gates to begin the 2011 season. It's like watching two completely different teams play.
The Golden Eagles have to be frustrated that they got stuck playing a conference game before they got their feet under them. But the season still shapes up pretty well for them. Their two toughest remaining conference tests - SMU and UCF - both come at home. All three remaining road games - UTEP, ECU and UAB - look extremely winnable. It's not out of the question to imagine USM winning out.
This week: Idle
5. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (2-3, 1-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: Idle
The return of DeAundre Brown, who has missed nearly a year and a half due to academics and injuries, could be a big help to the Tulsa defense, which has struggled mightily against top competition so far. But it could be a while before we really get a good indication, because the Golden Hurricane get a couple of offenses in the next two weeks that haven't looked very impressive so far.
This week: vs UAB, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST. When will Tulsa ever play a close game? Two blowout wins, three blowout losses, and a home game with a Blazer squad that TU should be able to beat handily.
2nd Tier - Fatally Flawed, But Dangerous
6. Marshall Thundering Herd (2-4, 1-1 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: lost to UCF, 16-6
Dangerous because: They play defense, which is something not many conference teams can say. They beat Southern Miss, beat Louisville, and stayed within ten points of UCF in Orlando, all pretty much single-handedly on the strength of the defense.
Fatally flawed because: They can't score. Six games in, and they've reached 20 points exactly once. What else can you say? They're playing in a conference where a lot of teams can easily score more than 20 points on most anybody, including Marshall.
This week: vs Rice, Saturday, 2:00 PM CST. It's a battle of two teams who will both feel they should win, and probably need the win to keep their bowl hopes alive. In recent years, Rice would be one of those teams who could pencil in 20+ points against any conference team, but the Owl offense has been disappointingly pedestrian thus far. It's definitely a chance for the Marshall D to pull another one out. Who knows? Maybe Rakeem Cato will have a big game against a struggling Rice secondary.
7. Texas-El Paso Miners (2-3, 0-2 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: Idle
Dangerous because: They did just put up 42 points on Houston, an indication that now that the offensive line is healthy, there will be offense played once again in El Paso.
Fatally flawed because: The "in El Paso" part may be the important phrase here. The Miners have lost 14 straight road games that didn't take place in New Mexico. The defense has faced two pretty decent teams in a row, but giving up 101 points in two games is never a good thing.
This week: at Tulane, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. It's certainly a great chance for the Miners to get off that road schnide (they haven't won a road conference game in regulation since 2006) and get their first ever win in New Orleans. Both teams have been pretty up-and-down, so anything is possible. I wouldn't be surprised to see a blowout victory for either team.
8. East Carolina Pirates (1-4, 1-1 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to Houston, 56-3
Dangerous because: For a team that hasn't finished below .500 in C-USA play since 2004, we're having a hard time finishing that sentence. The "but we played them close" moral victories against South Carolina and Virginia Tech seem like distant memories at this point. They're dangerous because, I don't know, if they stop committing turnovers every third play, they might have a decent offense? That's about all I got.
Fatally flawed because: They've played three consecutive stink-tastic games at this point, and they're lucky to have a single win on the season. A sad state of affairs for a team coming off five straight bowl appearances.
This week: at Memphis, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. Luckily for ECU, they share a division with two of the worst ten teams in the country. If a trip to the "we're playing the Tigers" win factory doesn't get the Pirates back on the right track, nothing will.
9. Rice Owls (2-3, 1-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Memphis, 28-6
Dangerous because: You can't tell me there isn't talent on offense. Taylor McHargue has a bright future at quarterback, Tyler Smith and Turner Petersen provide talent in the backfield, Luke Willson and Vance McDonald provide experience at receiver, and goshdangit, at some point Sam McGuffie is going to figure out how to be productive.
Fatally flawed because: In the last four games, against four so-so defenses, the Owls have scored 24, 31, 24 and 28 points. It beats getting shutout, but it's not enough to win you many ballgames when paired with a defense that's mediocre on a good day. Or fantastic when playing Memphis, which is even better than a good day.
This week: at Marshall, Saturday, 2:00 PM CST. Speaking of bad road teams, Rice has just one win in their last 14 road games. It was a one-point victory over North Texas.
10. Tulane Green Wave (2-4, 1-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to Syracuse, 37-34
Dangerous because: As mentioned, they're extremely up-and-down, but when things are clicking, they can put some points on the board. After a brutal start, sophomore running back Orleans Darkwa has 203 yards rushing on 31 carries in the past two weeks.
Fatally flawed because: When the offense isn't clicking, it puts up a combined 9 points in losses to Tulsa and Army. Like I said, they're an up-and-down team. Their defense is also very typical of Conference USA. (In case you're new here, that's not a compliment.)
This week: vs UTEP, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. After a rough three-game non-conference stretch, Tulane has a chance to somewhat salvage their season with consecutive winnable home games. Can the defense fare better against a rested Miner squad than Houston's did?
3rd Tier - Flat-Out Bad
11. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (0-5, 0-2 C-USA)
Last week: Lost to Mississippi State, 21-3
The Blazers actually took a 3-0 halftime lead against the Bulldogs, but I think that may have been a bigger indication that Mississippi State has fallen pretty far than it was that UAB's winless record is a fluke. There are a couple of nice pieces here, but the Blazers, top to bottom, just don't have the horses. They have a few winnable games left on the road against Marshall, Memphis and Florida Atlantic. But 3-9 looks like a best-case scenario at this point, because I can't see them beating Tulsa, UCF, Houston or Southern Miss. Even going 3-9 would mean winning three straight road contests, something the Blazers haven't done since...ever.
Still, they've played three straight games that, on paper, look respectable. So there's some sign of life here.
This week: at Tulsa, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST.
12. Memphis Tigers (1-5, 0-2 C-USA)
Last week: Lost to Rice, 28-6
Do you want to read about Memphis football? No? Good, because I don't want to write about it. Instead, here's a guy yelling out something completely inappropriate on Family Feud.
This week: vs ECU, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST.