On paper, Conference USA is wide open. Three teams are undefeated in conference play in the West Division, while four East teams are sitting at one loss. So yes, all seven of these teams are well in control of their own destiny, but that doesn't mean they're all equal. Have no fear, we're here to separate the pretenders from the contenders.
Tier 1 - The Big Boys
1. Houston Cougars (6-0, 2-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: Idle.
In case you've forgotten, or haven't noticed, in the midst of all the clamoring that has taken place the past couple of weeks about which conference Houston will end up in, the Cougars are playing some pretty good football. Evidently, people (and computers) are taking notice, as UH is up to #20 and #21 in the major polls, and #19 in the BCS rankings.
Now comes the stretch of the schedule where UH plays four straight opponents with a combined record of 7-19 on the year thus far. All four teams have struggled mightily on offense this year, so it's a great chance for the Cougar defense to turn in some repeat performances after their impressive dismantling of ECU. This stretch of the schedule also means that, barring a major upset, the Cougars can get to 9-0 (and 10-0) for the first time in program history. It's also a chance to help exorcise the demon of UH always seeming to drop a game they have no business losing. The last two games of the season, against SMU and at Tulsa, would be somewhat forgivable losses, and the Conference championship game would be a dogfight. But there is absolutely no excuse to lose any of the next four games.
For Houston, it's time to start putting some style points on for the watching pollsters. If Houston keeps putting up a 56-3 type of performance week in and week out (something they're fully capable of), it'll be easy to keep moving the Coogs up in the top 25 when the teams ahead of them lose. But if they revert to the "doing just enough to pull one out" form they showed early on, it'll give the pollsters every reason to leapfrom other teams past UH. And while it's always dangerous to start poll-watching, with Houston fans starting to think about the possibility of their team, um, shall we say doing slightly better than the Liberty Bowl this year, those polls do matter.
This week: vs Marshall, Saturday, 3:30 PM CST. The Thundering Herd have a mobile quarterback in A.J. Graham, something that has been a major struggle for Cougar defenses in the recent past, but we're still talking about an offense that only put up 24 points on Rice this week, and only pulled out the victory when the Owls turned the ball over deep in their own territory at the end of the game. Marshall has one of the best defensive front sevens in the conference, leading the nation with 67 tackles for loss, including Vinny Curry's 17, the best individual mark in the country. (Houston's Sammy Brown checks in at #2 with 14, while UH is 9th as a team.) But the Marshall secondary is less than stellar, which makes an upset unlikely.
2. Southern Methodist Mustangs (5-1, 3-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat UCF, 38-17
Talk about a statement win. Not only did the Mustangs beat the defending conference champs, they dominated the game from start to finish. When the Knights closed to within 14 points in the fourth quarter, SMU responded with a 72-yard first-play touchdown pass. That season-opening butt-kicking at the hands of Texas A&M is starting to look more like an aberration, and SMU is just outside the top 25 in both major polls.
The Mustangs' balanced offense was firing on all cylinders on Saturday, gaining better than 5 yards per carry, and 11.5 yards per pass attempt against UCF's vaunted defense. SMU threw for the first two touchdown passes the Knights have allowed all year. The one chink in the armor you could take from Saturday, and something West rivals like Tulsa and UH will be feeling good about, is the Mustang secondary, which allowed the pass-deficient Knights to throw for 348 yards on nearly 8 yards per attempt.
This week: at Southern Miss, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST. Hey, speaking of teams that will be looking to throw the ball all over the field on SMU, Austin Davis and the Golden Eagles host SMU this week. There might not be a team in the conference that's playing better football than Southern Miss right now, and they've had a week off to prepare for this game. If the JJs (coach June Jones and QB J. J. McDermott) and company can go into Hattiesburg and get the win, they'll deserve at least 1A status on this list.
3. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (5-1, 1-1 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: Idle.
While the Golden Eagles are playing much better football than anybody else in the East right now, if they can't handle a red-hot SMU squad on Saturday, they will find themselves in the unenviable spot of having two conference losses. But with remaining games against UCF and ECU, and with Marshall unlikely to finish the season with just one conference loss, the Golden Eagles would still realistically be in control of their own destiny regardless. Bottom line, a win would put USM solidly in the driver's seat in the East, while a loss would open up the possibility of a nightmare tiebreak scenario.
This week: vs SMU, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST. It will be the biggest test of the year so far for the Golden Eagle defense, which despite giving up at least 24 points in each of the past three games, has been better than the national average against the run (3.5 yards per carry) and the pass (5.8 yards per attempt). The points allowed totals would probably look better if the Golden Eagle offense would quit turning the ball over quite so much - they've coughed it up 15 times in six games.
Tier 2 - Dark Horses In The Divisional Race
4. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (3-3, 2-0 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat UAB, 37-20
It may be unfair to drop Tulsa out of the first tier, when they're currently undefeated in conference play, and all three of their losses came at the hands of currently undefeated, top-5 teams. On the other hand, the way they struggled with winless UAB for much of the game on Saturday gives one the impression that they're sitting a notch below UH and SMU in the West race. For the Golden Hurricane to contend for the West title, the turnovers (only ECU has more in the country) will have to stop.
With Damaris Johnson out with legal issues, there hasn't been one single playmaker who has stepped up and filled his shoes - no player on Tulsa has even 500 yards of total offense through six games. But the team effort has been impressive. The Golden Hurricane has averaged five yards per carry for the year, and five different players have caught at least ten passes.
This week: at Rice, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. With the Owls struggling, Tulsa faces its seventh straight game where either victory (Tulane, UNT, UAB, Rice) or defeat (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State) seems certain. And true to expectations, not a single game has been closer than 17 points. After this week, however, all five remaining TU games could go either way. Will the Tulsa players be prepared to play in a late and close situation?
5. Central Florida Knights (3-3, 1-1 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to SMU, 38-17
Things are looking pretty grim for the Knights. SMU made their defense look like it won't be good enough to slow down a good offense, and the run game that was supposed to carry the Knight offense is looking more and more pedestrian by the week, now averaging 4.3 yards per carry, dead even with the national average.
Could salvation for the Knights come from, of all places, their passing game? They haven't tried to throw the ball around very much so far, but when they fell behind against SMU and were forced to put the ball in the air, they had some success. As a team, they've averaged nearly eight and a half yards per attempt, and have thrown just two picks in 169 passes. They've got two glorified scrimmages - facing gawd-awful UAB and Memphis - to try and right the ship before a difficult home stretch of Tulsa, Southern Miss, ECU and UTEP.
This week: at UAB, Thursday, 7:00 PM CST. The Blazers have played some teams tough for parts of games recently, UCF has struggled mightily, and the game is in Birmingham...but I still have a hard time imagining this one being very close.
6. Marshall Thundering Herd (3-4, 2-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Rice, 24-20
While Rakeem Cato hasn't been statistically awful at quarterback, the offense as a whole has been pretty awful with him under center. The Herd changed things up on Saturday, going with mobile sophomore A.J. Graham at the QB spot, and the offense showed a few signs of life, rushing for 217 yards on five yards per carry.
If the offense starts showing measurable improvement with Graham, Marshall is a legitimate dark horse in the East. They have three extremely winnable games left in UAB, Memphis and ECU. If they can pull out an upset against Houston or Tulsa, they could end up in a two-loss quagmire at the top of the East division, and they do hold the tiebreaker with Southern Miss.
This week: at Houston, Saturday, 3:30 PM CST. The Marshall defense has held three straight opponents to 20 points or fewer. If they can do it against on Saturday, it would shock the nation.
Tier 3 - Fighting For Bowl Eligibility
7. Texas-El Paso Miners (3-3, 1-2 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Tulane, 44-7
Don't look now, but the Miners are playing some football. And while a 37-point conference road win is always a good thing, there aren't too many teams left on the schedule that UTEP can beat with a 7-for-17 passing performance, and not too many teams who will do them the favor of completing four passes to the wrong team.
Still, nobody's going to be looking forward to playing UTEP at this point, with the offensive line opening holes for a talented running back trio of Joe Banyard, Leilyon Myers and Vernon Frazier. But with the two losses to the conference's leaders, the conference race is out of their grasp, and with remaining games against Southern Miss, Tulsa and ECU, there's little margin for error if the Miners want to go bowling.
This week: vs Colorado State, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST. The Rams have two wins over 1A opponents so far, by a combined five points, over New Mexico and Utah State. Their last two games have been home losses to San Jose State, and to Boise State by 50. Suffice it to say, this one falls squarely in the "must-win" category for UTEP.
8. East Carolina Pirates (2-4, 2-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Memphis, 35-17
For 15 minutes, it looked like things had gone from bad to unspeakable for the Pirates, as they stumbled out of the gates to fall behind the Tigers 10-0 at the end of a quarter. Fortunately, they scored the next 35 points, and out-gained Memphis by nearly 300 yards on the day. Still, it's not exactly a confidence-building win, and the turnovers (2 on Saturday for a nation's worst 23 on the year) were still an issue.
The Pirates have only one conference loss, and have all three other one-loss East teams remaining on the schedule, so they are still technically in control of their own destiny. But I haven't seen nearly enough from them to even throw them in the dark horse category.
This week: at Navy, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. It's a battle of usually steady programs in desperate need of a victory to keep their bowl hopes alive, with Navy's 2-4 record (with the sole wins coming over Delaware and Western Kentucky) matching ECU's.
9. Rice Owls (2-4, 1-2 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to Marshall, 24-20
It's probably being generous to still qualify the Owls as fighting for bowl eligibility after Saturday's brutal snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. Even if they win their three remaining home games against Tulsa, UTEP and Tulane (and they'd do well to win two of them), they'd have to pull a huge road upset against Houston, Northwestern or SMU to get to 6-6.
Rice is now just 8-22 under head coach David Bailiff since the departure of the Clement-Dillard-Casey triumvirate, and a couple of upset victories in the Bayou Bucket notwithstanding, the seat has to be feeling pretty warm under Bailiff.
This week: vs Tulsa, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. Rice has a talented defensive line, and if they can win the match-up against Tulsa's conference-best offensive line, an upset may be within the realm of possibility.
Tier 4 - Playing For Pride
10. Tulane Green Wave (2-5, 1-2 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to UTEP, 44-7
The up-and-down Tulane roller coaster was down in a big way, eliminating all hope of a bowl bid for the Green Wave. Tulane plays at Hawaii later in the year, allowing them to schedule 13 total games, meaning they would have to end the season on a 5-1 tear to be eligible for post-season football. Running back Orleans Darkwa coming around will prove to be too little, too late. But he's only a sophomore, so the good news is that his best years may well be ahead of him.
Speaking of hot seats, you've gotta wonder how much longer Tulane will stick with Bob Toledo as he leads them to a fifth straight non-bowl season.
This week: vs Memphis, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. Two words: Toilet Bowl. If the Green Wave manage to lose this one, I recommend firing Toledo on the spot.
11. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (0-6, 0-3 C-USA)
Last week: lost to Tulsa, 37-20
Apparently, the BCS rankings actually tab UAB as the worst team in the nation, but in the last four weeks, they've had second-half leads over ECU, Troy and Mississippi State, and trailed by just four at intermission against Tulsa, so they're playing semi-competitive football, which is more than I can say for team #12. Luckily, on November 12th, we'll get to determine once and for all who the worst team in Conference USA is. I have UAB winning that game, and the season-ending road trip to Florida Atlantic for a two-win season.
This week: vs UCF, Thursday, 7:00 PM CST. With the Knights struggling, it would be interesting to see if they can hold it together if the Blazers manage another competitive first half.
12. Memphis Tigers (1-6, 0-3 C-USA)
Last week: lost to ECU, 35-17
As we've already established, nobody wants to talk about or read about Memphis football. So this week, instead, let's all revisit an old classic - Jimmy Kimmel's unnecessary censorship. (Link NSFW, kind of.)
This week: at Tulane, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST.