There were surprises a'plenty in week eight action, with two Conference USA schools picking up their first wins over Division 1-A opponents this year, and a previously dominant-looking offense being held to 3 points. Fortunately for the front-running Coogs, none of those surprises took place inside the friendly confines of Robertson Stadium, as the heavily-favored hometown team rolled to its seventh straight win. The rest of the conference, however, got shaken up. Here's how things look now that the dust has settled.
Tier 1 - The Heavy Favorites
1. Houston Cougars (7-0, 3-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Marshall, 63-28
Surprise! The Cougars are really good on offense. Okay, I realize that's not exactly breaking new ground. But while we knew that Case Keenum (376 yards passing, 6 TD, only four incomplete passes), Patrick Edwards (109 yards, TD), Tyron Carrier (97 yards, TD), Michael Hayes (110 total yards, 2 TD) and Charles Sims (115 total yards, TD) were the real deal, what came as a surprise (at least to me) was just how dominant Houston's young offensive line was against Marshall's fearsome front seven. Despite the presence of NFL prospect Vinny Curry and others, the big uglies for UH opened up holes for the backs to average better than 7 yards a carry, and did not allow a sack of Keenum.
Running back Bryce Beall missed the game with an apparent hamstring injury, and while I mean no disrespect to Beall, who has been a fantastic player for the past four years, and all wishes go out for a speedy recovery, if there is a position on the field where Houston can afford to take a loss, it's running back.
Defensively, it's hard to get too excited about allowing 506 yards of total offense and 28 points to a Marshall team that has been nothing short of lousy offensively so far, it's worth mentioning that 7 of those points came on the second-stringers, the defense scored 7 points of its own on Derrick Mathews' pick six, and did everything short of putting another score on the board on Kelvin King's 69-yard interception return.
It's also important to bring up that Houston's offense was scoring so darn quick that Marshall had the ball basically all game. The Cougar defense was on the field for 86 snaps, and got to rest for just 57. Despite the test of stamina, the defense, on a per play basis, gave up less than 8 yards per pass attempt, and 4.2 yards per carry. So keep some perspective if you think the 500+ yards means that Houston's 3-point slamming of ECU was a total fluke.
This week: vs Rice, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central. Weird things are known to happen in rivalry games, but Rice just doesn't have the defense to slow Houston down, or the offense to keep the score respectable. It probably won't be 73-14, but the Cougars should cruise to their fifth straight win over the Owls in Robertson Stadium.
2. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (6-1, 2-1 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat SMU, 27-3
If you could have predicted before Saturday that USM would score "only" 27 in their showdown with SMU, it might have looked like the Golden Eagles would have been in trouble. But the Southern Miss defense held SMU to 4-of-13 on third down, shut down quarterback J.J. McDermott, and didn't let Zach Line beat them. Freshman Golden Eagle running back Jamal Woodyard needed just 12 carries to pile up 116 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown run, making the absence of starter Kendrick Hardy, who missed the second straight game with an injury, significantly less painful.
Like Houston, Southern Miss doesn't have any impressive AQ-conference victories (Virginia, UCLA, same difference), barely eked out a win over lowly Louisiana Tech early on (and generally struggled for a few weeks out of the gate), but has since shifted into a higher gear, barely resembling the team they were a few weeks ago. Luckily, Houston was able to keep their record perfect through the struggles. And while USM wasn't so lucky, they can claim a national top-25 ranking in both scoring offense and defense, and have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
This week: at UTEP, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central. The Golden Eagles have more talent on both sides of the ball than UTEP, but we did just compare this team to Houston, right? Just ask UH how much that on-paper talent edge meant when the lights came on in the Sun Bowl.
Tier 2 - Don't Count Us Out!
3. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (4-3, 3-0 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat Rice, 38-20
And quietly, Tulsa keeps chugging along, still unbeaten in Conference USA play. The three early losses assured that their name wouldn't get tossed around for BCS consideration, they aren't being considered for membership in any conference other than the one they're already in, and the average fan might not be able to name a player on the team outside of G.J. Kinne, but the Golden Hurricane have handled their business, winning all three conference games by a combined score of 106-43. (Okay, they've only beaten Tulane, UAB and Rice, but still.)
Tulsa is also dangerous if for no other reason than that they get both SMU and Houston at home. The UH game is the last game of the regular season, in Tulsa, at 11:00 in the morning, the day after Thanksgiving. Can you imagine if Tulsa rides into that game with only one conference loss, or maybe even a 7-0 record to match UH's? Should a division championship ever come down to a Friday morning game? Yuck.
This week: vs SMU, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central. Before we get ahead of ourselves, Tulsa has their first game of the year that doesn't feature a heavy favorite one way or the other. Does that mean we'll finally see a final score closer than 17 points? Please? I really want to see how Tulsa plays down the stretch in a close game.
4. Southern Methodist Mustangs (5-2, 3-1 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to Southern Miss, 27-3
There has to be an awful lot of soul-searching going on in Dallas after a loss like that. Perhaps the first question the SMU faithful (both of them) will be asking is whether or not June Jones jumped the gun in promoting McDermott to starting quarterback over Kyle Padron. No doubt Padron didn't look too good out of the gates, but we're talking about a sample size of a whopping 20 passes. Twenty passes, and Padron's first two years on campus (5,750 passing yards, 62% completions, 41 TD, 18 INT) went out the window. McDermott's line in replacing him: 57.5% completions, 10 TD, 7 INT. Hmm.
The good news is that no matter who's at quarterback, there's an absolute stud at running back in Line. The bruiser has carried the ball at least 16 times, and averaged at least 5 yards per carry every game this year. The man is a force to be reckoned with. Also, the defense is only surrendering 17 points a contest since the season opener.
Got that? A June Jones team is relying on its defense and run game. Don't worry, it makes my head hurt, too.
This week: at Tulsa, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central. So did SMU get exposed against Southern Miss, or will they take out their stung pride on an unsuspecting Tulsa? Big time gut check game for the Mustangs.
5. Marshall Thundering Herd (3-5, 2-2 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: lost to Houston, 63-28
"Say what?" you are surely asking yourself. "Did he just move Marshall up in the power rankings coming off of a 35-point loss? Based on his tier system, is he really asking me not to count a 3-5 Marshall team out?"
Why yes. Yes I am. I'm going out on a limb here, but I think the Herd remain a dark horse team in the East. First of all, the fact that Houston ran roughshod on Marshall's defense just gives Marshall something in common with...everybody else in Conference USA. Realistically, the Herd were never going to slow down Case Keenum at the Rob, or win the game on Saturday. What they needed to do was prove that switching to A.J. Graham full-time at quarterback could provide the offense with some kind of spark. And it did. It wasn't enough to keep them in the game, and the mitigating factors mentioned above still apply, but 500 yards is 500 yards, and it's a darn sight better than anything they've managed up to this point.
Now look at their remaining schedule: home against UAB, at Tulsa, at Memphis, home against East Carolina. They're heavily favored in two of those, probably slight favorites against ECU, and 10-point underdogs against Tulsa, depending on how this Saturday goes. If they can pull off the road upset against the Golden Hurricane, they could very well end up 6-2 in conference.
Oh, and they have the head-to-head tiebreaker with Southern Miss. One Golden Eagle slip up, and Marshall has a good shot to win the East. It may not be a probable outcome, but I wouldn't bet my life against it happening.
This week: vs UAB, Saturday, 11:00 AM Central. Now that I've endorsed their dark horse candidacy, Marshall will undoubtedly blow one at home against the 1-6 Blazers. If you think I'm going out on a limb to jinx the Herd after their pre-game comments in regards to attempting to injure Keenum, well, I'm not going to tell you you're wrong.
7. East Carolina Pirates (3-4, 2-1 C-USA) - Up 2
Last week: beat Navy 38-35
No, I didn't forget how to count. But while #6 UTEP is a better team than ECU at the moment, the Pirates remain a legitimate contender in the East race, while the Miners are squarely out of contention in the West. So ECU is #7 in Tier 2, and UTEP is #6 in Tier 3. Moving on.
After being kept out of the end zone in Houston, and failing to score in the first quarter against hapless Memphis, the Pirate offense finally woke up, in a big way. Quarterback Dominique Davis completed his first 26 passes against the Midshipmen on Saturday, setting a single-game NCAA record. Combined with the ten straight passes he completed against Memphis to end the game the week before, his 36 straight pass completions were an overall record. More importantly, his huge overall performance (40-of-45, 372 yards, 2 TD) led ECU to a 38-35 victory that they desperately needed to keep their bowl hopes alive.
Their East division hopes are still alive, as well, and while they'll face stiff challenges in the last four games of the year, they do have the luxury of being in control of their own destiny, and of getting Southern Miss at home. But the Golden Eagles will be heavy favorites in that game, Marshall and UTEP will provide tough road tests, and UCF will probably still find a way to play competitive football at some point this year. Maybe. Either way, East Carolina will have to play vastly superior football down the stretch, as compared to what they've shown so far, for that 2-1 conference record to mean anything.
This week: vs Tulane, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central. A match-up with the floundering Green Wave should spell an easy ticket back to .500 for the Pirates.
Tier 3 - Fighting For Bowl Eligibility
6. Texas-El Paso Miners (4-3, 1-2 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat Colorado State, 31-17
It was a second straight dominant win (the Miners had a 201-yard edge, and the game was less close than the final score) over a lowly opponent for UTEP, putting them two wins away from the possibility of post-season football, and establishing them as the team to keep an eye on for its ability to play spoiler down the stretch. Three teams who find themselves in the top two tiers still have to play in El Paso this year, and I guarantee none of them are looking forward to it.
While the Miner run game has been dominant enough to single-handedly beat Tulane and the Rams, quarterback Nick Lamaison will have to start contributing a little more to the offense when UTEP faces some real teams in the coming weeks. In those two wins over mediocre competition, the junior has gone just 14-of-30 for 233 yards, with three picks.
This week: vs Southern Miss, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central. Can the Miner defense slow down Austin Davis and company enough that UTEP's offense can stick to its game plan of running the ball? If USM gets up big early, it's unlikely Lamaison will be able to throw the Miners back into the game.
8. Central Florida Knights (3-4, 1-2 C-USA) - Down 3
Last week: lost to UAB, 26-24
After a promising start, the Knights lost two straight winnable road games against non-conference opponents, scraped out a win over Marshall in a torrential downpour, proved they weren't a top-tier conference team in a blowout loss to SMU, and finally hit rock bottom, losing to the previously winless Blazers.
Sure, the talent on defense is still there. But the offense just looks predictable and sad. Last week, I suggested that they start throwing the ball around a little more. The Knights obliged, actually attempting more passes (32) than runs (24), but it didn't change anything. UCF couldn't consistently move the ball. Even the defense, which still sits in the top 15 in the nation in points allowed, wasn't that good, allowing 327 passing yards to a guy who had never before thrown for 200 in a game.
This week: vs Memphis, 3:00 PM Central. Okay, there's no way UCF loses this one. But how weird is it that I actually had to stop and think about whether or not the Tigers had a shot to beat the Knights? I think my fingers would have laughed at me if I asked them to type that sentence a few weeks ago.
Tier 4 - Playing For Pride
9. Rice Owls (2-5, 1-3 C-USA)
Last week: lost to Tulsa, 38-20
It was a sadly predictable story on Saturday for the Owls. Their secondary was shredded by a good quarterback, their offense was nothing special, and at this point they'll probably be lucky to match last year's 4-win total. Quarterback Taylor McHargue, as good as he looked to end last year, seems to have lost his starting job to Nick Fanuzzi. McHargue did suffer a hit against Marshall the week before that left him with concussion-like symptoms, which may explain why he threw two picks in his first four pass attempts against the Golden Hurricane, and why head coach David Bailiff was to quick to give him the hook in favor of the senior Fanuzzi. But that doesn't change the mediocrity with which McHargue and the Rice offense have played this year.
If you think Bailiff's job may be in jeopardy, well, it looks like Bailiff may feel the same way. He even discussed taking the redshirt off of freshman quarterback Driphus Jackson last week after the hit on McHargue. The only reason I can think of to burn a promising young player's redshirt in the midst of a lost season is that you're a coach desperately trying to show that your team still has a pulse, and keep your job.
This week: at Houston, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central. Even the good will Bailiff has built up with the Rice fan base for beating Houston twice at home is going to fade pretty quickly if the Owls can't avoid a second straight blowout loss on the road to the Cougars.
10. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (1-6, 1-3 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat UCF, 26-24
The Blazers had gone half of a season without winning a football game, but as we mentioned, they had shown some flashes of respectability here and there. Still, to be able to put that all together for a victory over the "defending" conference champs was awfully surprising. And they did it without the QB-RB tandem of Bryan Ellis and Pat Shed who looked like potential stars heading into the season.
That said, if this saves head coach Neil Callaway's job, the folks at UAB have their expectations set too low.
This week: at Marshall, Saturday, 11:00 AM Central.
11. Memphis Tigers (2-6, 1-3 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat Tulane, 33-17
Yes, up until last week, I was refusing to talk about Memphis football, the prospect was so depressing. But they showed me, winning a conference game - on the road, no less! Despite being out-gained by 170 yards, they did what the haters said couldn't be done, and beat a Division 1-A team. Well done, Memphis. You have earned the right to have words said about you.
First of all, don't fire Larry Porter. Memphis football is a special situation, and Vince Lombardi himself couldn't have done much with what's available at the moment. Give Porter his four or five years, then judge.
Second, props to freshman quarterback Taylor Reed, who completed 14-of-26 passes and was responsible for three touchdowns in the win on Saturday. He's had a bumpy road this year, but he could come out of the other end of this trial by fire as a decent quarterback at some point.
This week: at UCF, Saturday, 3:00 PM Central.
12. Tulane Green Wave (2-6, 1-3 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to Memphis, 33-17
Say what you want about Bob Toledo, I think he could have beaten Memphis at home. Firing him was the right decision in the long-term. But for the rest of the year, it makes Tulane football awfully depressing. You might even say it's too depressing to read or write about.
In fact, screw it. Here's the best video in the history of the internet to cheer you up.
This week: at ECU, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central.