We're coming down the home stretch of Conference USA football, and the list of teams in contention for a conference title is shrinking by the week. And while C-USA's two top 25 programs will be feeling pretty good about their chances, there are still other schools lurking in the background, ready to make a move. There are also some school lurking in the background, looking at who's available on the coaching market.
Without further ado, here are our Conference USA football power rankings:
Tier 1 - The Favorites
1. Houston Cougars (8-0, 4-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Rice, 73-34
You could make the argument that Kevin Sumlin left Case Keenum in the game a little too long on Thursday, especially in light of the weather and the toll it took on the field at Robertson Stadium. But all's well that ends well, and Keenum's nine-touchdown performance, and the included obliteration of the previous record for career touchdown passes, garnered Houston a lot of national publicity. The Cougars are hoping to cement an affiliation with a BCS-automatic qualifying conference, and potentially praying for an at-large berth to a BCS bowl game this year, and in both situations, the hype surrounding their program is the reality. The more times we see Keenum and company on ESPN, the more UH helps itself in both of those scenarios.
In the short term, the Cougars will be hitting the road the next two weeks, a place they have struggled this year, trailing North Texas early before running away, and pulling out last-second thrillers against Louisiana Tech and UTEP. Neither UAB nor Tulane should provide Houston with a challenge, but none of the previous three road foes should have, either. Let's see if the Cougars have learned how to dominate an inferior opponent on the road.
This week: at UAB, Saturday, 6:00 PM Central. The Blazers had been playing competitive, but winless football before finally earning a notch in the win column against UCF, but they followed that up with a stinker against Marshall. The Cougars don't figure to have any trouble in getting to 9-0 for the first time in program history.
2. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (7-1, 3-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat UTEP, 31-13
USM avoided a potential slip-up in the always tough Sun Bowl, keeping themselves in the driver's seat in the East, but with three other teams nipping at their heels, they'll have to play perfect football for the rest of the year. The truly remarkable thing about Southern Miss' football team this year is the three distinctly different types of football they've played. Out of the gates, it was mediocre football. Then things started shaping up, and they started playing "score a ton of points and win a shootout" football against Rice and Navy. The last two weeks, they've morphed into a "dominant defense, enough offense to win comfortably" team. The important underlying theme, however, is that since the early-season loss to Marshall, they've played winning football every week.
Unlike the team above them on the list, and much like the team below them on this list, there aren't any real stars at the offensive skill positions, but the "all hands on deck" approach has been successful. After eight games, Southern Miss' leading rusher has just 426 yards, but five different Golden Eagles have 194 or better, and the team is averaging better than five yards per carry as a unit. There isn't a 500-yard receiver on the roster, but there are seven players topping 100 yards receiving. Five different players have lead Southern Miss in receiving in a game this year.
This week: at East Carolina, Saturday, 3:00 PM Central. Both teams carry identical 3-1 conference records into the contest, and the Pirates are at home, but Vegas still lists USM as 9-point favorites, and that even seems low.
3. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (5-3, 4-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat SMU, 38-7
Our hopes of finally seeing Tulsa play a competitive game were squashed as they easily dispatched of SMU, and while it's hard to know whether that has more to do with the Golden Hurricane being that good, or SMU swooning that badly, I'm impressed enough to move TU up into the top tier of the conference. Holding anybody to 7 points, and taking the ball away five times is impressive.
While nearly every back and receiver on the roster has had some small role in the offense this year, Willie Carter has emerged as the star. As an underclassman, Carter took 48 hand-offs, and caught 22 passes, but in his junior year, it has been his receiving capabilities that have this track star practicing his sprinting in the open field with the football during games. He has averaged 10 catches for 139 yards per contest over the past three games, and has caught a touchdown pass in five straight weeks.
The current standings mean that it would take two losses in the next three weeks by either Tulsa or Houston to prevent the two teams' season-ending showdown from deciding the West division. So yes, in all likelihood, C-USA West will come down to a football game played at 11:00 in the morning on the Friday after Thanksgiving. While the entire world tries to pull itself out of turkey coma, or naps after their Black Friday shopping, a division will be decided. That's just dumb beyond words.
This week: at UCF, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central. The Knights have a good enough defensive front seven to match up with Tulsa's dominant offensive line, and the Knights are 15-3 at home the last three years, so there's certainly the potential for an upset here.
Tier 2 - Alive And Kicking
4. Marshall Thundering Herd (4-5, 3-2 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat UAB, 59-14
Don't get me wrong, I called Marshall my dark horse in the East last week for a reason, and their dismantling of a UAB squad fresh off a win over UCF is impressive, but I'm kind of at a loss for words that there's not a better team to put at the 4-spot. I don't really think anybody in the conference deserves to be ranked this high, and it scares the heck out of me to put Marshall here, but I can't craft a better argument for anybody else, so here's where they go.
Level of competition notwithstanding, I would like to know the last time that a team, in their ninth game of the year, better than doubled their previous highest-scoring game of the year. I thought putting mobile A.J. Graham at quarterback could give Marshall's stagnant offense a spark, and while the spark was certainly there, the surprise was that it came via Graham's arm, not his legs. The sophomore threw for 239 yards and 5 scores in the game, and didn't run the ball once. Go figure.
The Herd still aren't in control of their own destiny, and the road game at Tulsa will be a toughie, but Marshall remains my dark horse in the East. Which is kind of shame, given the (lack of) moral integrity amongst their defensive players.
This week: Idle. In case you needed a little more ammo for the "don't count out Marshall in the East" argument, they get an extra week to prepare for their upset bid against the Golden Hurricane.
5. East Carolina Pirates (4-4, 3-1 C-USA) - Up 2
Last week: beat Tulane, 34-13
Sure, maybe ECU should be ahead of Marshall, given their better overall and conference records, and 3-game winning streak. But color me skeptical, given that the four teams ECU has beaten this season have each won only one game over 1A opponents. The list of 1A teams beaten by teams ECU has beaten is, in its entirety: Western Kentucky, Tulane, UAB, UCF. Woof.
Maybe the biggest cause for skepticism concerning ECU is the fact that they just don't do anything particularly well. Quarterback Dominique Davis set a record for consecutive completions two weeks ago, but even with that in the bag, he's averaging less than 7 yards per attempt on the season, and his 15-11 TD-INT leaves plenty to be desired. The Pirates don't run the ball very well. Their defense has had its moments now and then, but is still allowing over 30 points per contest.
With Marshall, you can envision them winning a game by playing stout defense, and making just enough plays on offense. (It worked against Louisville and Southern Miss.) When ECU plays a good team, what's their game plan? I just don't see it.
This week: vs Southern Miss, Saturday, 3:00 PM Central. With all of that said, if the Greenville magic can earn the Pirates a W this weekend, they'll be in sole possession of first place in the East. If the favored Golden Eagles prevail, it'll be the first season since 2004 that ECU loses more than two home games in a year.
Tier 3 - Still Have A Shot To Go Bowling
6. Southern Methodist Mustangs (5-3, 3-2 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to Tulsa, 38-7
Based on the past two weeks alone, SMU might be dead last on this list, but their overall record, the TCU upset, and the wins over the next two teams on this list count for something.
That said, if June Jones can't get over himself, this team is going nowhere fast. It has become clear to everybody but the Pony head coach that J.J. McDermott is not the answer at quarterback, but that hasn't sunk in with the man who makes the decisions. Jones has also failed to rely on running back Zach Line (aka the one player who has looked impressive on SMU's offense this year) as heavily as he should. Now I understand that over the past two weeks, SMU has played from behind, and you generally pass the ball more when you're losing, but at some point one would assume that Jones would realize that nobody can stop Line, and McDermott isn't throwing worth a darn. But nope, Line has been handed the ball just 44 times in the past two losses, while McDermott has dropped back 73 times. Those 73 dropbacks have resulted in just 326 yards of offense (4.5 yards per play) and six turnovers. Line's 44 runs have resulted in 281 yards (6.4 yards per play) and zero turnovers.
Wait, I just realized that UH still has SMU left on the schedule. Forget I said anything. J.J. McDermott is a rising star, and throwing the ball is what you do, Coach Jones. Don't let anybody ever tell you any different. At least not until after November 19th. Thanks.
This week: vs Tulane, Saturday, 2:00 PM Central. For a team that lost its past two games by a combined score of 65-10, the Mustangs are virtually guaranteed to be bowl eligible after this weekend's game.
7. Central Florida Knights (4-4, 2-2 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: beat Memphis, 41-0
UCF technically is still in control of its own destiny in the East, and they did steal a little bit of momentum back by shutting out the Tigers. But playing Memphis doesn't really count, and I can't accept a team as a divisional contender when they recently got blown out by a reeling SMU team, and lost to UAB. The Knights don't get any gimmes the rest of the way (vs Tulsa, at Southern Miss, at ECU, vs UTEP), but when you're talking about a team that managed to lose to UAB, there's no such thing as a gimme game, anyway. Sneaking into a lower-tier bowl is the best-case scenario at this point.
The UCF defense is still good enough to make them scary, but they're playing like a poor man's Marshall at this point. That's never a compliment.
This week: vs Tulsa, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central. Pretty close to a must-win for UCF's bowl hopes, given the road game with the Golden Eagles that follows.
8. Texas-El Paso Miners (4-4, 1-3 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to Southern Miss, 31-13
UTEP has certainly shown some flashes of good football this year, and there's very little difference, talent-wise, between them and the team I've got at #4 in these rankings, but wins over Stony Brook, New Mexico State, Tulane and Colorado State (not a respectable team among them), and one close loss to a good team can only garner you so much respect.
It was brought up in this space last week that quarterback Nick Lamaison would have to step up against Southern Miss, but he came up with his third straight poor outing, throwing for under 200 yards despite 35 pass attempts, with no scores and a pick. In five starts against 1A opponents this year, Lamaison has thrown for more touchdowns than interceptions in a game just once. (If you don't know which game that was, Cougar fans, I'm not going to remind you.)
Now let's not blow things entirely out or proportion. Southern Miss is a very good team, UTEP was certainly expected to lose to them, and Lamaison is a talented enough quarterback to play better than he has so far. But he'll have to show some improvement moving forward if the Miners are going to play post-season football.
This week: at Rice, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central. Hey look, a team with an awful secondary. If that's not a recipe for passing success, nothing will revive Lamaison and UTEP's season.
Tier 4 - Who Will Be Coaching At These Schools Next Year?
9. Rice Owls (2-6, 1-4 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to Houston, 73-34
There's no sugarcoating the way Keenum, Patrick Edwards, et al. manhandled Rice's secondary. And it certainly doesn't speak kindly to David Bailiff's coaching abilities that it took him all game to figure out that a) he shouldn't be running man coverage on defense, and b) with the wet conditions making it very hard for Houston's playmakers to make cuts, they were going to be primarily running deep routes to utilize their straight-line speed.
To put it another way, it's not a good thing when everybody in the stadium knows exactly what's coming (deep ball to Edwards, perhaps?) and it keeps beating you again and again. Maybe it's not a scheme problem, maybe Rice just doesn't have the athleticism in their secondary to keep up with UH. But Bailiff's been here five years, so that's his fault at this point, too.
So who is Rice's 2012 head coach? I'm leaning towards Bailiff. I accidentally ran into him one time when I was lost on Rice's campus, wearing all Cougar red, and I can tell you that there aren't many nicer guys on earth than Bailiff, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he'll get one more year. It's not like Rice has ever been quick to remove struggling coaches in any sport.
This week: vs UTEP, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central
10. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (1-7, 1-4 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to Marshall, 59-14
Are the one-win Blazers really better than two other teams in the country, let alone this conference? Probably not. But we moved them here after they beat UCF, and nobody below them did anything to move past them, so they get to stay here for the time being.
As for the coaching situation, Neil Callaway is in his fifth year, and is 16-40 with the Blazers. UAB's not an ideal situation for anybody, but that's a brutal record. UAB was Callaway's first head coaching job, so maybe this time around, the Blazers go for somebody with a little more experience as the head man.
Our suggestion: Mike Stoops. He's currently all kinds of available, and he already took over a tough situation (Arizona) and made them competitive within a few seasons, including three straight bowl games from '08 to '10, only the second such streak in school history.
This week: vs Houston, Saturday, 6:00 PM Central
11. Memphis Tigers (2-7, 1-4 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to UCF, 41-0
When you only play 11 games against Division 1A teams in a season, there's really no excuse for getting shut out twice, but sometimes (stuff) happens. There are a couple of pretty good defenses left in the last three games (Marshall and Southern Miss), so let's see if the Tigers can avoid the trifecta.
I remain a staunch supporter...if not of Larry Porter, then at least of the idea that he deserves four to five years to try and get his players in. A coaching change won't do any good at this point.
This week: Idle.
12. Tulane Green Wave (2-7, 1-4 C-USA)
Last week: lost to ECU, 34-13
Tulane is the one conference school to already make a coaching change this year, firing Bob Toledo. (Eh, he may have technically resigned, but he would have been shown the door soon enough, either way.) Interim head coaches rarely get to keep the job moving forward, so that probably rules out Mark Hutson. Toledo was a re-tread from a Pac-10 school, so the Green Wave may be a little hesitant to go after a guy like Stoops.
That doesn't necessarily mean that it's time to go with the "promising young assistant at a bigger program" route, though. With the ongoing push for an on-campus stadium, Tulane may very well look for a big-name coach to help with fundraising efforts. How about Rich Rodriguez? He was the Green Wave's offensive coordinator in the '90s, when the team used to be good, he passes the name recognition test, and Tulane may be one of the few schools in the country willing to touch him.
This week: at SMU, Saturday, 2:00 PM Central.