Despite an uninspiring open to the season, Conference USA is set up to have three weeks of football that could end up being the most nationally-watched in the history of the conference. Two C-USA schools will be featured on ESPN's College GameDay this Saturday, two are ranked nationally in the top 25, either could have a shot to end up in a BCS bowl, and another is chugging along, still undefeated in conference play, ready to play spoiler. And while those three schools fight for a conference title, among other accolades, there is also the time-honored tradition of schools that weren't so lucky fighting for bowl eligibility, while still unluckier schools ponder their coaching situations moving forward.
Yes, Conference USA has a little bit of everything on the football side of things right now. If this is the second-to-last season that the conference will exist under its current alignment, it's certainly giving fans some happy memories on the way out. Here's how it breaks down:
1. Houston Cougars (10-0, 6-0) - No Change
Last week: beat Tulane, 73-17
It was another head-scratchingly poor first quarter on the road for Houston, which they more than atoned for with 59 points over the next two quarters. What else is there left to say? The Cougars are putting up points at an absurd clip, as has been well-documented. So here's the only real question remaining:
Given that Houston's only two games this year against decent teams (UCLA and Louisiana Tech) resulted in two wins by a combined total of five points, have the Cougars really come that far, or did the level of competition just sink that low? We're about to find out, because Houston's two remaining regular season games will be against two of their three toughest opponents of the year. While I don't think there's much doubt that the Cougars can score on anybody, but SMU and Tulsa will both provide stiff tests for the Houston defense.
This week: vs SMU, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central. Holy heck, it's College GameDay on campus at Robertson Stadium, despite the fact that SMU is struggling this year. That's the most dramatic statement yet about how much the University of Houston has grown its brand at a national level this year. On paper, this shouldn't be too much of a challenge for the Cougars, as Kevin Sumlin has owned June Jones, and the Cougars just flat out have a lot more talent than the Mustangs. But if Jones ever realizes that running back Zach Line, not quarterback J.J. McDermott, is the player the Mustang offense should be relying on, SMU could end up limiting the number of possessions the Cougars get, and making this game closer than it looks on paper.
2. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (9-1, 5-1 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat UCF, 30-29
I'll try not to hurt myself patting myself on the back here, but USM's match-up with rival UCF ended up being dangerously close, as I predicted. But with that close call behind them, the Golden Eagles have only conference cellar dwellers UAB and Memphis standing between them and a spot in the conference championship game.
I've written in this space about Tulsa's under-the-radar shot at the West Division title, but how about Southern Miss' under-the-radar BCS chances? The Golden Eagles currently sit at #20 in the rankings, a spot behind TCU, but given the Horned Frogs' two losses, USM's potential match-up with a highly-ranked Houston team, and the inevitable attrition in front of them, the Golden Eagles could very well end up being a top 16 team in the rankings, the highest ranked non-AQ champion, and ranked ahead of the Big East's champion, which would automatically qualify them for a BCS bid.
Bottom line, if Houston and Southern Miss both win their next two games (and that's a big if, especially for the Cougars), the showdown between the Cougars and the Golden Eagles will decide not only the C-USA champion, but will be a de facto play-in game for the BCS. In other words, it would be the biggest football game in the history of Conference USA.
This week: at UAB, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central
3. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (7-3, 6-0 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Marshall, 59-17
It was easy to be impressed with the way Houston's offensive line dominated a talented Marshall front seven a couple weeks ago, but take note - Tulsa's O-line (which I have called the best in the conference from day one) was equally impressive, keeping G.J. Kinne's jersey clean, and opening up holes for the run game to average better than seven yards per carry. Tulsa doesn't have the overall offensive talent that the Cougars do, but if a team with an overpowering offensive line, and a talented dual threat quarterback doesn't scare you, you probably haven't been watching Cougar football for very long.
The defensive talent for Tulsa is in the same ballpark as the Cougars'. In games against the teams' five common opponents, Tulsa has actually allowed an average of five fewer points per game.
If the game comes down to turnovers and special teams play, the good news is that Houston has been much better in both areas this year. The Coogs' turnover margin on the year is +8, while the Golden Hurricane's is -4. Tulsa's punting, punt return and kickoff return squads rank between 67th and 85th nationally, while Houston checks in at 5th, 8th and 55th, respectively.
This week: at UTEP, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central. This will be an interesting test of will for Tulsa, as the Miners have a ton to play for, while this game means absolutely zero to the Golden Hurricane.
4. Southern Methodist Mustangs (6-4, 4-2 C-USA) - Up 1
Last week: lost to Navy, 24-17
Just how dominant has SMU running back Zach Line been? He has averaged better than five yards per carry in every single game this year. He's going to get yardage every time the Mustangs hand the ball off to him, it's like death and taxes, there's really nothing you can do about it.
Fortunately, head coach June Jones insists on letting quarterback J.J. McDermott put the ball in the air 30-45 times every game. And McDermott is awful.
Yes, that's basically the same thing I've written in this space for the past few weeks, but until it stops being the case, I'll keep pointing it out. Oh, and I'll also point out that losing a game in which the the other team completes more passes to you (1 interception) than to themselves (0 completions) is a bad thing. Now a big challenge lays ahead of the SMU defense - go from preparing for Navy to preparing for Houston in consecutive weeks.
This week: at Houston, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central. And hopefully Jones' strategy persists for at least one more week. Houston's run defense is pretty average at 4.3 yards per carry allowed, an improvement over last year, but still the closest thing that the Cougars have to an Achilles' heel. Keep throwing, June. Keep throwing.
5. Central Florida Knights (4-6, 2-4 C-USA) - Up 2
Last week: lost to Southern Miss, 30-29
Don't look now, but the Knights have played very competitive games against the teams in the #2 and #3 spots in our power rankings over the past two weeks. That's the good news.
The bad news is that competitive losses are still losses, and UCF has six of them, with two games remaining against opponents who will be just as desperate for wins as the Knights. There's also something of a quarterback controversy brewing in Orlando - who is your primary guy, Jeff Godfrey or Blake Bortles? UCF has zero margin for error in figuring that out over the next two weeks.
By the way, yes, it's a sign of how bad C-USA's second tier of teams is that losing competitively gets you bumped up two spots in the power rankings.
This week: at ECU, Saturday, 6:00 PM Central. Two 4-6 teams in a bowl eligibility elimination game. Can the Knights get their first road win of the year?
6. Texas-El Paso Miners (5-5, 2-4 C-USA) - Up 3
Last week: beat ECU, 22-17
It's still not a team that can throw the ball with much success, and the defense is hit-or-miss at best, but there's no denying the run game, and it carried them to a win that they absolutely had to have to keep their bowl hopes alive.
Speaking of their bowl hopes, there are two tough games remaining, but if the Miners can win either, a 6-6 record should be enough for a bid. Conference USA has six bowl tie-ins, while only eight schools are still alive for bowl eligibility, and three of them sit at exactly six losses. Throw in the possibility that a C-USA school could skip the Liberty Bowl and head right to the BCS, and you can see that the conference will probably have a hard time fulfilling its bowl obligations. Good news for a school like UTEP that could potentially end up at 6-6.
This week: vs Tulsa, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central. As I previously mentioned, the result of this game means zero to the Golden Hurricane's season. They don't have any national rankings to worry about, and their game the subsequent week against Houston will decide the West regardless of what happens in El Paso. They also have a short week ahead of them, so the temptation to rest some key players will certainly be there, as well. The Miners, on the other hand, have the home field, and will be fighting for their bowl lives. Consider UTEP ripe to pull an upset.
7. Marshall Thundering Herd (4-6, 3-3 C-USA) - Down 3
Last week: lost to Tulsa, 59-17
I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised by how non-competitive the Herd was in its loss to Tulsa, but with a trip to Memphis and a home date with East Carolina, the school's second bowl bid in three years is certainly within the realm of possibility. Similarly to UCF, however, there is a question mark at the quarterback position. A.J. Graham's sparkling performance against UAB the week prior is starting to look like the one-time flash-in-the-pan type of output that you sometimes see when you play against a school like UAB. That means Rakeem Cato is back in the mix. And as the old saying goes, when you have two quarterbacks, you don't have a quarterback.
This week: at Memphis, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central.
8. East Carolina Pirates (4-6, 3-3 C-USA) - Down 2
Last week: lost to UTEP, 22-17
It's alarming how far quarterback Dominique Davis' play has slipped since last season. A year ago, he threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns, running for nine more scores. This year, since the season opener, he's thrown as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns, and on Saturday he managed just 133 passing yards on 34 attempts, with two picks against a pedestrian UTEP defense.
The sad part is that the Pirate defense, while still underwhelming, is much, much better than it was a year ago. Over 11 points a game better, to be exact. A 2010-caliber Davis at QB, and this team would be dangerous. As it is, it's one loss from breaking the school's five-year bowl streak.
This week: vs UCF, Saturday, 6:00 PM Central. The Knights have more talent, but home-field advantage could swing this one.
9. Rice Owls (3-7, 2-4 C-USA) - Down 1
Last week: lost to Northwestern, 28-6
Any hopes of catching the Wildcats feeling a little too good about themselves after the upset win over Nebraska were quickly dashed, as Rice's offense went nowhere (managing to run only one play from Northwestern territory in the second half), and the Owl secondary (aside from two interceptions) was its usual, lousy self.
Since the end of Rice's 10-3 dream season in 2008, the Owls have managed just nine wins, and 14 losses by 20 or more points. Yikes.
This week: vs Tulane, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central
10. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (2-8, 2-5 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: beat Memphis, 41-35
It's been a tough season, made tougher by the University of Alabama board of trustees' best efforts to kill UAB's on-campus stadium. But congrats to the Blazer faithful on their huge comeback victory on Saturday, winning the Battle for the Bones. #FreeUAB
This week: vs Southern Miss, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central
11. Memphis Tigers (2-8, 1-5 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to UAB, 41-35
A tough loss for a struggling Memphis team. I guess the silver lining is that the offense played well for three quarters?
Memphis football is so bad (how bad is it?) that a local columnist suggested that it's better to suck at football than to be Penn State right now, in his recap of the game.
This week: vs Marshall, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central
12. Tulane Green Wave (2-9, 1-6 C-USA) - No Change
Last week: lost to Houston, 73-17
This week: at Rice, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central