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Conference USA Power Rankings, Week 11: Cougars, Golden Eagles Climb Polls

Case Keenum and UH have plenty to smile about, including Case's growing list of NCAA records, and a continued top spot in our power rankings.

So as the Houston-Tulsa showdown is now all-but guaranteed to decide the West Division, one might wonder, is there anything more absurd than deciding a divisional crown with a game played at 11:00 in the morning on the Friday after Thanksgiving? And I'm here to tell you that yes, there actually is.

Putting on a sport without a playoff, under the premise that "the regular season is a playoff", boasting that your sport "has a more important regular season than any other sport", and then turning around and giving a team that lost at home the inside track to your "championship" game ahead of a number of unbeaten teams, is more absurd.

So congratulations to the NCAA and the BCS, for being more stupid than Conference USA. People said it couldn't be done, but you stepped up and proved them wrong.

Without further complaining about things unrelated to the subject matter at hand (Conference USA football), here are our power rankings:

1. Houston Cougars (9-0, 5-0 C-USA) - No Change

Last week: beat UAB 56-13

Case Keenum now owns the NCAA career records for total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and total touchdowns. The Cougars are 9-0 for the first time in school history, and #11 in the BCS rankings. A road trip to New Orleans is in UH's future. Life is good for the Cougar faithful at the moment.

Perhaps the most startling commentary on how well-oiled the Cougar machine is at the present is the fact that on Saturday, it didn't feel like the Cougars were playing all that well. And suddenly you look up, and they won by 43 points. The offense didn't have a 20-point quarter (something they've done in every game) until the fourth quarter, aided by a defensive touchdown, and a score from the second string. The defense wasn't at its best (at one point, defensive line coach Carlton Hall had his players doing up-downs behind the bench after a defensive series he wasn't happy with), but it scored as many touchdowns (one, on D.J. Hayden's gorgeous pick six) as it gave up.

I'm not saying you should go ahead and pencil the Cougars in for a 13-0 season. SMU, Tulsa and Southern Miss are all teams with the talent to beat Houston. But in past years, when UH struggled against poor teams (Marshall '08, UTEP '09) they lost. This year, when UH struggles against a poor team, they win by 43. That's scary.

This week: at Tulane, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central. Not much to say about this one. Tulane clobbered UAB early in the year, but at this point, they're probably a worse team, and we saw how the Blazers fared. This one won't be close.

2. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (8-1, 4-1 C-USA) - No Change

Last week: beat ECU, 48-28

We mentioned last week in this space how USM has found a number of different ways to win games this year. They managed to put an even different spin on the W column on Saturday. They were outgained on the day by 121 yards, but it didn't matter, as they had put the game on ice by halftime. How, you ask? Two pick sixes, a punt return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Yes, in the first half alone.

Although he struggled somewhat on Saturday, Austin Davis is a fine quarterback for Southern Miss. But you wouldn't confuse Davis and USM's offense for Keenum and UH's. What makes the Golden Eagles such an intriguing potential C-USA title game opponent for UH is the way they continually force the other team into mistakes, and the way they capitalize on every opportunity. The Coogs haven't faced a team this year they needed to be perfect to beat. The Golden Eagles are such a team. We can only hope we'll be so lucky as to see the two teams face off.

This week: vs UCF, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central. The Knights have lost five of seven, including a loss to UAB, and they're winless on the road. The Golden Eagles have won five of six all-time in this series, including three straight. It doesn't seem like the game should be close. But the Knights do have some talent, this match-up has become a budding rivalry, and UCF would love nothing more than to play spoiler. Something tells me they may just make a game of this.

3. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (6-3, 5-0 C-USA) - No Change

Last week: beat UCF, 24-17

And quietly, the Golden Hurricane keep chugging along in the shadow of the nationally-ranked Coogs, remaining undefeated in conference play, and biding their time. I'm as guilty as anyone, but Tulsa is getting slept on, big-time. Houston won't be able to afford one of their now-typical slow road starts in game #12.

This week's victory over UCF wasn't the most impressive, but winning in Orlando is never an easy thing to do, and Bill Blankenship's squad pulled it off. I've been saying for a number of weeks now that it will be interesting to see how the Golden Hurricane responds to a late and close situation (they hadn't played a game within 17 points before Saturday), and they passed with flying colors. After a Knight field goal put Tulsa behind by a point early in the fourth quarter, G.J. Kinne marched his team down field on the ensuing possession for a touchdown and the two-point conversion to go up by seven. The defense responded with a goal line stand to preserve the lead.

Does Tulsa have the overall talent of Houston? Probably not. But they have a stout offensive line, and a mobile quarterback - traits that could allow them to trouble the Cougars - and home field advantage. All in all, it makes the two teams' showdown closer to a coin flip than most of the UH faithful would probably like to believe.

This week: vs Marshall, Saturday, 11:00 AM Central. They'll get to come home this week, but they're playing a team that looks dangerous, and has had two weeks to prepare for this game. If Tulsa starts looking forward to Houston at all, we could see an upset.

4. Marshall Thundering Herd (4-5, 3-2 C-USA) - No Change

Last week: Idle

A win on Saturday, and they're an upset of USM away from a potential East Division championship. A loss, and they would have to win their last two games, and then be lucky enough to get picked, to make a bowl. No pressure, Marshall.

This week: at Tulsa, Saturday, 11:00 AM Central. Marshall's defensive front seven against Tulsa's offensive line is a great strength-on-strength match-up. But the most critical aspect of the game will be the Herd's ability to create turnovers (22 on the year, 12th in the nation) against TU's inability to hold on to the ball (25 turnovers, third worst in the nation).

5. Southern Methodist Mustangs (6-3, 4-2 C-USA) - Up 1

Last week: beat Tulane, 45-24

Pretty much anybody can beat Tulane at this point, so I'm not putting too much stock in Saturday's win signaling an end to SMU's funk. But with two home games remaining against unimpressive opponents, the Mustangs could pretty easily coast to an 8-win regular season. Winning 8, 7 and 8 games at SMU would be pretty impressive, given how much the program has struggled. But it's not the instant turnaround Jones enjoyed at Hawaii, or the one SMU probably had in mind when they gave him $2 million a year. And in the next year or two, SMU might end up finding out there is no Tulane in the Big East.

This week: vs Navy, Saturday, 2:30 PM Central. The Midshipmen just snapped a six-game losing streak, but all six losses were against good teams. The service academies are rarely pushovers, as SMU found out last year when they lost to both Navy and Army (in the Armed Forces Bowl), so this one could be closer than you might think.

6. East Carolina Pirates (4-5, 3-2 C-USA) - Down 1

Last week: lost to Southern Miss, 48-28

Yes, the Pirates did gain 420 yards in Saturday's loss against a good defense, but it took them 89 snaps to do it. That evens out to a pretty mediocre offensive output, and not nearly a good enough one, considering that the turnover bug was biting hard yet again.

For one of the more successful members of C-USA in the last several years, it's been a tough season to be an ECU fan, and with three winnable, but also loseable games left on the schedule, the Pirates will have to fight hard to try and grab a bowl berth, and somewhat salvage the season.

This week: at UTEP, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central. The Miners are coming off two straight losses, including one to Rice, but the home field advantage may give UTEP the edge here.

7. Central Florida Knights (4-5, 2-3 C-USA) - No Change

Last week: lost to Tulsa, 24-17

Hey, speaking of traditional Conference USA powers in down years, fighting for bowl eligibility...

The Knights certainly put up a pretty good fight before falling to unbeaten-in-conference Tulsa, but the loss highlighted the fact that UCF just doesn't have an offensive player they can count on to consistently make plays for them. And the defense, while top-to-bottom the best in the conference, isn't good enough to make up for the offense's lack of punch.

It's unfortunate that we won't get to see C-USA's best offense (UH) go up against C-USA's best defense (UCF) this year, because that would have been a great litmus test for the Cougars. But alas, the Knights are floundering, they haven't won a road game, and they have two tough road trips in the next two weeks. If they can't pull out a win in at least one, it's no post-season football for Orlando.

This week: at Southern Miss, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central. It's the Knights last chance of the year to have some sort of impact on the conference race. You know UCF would love nothing more than to bring USM back down to reality.

8. Rice Owls (3-6, 2-4 C-USA) - Up 1

Last week: beat UTEP, 41-37

Can the Owls, for the second straight year, put on a little late season run after all hope for the season is lost? They certainly have a good shot to beat Tulane at home in a couple of weeks, and if they can pull off an upset against Northwestern or SMU, it would give them some momentum heading into next year. Either way, it was good to see the Owl offense chugging along at the pace we've seen from them in years past, if only for a week.

This week: at Northwestern, Saturday, 11:00 AM Central. The Wildcats have struggled this year, but are coming off back-to-back wins, including an upset over #10 Nebraska. Can the Owls catch Northwestern in a letdown after a big win?

9. Texas-El Paso Miners (4-5, 1-4 C-USA) - Down 1

Last week: lost to Rice, 41-37

The Miners have been on the brink of becoming a good football team this year, but the consistency just hasn't been there. The run game has been very effective, but the passing game just hasn't been able to compliment it at all. And the defense, despite all of the experience it has going for it, hasn't been much better than it usually is in El Paso.

Much like their fellow 4-5 opponent this week, it's hard to single out any one game down the stretch for UTEP as being a sure win or a sure loss, so bowl eligibility isn't out of the question. One wonders if it would be a requisite for head coach Mike Price to keep his job.

This week: vs ECU, Saturday, 7:00 PM Central.

10. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (1-8, 1-5 C-USA) - No Change

Last week: lost to Houston, 56-13

With as much pent-up resentment as UH holds towards schools like UT-Austin and Texas A&M for the way things went down when the Southwest Conference broke up, UAB has it a hundred times worse. Put yourself in the Blazers' situation:

UAB is playing in an off-campus stadium that's old and past its prime. (Playing at Rice Stadium would be comparable, if Rice Stadium was also located in less than the nicest part of town.) The school recently commissioned a feasibility study towards the idea of building an on-campus stadium, complete with pledges to purchase all 27 sky boxes, but as part of the University of Alabama system (the Crimson Tide is to UAB as UT-Austin is to UH in this analogy), the U of A board of trustees would have to approve such a plan, and they recently declined to do so without so much as formally voting on the idea. Oh, did I mention that the President of the board of trustees is Bear Bryant's son? Yeah, that seems like a fair situation.

In case you skipped the article linked in the paragraph above, here it is one more time. Read it, be outraged. Join the movement on Twitter. #FreeUAB

This week: at Memphis, Saturday, 3:15 PM Central

11. Memphis Tigers (2-7, 1-4 C-USA) - No Change

Last week: Idle

How bad is Memphis? Bad enough that I forgot to put them in this week's power rankings when I first hit publish. And it took until the next day for anybody to notice. Since I obviously don't have much more to say about them, click on over to the Commercial Appeal's excellent series examining the state of the program.

This week: vs UAB, Saturday, 3:15 PM Central

12. Tulane Green Wave (2-8, 1-5 C-USA) - No Change

Last week: lost to SMU, 45-24

Tulane coaching watch: Mike Haywood (of "lost his job at Pitt due to domestic violence charges infamy) is among the Green Wave's list of interviews. Needless to say, with names like Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez being thrown around, Haywood would be kind of a letdown.

This week: vs Houston, Thursday, 7:00 PM Central.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.