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Conference USA Football Power Rankings, Week 2: Sifting Through A Slow Start

Michael Hayes' highlight reel run propelled the Cougars to a week one victory, and a jump in our C-USA power rankings

HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 03:  Running back Michael Hayes #29 of the Houston Cougars breaks the tackle of  defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa #94 of UCLA at Robertson Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 03: Running back Michael Hayes #29 of the Houston Cougars breaks the tackle of defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa #94 of UCLA at Robertson Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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Conference USA didn't shy away from playing the big boys in college football's opening week, with seven of the eleven active C-USA schools taking on opponents from AQ conferences. It was a chance for the conference to make an impression, and unfortunately, C-USA fell flat. Houston's win over UCLA was the only win out of those seven games.

There are still a few more possible statement games left on the schedule, but with half of C-USA already carrying a loss, we have a pretty clear indication that this might not be the year the conference was looking to have.

Here's how we see the conference breaking down, now that we've had a chance to see everybody (but UAB) play:

1. Central Florida Knights (1-0) - No Change

Last week: Beat Charleston Southern, 62-0

You can't really take a whole lot away from a victory over a 1-AA opponent, but the Knights certainly didn't do anything to cause us to doubt the legitimacy of their top ranking.

This week: vs Boston College, Saturday, 7:00 PM CST. The Eagles struggled against a Northwestern team that was without their star QB, so the Knights should be heavily favored in this game. If C-USA's top team and reigning champion falls at home to a bottom-tier ACC team, it would be a huge blow to the conference.

2. Houston Cougars (1-0) - Up 2

Last week: Beat UCLA, 38-34

The pass rush and the rush defense still weren't where they needed to be, but that may change when the Cougars face the smaller offensive lines in Conference USA. The secondary had a so-so performance against a UCLA team that had zero success passing the ball last year, which is more troubling, but that may have had a lot to do with the aforementioned lack of a pass rush.

Not to be a total downer, Houston's defense against UCLA's read option was better, if not great. And the offensive line, breaking in three new starters, all of them underclassmen, was my favorite unit of the game - they held the pocket, opened holes for the run game, and generally played as well as we possibly could have hoped. Oh, and that Case Keenum guy looked pretty healthy and back to his old self, as well.

This week: at North Texas, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. The Mean Green got destroyed, 41-16, by Florida International in their season opener. Now, FIU's a pretty good team this year, and the game with UH will be UNT's first game in a brand new stadium, so emotions will be running high...but this just flat-out has to be a win for UH. By double digits.

3. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (1-0) - Down 1

Last week: Beat Louisiana Tech, 19-17

For the second straight year, the USM beat LT in an ugly game in which neither team broke 20 points. The sloppy football can be somewhat excused because of the awful weather, but the perhaps more troubling aspect was watching senior quarterback Austin Davis lose his cool on the sidelines. There's a fine line between being fired up and being out of control, and Davis was straddling it, at least. It'll be interesting to see if his temper comes back to bite him later on in the year.

That said, I only drop them a spot in the rankings because of Houston's impressive win. It's hard to take much away from games in which the weather intervenes so heavily. Golden Eagles fans should be happy that they got out of there with the W.

This week: at Marshall, Saturday, 2:30 PM. Conference play starts early, and we'll get a good indication right away of who might challenge UCF for the East Division title.

4. Southern Methodist Mustangs (0-1) - Down 1

Last week: Lost to Texas A&M, 46-14

The Mustangs' one great chance to beat the hated Aggies and win some favor with the Big XII conference they want so badly to join was a flop of epic proportions. In SMU's defense, Texas A&M might really just be that good this year, and the final score might have been a little closer if the Mustangs had avoided a couple of first quarter interceptions. The total yardage breakdown - 458 for A&M, 347 for SMU - makes things not look quite so bad.

We can't help but wonder what SMU does with the quarterback position moving forward. Kyle Padron was one of the better quarterbacks in C-USA coming into the season, but he was benched by June Jones after throwing picks in two of his first four pass attempts. And his replacement, Katy High alumnus J.J. McDermott, had a decent game against the stiff A&M defense. 

This week: vs UTEP, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. After a tough loss, the Mustangs face a must-win game for their C-USA title hopes.

5. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (0-1) - No Change

Last week: Lost to Oklahoma, 47-14

I'll somewhat give Tulsa a break, because they were breaking in a new coach, and because the list of C-USA schools that could hang with Oklahoma is short, and possibly non-existent. The Tulsa offensive line, one of the most experienced in the country, did a respectable job against a loaded OU defense, opening holes for TU's backs to average over 4 yards per carry.

But no matter who you're playing, allowing 663 yards of total offense is never a good sign. How much of that is OU being that dominant, and how much of that is Tulsa not being very good? We'll find out soon enough.

This week: at Tulane, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. In the two teams' six meetings as C-USA members, Tulsa has won every game by at least 24 points. Tulane looks like it may have some decent offensive firepower this year, so if Tulsa's defense is as bad as it looked against OU, this one may end up being a shootout.

6. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (0-0) - Up 1

Last week: Idle.

After a weird week one bye, the Blazers will throw themselves right into the thick of things with a trip to the Swamp. Can hot seat head coach Neil Callaway's team make a good account of itself? I wouldn't be too surprised if they keep this one close.

This week: at Florida, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. The Gators, led by first-year head coach Will Muschamp, dominated Florida Atlantic in week one, but there is (hopefully) a big difference between the Owls, expected to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt, and the Blazers, a C-USA team with high expectations.

7. Rice Owls (0-1) - Down 1

Last week: Lost to Texas-Austin, 34-9

While there's not necessarily anything wrong with losing to the Longhorns, I have to drop the Owls down a spot for how anemic their offense looked. 94 passing yards on 30 attempts? Yikes.

It doesn't mean Rice won't compete in Conference USA, and as we've mentioned with some other teams, maybe UT-Austin really is that good, but it's hard to take any positives from Saturday's game.

This week: vs Purdue, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. The Boilermakers were expected to be the weakest of the four AQ-conference schools on Rice's schedule, and that certainly hasn't changed after they barely scraped by Middle Tennessee State (last seen being Memphis' only win in 2010) in week one. The time is now for Rice to grab a non-conference win.

8. East Carolina Pirates (0-1) - No Change

Last week: Lost to South Carolina, 56-37

I don't see the Pirates as a legitimate C-USA East contender this year, which means I'm not as high on them as most publications, and it looked like ECU might make me eat some crow in the early going on Saturday, taking a 17-0 lead early on, and leading the Gamecocks 24-14 at the half. But the Pirate defense - one of the worst in major college football a year ago - reared its ugly head, giving up points in bunches in the second half.

On the other hand, the defense might not have been quite as bad as the 56 points allowed makes it seem. One of South Carolina's scores came on a fumble return, another on a punt return, and five total Pirate turnovers didn't exactly put the ECU defense in a position to succeed. The Pirate secondary actually held the Gamecock passing game to 131 yards on 10-of-25 passing. So that's a positive. Still, it's going to take a much more complete game all-around for the Pirates to start to look like a good football team.

This week: vs Virginia Tech, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. Another stiff test for ECU right out of the gates, another game where one could possibly see C-USA getting a headline-grabbing victory.

9. Marshall Thundering Herd (0-1) - No Change

Last week: Lost to West Virginia, 34-13

Marshall's offense struggled, with the Herd's only touchdown coming on a punt return. But the defense was able to do some good things, getting a pass rush against Geno Smith, and making WVU's run game non-existent (42 yards on 26 carries). And keep in mind, that's going up against a Dana Holgorsen offense, and Holgorsen has had a lot of success running the ball in the last few years.

So basically, we saw what we expected. Marshall has one of the better defenses in conference, but very little offensive firepower (5.5 yards per pass attempt, 3.1 yards per carry). I still don't think that will be enough for the Herd to be East Division contenders, but it will certainly make them a dangerous team for everybody else in the conference to play.

This week: vs Southern Miss, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. Here's a prime example of what I mean by Marshall being a dangerous team. The Golden Eagle offense struggled on Saturday, if they struggle again with Marshall's talented D, maybe a few turnovers or special teams plays end up deciding a close, low-scoring game.

10. Tulane Green Wave (1-0) - No Change

Last week: Beat Southeastern Louisiana, 47-33

After a huge freshman season, running back Orleans Darkwa struggled in the opener, earning just 34 rush yards on 10 carries. Junior QB Ryan Griffin did not, however, completing 14-of-24 passes for 267 yards and three scores. So that's respectable, even against a 1-AA opponent.

The scary part is the 295 yards surrendered in the air by Tulane - the Lions actually had 26 more total yards in the game. The Green Wave will have to shore that up in a hurry with conference play starting this week.

This week: vs Tulsa, Saturday, 2:30 PM CST. I would love to see the Green Wave make a game of this, and maybe even pull out the upset.

11. Texas-El Paso Miners (1-0) - No Change

Last week: Beat Stony Brook, 31-24

Speaking of uninspired performances against 1-AA opponents, it took the Miners overtime to get past the Seawolves on Saturday. Most frightening for UTEP has to be the run game on both sides of the ball - the Miners accumulated just 36 yards on 23 carries, while surrendering 231 yards on 43 Stony Brook rushes. Yikes.

The good news is that highly-touted JC transfer quarterback Nick Lamaison looked ready to take over the reins from the graduated Trevor Vittatoe. Lamaison threw for 365 yards and 3 TDs. Still, with the Miner run game averaging less than two yards per carry against a 1-AA opponent, to say that the Miner offensive line - minus all five starters from a year ago - is still a question mark is a huge understatement.

This week: at SMU, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. The Miners will certainly get a chance to test themselves in week two. If they can keep this one close, it'll be a moral victory.

12. Memphis Tigers (0-1) - No Change

Last week: Lost to Mississippi State, 59-14

If you want to try and find a silver lining in a blowout loss, you could point to 338 yards of total offense put up by a Memphis team with next to zero experience on the offensive side of the ball. The running back duo of Billy Foster and Artaves Gibson combined for 148 yards on 30 carries. Not bad against an SEC defense, considering the inexperience of the offensive line in front of them, and that a year ago, Foster was a wide receiver, and Gibson was in high school.

There's a long way to go for Memphis, but they have possibly their two most winnable games of the year in the next two weeks, so we'll get an early indication if they've made any progress from their 1-11 campaign a year ago.

This week: at Arkansas State, Saturday, 6:00 PM CST. The Red Wolves lost 33-15 to Illinois to begin the season.

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