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October 13, 2011
Conference USA has developed a reputation as a league that has prolific offenses.
This week, though, two teams will meet in a possible preview of this season's league title game - and they are the only schools in the league that are in the top 35 nationally in total defense.
Just three of the league's 12 teams are in the top 60 in total defense, and two of them - UCF, which is second nationally, and SMU, which is 14th - meet in Dallas in what could be a title-game preview. They also met in last season's title game, when they were the top two in the league in total defense.
This season, through five games, UCF has allowed only six touchdowns overall, and just three of them are against the Knights' defense. A 38-yard drive by BYU is the longest touchdown drive given up by the Knights this season. UCF, Alabama and Michigan State are the only schools in the nation that rank in the top 10 in the five major defensive categories: rushing, passing, passing efficiency, scoring and total.
SMU is second in the league in every category except pass defense (third) and pass efficiency defense (fourth). But SMU has played against better offenses than UCF, having faced TCU and Texas A&M. The best offense UCF has faced is Florida International's - and FIU beat the Knights.
UCF beat SMU 17-7 in last season's C-USA championship game, holding the Mustangs to 317 yards and coming up with five sacks. In that victory, UCF ran for 144 yards.
"The most important thing for us is moving the chains and controlling the ball," said UCF coach George O'Leary, who got his 100th career victory last week. "Last year in the conference championship game, we held the ball for 20 minutes in the first half, and that's where most of the damage was done. The key for us is three and outs on defense and sustaining drives on offense."
SMU coach June Jones says his team remembers that loss.
[Week 7 primer: Huguenin picks them all]
"This team has been the best in our conference for the last couple years," he said. "Beating Georgia in the [Liberty Bowl], they've taken it to the level that we want to get to. Hopefully we can play well and beat them."
SMU (4-1) is off to its best start since 1986, and its win last month over TCU was its first over a ranked opponent since 2005.
One advantage SMU enjoys over UCF is that its offense is better than the Knights'. UCF has thrown just one TD pass and relies heavily on its strong rushing attack.
Best matchup: SMU WR Darius Johnson vs. UCF CB Josh Robinson. UCF is the only school in the nation that hasn't allowed a TD pass; heck, the Knights are allowing just 100.2 passing yards per game. Robinson, a former four-star recruit from the Fort Lauderdale area, is the best player in the Knights' secondary. He would be a starting corner at every school in Florida and almost every school nationally. He has good size, is physical, can run and also has good ball skills. He should spend most of his Saturday worried about Johnson, who is SMU's most talented receiver. SMU is 12th nationally in passing, and Johnson has 39 receptions for 550 yards and four TDs. If SMU is able to throw effectively, RB Zach Line is going to have room to run, and that bodes ill for UCF, which has some issues offensively.
Player on the spot: Fresno State QB Derek Carr. The two best running backs in the WAC will be on the same field in Fresno when Fresno State's Robbie Rouse and Utah State's Robert Turbin square off. Both are going to have success, which means the outcome very well could come down to which quarterback plays the best. Utah State's Chuckie Keeton has played as well as any freshman quarterback in the nation, while Carr, a sophomore, has had trouble with his consistency. Carr needs a big game for Fresno to win and - in turn - show that it will be a factor in the league title race.
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Keep an eye on: The quarterbacks in the Northern Illinois-Western Michigan game. NIU coach Dave Doeren told reporters this week that fans are "going to see a lot of firepower on the field. I know both defenses have their hands full this week." It's homecoming for NIU, the defending MAC West champ. But the Huskies already have lost one conference game and need a big game from QB Chandler Harnish, who has thrown for 1,344 yards and 12 TDs (against three interceptions) and also has rushed for 442 yards and seven scores. Western Michigan is 2-0 in MAC play, and Broncos QB Alex Carder leads the MAC with 1,495 passing yards. He has thrown 15 TDs and four picks. Carder has thrown at least two TD passes in each of Western's five games this season and has thrown at least three in three games. Carder leads the MAC with a 69.4 completion percentage, and Harnish is second at 67.9 percent. The winning team will be the one that gets better quarterback play.
Numbers game: Two MAC players set school records last week. Toledo junior WR Eric Page became the school's career receptions leader with 235, passing former teammate and current Arizona Cardinals WR Stephen Williams (229, 2006-09). And Temple junior RB Bernard Pierce became the school's leader in career rushing touchdowns with 41.
Quotes of the week
"Ultimately we would like to be in the SEC. ... We think we deserve to be." - Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, on possible conference realignment
"When things are going well, it's easy to handle. It's easy for everybody to handle when things are going well. Right now, it's a little tough for us. I look forward to handling adversity. I've been around adverse situations most of my life. I look forward to handling this one and fighting back out of it." - East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill, whose team is 1-4
[Week 7 viewer's guide: What games should you watch?]
"There is a lot of mixed feelings in terms of a lot of memories at Oregon State. It wasn't a time when Oregon State football was very strong when I was there. As a coach, it was a very difficult place to win. There wasn't a lot of success stories, but there was a lot of work and a lot of friendships. It seems that so much time has passed since then and it is hard to even go back to that place. I don't really have much of choice now since we are going back, so it will take me back there mentally and I am not quite sure how I feel about that." - BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team plays at Oregon State on Saturday. Mendenhall played there from 1987-89
"We just have to continue to get reps and get better. If you've done it a million times, then you've got to do it a million-and-one. You have to keep working to get the improvement that we need to win football games." - Rice coach David Bailiff
"People are a little more upbeat in the office and smiling a little more. It is always good to see a lot of smiles." - Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, whose team got its first win of the season last weekend
"We'd like to think records can be deceiving because we're sitting at 2-3. Anytime you talk about another team, you have to look at the mirror and say how do we feel about ourselves. We don't have a winning record." - Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship, whose team meets 0-5 UAB on Saturday
[Midseason report: The good and bad from the first half of the 2011 season]
Poll watch: Houston, which is off this week, is ranked in both polls used in the BCS standings, which come out for the first time Sunday. The Cougars are 22nd in the coaches' poll and 24th in the Harris poll. Houston's 6-0 start is its best since 1990, and the Cougars finished non-conference play unbeaten for the second time in three seasons.
Etc.: Florida Atlantic becomes the last FBS team to play a home game this season when it plays host to Western Kentucky. The game also marks the opening of FAU's on-campus stadium, a 30,000-seat, $70 million facility. There are chairbacks at every seat. ... The top three teams nationally in tackles for loss are in Conference USA. Marshall leads the way with 58, followed by Southern Miss with 50 and Houston with 49. ... BYU LB Uani Unga is redshirting this season after transferring from Oregon State. His twin, Feti Unga, is a starting linebacker and the leading tackler this season for the Beavers. They are cousins to former BYU RB Harvey Unga. ... Hawaii WR Royce Pollard has scored six touchdowns in the past two games after failing to score in the first three games. ... Rice beat Memphis 28-6 Saturday. It was the first time Rice had held its opponent without a touchdown since 1995. ... With last week's win over Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette moved to 5-1 on the season. The Ragin' Cajuns have tied the 2001 Middle Tennessee squad for the best start by a team in Sun Belt Conference history. ULL gets North Texas on Saturday. ... Southern Miss finished its non-conference season unbeaten for the first time since beginning play in Conference USA in 1996. ... Arkansas State has won back-to-back road games for the first time since 2006 and three consecutive home games for the first time since '06. In addition, the Red Wolves have won back-to-back road games against Sun Belt opponents for the first time in school history. ... Navy enters Saturday's contest at Rutgers on a three-game losing streak, its longest losing streak since 2002. ... Things aren't going well for Memphis except when it comes to forcing turnovers. The Tigers forced three in last week's loss to Rice, giving them 14 takeaways through six games. Memphis forced just 13 turnovers last season. ... Nevada blanked UNLV last week, its first shutout since 2006. ... North Texas scored on interception returns on back-to-back plays from scrimmage in last week's victory over FAU. CB Royce Hill picked off FAU's Graham Wilbert and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown. On the next play from scrimmage, CB Steven Ford picked off Wilbert and returned it 9 yards for a score. ... Louisiana-Lafayette CB Melvin White had an interception return for a TD in last week's win over Troy. That gave ULL five "pick sixes" this season, which leads the nation. ... Navy senior Kriss Proctor is trying to become the first quarterback in school history to rush for 100 yards and pass for 100 yards in three consecutive games. Only two other Navy players have done it in two games in a row (Brian Madden in 2001 and Chris McCoy in 1997). ... The two most prolific running backs in the WAC this season will be on the same field Saturday when Utah State plays at Fresno State. Utah State TB Robert Turbin and Fresno State TB Robbie Rouse each have four 100-yard games this season; Turbin has 12 in his career, Rouse eight. ... Houston has had 132 offensive plays that have gone for at least 10 yards this season, most in the nation. ... East Carolina redshirt freshman LB Jeremy Grove made 14 tackles in last week's loss to Houston. He became the first ECU player to have double-digit tackles in the first five games of the season since Pernell Griffin in 2001. ... Arkansas State WR Dwayne Frampton set a school single-game record with 13 receptions in Saturday's win over Louisiana-Monroe. ... North Texas has won back-to-back home games for the first time since 2004. ... Navy has beaten at least one Big Six team in eight consecutive seasons; the Midshipmen have two chances left this season - Saturday vs. Rutgers and Oct. 29 at Notre Dame. ... Southern Miss QB Austin Davis threw three TD passes in last week's win over Navy, his third consecutive three-TD outing and his fifth consecutive multi-TD contest. ... Senior WR T.Y. Hilton moved into second place all-time at FIU with 194 career receptions, five behind record-holder Chandler Williams. He also has 11 career 100-yard games, including four this season; the school's single-season record is five. ... Senior TB Lance Dunbar became North Texas' leading career scorer with a TD last week against FAU. He has 252 career points, which passes K Nick Bazaldua (247 points from 2002-05).
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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