C-USA fast becoming powerhouse

By By Stan Caldwell / EMG Columnist
Dec. 1, 2002
HATTIESBURG I never would have thought, watching the Cincinnati Bearcats trudge off field at M.M. Roberts Stadium on Oct. 18, that they might hold the key to the rather complex bowl puzzle in Conference USA.
But then I never would have thought that East Carolina could beat Texas Christian, that Houston could beat Louisville, or that Tulane could beat Southern Mississippi by three touchdowns.
So anything that happens with Conference USA and its bowl affiliations won't surprise anybody who's followed C-USA football this season. Suffice to say, it has been a wild year in what has become one of the better football leagues in America.
No less than Tim Brando of CBS Sports has ranked C-USA as the sixth-best football conference in the country, ahead of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the league has offered a highly-entertaining championship race.
And it's not quite over.
Let's go back to Cincinnati. When we last saw the Bearcats, they were bewildered losers by a 23-14 margin to Southern Miss in a game they should have won handily. UC was all but out of bowl contention at 2-5 overall and 2-2 in the conference.
But Cincinnati proceeded to win three straight conference games, then lost a highly-controversial 20-19 decision at Hawaii last week to come into this week's action at 5-6 and 4-2, and that game has immense bearing on the C-USA bowl situation.
UC took care of business Saturday, defeating UAB 31-23 to even its record at 6-6. Here's the deal, however. Cincinnati still has one game left, a conference game at East Carolina, and the Bearcats have to win it to become bowl eligible, since they played a 13th game against Hawaii, as allowed under NCAA rules.
So Cincinnati needs seven wins to qualify, and that keeps things up in the air where some of the other league teams are concerned.
One thing is certain. TCU (9-2, 6-2) will play New Year's Eve in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis as the conference champion against Mountain West champ Colorado State. Everything else is in question.
The Houston Bowl, set for Dec. 27 at Reliant Stadium, has the third pick among the C-USA bowl eligible teams, and is reported to covet the Golden Eagles for a match against a Big 12 team.
The GMAC Bowl at Mobile has second selection, and appears ready to invite Louisville to play Marshall of the Mid-American Conference.
The folks in Mobile are willing to overlook the Cardinals' lackluster 7-5 record punctuated by Saturday's 27-10 loss at Houston in order to match big-league quarterbacks Dave Ragone of Louisville and Byron Leftwich of Marshall.
That leaves the two remaining bowls with C-USA ties, the New Orleans Bowl and the Hawaii Bowl. The New Orleans Bowl seems ready to invite Tulane (7-5, 4-4) to play North Texas, the champion of the Sun Belt Conference, which is the bowl's host league.
The Hawaii Bowl has the fifth C-USA selection to play a Western Athletic Conference team that is almost certain to be the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii.
So the New Orleans Bowl may want to wait and see what Cincinnati does at ECU next week. Because if the Bearcats win, they'll be bowl eligible, and since they've already played at Hawaii, not many people would want a rematch.
Well, the players on each team and the perverse among us might like a rematch. That game last week ended in a full-scale melee between the two teams, and the standing joke Saturday was that they might indeed want a bowl rematch, "for Round Two, and they can just skip the game and go right to the real action."
Seriously, though, Cincinnati isn't going back to the islands. So if the Bearcats are C-USA's fifth bowl-eligible team, then I would think the New Orleans Bowl would much rather have Cincinnati than Tulane, which can't draw flies to its own home games right there in New Orleans.
UC would probably bring in a few fans eager to sample the pre-holiday treats in the Crescent City, and that would send the Green Wave to Hawaii, since none of the C-USA teams are going to send more than a handful of fans out there anyway.
But you never know what could happen.
Houston may decide they want to take a chance and wait on Cincinnati, which has over the long haul of the season, been a more exciting offensive team than USM, relegating the Eagles to New Orleans or (heaven forbid!) to Hawaii.
Or Mobile may prefer a matchup of Leftwich against the reputable Golden Eagle defense than an uninterested Louisville team. My guess is that we'll see USM in Houston playing Iowa State or possibly Texas A&M.
Which ever way it shakes out and we'll know something on Monday the Golden Eagles are right in the mix. Rest assured, USM fans, you're going somewhere, and Saturday the Eagles finally played like a team that might actually deserve to go to a bowl.
USM completed its regular season Saturday with a convincing 24-7 victory over East Carolina to finish 7-5 and 5-3. It was the Eagles' best game of the season, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
The Golden Eagles have taken a beating in some quarters this season, and some of their wounds have been self-inflicted. But a near-certain bowl bid and the assurance of a ninth straight winning season soothed many of those wounds.