Keeping Score

C-USA earns early right to be labeled top Group of 5 conference

With a 7-0 record against the other conferences in the Group of 5, Conference USA is surprisingly making a strong case as the best league outside of the Power 5.

On the opening weekend, Texas-San Antonio stunned Houston, 27-7, in the opener of the Cougars' new stadium. That same night, Western Kentucky thumped Bowling Green, the defending MAC champ, by  a score of 59-31.

The trend continued last week as North Texas dominated SMU, 43-6, and Louisiana Tech shocked Louisiana-Lafayette, 48-20, on the Cajuns' home field.

ULL and Bowling Green were expected to contend for Sun Belt and MAC titles this season.

While the verdict is still out on how good SMU and Houston are this year, it was a major boost for Conference USA to watch two of its former teams get trounced by the programs brought in to replace them. 

North Texas was invited to keep a presence in the Dallas-Forth Worth market following SMU's departure and Texas-San Antonio was intended to offset the loss of a large market program like Houston.

Many expected C-USA to be only slightly better than the Sun Belt this season, but it has proven the doubters wrong early.

C-USA still has yet to break through with a win over a Power 5 conference squad, but it's mostly been very competitive against the larger programs.

UTSA faltered late in a 26-23 loss to a good Arizona team and Western Kentucky hurt itself with late turnovers in a 42-34 loss at Illinois.

Old Dominion, a team still in transition to the FBS level, led North Carolina State, 28-25 with 3:22 left in the third quarter before losing 46-34. UAB pushed a good Mississippi State team before falling 47-34. UTEP is still kicking itself over missed opportunities in a 30-26 loss to Texas Tech.

While teams like Southern Miss, Florida Atlantic and Florida International have struggled early on, much of the conference has done well.

Many national observers have caught on to C-USA's strong early play, and that could go a long way to helping the league get the Group of 5's sole major bowl bid.

Marshall started the season as a heavy favorite to win C-USA and potentially earn the major bowl spot, but there are several other teams in the league that could still build a case for consideration. 

C-USA's perceived strength could help Marshall's cause if it does indeed roll to a league championship.

If C-USA can preserve its field of teams over the next decade and allow programs like UTSA, North Texas and Old Dominion to grow, it could consistently be one of the better leagues outside the Power 5.

The Mountain West Conference and American Athletic Conference mostly consist of programs that no longer have much potential of further growth.

While UCF and Houston still have a chance to grow their programs and fan bases, it can be argued that teams like Cincinnati, SMU, Tulane, East Carolina and Tulsa have already peaked or face limitations.

In the Mountain West, Boise State will never be bigger than it was when it was reaching the Fiesta Bowl and competing on the national stage. San Diego State, San Jose State and Fresno State are programs that might still have their best days ahead of them, but there's no reason to see the Mountain West overwhelming the AAC or C-USA any time soon.

C-USA is again a league of novice up-and-comers in decent markets – Old Dominion, UTSA, Western Kentucky, Charlotte and North Texas. For many other schools in the conference, there's nowhere to go but up.

It's a good sign for C-USA's future viability that it is already competing with the best in the rest of the Group of 5 when it was widely believed that it would take the conference several years to get back on its feet. 

However, there's still the potential for other conferences to poach squads from C-USA if minor realignment happens again. 

At the moment, C-USA appears headed in the right direction.

Here is C-USA's schedule this week, and it features more chances for the league to improve its standing:

THURSDAY

Louisiana Tech at North Texas, 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

SATURDAY

Ohio at Marshall, 11 a.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Pittsburgh at FIU, 11 a.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Alabama A&M at UAB, 2:30 p.m. (ASN)

Southern Miss at Alabama, 5 p.m. (ESPN)

Eastern Michigan at Old Dominion, 6 p.m. (regional TV)

Tulsa at Florida Atlantic, 6 p.m. (FCS)

UTSA at Oklahoma State, 6 p.m. (Fox Sports Network)

WKU at Middle Tennessee, 6 p.m. (regional TV)

New Mexico State at UTEP, 7 p.m. (ASN)

Rice at Texas A&M, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)

This may be the weekend where C-USA comes back to reality and loses some games against the Group of 5. Las Vegas thinks Tulsa-FAU will be a tight game, but I'm picking the Golden Hurricane in a fairly convincing win. UTEP should take care of New Mexico State and Marshall should be plenty motivated against traditional rival Ohio.

Oklahoma State is a 16-point favorite over Texas-San Antonio and it's difficult to see the Roadrunners pulling off another upset this weekend. 

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