Handicapping the Conference USA race

With Case Keenum and backup Cotton Turner out for Houston, the Conference USA race is now wide open. Let’s handicap who has the best shot at winning the title now that the preseason favorite has taken a big hit.

Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles could be the most complete team. Their defense had its best game against Kansas last week -- holding the Jayhawks to under 300 yards. Offensively, Austin Davis has been efficient at quarterback, and the offensive line has held its own. Southern Miss has had to fight through some injury problems at running back and offensive line, and now top receiver DeAndre Brown has a strained leg.

Games to watch: Southern Miss hosts East Carolina on Oct. 9, but a three-game stretch to close the season will decide how the Golden Eagles finish -- at UCF on Nov. 13; home against Houston on Nov. 20, then at Tulsa to close the season in a Friday night game the day after Thanksgiving.

UCF. I have Southern Miss rated higher because of uncertainty at quarterback for the Knights. Rob Calabrese has already been benched in favor of true freshman Jeffrey Godfrey, who has looked stellar at times. He should continue to improve as the season goes on. As expected, the defense is the best in Conference USA. But what happens hinges on how Godfrey handles being the starter.

Games to watch: UCF has its tough division games at home, but this three-game stretch could determine what happens -- home to East Carolina on Oct. 30; at Houston on Nov. 5 and home to Southern Miss on Nov. 13.

SMU. The Mustangs have their running game going this season behind Zach Line, who is second in the conference in rushing. As a team, SMU is averaging 5.4 yards per rush this season -- up from an average of 3.8 last year. Linebacker Ja’Gared Davis is tied for the league lead with four sacks and leads the league with eight tackles for loss. The one thing this team still lacks is experience – only four of the 22 starters are seniors.

Games to watch: home Oct. 9 against Tulsa, home Oct. 23 against Houston and road games at UTEP on Nov. 6 and East Carolina the day after Thanksgiving.

Houston. The new starter will most likely be true freshman Terrance Broadway, a four-star recruit out of Baton Rouge, La. He is more of a dual-threat than Case Keenum, but coach Kevin Sumlin said he didn’t anticipate many changes to the offense without Keenum and backup Cotton Turner. Bryce Beall leads the league in rushing, and it’s going to be imperative that he performs well under pressure. The big question mark continues to be the defense, which had a hard time stopping the run last week at UCLA.

Games to watch: This Saturday’s game against Tulane is going to be huge to see how the Cougars look without Keenum. They must play at SMU on Oct. 23. They have back-to-back home games against UCF at home Nov. 5 and Tulsa on Nov. 13, then finish conference play at Southern Miss on Nov. 20.

East Carolina. We know the Pirates can score behind Dominique Davis. The problem is their young defense hasn’t been able to stop anybody. East Carolina ranks near the bottom of the league in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing defense. So until the defense improves itself, East Carolina could be in shootouts every game this season.

Games to watch: Big division games at Southern Miss on Oct. 9, home to Marshall Oct. 23, at UCF on Oct. 30 and at UAB on Nov. 11.

UTEP. The Miners already lost to Houston, but they have played the entire season without running back Donald Buckram, who has been battling a knee injury. Trevor Vittatoe has tried to do everything on his own, but they are going to need a healthy Buckram to have any shot at the division title.

Games to watch: at UAB on Oct. 16, home to SMU on Nov. 6 and at Tulsa on Nov. 20.

Tulsa. A season that started with high expectations is in danger of turning into disappointment. G.J. Kinne and the offense are what we expected, but the defense has been unable to stop anybody. The Golden Hurricane are giving up an average of 45.3 points a game, ranking No. 117 in the country, and rank No. 118 in total defense, giving up an average of 521 yards a game.

Games to watch: at SMU on Oct. 9, at Houston on Nov. 13 and home to UTEP Nov. 20 and Southern Miss on Nov. 26.

The others:

Rice. With an uncertain quarterback situation and injuries beginning to mount, the Owls are long shots at winning the conference.

Tulane. Running back Orleans Darkwa has been a bright spot for the Green Wave, but they are still offensively challenged.

UAB. Quarterback merry-go-round could take a toll. Bryan Ellis starts this week and David Isabelle will come off the bench. Without having played an AQ opponent, the Blazers are still giving up 31 points a game.

Marshall. What a Jekyll and Hyde team. From almost beating West Virginia to laying an egg against Bowling Green, it is hard to know what to expect from the Herd. The offense has been anemic.

Memphis. The Tigers also have uncertainty at quarterback, and are simply a few years away from competing for the title.