Some C-USA teams could reap benefits of tough scheduling

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

It's not easy being non-BCS.

Those teams that you rarely read about unless they're undefeated are constantly battling with talk that their schedule doesn't equate to that of a national championship-caliber team. To compensate for this, non-BCS teams often schedule members of the upper echelon of college football to prove their worth. While this is a good idea in theory, it fails 90 percent of the time.

But for those teams in the 90th percentile, wins over the top BCS programs could mean the difference between a BCS bowl and a bowl in your own stadium (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Over the next few days, I'll break down the best non-conference games for each team from each conference.

Today, I weigh in on Conference USA's heavyweight bouts. I'll be honest with you, a lot of these schedules are ambitious, but high risk equals high reward. I'll break down the top six teams with a chance to beat their BCS opponents and the bottom six that should bring extra Band-Aids and Bactine.

The best shots at non-conference triumphs:

1. Houston at Oklahoma State, Sept. 13
Kevin Sumlin knows a little about Oklahoma State after spending the last five seasons as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. Couple Sumlin with Houston's offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen, who came from Texas Tech, and the Cougars basically have the Cowboys' playbook memorized. Houston won the only meeting between these two teams this decade, 34-25, in Houston.

2. Tulsa at Arkansas, Nov. 1
Arkansas is the most difficult opponent on Tulsa's schedule this season and could be the game that determines whether this team sweeps its schedule and plays in a BCS bowl game. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has made Tulsa the nation's best offense, something former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt wouldn't allow him to do when he served as the OC with the Razorbacks in 2006. Malzahn would quietly relish putting that offense on display in his home state just a few days after his 43rd birthday.

3. SMU at Texas Tech, Sept. 13
This is the sixth meeting in the last seven years between these two teams, but this is the first time SMU comes into the game with a realistic chance to win. New Mustang coach June Jones has installed his high-powered run-and-shoot offense, which looks dangerously similar to that of Texas Tech. Jones has also brought back the 1980s "Pony Express" uniform style, no doubt to revive SMU's glory years (sans payment to players). The Mustangs have not scored a touchdown against Texas Tech in each of the last two years (35-3 and 49-9) so there's nowhere to go but up -- or to the end zone.

4. East Carolina vs. Virginia Tech, Aug. 30
Virginia Tech is the first of three BCS teams the Pirates will play in the state of Virginia this year, and unfortunately they open the season against two of them. The Pirates lost to the Hokies, 17-7, last year, but actually had a 7-3 lead through much of the second quarter. East Carolina is coming off a dramatic win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl and many think this will be the best Pirates' team in some time. This game, along with the following weekend against West Virginia, will test this team's mettle and put them in prime position to break into the BCS standings.

5. Rice at Vanderbilt, Sept. 13
Despite losing their last 13 games against BCS schools, the Owls could turn their fortune around against a Vanderbilt team that returns just nine starters and is predicted by several preseason magazines to finish winless in the SEC. Rice returns veteran quarterback Chase Clement and second-team All-American receiver Jarett Dillard, who led the team with 1,054 yards and 14 touchdowns.

6. Memphis vs. Louisville, Oct. 10
This is a resurrection of a series that was played every season from 1968-2004 (the teams did meet six times before it became a regular series). Memphis has won just three times since 1988, but could have a chance to make it four against a Louisville team that has been plagued with dismissals and off-field incidents. Seven or fewer points have decided nine of the last 14 games between these teams.

And then there's the rest of the conference:

1. UTEP vs. Texas, Sept. 6
These teams have only met twice, both times in the 1930s -- while both were wearing leather helmets -- and Texas trounced the Miners on both occasions. This matchup could have easily been in the top half of this blog because I don't forecast the same conclusion as past seasons. UTEP has several returning skill position players and Texas returns just 11 starters, including four on defense. The Longhorns have won seven straight road openers, but the Miners are 12-5 in home openers since 1991.

2. Central Florida at Boston College, Sept. 20
Central Florida is coming off its first conference title in school history, but the passing of redshirt freshman receiver Ereck Plancher, who died during a workout the day before spring practice, has marred elation of this season. The Knights were already going to have to rebuild an offense that lost top running back Kevin Smith, the team's starting quarterback and four offensive linemen. But it's still considered one of the best teams in C-USA if it can get over its mental hurdles.

3. Southern Miss at Auburn, Sept. 6
Many preseason magazines are predicting a breakout season for the Golden Eagles and that theory will be tested early against an Auburn team that is favored to win the SEC West. Southern Miss hasn't played Auburn since 1993 and didn't have much success when the teams had a regular series. Even in 1988, when the Golden Eagles finished 9-2 -- a high-water year of the program -- Auburn defeated them, 38-8.

4. Tulane at LSU, Nov. 1
While the Green Wave has lost their last 16 games against LSU, the last couple years they haven't gone quietly. Tulane was down 10-9 at the half against then-No. 2 LSU last season before losing 34-9. The second-half inefficiency was probably the shock of being that close to the team that would be the eventual national champion. It will be much of the same this season, but it's always interesting to see in-state rivals clash in the middle of the season.

5. Marshall at Wisconsin, Sept. 6
The Thundering Herd is 0-8 against BCS teams under coach Mark Snyder and will make it 0-9 against the Badgers. Not only does Marshall have to travel to Camp Randall Stadium, which, according to the soon-to-be-released NCAA Football 09, is the eighth-toughest place to play in the country (yeah, I just cited a video game), the Thundering Herd will also face what several are calling Wisconsin's best team in coach Bret Bielema's three seasons. The Badgers, who return 17 starters from last year's Outback Bowl team, are 5-0 against C-USA.

6. UAB at Tennessee, Sept. 13
In 2005, the last meeting between these two teams, the Blazers nearly upset the Vols, but lost 17-10. The Blazers are a rebuilding program. Just 60 scholarship players last season and a new coach while
Tennessee, despite losing its quarterback, still should be one of the tougher teams in the country. The Vols are 33-0 all-time against teams from Conference USA.