Before we get to breaking down Rice vs. FIU or (Texas Woodsys vs. Former Sunblazers at the Cathouse, the place where colleges pimp out their football players), let me catch up on Conference USA football power rankings.
1. Marshall (8-0, 4-0 in Conference USA): The Herd's an easy No. 1 but two things beg to be addressed. If the conspiracy theorists didn't get enough ammunition from FIU coach Ron Turner hip checking the officiating in Marshall 45, FIU 13, last week's Marshall win against FAU armed the conspiracy crowd better than France and Spain did the U.S. during the Revolution. Marshall benefitted from some embarrassingly weak decisions from the zebras. It should be said Conference USA crews aren't exactly filled with Jim Tunney clones so mistakes, even fat ones, might just be mistakes. The exalted status of Marshall and the conference's understandable desire to have a team muscle its way into national discussion invites such suspicion.
Secondly, if Marshall's not happy with being left out of the College Football Playoff's top 25, the Herd needs to kick itself in the butt. A non-conference schedule that includes Rhode Island, Ohio, Akron? Get a better brand of whipping boy. The next time it looks like you have a team whose biggest threat could be bad hotel breakfast eggs, buy out or postpone an Akron and see if you can convince Purdue or Kansas to find the time to take your beating. If blasting through Conference USA leaves analysts cold, what makes you think giving middling MACtion the cell block cigarette boy treatment gains any more respect?
2. Middle Tennessee State (5-3, 4-1): Much as I respect Louisiana for being the best state per capita for football talent, I think Middle's more dynamic.
3. Louisiana Tech (5-3, 4-0): They'd have a loss, too, if they played Marshall.
4. FIU (3-5, 2-2): Here's my problem: I really don't want to keep FIU here with that record. But I don't want to drop the Panthers beneath UAB after the Blazers got smoked by Arkansas before the Razorback faithful sobered up from the pregame moonshine. Can't put FAU ahead of the Panthers after FIU clobbered FAU. So, here they stay.
5. FAU (3-5, 2-2): The Florida Woodsys loss to Marshall looked like FIU's minus the two fourth quarter Panthers turnovers that took the game from attrition to Dresden.
6. UAB (4-4, 2-2): Arkansas showed it has better -- say it with me like Frank Broyles, folks -- ath-uh-letes.
7. UTEP (4-3, 2-1): Gets a Big Mover shout for destroying Texas-San Antonio and allowing two first downs. Don't feel too good about yourself -- Soutern Mississippi is good enough to upset you and bad enough that you'll get cut no slack if that happens.
8. Rice (4-3, 2-1): Not sure whether to move them up for winning or down for allowing 21 points to North Texas. Heck, I'll just keep them right here.
9. Western Kentucky (3-4, 1-3): Western nominated defensive back Juwan Gardner for C-USA Defensive Player of the Week after his 96-yard interception return touchdown. The Hill People gave up 51 points to Ol' 'ominion. Next week, they'll nominate a blind squirrel for finding a nut.
10. UTSA (3-5, 1-3): Freshmen are going to freshmen even redshirt freshmen. Quarterback Austin Robinson completed 30 percent, threw for 32 yards and the Roadrunners made only two first downs in a 34-0 loss to UTEP.
11. Southern Mississippi (3-5, 1-3): Moves up a spot because, well, 66-51 between Western and Ol' 'ominion.
12. Ol' 'ominion (3-5, 1-4): They play on Saturdays but they're easy like a Sunday morning on defense. No D or d. On the bright side, of the 66 points Western Kentucky scored, only 59 came on offense.
13. North Texas (2-6, 0-4): Gave Rice problems for a half, then decided to heck with it and started giving Rice the ball and the game.
Now, on to Saturday's game.
I watched Rice in its season-opening loss to Notre Dame, its third game and first conference game, a shootout loss to Old Dominion, and last week's win against North Texas.
Out of the gate, Rice looked just off the level of the team that steamrolled Marshall in the Conference USA title game. By Old D/No D, their depth already had been tested and found wanting. Reconstructed against North Texas, the Owls still looked very ehhh. The Mean Green's more scrambled than the Jumble this year. Still, they hit Rice for a kickoff return touchdown and a 55-yard touchdown bomb from a third-string quarterback getting his turn to start for a destitute offense.
They've got wide receiver Jordan Taylor back and he streaked to an 88-yard touchdown on a deep post on Rice's first play against North Texas. That's not the kind of play FIU's given up regularly this season, Louisville notwithstanding. In fact, the more I watch and think about Rice's offense, I keep thinking it's a good matchup for FIU.
Even bomb-loving Marshall got more from exploiting the Panthers short zone pass coverage. But Rice's tight ends have a picayune four receptions this season and four Rice running backs have 31 combined receptions. So over seven games, those two positions average a combined five catches per game.
The number of runs and yards per carry for Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson dropped since suffering his shoulder injury against Old Dominion: 10.0 carries per game (excluding sacks) the two games before ODU, 5.5 in the four games afterwards; 16.2 per carry (excluding sacks) the two games before ODU, 5.13 afterwards. Makes sense both on a competition sense -- Notre Dame and Texas A&M probably forced more Plan B plays than Hawaii and Army -- and a health sense. That also makes him slightly less difficult to defend for FIU, which should get better on the quarterback than North Texas did.
Watching running backs Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard, there's no doubting their quality. Neither, however, should be the Aztek-with-a-helmet against FIU that Pitt's James Conner or Marshall's Devon Johnson were. Against North Texas, Rice kept getting seals on the edges. I don't see them doing that with the same consistency on FIU.
You can bet Rice coach David Bailiff ordered extra work for the kickoff coverage units this week. You give up a 100-yard touchdown return the week before you see the nation's No. 9 kickoff returner, who already has a coast-to-coast kickoff return on his career resume, you move that task to the top of the to-do list. Also, this could be a low scoring game of field position. Every yard counts.
So now the Panthers have the ball. How well do they run it with junior Anthon Samuel, taking over for freshman Alex Gardner and his injured shoulder? Will Samuel be backed up by freshman Napoleon Maxwell or junior Lamarq Caldwell? What can FIU expect from freshman quarterback Alex McGough? Who'll start at wide receiver?
Fifth-year senior Glenn Coleman's flashed his talent well enough to average 18.6 yards per catch on his 18 receptions. A big play or two by Coleman opens the defense up and lets FIU breathe. They spent the last three quarters against Marshall and much of the game against UTSA getting squatted on like empty project apartments because the Panthers offense can't earn any respect in the secondary. Whether it's Samuel or Maxwell with the rock, everybody's getting stuffed if that doesn't change.
After the Marshall loss, FIU coach Ron Taylor said whoever could get open and catch balls downfield would get the job coming out of the bye. But, at some point, players are who they are. FIU's loaded with juniors and seniors who seem to possess all the good given tools to be good receivers but can't get open and catch the ball. And expecting a guy of good size-heavy feet like Fred Porter to be Fred Biletnikoff isn't fair to him.
FIU's third in Conference USA in sacks per game. North Texas is first. Any guess as to No. 2? Yep, Rice. Expect McGough to have more than a few throwaways. The Owls' Ryan Pollard got an interception return touchdown last week when North Texas' quarterback stared down the receiver on a crossing route. McGough needs to break himself of that habit.
Rice's defense owes its recent impressive numbers to playing Army (we're much better on the battlefield than the gridiron), Hawaii ("Hawaii, Five-0" describes how many points Hawaii would get against FIU in six games) and North Texas (who wishes this season was a dream of Pam Ewing's). I thought they were solidly "Meh." That's the Steel Curtain and the '85 Bears combined compared to Old Dominion and Western Kentucky, but if they overwhelm the Panthers, it's the Panthers fault.
Could be a hard day's afternoon for both quarterbacks. I can't get a feel on this game. I'm having trouble visualizing FIU scoring enough. On offense, that is. On defense and special teams, I can see a runback or a punt block or something funky scoring or setting up points.
Oh, FIU 23, Rice 17.
But that's one black man's opinion at 3 a.m. I could be wrong.