CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tulsa and Central Florida are going full speed ahead toward a collision in the eighth Conference USA championship game, as both are undefeated in league play and enjoying a lead of better than a game.
Technically, UCF (7-2, 5-0) is just a game ahead of East Carolina (6-4, 5-1) in the East, but the Knights have flicked away ECU and Marshall (4-5, 3-2), thus owning all tiebreakers.
Tulsa (7-2, 5-0) enjoys a two-game advantage over Southern Methodist (4-5, 3-2) and Houston (4-5, 3-2) in the West, but the Golden Hurricane must play both, beginning with the Cougars today. Most interesting is the Hurricane's Nov. 17 home game against UCF, a game that could set the home team for the Dec. 1 C-USA title game.
That game takes place on the home field of the team with the best conference record. With Tulsa and UCF playing in the regular season, a tie between the teams would easily be broken.
Houston, which plays at Marshall a week from today, isn't trying to get back in the division race as much as it is trying to keep its dwindling bowl hopes alive. Outside confidence in the Cougars is not high - most if not all national writers who dare to project bowls don't see Houston becoming eligible.
The way they have played the last three weeks, who could blame said writers? On Oct. 18, the Cougars coughed up the ball a mind-numbing nine times in a 72-42 loss at SMU. After a better-than-it looks 45-35 win over Texas-El Paso (2-7, 1-4), the Cougars fell 48-28 at ECU.
The Pirates took a 28-0 lead late in the second quarter on the arm of Shane Carden, who threw for 215 of his 305 yards to that point. Houston clipped that lead to 34-21 with 11:26 left, but Vintavious Cooper scored on a 22-yard run and Ty Holmes returned David Piland's 10th interception of the year for a touchdown.
Houston was crushed in time of possession, with ECU holding the ball 44 minutes. The reason is simple: The Cougars were 3 of 12 on third downs, the Pirates 12 of 20.
"Specifically, offensively our margin for error is so slim. We can't have an incomplete pass and get to 2nd and 10, run the ball for 3 yards and get to third-and-8," said Houston coach Tony Levine. "We need to be efficient and gain 4 yards or more on first down, so when we get to third down, it's third-and-short."
UCF may be playing Tulsa in a week, but today's assignment is a game at UTEP and the finale is a home game against Alabama-Birmingham (2-7, 1-4) - not necessarily the toughest games.