CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The first important Conference USA cross-division game wasn't supposed to happen this early in the league season. And it wasn't supposed to involve Tulane.
When the first C-USA preseason football poll in years was rolled out in July, a check of the schedule zeroed-in on West Division favorite Tulsa's two-game stretch against East favorite East Carolina and second-place pick Marshall.
But ECU's next assignment has gained in importance, as the Pirates (4-1, 2-0) travel to New Orleans to take on Tulane. Those are two of the three 2-0 teams in league play.
The Green Wave (4-2, 2-0) was picked sixth of seven teams in the West, which was hardly a stretch - it had won just 13 league games in the previous eight seasons and hadn't had a winning season overall since 2002.
But Tulane owns wins over Louisiana Tech (24-15) and North Texas (24-21), the latter won on the last play by a 27-yard Cairos Santos field goal. As the defending Lou Groza Award winner, Santos is one of the Green Wave's biggest weapons.
ECU just got by Middle Tennessee last weekend, 24-17, with Damon Magazu intercepting MTSU star Logan Kilgore with five minutes remaining. The Pirates ran the clock out, converting three times on third down.
The loss stung for MTSU (3-3, 1-1), probably the best-positioned of C-USA's six new teams. To stay in East Division contention, the Blue Raiders must win at North Texas (2-3, 0-1) in a battle of former Sun Belt teams.
A big subplot for the Blue Raiders, who host Marshall on Oct. 24: They have been beset with offensive line injuries, forcing former Marshall assistant Geep Wade to adjust his personnel on the fly. That may have had a hand in MTSU rushing for just 89 yards against the Pirates.
"It's tough. We haven't started the same center in back-to-back games all year," said Kilgore. "... It's tough for those guys and tough on the running backs who have to understand the different ways we are going to block."
In the West, Rice (4-2, 2-0) goes to the Alamodome to take on a Texas-San Antonio (2-4, 1-1) team that is smarting from its loss at Marshall. The Owls knocked off Tulsa 30-27 in overtime last week, as quarterback Taylor McHargue recovered somewhat from a frustrating night against Florida Atlantic.