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October 6, 2011

Week 6: CUSA, WAC, MAC, SBC and Indy

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Going into the season, Florida International, Troy and Louisiana-Monroe were considered the top three teams in the Sun Belt. Saturday, we'll find out if the conventional wisdom was correct.

While FIU has its final non-conference game - against MAC bottom-feeder Akron - Troy and ULM have conference showdowns. Troy is at Louisiana-Lafayette, which already has won at FIU, while ULM plays host to a prolific Arkansas State team.

THE 12 BEST GAMES
FRIDAY
Boise State at Fresno State, 9 p.m.
SATURDAY
Army at Miami of Ohio, 1 p.m.
Bowling Green at Western Michigan, 2 p.m.
Temple at Ball State, 2 p.m.
Air Force at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
Southern Miss at Navy, 3:30 p.m.
Troy at Louisiana-Lafayette, 7 p.m.
Arkansas State at Louisiana-Monroe, 7 p.m.
East Carolina at Houston, 7 p.m.
Marshall at UCF, 7 p.m.
Syracuse at Tulane, 8 p.m.
Wyoming at Utah State, 8 p.m.
ULL, which has a new coach in Mark Hudspeth, has been the early-season surprise in the Sun Belt. Hudspeth is a former coach at Division II power North Alabama and was wide receivers coach at Mississippi State when he was hired by ULL.

Despite ranking just 100th in total offense (327.4 ypg), the Ragin' Cajuns are averaging 33.0 points per game to rank 43rd in that category and have scored at least 34 in every game except a 20-12 victory over Kent State. They scored 34 in a loss at Oklahoma State and 36 in the win at FIU.

ULL has been opportunistic on defense, forcing 12 turnovers and scoring on four interception returns.

Troy, meanwhile, has three big games in a row: at ULL, at home against ULM, then at FIU. We'll know after that stretch if Troy is going to extend its streak of conference titles (outright or shared) to six in a row. The Trojans have an excellent passing attack, but the defense has been a disappointment, especially against the pass.

Arkansas State is another Sun Belt school relying on its pass offense. That passing attack likely will determine whether the Red Wolves are contenders or pretenders in the league race. They are 1-0 in the league and have ULM and FIU in back-to-back weeks.

This is the first league game for ULM, which is 1-3. But the losses have come to Florida State, Iowa and TCU. The defense actually has performed well, but the offense has struggled mightily. The question is whether that has been because of the tough non-conference schedule. Sun Belt followers should know the answer after Saturday's game.

Best matchup: Air Force run offense vs. Notre Dame run defense. The Falcons lead the nation in rushing at 364.5 yards per game and have 15 rushing TDs. The numbers are somewhat skewed, though, because there have been two FCS opponents. In two games against FBS opponents (Navy and TCU), that average has been "just" 236.0 yards per game, with five touchdowns. Notre Dame is allowing 91.2 rushing yards per game and has allowed just one rushing TD. In its past nine games, Notre Dame is allowing just 2.9 yards per rush. The Irish's offense is going to have success against Air Force. The defense's job is to keep Air Force in the 200-yard range on the ground.

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Player on the spot: Temple RB Bernard Pierce. Pierce followed up a huge game against Maryland - 149 yards and five rushing TDs in a rout of the Terps - with a 75-yard, no-TD performance in last week's loss to Toledo. Temple's pass offense is such that the Owls cannot win without a solid performance by Pierce. Ball State is this week's opponent, and the Cardinals' run defense is one of the worst in the nation. A 100-yard performance from Pierce in this one should be a given.

Keep an eye on: Miami of Ohio's rushing attack. There are no words to describe how bad the RedHawks' rushing attack has been. In four games, Miami has rushed for 196 yards. That's total, not an average. Ironically, the RedHawks are playing Army on Saturday; Army is second nationally in rushing offense at 368.4 yards per game. Miami's defense is going to be taxed by Army's triple-option, so it's vital that Miami have some success on the ground to keep its defense on the bench.

Numbers game: Houston QB Case Keenum could become the NCAA's career record-holder in total offense Saturday against East Carolina. He has 16,489 yards; the current record-holder is former Hawaii QB Timmy Chang, who picked up 16,910 yards from 2000-04. Keenum is 421 yards behind.

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Quotes of the week

"They're going to beat you with big plays - not by athletic ability but by design. They're really good at designing plays and formations." - Fresno State coach Pat Hill, on Boise State, his team's opponent Friday night

"Right now, we're a 2-3 team that lost two very close football games. Like I told the guys, you don't get to take plays back. But if you make four or five different plays, you're a 4-1 team and everyone is patting you on the back." - Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren

"Lightning does not strike in the same place three times in a row, so we need to evaluate the program from A to Z and see what we can do better as coaches, see what the kids can do better as players and understand exactly where we are at. We are where we are and we are here for a reason. So, we need to find a way to win those games at the end." - Utah State coach Gary Andersen, whose team has lost three games in the final minutes

"If it was just one thing, we would fix it just like that. Last week, [UTEP] had over 300 yards rushing. Twenty-nine of those rushes were for 63 yards, and the other 12 went for 258. You look at that and ask yourself what the problem is. As a coach, you have to go back and analyze whether it's your scheme, personnel or a great scheme by the other team." - Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, whose team is 5-0 but shaky on defense

"Any time you have the chance to play the defending conference champion, then it is absolutely a measuring stick for your team. We've had a lot of measuring sticks the last six games. I think someone told me we are going into our sixth straight game where we are the underdogs. I don't think I've ever done that before in all my years of coaching." - Marshall coach Doc Holliday, whose team plays at UCF on Saturday

"I like the way the schedule was done: four non-conference games, a bye week and now we gear up for conference play. I told the players these are the games that mean something. ... We have one goal and that's to win the conference championship and that starts on Saturday." - UCF coach George O'Leary

Poll watch: The only non-Big Six team in the rankings is the Mountain West's Boise State, though Houston is 26th in the coaches' poll. Given the Cougars' weak schedule, it's hard to argue for their inclusion in the top 25.

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Etc.: North Texas TB Lance Dunbar had the 18th 100-yard rushing game of his career against Tulsa. That's third among active running backs, trailing only Boston College's Montel Harris (22) and Oregon's LaMichael James (20). ... Notre Dame committed zero turnovers in last week's win over Purdue, the Irish's first turnover-free game of the season. ... San Jose State won at Colorado State last week to snap a 16-game road losing streak. ... In Hawaii's 44-26 victory at Louisiana Tech last week, the Warriors had an interception return for a touchdown followed by a fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff for another touchdown four seconds later. ... Nevada plays its first home game of the season Saturday when UNLV comes to town. The Wolf Pack are the next-to-last team to play a home game. Florida Atlantic will play its first home game of the season next week, which also will be the first game in the school's new stadium. ... SMU's 40-33 OT victory over TCU last week was its first win over a ranked team since defeating TCU on Sept. 10, 2005, and SMU's first road victory over a ranked opponent since beating Baylor on Oct. 11, 1986. ... Fresno State TB Robbie Rouse leads the nation in carries with 133. He has four consecutive 100-yard games. ... Houston has had 110 plays of at least 10 yards, most in the nation. Houston also has had eight plays that have covered at least 50 yards, which trails only Georgia Tech (11). ... Conference USA schools combined for eight defensive touchdowns last week after recording just nine during the first four weeks of the season. Five of last week's defensive scores came on fumble recoveries, including two by Rice. Rice had not scored a defensive touchdown in 35 games before last week. ... Utah State junior RB Kerwynn Williams had 57 kickoff-return yards in last week's loss at BYU. He now has 2,800 kickoff-return yards, which is a WAC record. The old record of 2,782 was held by UTEP's Cedric Johnson (1993-96). ... Western Michigan rushed for just 11 yards last week against Connecticut, but QB Alex Carder threw for 479 yards and five TDs in a 38-31 victory. ... Going into Saturday's game against Southern Miss, Navy has lost two games in a row. The Midshipmen haven't lost three consecutive games since 2002. ... Saturday's 8:17 p.m. local time kickoff is the latest for BYU since the Cougars played at UNLV in 1999. ... Marshall's win at Louisville last week was its first over a Big Six school since defeating Kansas State in 2003. ... No. 5 Boise State is the highest-ranked opponent to ever play at Fresno State. ... Cincinnati beat Miami (Ohio) 27-0 last week. It was the first time Miami was shut out at home since 1983. ... Tulsa had the ball for just 19:07 last week against North Texas, yet won 41-24. ... In last week's loss to Air Force, Navy set school records for offensive plays (105) and rushing attempts (80). ... Utah State TB Robert Turbin has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season. ... BYU is finishing off a four-game homestand Saturday against San Jose State. The last time the Cougars had four home games in a row was in 1991.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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