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Mid-Major Monday: Looming BCS bid puts C-USA in a financial, ethical dilemma

Graham Watson
Dr. Saturday

Weekly notes from the undercard

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Southern Miss will be under intense pressure this week as it prepares to face Houston in the Conference USA title game: Pressure to win the game, upset the Cougars' perfect season and notch the first 11-win season in school history. And pressure to fail in their pursuit of any of those ends.

Of course, no one is going to come out and ask Southern Miss to lose. But the ramifications of a Houston loss far outweigh any goodwill Southern Miss would earn with a win.

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Conference USA has never sent a team to a BCS game, and has never come as close as it is with Houston's 12-0 start. If the Cougars take the conference championship and an automatic bid to a BCS bowl (likely the Sugar), the subsequent windfall will mean an extra $8 million for C-USA to be split among its teams, including Southern Miss.

Conference USA, the WAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt and MAC will earn 9 percent of the BCS' revenue this year — about $12.5 — and that number is split among the five conferences. If Houston makes a BCS bowl game — or another team is selected as an at-large — the five conferences earn an additional 9 percent.

Last year, the Mountain West — which sent TCU on to a win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl — netted $12.7 million, a record for a non-"Big Six" league.{YSP:MORE}

The non-AQ conferences have counted on that extra 9 percent in revenue every year since 2006, when the addition of a fifth BCS bowl opened up the big-money games to more teams. But if Houston doesn't finish its perfect season, it's a long shot that the either of the next non-AQ teams in line, Boise State and TCU, will be selected for an at-large bid.

It's a precarious situation for Conference USA, the first non-AQ conference with a potential BCS contender in a championship game. Previous BCS busters - Utah, Boise State, Hawaii and TCU — have watched championship week with a BCS bowl berth well in hand.

At any rate, almost no one - except Southern Miss and its fans - is expecting Southern Miss to win this game: The Golden Eagles are a 13.5-point underdog early in the week and have to play at Houston, where USM hasn't won since 2003. Still, the Golden Eagles have been a quality team all year and it wouldn't be shocking to see them prevail. What would be shocking would be for their colleagues to take the "loss" well.

THE CRIB SHEET Elsewhere in mid-majordom…

From the wishful thinking files, UCLA is courting Boise State coach Chris Petersen for its open coaching position. Rick Neuheisel's office wasn't even cleaned out before news surfaced that athletic director Dan Guerrero would be making the trek to Boise with a $3 million offer in hand. However, the chances of Petersen actually accepting the offer are slim to none. Petersen has been wooed by many suitors, but never broken his commitment to the Broncos — although, with prolific quarterback Kellen Moore graduating and a BCS bowl snub in the cards, If Petersen is ever up for a change of scenery, now might be the time.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall announced Monday that quarterback Riley Nelson would start against Hawaii if he was cleared to play by doctors. Nelson suffered a broken rib and a collapsed lung against Idaho on Nov. 12 and hasn't played since. Mendenhall said Nelson would have another CT scan before a final determination was made.

Head-hunting season has officially begun, but the non-AQ schools haven't been hit nearly as hard as past years. So far, Memphis' Larry Porter, Akron's Rob Ianello and UAB's Neil Callaway are the only coaches to get the axe, and those were all expected (and in Callaway's case, long overdue). Tulane's Bob Toledo and New Mexico's Mike Locksley were let go earlier in the year. However, there are a couple other coaches who are definitely not yet out of the clear, including Colorado State's Steve Fairchild, Fresno State's Pat Hill and Central Michigan's Dan Enos.

RUSH THE FIELD: Wins worthy of a bleacher-clearing celebration.

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It took almost all season, but Florida Atlantic finally got a win for outgoing coach Howard Schnellenberger, scraping past UAB by a final of 38-35. Fittingly, the victory came in the Owls' new on-campus stadium, which Schnellenberger spent nearly a decade trying to get built. The Owls converted two fourth downs on its final possession before getting the game-winning score — a 9-yard touchdown run by Alfred Morris — with 1:38 remaining.

Schnellenberger, 77, announced in August that this would be his final season and his team responded by losing its first 10 games — extending the overall losing streak to 13 straight dating back to last season. FAU was the last remaining winless team in the FBS. It still has one more contest against Louisiana-Monroe before Schnellenberger hangs it up.

GAME OF THE WEEK: Western Kentucky 41, Troy 18.
It's hard to ignore the stunning turnaround for Western Kentucky this season. The Hilltoppers, who were manhandled by FCS opponent Indiana State earlier this year, won seven of their final eight games (only loss to No. 1 LSU) and finished 7-1 in conference play after a 41-18 win in the regular season finale against Troy. The Hilltoppers finished 7-5, their first seven-win season as a member of the FBS, and second in the Sun Belt behind 9-2 Arkansas State.

Despite getting to seven wins, a bowl game is still up in the air. The Sun Belt is only guaranteed two bowl spots and those have already been claimed by Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Florida International, which is 8-4, is first in line for an at-large bid to a game that can't fill its tie-ins with other conferences, which could leave WKU on the outside looking in.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Chris Nwoke, Colorado State

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Usually players from losing teams don't win this award, but this week is an exception. Nwoke, who has come on late in the season despite the Rams' ongoing struggles, finished with 29 carries for 269 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-21 loss to Air Force — his second 200-yard game of the season in a losing effort. Of Nwoke's 1,115 yards this season, 810 have come in the last five games.

Honorable mention: Boise State safety Travis Stanaway had nine tackles, a forced fumble and an interception in a 36-14 win over Wyoming, in just his second career start. … Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato completed 23-of-29 passes for 341 yards and two scores to lead the Thundering Herd to a 34-27 overtime win over East Carolina — and to bowl eligibility. … Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner had a critical fumble recovery on 4h-and-1 in the final minutes against Nevada to preserve the win and get the Aggies bowl eligibility. … Houston linebacker Marcus McGraw had 15 tackles, including three tackles for loss in a win against Tulsa.

A SOMEWHAT ARBITRARY MID-MAJOR TOP 10
1. Houston (12-0). The Cougars are one game away from a BCS bowl berth. No pressure.
2. Boise State (10-1). The Broncos locked up second place in the Mountain West and are likely on their way to the Poinsettia Bowl, which isn't exactly how they envisioned the season.
3. TCU (9-2). The Horned Frogs end their season against UNLV, but have already wrapped up their third consecutive MWC title.
4. BYU (8-3). The Cougars have taken seven of their eight and play Hawaii to conclude the regular season.
5. Tulsa (8-4) The Golden Hurricane had a good run after a brutal September slate, but ran into a buzzsaw against Houston.
6. Southern Miss (10-2). Again, the Golden Eagles are in for a tough task against Houston.
7. Arkansas State (9-2). The Red Wolves are looking for their first 10-win season since winning 11 in 1975.
8.Northern Illinois (8-3). The Huskies are headed back to the MAC title game for the second consecutive year.
9. Ohio (8-3). The Bobcats are one win away from their second nine-win season in the past three years.
10. Louisiana Tech (8-4). The Bulldogs notched their first home shutout sine 1996 against New Mexico State and are WAC champs for the first time since 2001.
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Honorable Mention: Wyoming (7-4), Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4), Toledo (8-4), San Diego State (7-4).

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Graham Watson is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow her @Yahoo_Graham.

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