Conference USA notebook: Slow starts for league heavyweights

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Neither Tulsa nor East Carolina played a Conference USA game over the weekend, but both teams' results may have profound impact on the way the league race is viewed the rest of the way.
First, Tulsa. It was one thing that the Golden Hurricanes lost on the road to Bowling Green. But it's an entirely different thing how they lost -- a 34-7 thumping in which Tulsa seemed woefully under-matched.
Sure, Bowling Green may emerge as the MAC's darling and challenge the system this year. But in the immediate wake of the loss, the only reasonable reaction is to doubt whether Tulsa, one of the league's preseason favorites and its defending champ, can compete for a title again this year.
And then there's ECU. First things first: They allowed too many points (38) to Old Dominion of the FCS (which is transitioning to the FBS), but part of that is because of ODU's fine quarterback.
But look at how dynamic Shane Carden was. He threw for 447 yards and five touchdowns and took over the game when it mattered. As a result, East Carolina's case looks stronger after week one.
The stock report will ebb and flow after each week, of course. But Week 1 gave valuable information as to how the league race will shape out, perhaps moreso than many other weeks.

1. Tulsa might not be the team everyone in the league feared, suggesting that Conference USA might be a little more wide open this year than some suspected. The Golden Hurricanes struggled to even score, avoiding their first season-opening shutout since 1999.
It's too early to say Tulsa won't be any good, of course. Bill Blankenship has time to fix things, starting with his offense, specifically his run game. But if we're recounting what we learned in Week 1 of C-USA, Tulsa's vulnerability is what stood out.
2. East Carolina's offense is as good as expected with Shane Carden making key late-game plays. He set some school records in the Pirates' 52-38 shootout win over Old Dominion, but it might be the '38' that causes coach Ruffin McNeal more headache on Sunday morning than the 52.
Yes, Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke is one of the best quarterbacks in the country you haven't heard of, but ECU's defense let him have his way Saturday night. He threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 52 yards and another touchdown.
His dual-purpose approach may have given other Conference USA teams some ideas about how to attack the ECU defense -- assuming they have a quarterback as special as Heinicke.
3. Florida Atlantic met Miami for the first time Friday night, but it's uncertain whether this'll become a raging South Florida football rivalry. Just don't tell that to former FAU and Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger, who said this to the Palm Beach Post: "From the feeling that this game will project, and what it means to college football in this area, it will be adjacent to what it was like when Auburn got mature enough to play the University of Alabama."
4. Louisiana Tech's high-flying ways under former coach Sonny Dykes (now at Cal) hit a speed bump of sorts in a 40-14 loss at N.C. State. Sure, Tech was overmatched. But it didn't produce anywhere near the fireworks that Dykes' team produced last year. Tech's 14 points were its fewest since scoring 12 in a game in 2010.
5. Tulane PK Cairo Santos, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner and C-USA's preseason special teams player of the year, continues to be outstanding. He made two field goals against Jackson State -- 22 and 34 yards -- and extended his streak to 23 consecutive made field goals.
For coach Curtis Johnson, who is still trying to build a program, it's an aspect of his team that he doesn't have to worry about. That has to be comforting. And should the Green Wave ever put themselves in the position to be driving late against a team to get an upset win, well, they'll have to feel good about who they send out.

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