East Carolina has surprised while Southern Miss got blow out by Tennessee, but look for both teams to return to their normal levels here, with Southern Miss winning safely.
Conference USA has a few very good teams this year. I'm not just not sold the East Carolina is one of them.
Yes, they hung around against Virginia Tech in that school's very emotional first game, and then toppled one of the ACC's doormats, North Carolina, last week. But the Pirates are without their No. 1 quarterback (who was suspended for drunk driving), and now are down to No. 3, Patrick Pinkney who (I admit) pulled a nutty throwing for over 400 yards last week. Chris Johnson (the really big, fast guy you saw running all over the field against the Hokies) scored three times last game, and Skip Holtz is a good coach. But North Carolina had three billion chances to outscore East Carolina, and kept shooting itself in the foot. I'm not saying the Pirates are bad. I just think they're still very average, and don't boast much of a running game at all.
Southern Mississippi, on the other hand, is a heck of a lot better than its 39-19 loss at Tennessee last week. The final score was, as they say, misleading. It was 16-10 Golden Eagles pretty late in the second quarter, and 17-16 Vols at the half. Southern Miss got in the red zone a mess of times last Saturday, but kept failing to convert touchdowns, and settling for field goals. When the avalanche finally caved in on the Eagles after having so many chances, it caved in quick, as Tennessee piled on a bunch of deep second-half passes. But make no mistake: Southern Miss was in this game.
Saturday, the Golden Eagles travel to Greenville to take on a team it's owned lately. East Carolina hasn't beaten Southern Miss at home since 1994, and is 2-14 in its last 16 hosting the Eagles. In fact, in their last six trips to Greenville, the Eagles are 5-0-1 against the spread. And this is a revenge game, because East Carolina traveled to Hattiesburg and toppled Southern Mississippi last season, 20-17. Finally, I think the line's this close because of that emotional game at Blacksburg, where the Pirates showed a ton of class and earned a lot of national respect. The Hokies team they stuck around with (to the tune of a 17-7 loss) was extremely emotional and came out very flat; I think the defense-free, one-dimensional-offense squad we saw against North Carolina is closer to reality.
Southern Miss is my favorite to win C-USA. Damion Fletcher's undersized, but he's a really good college back, and set the single-season conference record for rushing yards by a freshman last year (he finished second overall in C-USA). Coming into 2007, he was the preseason C-USA offensive player of the year. Quarterback Jeremy Young is an athletically gifted kid in his first year as a starter as a senior, but he was relatively poised in Knoxville last week. And the Eagles' Chris Johnson isn't quite the playmaker that the Pirates' Chris Johnson is, but he did log 127 yards receiving and a score against the big boys at Tennessee. My calculations had the Golden Eagles winning this game by double digits, so I'm happy to see the spread so close. If I'm wrong about the Pirates, and they wind up being able to run the ball, well, this could be a close one, but I haven't seen much evidence of that this season.
Free Pick: Southern Miss -1