Last month, Sports Illustrated's fine football scribe, Stewart Mandel, took it upon himself to divide the world of college football into a class system of sorts. (Or at least the BCS portion of the college football world.) With a nod to historical performance and prestige, Mandel assigned each major football program to one of four tiers: kings, barons, knights, and peasants. (For the record, thirteen programs were crowned as kings by Sir Stewart: Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, and USC.)
All this had me considering Conference USA, and just where each C-USA program might fit in this "old world" scheme. Keeping in mind that most C-USA programs predate the conference (which started play in 1996), and factoring in those pre-C-USA years, I hereby present my own Mandelian class system for a conference still aspiring to BCS acclaim.KINGS
Southern Miss -- The Golden Eagles are to C-USA as USC is to the Pac 10. Under coach Jeff Bower, Southern Miss has had winning seasons in each of C-USA's 11. (The next most is five winning seasons.) They won three championships (1997, 1999, and 2003) and finished atop their division a total of five times. Southern Miss has had no fewer than seven players named either Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year for the conference. To date, the rest of C-USA bows to the Eagles.
Houston -- The reigning C-USA champs are one of four schools affiliated with C-USA since the beginning in 1996 (the others are Southern Miss, Memphis, and Tulane). The Cougars have had five winning seasons as C-USA members and featured three league Player of the Year honorees (including quarterback Kevin Kolb last year). With two conference championships, Houston joins only Southern Miss among programs with more than one.BARONS
SMU -- The Mustangs lose points for the "death penalty" that canceled their 1987 and 1988 seasons (the heaviest penalty to date handed down by the NCAA for rule infractions). And they didn't join C-USA until 2005. But it's hard to match the history SMU can present its conference brethren. SMU has sent six players to the College Football Hall of Fame, and that doesn't even include Eric Dickerson. Having played in four Cotton Bowls and a Rose Bowl, SMU's biggest challenge now is matching its standard of yesteryear.
Marshall -- The Thundering Herd program gets a sentimental boost for having rebuilt from the horror of November 14, 1970, when a plane crash killed the entire team. And Marshall has rebuilt well. They won the Division I-AA national championship -- on the field! -- in 1992 and 1996. Among their alumni now in the NFL are Randy Moss, Chad Pennington, and Byron Leftwich.
Tulane-- The Green Wave has seen four winning seasons as a C-USA member, won the 1998 championship, and featured a two-time Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Shaun King. They've struggled in recent years, but may well have fielded the best team in C-USA history: that 1998 team went 11-0.KNIGHTS
East Carolina -- What makes a Pirate a Knight, you ask? Their five winning seasons in C-USA are topped only by Southern Miss. They've also played in four bowl games since 1999. Over its 10 seasons as a league member, ECU has had a losing conference record only twice.
UAB-- As recently as 1992, the Blazer program was playing in Division III. Just ask a Memphis fan about this classification. The Tigers have lost seven straight in the series.
Tulsa-- The Golden Hurricane joined C-USA in 2005 and proceeded to win the conference's first title game. A considerable leap from a two-year period (2001-02) when they won a total of two games. Tulsa has played in three bowl games over the last four years and a total of 14 in the program's long history.PEASANTS
Rice-- This longtime punching bag of the Southwest Conference is showing signs of life, having gone 6-2 in league play a year ago and reaching the New Orleans Bowl. But Rice went 1-10 in its inaugural C-USA season (2005) and hadn't been bowling since 1961.
UTEP -- Quick: name the greatest football player in Miner history. I can't either. UTEP has played in three bowl games since 2000, but also suffered three two-win seasons. This is still a basketball school.
UCF -- Their nickname may be Knights, but this program's still shopping for armor. After going 0-11 in 2004, George O'Leary earned national Coach of the Year honors the next season for taking UCF to an 8-5 record and the Hawaii Bowl. The Knights dipped back to 4-8 a year ago.
Memphis -- The truth hurts, Tiger fans. But with only three winning seasons out of 11, and despite suiting up the greatest player in C-USA history (DeAngelo Williams), the Tigers haven't earned their knighthood just yet. For good or ill, as C-USA goes, so goes the U of M football program.
As a founding member of the once upstart league, Memphis can carry the conference banner as high as any of its sister institutions, especially when you factor in the population of the Memphis region, and the lack of an NFL team overshadowing its impact on football fans in the Mid-South. The challenge remains immense for coach Tommy West. The program's first league championship is all that's needed for a vault in status.
This annual contest has traditionally served as an early-season stepping stone for the U of M, as conference play awaits later in the month.
But that trend may be over ...