With three weeks to go in the 2023 USFL season, things remain extremely tight, with the league's eight teams all still in play to grab one of four playoff berths.
In fact, as we enter Week 8, only one team is in a position to clinch a spot in the postseason. That would be the North Division-leading Philadelphia Stars (4-3), who can do so with a win over Birmingham, combined with losses by division rivals New Jersey (2-5) and Pittsburgh (2-5).
In the South, with all four teams within a game of each other, no team can clinch a spot this week, though the defending champion Stallions (5-2) have a chance to increase their one-game lead over the field.
Week 8 kicks off Saturday with two games, starting with a contest in Canton, Ohio between the Houston Gamblers and the Maulers. Later in Birmingham, the Stars and Stallions meet up.
Houston Gamblers (4-3) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers (2-5)
Saturday, Noon ET on USA
The great divide in the USFL this season has been between the South Division — where every team is 4-3 or better — and the North Division — where every team is 4-3 or worse. The difference has been a 9-3 record for South teams against the North, and the league plays its fourth and final round of non-division games this weekend, with a chance to further the gap between the two.
The only two USFL teams who aren't within a game of first place in their divisions — the Pittsburgh Maulers and New Jersey Generals, both 2-5 — are 0-3 against South Division opponents, but really need such a win at home this weekend if they want to keep any postseason hopes alive.
On Saturday (Noon ET), Pittsburgh (2-5) faces the Houston Gamblers (4-3), who lost to Memphis last weekend but are still tied for second in the South. To pull off an upset, the Maulers will need to reverse trends that have led to their struggling record, still mathematically alive with three weeks left in the regular season.
Pittsburgh has struggled to score points consistently — the league has had three games out of 28 this year in which a team has scored three points or less, and the Maulers have two of them, getting shut out by Memphis and managing only three in a loss to New Jersey. Some of that is due to a league-low four touchdown passes (every other team has at least seven) from quarterback Troy Williams.
Ray Horton's Maulers defense has had its moments, as linebacker Kyahva Tezino leads the league with 77 tackles, with six of them going for losses. Former 49ers star Reuben Foster, who has returned to pro football after a four-year absence and has 37 tackles in five games, is the league's second-highest-rated player according to Pro Football Focus. Foster has been limited by an arm injury but should be full-go for Saturday's game.
— By Greg Auman
Philadelphia Stars (4-3) vs. Birmingham Stallions (5-2)
Saturday, 3 p.m. ET on NBC
In a rematch of last year’s USFL Championship Game, the Philadelphia Stars face the Birmingham Stallions with a chance to clinch a fifth-straight appearance in the league playoffs (dating back to the 80s version of the league). They can do so with a win, plus losses by division rivals Pittsburgh and New Jersey.
The North Division is separated by just two games with three weeks left in the regular season. But Bart Andrus' Stars (4-3) have become the hottest team in the North, winning three straight after losing 41-16 in Week 4 to the Houston Gamblers.
With the relationship between quarterback Case Cookus and wideout Corey Coleman continuing to develop, the Stars will look to earn their first win against the Stallions (5-2) since the USFL’s return last season.
In the South, all four teams are separated by just one game, and all four are above .500. But this game between the two division leaders is the beginning of the three-game stretch in which every opponent Skip Holtz’s Stallions face has a winning record.
To get past the Stars, Holtz will lean on quarterback Alex McGough, who leads the league in passing TDs and points scored. He’s proven to be an elite problem solver and leads his team in both passing and rushing.
The Stallions defense has been the most important unit on the field for Birmingham. The Stallions are 19-2 when they hold teams to 27 or fewer points. Last weekend, in a 24-20 win against New Orleans, linebacker Quentin Poling racked up double-digit tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovered.
An investment in special teams has also paid dividends. Two of the three kickoffs returned for touchdowns have come from Birmingham wideout Deon Cain.
The USFL has been kind to kick returners with 93.5% of all kickoffs being returned through eight weeks of play. For comparison, 38% of kickoffs were returned in the NFL last season.
Meanwhile, for the Stars, Coleman has emerged as the talent he was at Baylor, talent that led to his first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Defensively, no team has surrendered more points (163) than the Stars, but they also boast the player with the most INTs this season in Amani Dennis, who pairs up with former Michigan Man Channing Stribling.
Wideouts Davion Davis and Myron Mitchell will have their hands full with the Stars' secondary, but the game might be decided in the trenches. CJ Marable has emerged as a rushing threat, and linebacker Gabe Sewell has become the unsung leader of the front seven at Philly.
With both teams vying for their respective division crown, this game might once again be played in Canton, Ohio, to finish the season.
— By RJ Young
Memphis Showboats (4-3) vs. New Jersey Generals (2-5)
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
Like their division rival Pittsburgh Maulers, the New Jersey Generals are 2-5 and 0-3 against South Division opponents, but really need such a win at home this weekend if they want to keep any postseason hopes alive.
On Sunday New Jersey (2-5) takes on the Memphis Showboats (4-3), who have won four straight to bounce back from a rough start. To pull off the upset, the Generals will need to reverse the trends that have led to their struggling record, still mathematically alive with three weeks left in the regular season.
The Generals have struggled with close losses — their last four have been by three, six, three and three points, with two of those games tied in the fourth quarter. New Jersey is tied for the league's worst record despite giving up the fewest points in the USFL this season, and turnover margin has been a part of that adversity. New Jersey has the league's worst turnover margin at minus-4, and will try to fix that Sunday against a Memphis team that has the league's best turnover margin at plus-4.
The Generals have struggled to find balance on offense — they lead the league in rushing at 138.6 yards per game behind Darius Victor (429 yards) and quarterback D'Andre Johnson (264), but they're second-worst in passing yards. They avoid turnovers through the air, with a league-low two interceptions, but Victor has lost four fumbles — no other back in the league has lost more than one this season.
Sunday's game in Canton will be a "USFL/Ohio Legends Day," with former local players like Eric Metcalf, Wyatt Teller and Frank Minnifield and coaches Jim Tressel and Bo Pelini on hand for autograph sessions.
— By Greg Auman
Michigan Panthers (3-4) vs. New Orleans Breakers (4-3)
Sunday, 4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The Breakers and Panthers are each fighting for playoff spots in their respective divisions heading into Week 8. New Orleans (4-3) is a game behind South Division leader Birmingham and tied with Memphis and Houston for second place. But the Breakers would not make the playoffs under the USFL's tie-breaking rules if the season ended today.
A win against the Panthers would not only keep them in the hunt for the playoffs but keep them within striking distance of the Stallions with two games to play in the regular season.
But the Panthers (3-4) have plans of their own, and a playoff bid would be Michigan's first since the prior version of the league in 1984. After losing four in a row, the Panthers earned their first win since Week 2 with a 25-22 victory against the Generals last week.
Defensively, the Panthers continue to lean on defensive end Breeland Speaks, who has notched 39 tackles, including seven sacks, through seven weeks of play.
Bethel-Thompson (passing yards), Hills (rushing yards), Surratt (receiving yards) lead the league in three major offensive categories. The Breakers also average a league-leading 342 yards of offense per game, but they have had a hard time scoring points over the last three weeks.
After scoring 20-plus points in each of the first four weeks of the season, the Breakers have averaged just 13.3 points per game over the last three. Alternatively, the Panthers have scored at least 24 points in every one of their wins this season and averaged just 10.75 PPG in each of their four losses.
This might simply be a game where the first team to score 20 points wins as they chase the chance to play in the postseason.
— By RJ Young
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The Number One College Football Show" on YouTube.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.