25th Football Season, Grid Media Days Celebrate Solid Bowl Success, Parity in Conference USA

by BoCarter | Posted on Friday, July 19th, 2019
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FRISCO, Texas – Parity seems to be the byword among Conference USA football coaches and administrators as the historic 25th season of league activity begins Aug. 29.
To a man, the 14 head coaches of C-USA teams emphasized top-to-bottom parity in the circuit and the ability of any team to knock off another squad on a given weekend.
“Competition is the key word,” said Old Dominion head coach Bobby Wilder. “There are so many quality coaches in this conference and so many teams capable of making it to bowl games, it is a battle every week.”
North Texas’ fourth-year head coach Seth Littrell echoed those sentiments as the Mean Green Eagles have been tabbed as the preseason favorite in the C-USA West Division, which UNT won in 2017.
“This conference is so competitive,” he related. “We had five games when we had double-digit leads at one time and ended up 3-2. We easily could have gone 5-0 or 0-5, and our team must find a way to overcome adversity. The hard part about playing teams in Conference USA is the diversity. You will see things that you won’t see from any other conference during a given year.
Projected C-USA East Division champ Marshall and 10th-year veteran coach Doc Holliday view conference play the same way.
“We had that one down year between a couple of great years (2015 and ’17),” he stated, “and around that (2016) we have gone to five bowl games in six years. You just learn to go to work every day and try to win those championships.”
The Thundering Herd, which won 2013 and ’14 Conference USA crowns under Holliday and is 6-0 in bowl tussles during his first nine years, might just have another first-place finish in its DNA this season, though Holliday warns against any lack of all-out effort.
“We potentially can be a great team,” he added, “but we have to produce on the field. It is extremely hard to stay on top in this conference, and the best team will win most games, but anyone can beat anyone else on a given Saturday.
Marshall’s 6-0 mark in postseason play since 2010 also has helped Conference USA to the Progressive Insurance Conference Bowl Trophy (given to the league with the top overall winning percentage in bowls) four of the last five seasons. The circuit is a composite 11-9 in bowls since 2016, and 13 of the 14 C-USA teams have made it to postseason play since the 2010 campaign and has a .600-plus bowl winning rate since 2014.
While the bowls also indicate the loop’s strength outside the rugged, eight-game conference slates each year, the closeness of games (indicated by North Texas’ 2018 cliffhanger, among others) provides another reason to believe in that aforementioned parity.
“We show our players the depth chart every day,” said ODU’s Wilder, “and some of the players might not like the final answer. Still, it makes for good competition at every position and gives us a gauge for game day. You have to bring your best for every conference game.”
Veteran Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin, who also guided programs at Tennessee and Southern California, added his perspective to C-USA’s continued improvement and lesser differences in teams’ talent and coaching ability.
“The conference is growing,” he began, “and now we have the NFL Network broadcasting several of our games. That will help recruiting. Of course, we have the nearby rivalry with FIU, and many of the players on both teams either played on the same high school teams or against one another in the Miami area. It makes for some interesting games when we play.
“We took a step back (5-7 overall, 3-5 in conference) last year after winning the championship (11-3 overall, 7-1 C-USA) in 2017,” Kiffin continued. “Last season everybody had us first in the conference polls, and that is not always good. And we actually led every team we played at one time except Oklahoma last year. This season we need to play a tougher brand of defense, and we should be more experienced on offense. That will help.”
Defending conference winner (11-3 final mark and 2018 Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl winner over Northern Illinois) UAB and 2018 FWAA National Coach of the Year Bill Clark know that the circuit-wide parity will make it even tougher to repeat the “Miracle of Birmingham” in 2019.
The Blazers are just three years removed from the dropping of their football program in 2015 and ’16 for financial reasons, but the university and “Magic City” Birmingham stepped to the plate and helped re-finance the team. Clark even remained at the university for those two seasons to help bring back the program in ’17.
“The championship last year was just another great step for the conference,” Clark stated, “and that Coach of the Year trophy belongs to our coaches and players as well. It truly is a team award. We lost a lot of seniors from the 2018 team, but the returning players have a strong will to do well and succeed. We have the new stadium in the works, and our future success depends on how well we can recruit.
“We relied on a lot of junior college players as we started the program back,” he noted, “It was a learning process about how to blend them in with the returning players, but the team and staff came together and helped win the championship. We know how tough it will be to repeat. We were fortunate to win the conference title on the road (first time since Southern Miss upset Houston in 2011) after losing the week before to Middle Tennessee (the Blazers edged the Blue Raiders 27-25 in the championship clash rematch).”
It all leads to anticipation for another wild and wacky Conference USA race in ’19, and Marshall and North Texas now find themselves in the middle of the dart board.
How well the rest of the conference teams and the two divisional favorites perform – especially on the road – probably will determine the winner of the 2019 gridiron trophy and maybe even a coveted slot in the College Football Playoffs or prestigious New Year’s Six bowl tests.
Conference USA notes: UAB offensive tackle Lee Dufour returned from a broken arm to help the Blazers down Middle Tennessee and Norther Illinois in the final two tilts of ’18. Dufour transferred to South Alabama to continue his studies in 2015-16 but returned for the 2017 season when UAB resumed football and played in the Makers Bahamas Bowl…Marshall OL Levi Brown starred in doubles for the Franklin (Ga.) Heard County tennis team as a 6-4, 280-pound presence across the net. Marshall also has one of the toughest non-conference slates in the circuit this autumn against Boise State, Ohio and Cincinnati…Old Dominion plays its first five games within Virginia (including road games at Power Five conference foes Virginia and Virginia Tech) before trekking to nearby West Virginia to meet Marshall Oct. 12…Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson inherited a squad with 59 scholarship players when he arrived in 2016 with 66 upperclass student-athletes playing on the 2015 squad due to numerous transfers and other reasons. The Golden Eagles are just returning to the 85-player scholarship limit because of the 25-signee annual cap imposed by the NCAA in recent years. USM pre-All-C-USA tight end Jordan Mitchell starred in football and baseball for hometown Hattiesburg (Miss.) Oak Grove High School, which has produced dozens of college and professional baseball standouts over the last three decades. He was the leadoff hitter and a centerfielder as Oak Grove won both the 2013 Mississippi high school football crown and the 2014 baseball title…WKU’s Lucky Jackson is hoping that his fortunate first name is a good omen for the ’19 Hilltoppers. He was a part of the 2015 and ’16 WKU conference title squads as a wideout and caught 50 passes for 552 yards last fall. Teammate DB Devon Key, a freshman on that 2016 C-USA-winning crew, noted that the team has dedicated itself to play as a unit and improve defensively this year. He said he is looking forward to the challenges of meeting Southeastern Conference member Arkansas and Atlantic Coast Conference competitor Louisville in ’19. The Toppers completed their current contract with 2018 SEC bowl team and nearby rival (65 miles) Vanderbilt last year.
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