Conference USA media days roundup

by Dan M | Posted on Friday, July 25th, 2014


By Bo Carter

IRVING, Texas – It’s now the “Lucky 13” this season in Conference USA. The most football members (Charlotte will join as a full-fledged member in 2015) of the 19-season circuit will compete in two divisions.  The East Division consists of FIU, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, UAB, and WKU while the West is Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, Southern Miss, UTEP, and UTSA.
They all gathered, plus Charlotte for good measure, Wednesday at the Marriott Airport North for the 19th annual C-USA football media day.
Rice, the defending circuit champ with a 10-4 overall mark and 41-24 thumping of fellow 10-4 Marshall in last year’s title contest, must replace QB Taylor McHargue but has some of its talent up and down the roster in years.
The Thundering Herd under popular head coach and offensive mastermind Doc Holliday is a hand-down favorite to repeat in the East while coach Dan McCarney’s North Texas Eagles are expected to challenge Rice for top spot in the West Division. UNT upended the Owls 28-16 in an eerie national telecast last Halloween night in Denton on ESPN.
The coaches of the three contenders and upstart UTSA mentor Larry Coker (who guided Miami, Fla., to the 2001 BCS title over Nebraska in Pasadena, Calif.) had plenty to say at the news gathering.
Bailiff, who helped turn around a struggling Texas State program before coming to Rice in 2007, has guided the Owls to back-to-back bowl berths and hopes to attain historic consecutive conference titles in RU’s third major conference – Southwest, Western Athletic and C-USA. He was his typical, low-key, friendly best at the preseason confab.
“We have the talent again,” he began, “and we have some great young kids incoming such as the Walter twins – Aston and Austin – from Crosby, Texas. We hope to have the luxury of redshirting some of these signees as in he past we had to play just about everybody.
“Our special teams should be strong again as we will use Bryce Callahan to return punts,” Bailiff continued. “He averaged about 38 yards a return as a senior in high school and has the speed and moves to be a big difference for us. We lost an outstanding kicker in Chris Boswell, but we have a three-year graduate and transfer James Hairston from LSU who is going to graduate school at Rice and will be a senior in eligibility. He looks good from what we have seen on tape.
“We will have to grow up a lot at defensive end as well,” he continued. “We have some physical players in Grant Peterson and Brian Nordstrom, and they just need to get in some game action.
We’ll be good at running back again and have guys like Darik Dillard, Luke Turner and Brandon Hamilton who can get the job done.
“And probably the most interesting guy on the squad is our senior safety Gabe Baker from San Antonio MacArthur (HS),”
Bailiff stated. “He’s a concert cellist, speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently and can imitate Frank Sinatra. He’ll hit you, and he truly is a unique student-athlete. That’s the best thing about being at Rice – getting to coach kids with those kind of pedigrees.”
McCarney, always ready to hit the playing field and the longtime leadoff coach on teleconferences during his days with Iowa State in the Big 12 Conference, was a little more effusive without braggadocio.
“We have the opportunity to be great again,” he said, “but we can’t get it done by sitting around and playing computer games and bragging to girl friends. It has taken some offseason work, and these guys get it. They have played in a system that has been proven, has produced winning programs and has been successful on may levels, so they know what has to be done.
“I’m proud of these players,” he added. “We started last season hoping to be able to use an 8-9-man rotation in the defensive line but had unproven people. By the 10th or 11th game, we had that going and were staying strong for all 60 minutes defensively. It takes that kind of dedication to win games.
“We really focus primarily on getting these players ready for life after college and don’t make any promises we cannot keep,” McCarney noted. “It’s the college experience. It is teaching the players life lessons, how to cook meals, how to manage finances and that less than one percent of college players ever make it to the NFL.
“We just finished our summer camps and asked 1,200 kids if they wanted to play college football,” he added. “All 1,200 raised their hands throughout the camps, and you get that same reaction when you ask college players if they want to go to the NFL. It’s 100 percent, but they know that isn’t realistic. We aren’t looking at IQs; we’re training players for life experiences.”
Holliday, who just received a two-year contract extension at Marshall after going 27-24 in his first four seasons with a 31-20 Military Bowl win over 2014 Big Ten member Maryland (then playing in he ACC), was confident but not overly exuberant as he assessed his team’s chances.
“We have a great quarterback returning in Rakeem Cato,” Holliday said, “but last year is forgotten. We hope to keep that momentum, but we know we are facing some very tough competition again.”
Of that trio, Rice has the most challenging non-conference slate with a season opener at Notre Dame Aug. 30 on NBC (Bailiff: “that’s part of my bucket list to be on the sidelines at Notre Dame Stadium”) and Texas A&M at College Station on Sept. 13. Then the Owls host Hawaii and and travel to Army outside C-USA.
New head coach Bill Clark, who guided NCAA FCS member Jacksonville State to a 11-4 record and two games into the DI playoffs in 2013, realizes the challenges left to the rest of the loop.
“Many of us have young teams,” he related, “and we came into spring practice pretty beaten up physically from the end of 2013. We got some things accomplished and have signed some junior college prospects to help us on both the offensive and defensive lines. We’re looking forward to the future.”
UAB, which lost a 37-34 heartbreaker to Rice at Birmingham’s historic Legion Field in overtime last November, has the wherewithal and returning talent to upset the apple cart at some point and plays in the largest home stadium in C-USA at 72,000 capacity.
It’s all part of a drive the be “the best of the rest” and to locate a C-USA champ among one of the six positions in the College Football Playoff semifinals and/or two open spots for one of the five FBS conferences outside the Big Five – ACC, American, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12.
Stay tuned starting Aug. 29 when Bowling Green meets Western Kentucky in the Hilltoppers’ debut s a C-USA member and UTSA dedicates Houston’s new on-campus facility.


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