C-USA Newcomers May Have Football Say-So

by BoCarter | Posted on Tuesday, July 26th, 2016
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Special – Conference USA Football Media Days – July 26, 2016
By Bo Carter
‘New Kids’ on the Conference USA Block May Have Major Say-So in 2016 Race
IRVING, Texas – They are the literal “new kids” on the Conference USA football block, and they seek to have another major impact on possibly one of the tightest league races in NCAA Football Bowl Championship Subdivision in 2016.
Yep, the folks at defending champion WKU, Charlotte and Old Dominion have claimed new territory as members in 2014 (WKU), Charlotte (2015) and ODU (2014), but these circuit youngsters definitely will have their say in the 2016 league race.
In fact, the balance is such in C-USA that defending champion WKU has been picked second in the East Division behind a loaded Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (7-6 overall, 6-2 as runnerup to the Hilltopers in ’15 in that division). Charlotte and ODU hope to reach those goals this autumn or as soon as possible with newly-minted programs. UNCC renewed its program in 2013 while ODU brought back intercollegiate football in 2009. The latter two schools had informal programs in the 1930s and ‘40s playing mostly local small colleges and armed service bases.
“All the teams in the conference throw the ball a lot and have up-tempo offenses,” said Charlotte’s fourth-year head coach Brad Lambert (2-10, 0-8 in C-USA in ’15). “There are a lot of good quarterbacks, and there is good balance up and down the standings.
“We know we have a challenge,” he added, “but the community, student body, alumni base, faculty, and staff have been very supportive. People such as (NFL Carolina Panthers owner and namesake for Jerry Richardson Stadium in Charlotte) Mr. Jerry Richardson have helped us elevate our program, and the Panthers have been great to us. In fact, (NFL All-Pro tight end) Greg Olsen’s brother Kevin Olsen is a quarterback for us, so we see Greg and his parents all the time – Cam Newton, not quite as much…”
While Lambert was joking about the busy Newton, 2010 Heisman Trophy, Auburn great and Panthers Super Bowl L QB, he is serious about the impact of intercollegiate football on campus.
“The people in the Charlotte area have been supportive both financially and in attendance,” Lambert explained. “We just have to continue to get better and be able to win against some good competition in C-USA.”
The 49ers coach built a two-year base as an independent with identical 5-6 records in 2013 and now just has to get his student-athletes into a can-win mindset. Standouts such as RB Kalif Phillips (961 yards rushing to finish sixth in league individual rushing last season) give hope in the rebuilding and moving up the C-USA ladder.
ODU, on the other hand, will be starting its eighth season under head coach Bobby Wilder and already has made a pair of NCAA FCS playoff appearances in 2011 and ’12. Wilder’s 57-27 mark since 2008 and FBS bowl eligibility at 6-6 overall and 4-4 in C-USA in 2014 display how far he has taken the rejuvenated program in less than 10 years.
“We have been very pleased with our move to Conference USA,” Wilder said. “If we weren’t here today, we would be a CAA media days and trying to compete for the FCS playoffs. This has been a great move, and I know there are rumors out there, but we are glad to be in C-USA and looking to play for the title.
“This is a physically tough conference,” he added, “and we need make up some ground. It may take us some time into September for our younger players to adjust at some positions, but we have some good people at the skill positions. I think this team is going to play with a lot of courage.”
Wilder looks to the likes of preseason All-C-USA wideout Zach Pascal (69 catches for 975 yards and eight TD in ’15) and All-C-USA LB TJ Ricks (circuit’s leading tackler with 123 last year) to bring the team back to postseason eligibility after a 5-7 (3-5 C-USA) closure in 2015.
WKU, the only team to finish the regular-season conference slate at 8-0 last year and 12-2 with a 45-35 victory over USF in the Miami Beach Bowl, certainly is not resting on its laurels and has gained incentive from the 2016 No. 2 prediction in the East Division.
“We came to media days wearing our 2015 Conference USA championship rings for the last time,” said All-C-USA senior safety Marcus Ward of the Hilltoppers. “We will put them into storage and get ready for 2016, and we know we will have a target on our backs with every team we play.”
The senior from football-rich Birmingham, Ala., and Vestavia Hills HS also thinks the Toppers rugged non-conference schedule has been a great help for the 20 team total victories over the last two years and back-to-back bowl triumphs – a first in Western football annals.
“When you play Southeastern Conference teams on the road like Vanderbilt (a 14-12 Hilltoppers season-opening triumph in ’15), Kentucky, LSU, Alabama, and Tennessee and go to places like Indiana in the Big Ten,” he related, “it gets you prepared to face almost anyone. The biggest thing we noticed after going from the Sun Belt Conference to C-USA was the level of competition. Every team in this conference is tough.”
Ward also took special delight in the 45-28 win over Southern Miss (9-5, 7-1 and West Division winner) in last season’s C-USA title game at Bowling Green, Ky.
“It was simply great,” he noted. “We felt like the win was tremendous for WKU football but also for the student body and the city of Bowling Green. Western Kentucky always has been considered more of a basketball power, and we turned the page for the football program.”
Ward’s deep Alabama football roots and love of the gridiron also give him reason for 2016 optimism.
“We play that good non-conference schedule again (Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Miami, Ohio; Vanderbilt in Bowling Green for the first time in history, and Houston Baptist),” Ward mentioned, “and we just will have to keep playing better. I will remember that win (35-26) at Kentucky my freshman year in 2013, and that seemed to turn around our whole program. We don’t pay all that much attention to the preseason rankings, and we know we will have to work hard to make up for the loss of so many good seniors.”
Joining Ward in seeking that sometimes elusive C-USA championship defense for WKU are the likes of pre-2016 All-C-USA RB Anthony Wales (185 carries, 1,091 rushing yards, 7.0 yards per attempt, nine TD), OL Forrest Lamp, and preseason all-loop WR Taywan Taylor (86 catches for 1,467 yards, 17.1 average, 17 TDs to lead the circuit in each category. The Toppers also have a possible four-way tussle for the starting QB job to replace C-USA Offensive Player of the Year and 2015-16 Male Athlete of the Year Brandon Doughty (388-of-540 passing for 5,055 yards, 48 TD, and only nine interceptions).
And by the way, don’t overlook Marshall (10-3, 6-2, 16-10 winner over Connecticut in the St. Petersburg Bowl, 23 victories since 2015) and Louisiana Tech (9-4, 6-2) among contenders for the league crown and probable bowl berths.
“We had a good year last season,” noted Marshall head coach Doc Holliday, “but it could have been better. We could have won the conference championship. Still, we have a lot of tradition – the winningest program in college football in the 1990s, those NCAA I-AA championships, great fan base and support – and now a new $42 million locker room. We really expect to do some great things this year.”
“We’re approaching the season one game at a time,” noted Herd senior DL Gary Thompson. “The expectations are there, and we just need to get better every day as a team to reach the championship.”
“We start the season on Sept. 10 and play 12 straight weeks,” stated Marshall OL Mike Selby. “That’s a challenge, and we also play Louisville at home. We have a new strength coach, and it seems like everyone is moving better in the offseason. This should help us get through two-a-days and make it through that tough schedule.”
So all these relative C-USA newcomers already have been making headlines, but also beware of programs at FIU, Florida Atlantic, North Texas under new head coach Seth Littrell (who played fullback on Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship squad), Rice. UTEP, and UTSA.
The way that this conference stacks up (seven different football titlists in the last seven seasons), there will be no breathers on the schedule, and the “newbies” have proven they are up to the task of high-scoring, freewheeling Conference USA football all the way until the 2003 circuit championship contest (12th annual) on Dec. 3 at the home stadium of the school with the highest league winning percentage.
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