The start of the college football season is here. Conference media days are in full swing which means fall camp is literally just a few weeks away.
Conference USA has seen its profile rise this offseason and as a result, this is the most hyped media day for this conference in some time (ever?). Here are some story lines that’ll be brought up for each program in C-USA during the two-day affair.
Charlotte: No longer the conference doormat?
After being considered one of the worst FBS teams in the country in 2015 with a 2-10 record and going winless in conference play, Brad Lambert engineered a surprising 4-8 record in 2016 that featured road wins over Marshall and Southern Miss. Lambert has his quarterback in Hassan Klugh but the 49ers will be a very young team this season. With the depth of the conference starting to get better, Charlotte will need an encore season to prove they are no longer the cellar dweller in C-USA East.
FAU: How fast will Lane Kiffin start winning in Boca?
Lane Kiffin will be the biggest story line at the event. Given the hype surrounding his departure from Alabama and the headlines he’s already garnered at FAU a ton of eyeballs will be on the Owls this season. But will it be because of winning or Kiffin’s antics and celebrity? The talent is there for Kiffin and co. to win fast but given the amount of JUCO transfers FAU may rely on this year it might take time for the team to gel. If the Owls start slow under Kiffin the question will immediately change from “how fast Kiffin will win” to “if he can win” as the head coach.
FIU: Butch is back in Miami
Lane Kiffin has garnered a majority of the headlines but Butch Davis joining FIU is pretty huge in its own right. Butch Davis is a South Florida legend due to his time as the head coach at Miami and will look to bring that same type of energy across town. The Panthers desperately needed to make a splash after the sleepy Ron Turner era and bringing someone with Butch’s reputation was the way to go as there hasn’t been this much excitement surrounding the program since T.Y. Hilton was celebrating touchdowns. FIU has one of the most experienced teams in the country entering the 2017 season so a quick turnaround isn’t out of the question in Davis’ first year.
Louisiana Tech: Time for a breakthrough season
Skip Holtz has gone 31-22 in four years at La Tech. He’s captured two C-USA West division titles, won three straight bowl games with three straight nine-win seasons, and even has a P5 win on his resume (Illinois 2014). These are the bars we use to measure Group of Five programs. The only thing missing on Holtz’s resume during his time in Ruston is a conference championship. La Tech has played second fiddle to WKU and Marshall during this renaissance era of La Tech football and it’s now time for the Bulldogs to be the ones hoisting the C-USA Championship trophy at season’s end. J’Mar Smith looks to be the real deal and with one of the best defensive players in the G5 in Jaylon Ferguson, Skip Holtz has another team capable of making a run for the conference crown.
Marshall: Will the Herd rebound or is this the end for Doc Holliday?
After three straight 10-win seasons the Herd suffered a huge collapse last year going 3-9. During the offseason Holliday has had to endure hot seat talk from the governor of West Virginia and a fan base that is beginning to lose faith in him. Marshall still has one of the more talented rosters in the league thanks to owning the best recruiting classes in C-USA over the past four years and Miami transfers Tyre Brady and Juwon Young should make a huge impact this season. Chase Litton should be solid as long as the offensive line is better. But what will be an acceptable record for this prideful fan base? With C-USA getting tougher and the coaching talent rising Marshall may end Holliday’s tenure if Marshall suffers another forgettable season.
Middle Tennessee: Scott Shafer is the new defensive coordinator
New defensive coordinator Scott Shafer inherits what has routinely been a unit that has underachieved during Rick Stockstill’s time at MTSU. This will be another explosive MTSU team under Stockstill as Richie James, Ty Lee, and Brent Stockstill should put up gaudy numbers. But there are a ton of question marks on defense starting with their defensive line. MTSU was picked to win C-USA East last year only to see WKU surpass them again to win the division and conference and that was due to poor defensive play (and injuries too). Shafer had some pretty good defenses when he was the head coach at Syracuse. If Shafer can turn around the defense, the Blue Raiders may end up as the bride rather than the bridesmaid at season’s end.
North Texas: Seth Littrell’s rebuild continues
Year one in the Seth Littrell era was seen as a resounding success despite the 5-8 record. The talent is rising in Denton but after a mass exodus of coaches leaving for greener pastures we’ll see if UNT can continue their rise or if they’ll suffer a setback. The air raid offense should be much improved now that Mason Fine has had a full year to digest the playbook and Jeffery Wilson should be the bell-cow at tailback. If the defense can stop the run UNT should fight for bowl eligibility again.
Old Dominion: Finding a quarterback
The Monarchs return a ton of key pieces from last year’s 10-win team but will need a new quarterback to emerge due to David Washington’s graduation. Blake LaRussa was the front runner at the conclusion of spring practice but that was without the presence of JUCO transfer Jordan Hoy. Whoever wins the job will need to defeat more than one winning team if ODU is to surpass last year’s goals and advance to the C-USA Championship Game. Last year we saw Bobby Wilder get upset at the media for picking ODU sixth so that’ll be something fun to watch for too.
Rice: Can David Bailiff engineer another turnaround?
David Bailiff is the longest tenured head coach in C-USA as this will be his 11th season. He’s turned around Rice twice, right when it looked like he might be done in Houston. After going 8-16 the last two years Bailiff is back on the familiar hot seat. But things look bleak for Bailiff as the Owls have one of the toughest schedules in college football.
Southern Miss: Finding a quarterback part 2
Nick Mullens had been the face of the Southern Miss program over the last few years and his departure leaves a huge void at the position. We got a glimpse of what the future might look like in Keon Howard and he did not look ready in his lone start. Jay Hopson featured dual-threat quarterbacks at Alcorn State so we’ll see if Howard or Kwadra Griggs can continue Southern Miss’ stellar offensive play. I’m really interested in USM this year. After being thrusted into the head coaching position due to Todd Monken’s late departure, Jay Hopson had a 7-6 debut that featured mixed results. Now that he’s had a full year to get situated, Hopson signed one of the best recruiting classes in C-USA and has a lot of exciting pieces returning in 2017.
UAB: The Return
Bill Clark taking the podium as the head coach of UAB is something very few people thought would take place again when Ray Watts shut down the program. Many believed UAB football would forever be a thing of the past and that Bill Clark would leave to take another position. Happy to see that those people are wrong. Bill Clark fielding questions about the makeup of this roster as well as the support from the Birmingham community on media day will mean we’re one step closer to UAB taking the field again.
UTEP: Life without Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones was one of the best kept secrets in college football over the last few years as he would weekly run through C-USA defenses. Jones is now taking handoffs as a Green Bay Packer. UTEP had one of the worst offenses despite Jones’ magnificent play over the past few years. So where does UTEP go from here? Ryan Metz looked to turn the corner in the second half of last season and the offense will rest on his shoulders. Depending on who you talk to, Sean Kugler’s tenure in El Paso might rest on Metz’s shoulders too.
UTSA: Second-year surge on the table
Frank Wilson’s first year in San Antonio was a success as the Roadrunners earned their first ever bowl bid. Expectations for UTSA has risen as a result. Recruiting has seen an uptick under Wilson, key players from last year’s team return and the conference schedule looks favorable. Many are calling for the Roadrunners to take a leap in their second year under Wilson. We’ll see how this group looks with no one sleeping on them.
WKU: Can Mike Sanford Jr. keep the Tops rolling
Western Kentucky has been the standard of excellence in C-USA over the past two years. However, there is a new man in charge in Mike Sanford Jr. The talent is still there for the Tops to remain on top but with a new coaching staff in place we’ll see if WKU’s dominance has left with Brohm. We’ll also get our first look at Sanford too.