The final week of the C-USA season gave us two familiar faces (and teams) as division champs, the first coaching change of the 2019 season and multiple players wrapped up successful careers at the conference.
Let’s take a look at my three things we learned from the final week of the regular season in Conference USA.
Great Coaching Wins In The End
When the preseason media poll was released in mid-July, Florida Atlantic and UAB were picked to finish third and fourth respectively in their divisions.
Despite having won the West division crown and a league title in 2018, Bill Clark’s Blazers lost over 40 seniors to graduation. As a result, the expectation was that 2019 would serve as a rebuilding year in Birmingham.
However, as most great programs do, UAB didn’t rebuild, they reloaded.
Jumping out to a 6-1 start, Clark’s team never looked back. Yes, the schedule did work in their favor, with seven of UAB’s nine wins being against teams who finished the season with an under .500 record.
But Conference USA shows us yearly that nothing is a certainty and Clark deserves credit for bringing the program to their second consecutive C-USA title game.
In the East division, the preseason hype surrounded two programs - Marshall and FIU.
The Herd was coming off an eight-win season, while the Panthers lost their chance at a division crown on the final day of the 2018 season and returned 15 starters from a nine-win team.
The Owls were in a different position, having to replace two running backs lost to the NFL, (Devin Singletary, Kerrith Whyte Jr.) the program’s all-time leading tackler in Azeez Al-Shaair and quarterback Chris Robison missed most of the offseason due to an off-field issue.
Lane Kiffin’s team rebounded from an 0-2 start to win 9 out of the final 10 games and has looked like the most talented team in C-USA in the process.
Robison is an Offensive Player of the Year candidate, FAU has multiple running backs at their disposal, Harrison Bryant could be the top tight end in college football and the several new playmakers have emerged on defense under first-year defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer.
Then, there’s Kiffin himself, who’s led FAU to two conference title game appearances in three seasons.
Inescapably, FAU’s success has brought rumors of Kiffin being linked to several Power Five openings. Whether or not those come to fruition is irrelevant.
The coaching job that he’s done in 2019 is impressive and he’s one win away from giving the Owls a second C-USA championship.
Lisa Campos Makes Her Decision - Frank Wilson’s Tenure is Over in San Antonio
In November of 2017, UTSA hired Lisa Campos as its athletic director, replacing the outgoing Lynn Hickey, who unexpectedly stepped down two days prior to that year’s football season.
Campos hit the ground running, spearheading the initiative to improve sports medicine at the university, as well as leading the efforts to fund a $44 million on-campus facility that will be known as the Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence, or RACE.
In the midst of those developments was UTSA’s head coach in Frank Wilson, who was hired by Hickey, 23 months prior to Campos’ arrival.
On the date of Campos' hiring (November 17th, 2017), Wilson’s record as head coach was 11-11, with the team coming off a bowl berth the year prior and at a 5-4 record through nine games of the 2017 season.
In the two seasons since, Wilson has gone 7-17, with the Roadrunners’ offense being among the lowest-scoring in C-USA.
The struggles have been noticeable not only on the field but in the stands as well.
While UTSA’s average attendance over the previous two seasons has been around the 24,000 mark, actual bodies in seats may have been half that mark.
It’s certainly debatable whether Wilson deserved another season, as losing starting quarterback Frank Harris for the majority of two straight seasons hurt the team. However, all of the above gave Campos more than enough ammunition to make the choice to relieve Wilson of his duties on Sunday.
Now, the ball is squarely in Campos' court, as she gets to bring in her own hire to help get the Roadrunners back on track in C-USA.
Look Out For Alex Highsmith and Harrison Bryant
Two of the more soft-spoken and quiet players in Conference USA have allowed their play on the field to speak volumes for them this season.
Charlotte DE/LB Alex Highsmith and Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant could be the first two C-USA players selected in the upcoming NFL draft.
Both had performances on Saturday (and throughout the season) that cemented themselves as not only standouts in the league but among the best in the nation.
Highsmith, a former walk-on at Charlotte entered this season looking to prove that he could not only be a force on the defensive line, but he could make his way to opposing quarterbacks.
In 2018, he had a breakout year, recording 60 tackles with 18.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
When I spoke to him at C-USA Media Days in July, he credited former Charlotte defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer with his success.
“He’s such a guru with his defensive schemes. He’s the biggest reason we were such a great defense last season. He’s had a huge impact on my life and I’ll always be grateful for him. Now, I’m ready to go out and show Coach Healy that I can be the same for him and the coaching staff here,” said Highsmith.
His 4.5 sacks in Saturday’s win over Old Dominion gave him a league-leading 14, tying him for second in FBS football behind Ohio State’s Chase Young who had 16.5
Bryant could have entered the NFL Draft after last season and most likely would have been a mid-round selection.
However, the Gray, Georgia native chose to return for his senior season and in the process may have established himself as the best tight end in this year’s draft class.
Bryant finished the year third in C-USA with 965 receiving yards on 61 catches and six touchdowns. Those numbers are good enough to make him the top receiving tight end in FBS football.
I also had the chance to speak with him at Media Days, where he spoke about wanting to pick up where his decorated former teammates left off.
“My goal right now is to rebound. People always talk about going undefeated, but our goal is to win the conference championship, go to a bowl game and as a leader on this team, I take that seriously,” said Bryant.