Situated within the Dallas Cowboys headquarters facility known as The Star, Conference USA media day commenced Wednesday afternoon.
For day one, players and coaches from the C-USA West division took the floor in Frisco, TX to preview the upcoming season.
2018 Record: 8-5 (5-3), won Hawaii Bowl vs. Hawaii, 31-14
Skip Holtz and the Bulldogs entered the offseason by winning their fifth bowl game in five years — an accomplishment only Wisconsin shares in the FBS. In a definitive Hawaii Bowl victory, defensive end/outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson registered 2.5 sacks to become the all-time FBS sack leader. Louisiana Tech, the most consistent program in the conference, must focus on replacing its star, and reloading around talent such as quarterback J’Mar Smith and safety Amik Robertson.
“We’ve got a returning guy Milton Williams,” defensive tackle Ka’Derrion Mason said on filling Ferguson’s void in the defense. “He’s gonna have a great impact year without Jaylon. But we got guys like Willie Baker to come off the edge and rush — he had four sacks in the Hawaii game, so we have guys who can get the job done.”
Louisiana Tech opened 2018 with a narrow win at South Alabama, but 2019’s schedule begins with a greater challenge. The Bulldogs travel to Austin to battle a rising Texas program, which finished in the AP Top 10 for the first time since 2009.
“When I was at Notre Dame, we used to open the season with Michigan every year,” head coach Skip Holtz said on opening in a venue of over 100,000 fans. “I think it’s phenomenal. It revs your team’s attention for the offseason, the winter, the spring practice, the summer workouts. It raises the standard and the bar that you’re trying to play. That’s the level we want to compete. We’ve been in 1-point losses to Arkansas, 1-point losses to South Carolina, and you look at some of the close games we’ve played — that’s the measuring stick.”
Former Bulldog legend Terry Bradshaw drew headlines several weeks ago for downplaying Louisiana Tech’s Week 1 opponent, claiming Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger “ain’t that good.”
“I don’t know if I agree with him when I watch the film,” Holtz said. “When I look at the leadership, the emotion, the dual threats that he brings, and being able to run the ball and throw the ball, it’s going to be a heck of a challenge.”
As a long tenured Group of Five/Non-AQ coach, Holtz weighed in on the current structure of the College Football Playoff and its fairness to the conference in which he resides.
“My argument is it needs to be determined on the field,” Holtz said. “If you want to claim that, then you need to play Alabama and Texas and Georgia and North Carolina as your four non-conference games. If you run the table, then your argument has merit. Do I want to go undefeated? Yes. If we do, do I stand up there and shout we should have a chance? Without a doubt.”
As a champion of five-straight bowl games, Holtz is an avid fan of the current hybrid system between the College Football Playoff and the rest of the bowl games.
“I love the bowl system,” Holtz said. “The level of competition on that (Hawaii Bowl) field and the way it was played and the experience for these players for a hard-fought season, I think that is part of college football that I enjoy.”
2018 Record: 9-4 (5-3), lost New Mexico Bowl vs. Utah State, 52-13
North Texas enters 2019 with elevated expectations, pegged as the C-USA preseason champion in the media poll for the second consecutive year. The Mean Green garnered a conference-best 20 first place votes, but five other teams also received a first place vote in what appears to be a wide open C-USA race.
“There’s no doubt it’s wide open and we all have targets on our back,” head coach Seth Littrell said. “We had a target on our back this last year. We’re not sneaking up on anybody. Nobody’s gonna overlook us right now, and I take that as a compliment, but at the same time, we’re not gonna be overlooking anybody in our league.”
North Texas’ air raid attack will once more be captained by quarterback Mason Fine. Fine enters his senior year as a two-time reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year and the surefire pick for the Preseason C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. He leads all active FBS quarterbacks in career passing yards and has thrown for nearly 8,000 yards and 58 touchdowns in his last two seasons.
“The thing about Mason is everybody sees what he can do on the field but not everybody truly sees what he does off the field,” Littrell said. “He’s always back later on the weekends — he’s in the film room or the weight room trying to find some way to get one percent better. He would throw away every stat he had to win a championship for this team.”
Fine and Littrell are perfectly synonymous with North Texas’ recent run of success. The two entered Denton at the same time and have watched it blossom from the 1-11 program they inherited.
“When I first got here, I was scared of the guy,” Fine said. “I’m not gonna lie, he’s intimidating. He’s a pretty big dude, he works out, and the way he is personality wise — he’s quiet but when he says something, he has a fierceness in his voice. Over the years, we’ve grown through adversity, grown through offseason times. I look at the guy as a father figure now.”
Rumors fled in late November and early December that Littrell might leave to pursue a Power 5 gig at an opening such as Kansas State, but the 40-year old head coach signed an extension to become the highest paid coach in the C-USA.
“I love North Texas,” Littrell said, claiming the job in Denton exceeded his initial expectations. “It’s truly about the student athletes at our place and figuring out different ways we can give them resources. Whatever we can do to set them up for success is what we want to do.”
2018 Record: 2-11 (1-7)
Rice sandwiched 11 losses in between its two wins during Mike Bloomgren’s first season at the helm, and the program has infinite room for improvement. The Owls played a bevy of freshmen last year, but experience should play a major factor heading into 2019.
The Owls have a series of positional battles occurring this preseason, notably at the quarterback position. Wiley Green and Evan Marshman return after starting a combined four games last season, while Harvard grad transfer Tom Stewart joins the mix. Bloomgren hopes to go forward with one starting quarterback instead of rotating several at the beginning of the season.
“My comfort level is to have a quarterback who is the leader of the team because I think that’s the closest thing to an extension of the coaching staff,” Bloomgren said. “I like having one, but I’m not gonna rush it. It’s gonna have to be earned. Somebody’s going to have to snatch that job by the throat and hang on.”
Rice’s non-conference schedule is brutal. The Owls haven’t defeated an FBS team with a winning record since a 2014 November win over UTEP. Their season starts with four consecutive games against teams victorious in bowl games last December and January. Army and Texas were Top 20 teams, while Wake Forest and Baylor finished with strong bowl wins at 7-6.
“I look at that schedule and I smile because I think that’s exactly what our kids signed up for,” Bloomgren said. “They knew they wanted to come to Rice University to be different. They wanted to play football at the highest level and graduate with a world class degree. Just like playing LSU last year gave us so much confidence coming out of that game and allowed us to beat an Old Dominion team that beat Virginia Tech, that’s what I hope we can do. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard and worth it.”
Beating Old Dominion by two touchdowns last November and earning the first conference victory in the Bloomgren era was the perfect springboard for Rice into 2019.
“Having that win over Old Dominion gave us a little push going into the offseason,” wide receiver Austin Trammell said. “We saw what it’s like to win, how it feels to win. It’s definitely a really nice taste to have in your mouth ending that season and starting this season.”
2018 Record: 6-5 (5-3)
Southern Miss was one of seven C-USA teams to hit the 6-win mark in 2018. However, the abundance of C-USA teams attaining bowl eligibility forced one to watch from home in December. That bitter feeling extended into the offseason for the Golden Eagles, but head coach Jay Hopson is using that as motivation for himself and his team heading forward into the new year.
“It’s been a motivator this offseason because if you look at it as a basketball body of work, I’d have been that guy sitting in the lobby saying, ‘we lost to the conference champions in overtime, we lost by one, we lost by two, and we’re a touchdown away from being 9-2 and we’re maybe 16 points from being 10-1,’” Hopson said. “I think we lost a pretty close one to Auburn too so we lost a bunch of close ones down the line. Our body of work was 14 or 17 points away from being 10-1, but yet, we were 6-5, so those close games didn’t go our way.”
Despite missing a bowl last season, the Golden Eagles checked in as the second best team in the preseason media bowl in the West division. Nine offensive starters, including the entire offensive line, return to Hattiesburg. Starting quarterback Jack Abraham is one of the key components back after a wildly successful sophomore campaign. Abraham led the entire FBS in completion percentage at 73.1 and completed 22 passes per game, good for fourth in the country.
“Quarterback play is more than just throwing a pass. Jack’s a cerebral guy, he’s an intelligent football player, and he eats, drinks, and sleeps football because he wants that next-level opportunity,” Hopson said.
Hopson coached his last long-term project into an NFL job. Former Southern Miss signal caller Nick Mullens rose into a starting position with the San Francisco 49ers and threw for over 2,000 yards.
“I think there are similarities (between Mullens and Abraham),” Hopson said. “At that age, I see a lot of similarities in Jack. He’s cerebral, he throws the ball real well, and they’re both relative in size. Jack’s developing right on queue but he’s still got to continue that journey.”
To support Abraham’s growth, Hopson isn’t ready to declare him a starter yet, fueling a healthy quarterback competition between him and sophomore Tate Whatley, who threw for 451 yards and ran for 162 last season.
“Tate started three or four games for us last year, and down the stretch, we might have been at our best when both played, so we’ll let them compete,” Hopson. “That’ll make both players better.”
2018 Record: 11-3 (7-1), won Boca Raton Bowl vs. Northern Illinois, 37-13
UAB’s story reads like a movie. The Blazers program shut down following the 2014 season after just one bowl appearance in history. After a two-year hiatus, an unforeseen era of success invaded Legion Field.
The Blazers won eight games in 2017 and qualified for bowl eligbility, but the achievements were taken to another level in 2018. UAB finished 11-3, won the C-USA championship, and won its first bowl in history after defeating MAC champion Northern Illinois, 37-13, in the Boca Raton Bowl. Head coach Bill Clark, the reigning Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year, believes the instant success may be tied to the program’s shutdown.
“We were finishing up on a strong note in 2014 and we had most of that team back,” Clark said. “I don’t want to downplay what we were doing at that time because good things were happening. But when you start talking about facilities, you start talking about a new stadium — I don’t know if any (of the 2018 accolades) would have happened. As I said last year, one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me turned into one of the best.”
A lot of UAB’s resurgence was predicated on the veteran talent hauled in as transfers or junior college prospects. By the time the Blazers’ two-year absence ended and the team took the field in Birmingham, UAB’s roster was run by veterans conglomerating from other colleges.
“I told someone, if I didn’t know about junior college players before, when you get over half your team as junior college players, you learn,” Clark said. “Surrounding them with great academic help and doing all these things — we had 35 graduates last year, which was just a huge deal for us. Understanding what junior college players think, what it looks like for them, helps us. We’ve become percentage-wise more of a high school recruiting team. These relationships we’ve established with junior colleges across America is always gonna help us.”
One of those junior college transfers is former Glenville State linebacker Fitzgerald Mofor. Mofor compiled 75 tackles for the Blazers last season and arrived in Birmingham with the goal of launching a new era of football.
“Knowing that we had that one season off in order to get better and compete every day just to prove myself,” Mofor said. “That made me want to come here. Also, I wanted to be a part of something new and I just felt like this school had the opportunity to make history and I just wanted to be a part of that.”
UAB’s great turnover from 2018 prevented the Blazers from becoming a popular pick to win the conference preseason, but the Blazers return quarterback Tyler Johnston, running back Spencer Brown, and several other key pieces of the program that made history and stunned the college football world.
2018 Record: 1-11 (1-7)
No college football program has fewer wins in the past two seasons than the Miners. Since 2017 began, UTEP’s only triumph occurred in Houston last November in a 34-26 win over Rice.
“It was bittersweet,” free safety Justin Rogers said of the team’s lone 2018 win. “I definitely enjoyed the moment of winning the first game in a long time. We had fun but it ended quickly in my mind. We’re capable of doing a lot more so it was hard for me to settle for just one win.”
Head coach Dana Dimel, a former assistant at Kansas State, entered El Paso with a lot of rebuilding work on his hands. After a year of experimenting with new offenses and young talent, year two will be a good measuring stick for UTEP’s progress. Losing 23 games in two seasons is only building excitement for the current players to get back on the field and prove they can right the ship.
“I can’t wait to put the pads on really,” center Derron Gatewood said, after missing all of 2018 due to injury. “Sitting out and having to watch on the sideline, I’m excited to get back out there. My main thing (last year) was trying to coach the younger guys. So I was walking them through it, breaking down film for them, helping them scout the defense, and making sure they knew what was going on before walking into the game.”
Gatewood is one of three remaining UTEP players from the 2014 roster, UTEP’s last winning season and bowl appearance. When leading the team, he utilizes that experience to motivate the younger roster and remind them what this team is capable of achieving.
“That bowl game year was an exciting year,” Gatewood said. “I tell the team all the time, ‘we can get to a bowl game this year.’ We have the squad, the way this summer’s been going, we have the team to get there. With the leadership and the skills we actually have, I would say, we have a better team than that 2014 team.”
UTEP hopes to become a shell of the program it was the last two years. Outside of attaining bowl eligibility and contending in a wide open C-USA, the players also have their minds focused on usurping their bitter rival New Mexico State this fall.
2018 Record: 3-9 (2-6)
After qualifying for bowl eligibility in consecutive seasons, UTSA slipped back to a 3-9 record in 2018. The Roadrunners responded to an 0-3 record by winning three-straight before dropping each of the final six games on the schedule. A disappointment by all means, the Roadrunners hope to erase the previous year’s result and elevate the young program back to the postseason.
“I’m excited to get back on the field after the turnout we had last year,” free safety Carl Austin III said. “That really wasn’t UTSA football that we showed last year and we’re anxious to get back on the field to show San Antonio and the rest of the world what UTSA football is all about.”
UTSA lost a major contributor on defense last season as Austin missed all of 2018 with a knee injury, but he still went to practices, film sessions, and camps to establish himself as one of the team’s upperclassmen leaders. Austin considered playing in the final four games of the season, but his injury hadn’t 100% healed, so he redirected that energy into starting strong in 2019.
“Getting back out there this year, I really assume that leadership position,” Austin said. “I want this year to be the best year we’ve had yet, so I’m just doing everything I can to get to that goal.”
The Roadrunners were picked fifth in the division, but there is a belief in the roster that UTSA can be dangerous this upcoming year, with visible improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
“Our d-line will be our strong suit of our defense and our DBs our good too. If our d-line gets to that quarterback, our job is easier. If the quarterback gets pressure on him, he’s gonna throw an errant pass and we’re gonna pick it off, so we really want our d-line to be the best in the conference and I think we do have that.”