There are a few programs who look like they may be on the rise
When Brad Lambert was dismissed following a 2018 season that saw Charlotte go 5-7, the glaring question was who would be given the keys to the young 49er program.
The answer would be 34-year-old former Austin Peay coach Will Healy. When I spoke to him at C-USA media days, the message that stood out the most was this; “Our goal is to make Charlotte cool. We’re not there yet, Charlotte isn’t cool in the minds of recruits and players yet, but we’re going to get there.”
The Niners 49-28 victory of FCS Gardner-Webb was a great start to his efforts on the field and his quest to make Charlotte cool off of it.
Winning comes first, but Healy is clearly making the effort to do things differently than his predecessor in Lambert.
Another dilemma that appears to have decided itself is Charlotte’s quarterback competition.
The 5-10, 195-pound redshirt sophomore from suburban Charlotte went 14-20 for 136 yards and one touchdown pass while adding another 72 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Reynolds started for a portion of last season before suffering a season-ending injury and appears to be fully healthy. He split reps with South Florida transfer Brett Kean, who went 4-8, for 50 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
UTSA had a forgettable 2018 season. They struggled to a 3-9 record while having one of the most anemic offenses in all of FBS football.
Heading into this season, there was a level of uncertainty as to what to expect from the Roadrunners, as they graduated various players at key positions.
While it’s just one game, their 35-7 win over FCS Incarnate Word was arguably the best that the Roadrunner offense has looked since the 2017 season.
Quarterback Frank Harris, who suffered torn ACL in spring practice last year, got the start and showed flashes of the ability that had Wilson excited about him heading into last season.
Harris threw for over 200 yards and three touchdowns, in addition to carrying the rock 15 times for 123 yards.
QB play for UTSA was an issue all season long in 2018. The revolving door of D.J. Gillins, Cordale Grundy, and Bryce Rivers combined for eight touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
If Wilson has his QB in Harris, young pieces like Brenden Brady, Sincere McCormick, and Tyke Ogle-Kellogg are in place to give fans in San Antonio hope for the future.
When Mike Bloomgren arrived at Rice prior to last season, he took a step in the opposite direction of most Conference USA teams.
Coming from the Stanford coaching tree, Bloomgren decided to install a more “traditional” offense, with the Owls using a fullback and multiple tight ends.
While that didn’t result in immediate wins, what’s been clear is that his team will play hard for four quarters and are heading in the right direction.
Rice pushed an Army team that’s expected to potentially contend for a top-25 ranking and in the process showed that the Owls aren’t anyone’s pushover.
Defensively, players such as linebackers Antonio Montero and Blaze Alldredge, along with safeties Prudy Calderon and George Nyakwol will keep Rice in games and should give pause to C-USA teams thinking that a trip to Houston is a guaranteed W.
FIU still hasn’t fixed its most glaring issue from 2018
The FIU Panthers are a trendy pick by some to win Conference USA’s East division.
Rightfully so, after they came off a 2018 that saw them one win away from making the title game while returning 17 starters.
Their biggest issue last season was defending the run.
Butch Davis’ team ranked 13th out of 14 C-USA teams in rushing yards per game allowed, with their 49-14 loss to rival FAU being the most evident of the deficiency.
That game saw the Panthers allow over 450 yards on the ground. Entering this season, Panthers’ coaches and players alike preached the need to work on fundamentals and technique when defending the run.
Whatever the issue may be, Thursday night’s 42-14 embarrassment against Tulane showed that the run defense hasn’t been fixed.
The Green Wave ran for 350 yards in their victory over FIU, with quarterback Justin McMillan and running back Darius Bradwell scoring on plays that saw them go untouched into the endzone.
"We didn't play well in all phases of the game and that starts with me," said Davis postgame at Tulane.
FIU on talent alone will win seven or eight games this season.
However, if they have any chance at living up to their preseason potential, their ability to defend against the run has to improve ASAP.
With talented backs like Benny Lemay, Jaqwis Dancy, and Marshall’s duo of Tyler King and Brenden Knox on the schedule, their route to a division title doesn’t get any easier.
It could be a long year for a handful of programs....again
While some programs are trending upwards, others are still trying to find their footing and move their programs in the right direction.
Tyson Helton knew when he took over Western Kentucky for Mike Sanford that he would need to help rebuild the confidence of his players and fans alike.
Unfortunately for the Hilltoppers, their opening weekend loss to Central Arkansas brings back nightmares from last season’s debacle.
The Tops’ 35-28 loss to FCS Central Arkansas resembles their loss to another FCS team in Maine last season.
WKU gave up 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to lose their season-opener, similarly to the 21-point lead that they blew against Maine to lose 31-28 in 2018.
A win is a win and is certainly better than the alternative.
However, for UTEP and Old Dominion, they barely squeaked by FCS opponents in Houston Baptist and Norfolk State, respectively.
Houston Baptist has a mark of 10-45 in five seasons of existence, while Norfolk State is coming off of four straight 4-7 seasons.
To be honest, it’s hard to tell who has the hardest road ahead of them between the two programs.
Bobby Wilder’s ODU team lost NFL talent in receivers Jon Duhart and Travis Fulgham along with defensive end Oshane Ximines. It’s still mystifying how a team with said talent won only four games last season.
Dana Dimel and UTEP are coming off of a one-win season and face uncertainty at the quarterback position along with the loss of arguably their best offensive player in running back Quardraiz Wadley, who suffered a season-ending injury in Fall camp.
Wilder is now two seasons removed from a 10-win campaign, while Dimel is dealing with a program who has to learn how to win, as the Miners haven’t been to a bowl game since the 2014 season.