While it feels as if bowl season just ended last week, we’re less than a month away from spring practices beginning for the majority of Conference USA teams.
Last season saw eight C-USA teams qualify for bowls and with the graduation of standout players across the league, expect 2020 to wide open across both divisions.
Let’s take a look at a few notable storylines across the conference heading into spring.
The start of spring practice will be especially crucial for almost half of league’s teams, as at least six teams will begin the 2020 season with a different starting quarterback than the season prior.
Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, UTEP, FIU, and Western Kentucky graduated signal-callers who were the primary starter in 2019. Old Dominion, UTSA, and UAB face potential quarterback competitions throughout the offseason and into fall camp.
Here’s each team listed above and quarterbacks to keep an eye on during the spring.
La Tech: Aaron Allen (R-Soph), Westin Elliott (R-Sr)
North Texas: Jason Bean (R-Soph), Austin Aune (R-Soph)
Rice: Wiley Green (R-Soph), Mike Collins (Grad Transfer), T.J. McMahon (JUCO Transfer)
UTEP: TJ Goodwin (R-Fr), Gavin Hardison (R-Soph)
FIU: Kaylan Wiggins (R-Jr), Stone Norton (R-Fr), Caleb Lynum (R-Soph)
WKU: Steven Duncan (R-Sr), Kevaris Thomas (R-Soph), Davis Shanley (R-Jr)
ODU: Hayden Wolff (R-Fr), Stone Smartt (Sr), Messiah deWeaver (Sr), Steven Williams (WR/QB, R-Jr)
UTSA: Frank Harris (Jr.), Lowell Narcisse (Jr.), Jordan Weeks (R-Soph)
UAB: Tyler Johnston III (R-Jr), Dylan Hopkins (R-Soph)
New Head Coaches
The upcoming season marks the arrival of two new head coaches to Conference USA teams.
Former Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne takes over as the second head coach in Old Dominion’s history following Bobby Wilder’s resignation after 11 seasons at the helm in Norfolk.
The 39-year-old Rahne will be tasked with rejuvenating a program that won 10 games in 2016 but has amassed just 10 wins total in the previous three seasons. The aforementioned quarterbacks on the roster should be the first item on the agenda.
Redshirt freshmen Hayden Wolff engineered the most successful games for the Monarchs passing attack and should be front-runner entering the spring.
UTSA Athletic Director Lisa Campos decided to relive Frank Wilson of his duties after a disappointing 19-29 record in four seasons. She hired former Arkansas running back coach Jeff Traylor as the third head coach in Roadrunner history.
Traylor has an extensive history in Texas as he played at Stephen F. Austin, spent 26 seasons coaching high school football in the state and had stints as an assistant at SMU and Texas.
Old Face - New Place
Notice that the topic above listed two new head coaches - the third coaching change brings a familiar face back to a Conference USA program.
Willie Taggart replaces Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic after Kiffin left for Ole Miss.
While 2020 will mark Taggart’s first season as a part of Conference USA, he’s no stranger to the league’s teams.
He spent three seasons as Western Kentucky’s head coach (2010-2012) when the Hilltoppers were part of the Sun Belt Conference.
Four current C-USA programs (FIU, FAU, North Texas, Middle Tennessee) were also part of the Sun Belt, giving him a level of familiarity with the C-USA landscape.
The biggest storyline surrounding his arrival at FAU - can he keep the train - or should we say wagon heading in the right direction.
Kiffin won two conference titles in his three seasons at the helm of the Owls and Taggart inherits a team that has more than enough returning talent to win back-to-back conference championships.
Will Healy’s 49ers have already begun spring practice and the major task at hand for the second-year head coach will be replacing the star power lost to graduation.
Running back Benny Lemay, left tackle Cameron Clark and defensive end/linebacker Alex Highsmith are gone and should all be selections in the upcoming NFL Draft.
While it remains to be seen who will replace the spots left behind by Clark and Highsmith, keep an eye on former Northern Illinois standout running back Tre Harbison, who’s now a 49er.
Harbison grew up roughly an hour from Jerry Richardson Stadium and brings impressive credentials with him in his homecoming to Charlotte. The grad transfer ran for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019 as an NIU Husky.
Jay Hopson has had a largely successful tenure in Hattiesburg.
In each season that the Golden Eagles have been eligible for a bowl, they’ve qualified for one, with the only exception being the 2018 season in which they played only 11 games.
However, there has to be a feeling among Southern Miss fans as to when will the program turn the proverbial corner.
Last season, the team got out to a 7-3 start, with quarterback Jack Abraham looking like a potential conference MVP candidate.
Decisive losses to two of the league’s best teams in FAU and WKU sent the Golden Eagles to a 7-5 record, followed by a 30-13 beatdown in the Armed Forces Bowl against Tulane.
Now, Abraham returns for his third season as the starter, but he’ll be playing for his third offensive coordinator with Buster Faulkner leaving for Georgia and Matt Kubik coming over from Lousiana-Monroe.
It’s been tough sledding for Miners’ fans over the past two seasons. Consecutive one-win campaigns have made it tough to watch football in El Paso.
2019’s lone win was a nail-biting two-point victory over an FCS program in Houston Baptist that went on to have a losing record.
Undeniably, 2020 is a pivotal season for UTEP as Dana Dimel tries to rebuild a program that won just 18 games in the five seasons before his arrival and now a total of 20 in the previous seven.
Aside from the aforementioned quarterback spot, a major piece to the rebuilding puzzle will be at the running back position.
A pair of El Paso natives in redshirt freshman Deion Hankins and senior Joshua Fields are talented backs and they’ll be joined by the return of Quardraiz Wadley, who missed all of last season to injury.
The Thundering Herd aren’t listed among the teams above in regards to having a quarterback competition. However, there’s no denying that they have to receive more consistent play out of their incumbent starter in Isaiah Green.
The immensely talented redshirt junior has the potential to be one of the top quarterbacks in C-USA, but there’s no denying that his play held Marshall back from an East division crown in 2019.
In Marshall’s two conference losses to MTSU and Charlotte, Green had a combined 52.6% completion percentage with one touchdown and five interceptions.
It’s worth watching how Green fares during spring practices - should Doc Holliday be less than impressed, it could open up the possibility of another quarterback under center.