In addition to penning this weekly column, yours truly serves as SBN/UDD’s FIU beat reporter. Hopefully, that’s enough said to explain the delay in this week’s piece.
With that out of the way, it was an eventful weekend of play in Conference USA as all 14 teams saw action on Saturday. UAB’s road victory over Marshall sets the stage for a showdown at the Alamodome that will decide the West division race, while Florida Atlantic and Charlotte were upset in their contests, paving the way for a hot-streaking Western Kentucky club to lead the East. Rick Stockstill’s Middle Tennessee club pull within one game of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018, trouncing FIU by 40 points. Following the game, Panthers’ HC Butch Davis confirmed reports that he would not be back following the conclusion of the 2021 season, in addition to giving his feelings on FIU not investing enough finances into football.
Let’s take a look at Three Things from the C-USA weekend.
Florida Atlantic’s two-game season
Following the departure of former head coach Lane Kiffin to Ole Miss, the feeling amongst most outsiders was that the program hit a proverbial home run when hired former Oregon and Florida State head coach Willie Taggart to succeed Kiffin.
Once viewed as a rising star in the coaching ranks following his rebuilds of Western Kentucky and South Florida, Taggart went 7-5 in his lone season with the Ducks, followed a 9-12 tenure at Florida State before being dismissed. The opportunity in Boca represented a fresh start for Taggart, as the aftermath in Tallahassee would show that while the win-loss record wasn’t stellar, there were certainly a litany of issues that the program is still trying to correct to this day.
Now, almost through two seasons with the Owls, Taggart is still trying to lay the framework for a program built in his visions.
However, a 10-9 mark isn’t what FAU fans envisioned, coming off the success of Kiffin, who led FAU to two conference titles in four seasons. Of most concern has to be the repeatedly sluggish starts to games, even in several of their five victories this season. This was evident in the team’s 30-16 loss to Old Dominion, as Taggart’s club managed just a field goal through two quarters — the fifth time that FAU has scored 10 points or less at the half.
With two games left, it’s crucial that Taggart’s club pick up its sixth win and qualify for a bowl. While 6-6 or 7-5 may be an overall disappointment, finishing with a losing record and missing out on postseason play after entering 2021 with high expectations would put a spotlight on Taggart entering ‘22.
North Texas....plays defense?
For the better part of the past three seasons, UNT head coach Seth Littrell has been trying to solve the Mean Green’s defensive struggles that have seen the team allow an average of over 35 points per game over that span. 2021 saw the insertion of former Arizona State and Baylor DC,
Phil Bennett — becoming the third person to hold the role in as many seasons for UNT.
While the Mean Green’s six-game losing streak saw the unit allow 35 points in five of the six defeats, they appear as if they may be on the verge of turning a corner down the stretch of the season. Littrell’s club has won three straight games, putting them at 4-6 entering this Saturday’s matchup with FIU — in large part due to the defense.
In last Saturday’s 20-17 upset of UTEP, the unit held a Miner offense that had been averaging over 26 points per game to their second-lowest point total of the year. This is especially telling, given UTEP’s dangerous wideout duo of Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett. Keep an eye on a core group of defensive players like KD Davis, Larry Nixon III and Deshawn Gaddie, Littrell could be dependant upon a strong defense to help put his team back in bowl contention next season.
Young Blood at the Running Spot
Over the past four seasons, Conference USA has seen several running backs follow up successful collegiate careers with invites to NFL camps or end up on rosters. Former C-USA standouts such as Benny Lemay, Spencer Brown, Brendan Knox, Devin Singletary, Napoleon Maxwell are a few who come to mind.
While Sincere McCormick led the way for C-USA entering 2021, there were questions as to who would be the next group of standouts capable of earning praise? In ODU’s upset of Florida Atlantic, the Monarchs were powered by a 23-carry, 163-yard performance by sophomore Blake Watson. The 5-9, 190-pound former wideout earned all-conference honors as a returner in 2019 and has blossomed into a standout back in Norfolk, rushing for 872 yards in eight games.
Marshall’s Rasheen Ali has been a touchdown machine in filling the large shoes left behind by Knox. The third-year freshman has found the endzone 17 times in 2021 and is on the verge of a 1,000-yard season. UAB’s DeWayne McBride has followed up an excellent freshman year as the backup to Brown by ranking second in the league in yards per carry (6.5) and also should break the 1,000-yard mark. FIU’s D’Vonte Price isn’t having the largest impact statistically, but was recently ranked by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. as the third-best draft-eligible running back in the upcoming 2022 Draft.