The final weekend of the regular season in Conference USA saw three teams reach bowl eligibility, an East division winner crowned and the ending of an era for two programs.
Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren will return for a fifth season in Houston after the team’s 35-31 victory over Lousiana Tech on Saturday. While Bloomgren has an 11-31 record in four seasons at Rice, the win over Tech gave the program their fourth win — its most since 2015.
The night before the contest, it was reported and later confirmed by the Lousiana Tech that veteran head coach Skip Holtz would not return for a tenth season in Ruston. Holtz led the Bulldogs to seven consecutive bowl berths from 2014-2020, but finished with a 3-9 record in ‘21.
FIU head coach Butch Davis coached his finale at the helm of the Panthers, a 37-17 loss at Southern Miss, as the Panthers finish the season 1-11. Many players and coaches were emotional following the game, as the departure of Davis and the seniors leave FIU with no remaining link to a three-year bowl stretch from 2017-2019.
Charlotte and Florida Atlantic enter the offseason after disappointing endings to their year. The Niners opened the season with an upset of Duke and a 4-2 record through six weeks, before finishing 1-5 down the stretch to finish 5-7. FAU entered the year with division title hopes after landing former Miami quarterback N’Kosi Perry and standout linebacker Akileis Leroy rejoining the team. However, Willie Taggart’s club was never able to reach the heights of their preseason billing, also finishing 5-7, allowing 24 unanswered points in the 21 minutes of play as Middle Tennessee left Boca with a 27-17 win.
Let’s take a look at week 13 in C-USA.
North Texas stuns UTSA
A familiar refrain from coaches following a win is “it’s hard to win a football game.” While some coaches and programs make winning look like a right of passage, others have shown that there’s a large measure of validity in that statement.
All of this is to say that the possibility of UTSA finishing the regular season with an undefeated record would — and should be noteworthy — no matter what conference or level of play it's achieved in.
Week 13 saw those hopes dashed in emphatic fashion by a North Texas team fighting to get back to a bowl game and their first non-losing season since 2018. UNT played in last year’s Myrtle Beach Bowl after finishing 4-6 in a shortened season. The Mean Green routed UTSA on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Denton, finishing the season on a five-game win streak to reach bowl eligibility.
Littrell’s club was led by a defense that’s been much-maligned over the past three seasons. In the last five weeks, they’ve allowed an average of 17 points per contest, after giving up 38.5 in the previous five — all losses for UNT.
Running back DeAndre Torrey rushed for 108 yards and three touchdowns, leading the way for C-USA’s top rushing attack in 2021 — a vast departure from the aerial attack that fueled the Mean Green offense during Mason Fine’s decorated career. Lastly, the bowl eligibility has to serve as a measure of satisfaction for Littrell, after coming off of two consecutive losing seasons.
Old Dominion and MTSU reach 6 — but will both reach bowls
Entering the season, Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion were projected to finish fifth and seventh, respectively. Given MTSU’s consecutive four-win seasons and ODU not playing football at all in 2020, the pessimistic outlook for both programs was fair. However, both programs reached bowl eligibility on Saturday — but there’s no guarantee that both will play in the postseason.
After a five-game losing streak that saw Ricky Rahne’s club lose three of five by one score or less, the Monarchs found their stride under the guidance of third-year freshman Hayden Wolff. Earning his first start in week seven, the 6-5, 220-pound signal-caller threw for 1,613 yards, including 328 yards in the 56-34 victory season-ending victory over Charlotte — 252 of which went to sophomore wideout Ali Jennings.
Rick Stockstill’s Blue Raiders opened the season 1-3 and lost their starting quarterback three weeks into the season. However, an upset victory over Marshall sparked a 5-3 finish over the final eight weeks, led in large part by a defense that had struggled in 2020 and 2019.
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer’s group forced an FBS-high 31 turnovers, with veteran stalwarts Reed Blankenship, Gregory Grate Jr. and Jordan Ferguson producing nearly half (14) of the 31. Blakenship recorded his second 100-tackle campaign of his career and Ferguson had a breakout 2021, leading C-USA in sacks and tackles for loss.
They clinched bowl eligibility after defeating Florida Atlantic in Boca, with defensive tackle Zaylin Wood hauling in a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to give MTSU a lead that they wouldn’t surrender. The win also made them one of 83 bowl-eligible teams — with only 82 spots available. MTSU quickly jumped on the opportunity to play in the Bahamas Bowl — leaving Old Dominion nervously waiting to see if their 2021 will include a 13th contest.
The title game is set
In early October, Western Kentucky and UTSA competed in a 52-46 thriller that saw six lead changes, over 1,100 yards of total offense and almost 900 combined passing yards. While UTSA got the best of Western Kentucky in week six, the Tops are riding a seven-game win streak, including an East division-clinching 53-21 win over Marshall in Huntington on Saturday.
For Tyson Helton and the Hilltoppers, the win gives Western its first division title since 2016 and undoubtedly justifies the massive shift in offensive philosophy from a season ago. The trio of offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, quarterback Bailey Zappe and wide receiver Jerreth Sterns helped WKU to the nation’s second-highest scoring offense and Zappe set a new single-season passing TD mark in Conference USA, topping former Hilltopper Brandon Doughty’s record of 49, as Zappe’s four touchdowns in Saturday’s win put him at 52.
UTSA and WKU’s second showdown will take place in front of what’s sure to be a fired-up Alamodome crowd as the Roadrunners look to cap off their 11-win season with a C-USA title.