The immediate future of Conference USA on and off the field is starting to look a bit less murky following an eventful 10th weekend of the 2021 campaign. Friday saw the announcement of four new members to the league as New Mexico State, Liberty, Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State will enter C-USA, effective July 1, 2023.
UAB kicked off the Saturday slate with a 52-38 win over Louisiana Tech, overcoming a slow start to overpower the Bulldogs in large part behind DeWayne McBride’s 210-yard, four-touchdown performance. The game of the weekend took place in the Queen City with the hometown 49ers rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, beating Rice in overtime, 31-24.
UTSA remains undefeated after racing through UTEP 44-23 in front of a national TV audience and a reenergized Miner fanbase. Roadrunner quarterback Frank Harris accounted for over 350 total yards and four touchdowns in the victory.
While the El Paso faithful may have been disappointed with the action on the field, there was plenty of action outside the Sun Bowl to satisfy Miners’ fans desires. Let’s take a look back at the weekend in C-USA.
Old Dominion’s 2022 Starts Now
Expectations for Ricky Rahne and his ODU Monarchs were tempered entering the 2021 season — with good reason. After a 1-11 campaign in 2019 under former head coach Bobby Wilder, the program chose to opt-out of playing last season, leaving many prognosticators to take a wait-and-see approach as to what would emerge out of Norfolk.
“I’m not a big opening statement kind of guy,” said Rahne at Conference USA Media Days when asked to give a statement surrounding his team entering the year.
While he’s self-admittedly a show-and-prove type of coach, his Monarchs have made several loud statements through 10 weeks that the program is heading in the right direction. Three consecutive one-score losses in weeks 4-6 showed that ODU would be far from an East division doormat that they had been in ‘19. Two weeks ago, Rahne’s club found its first FBS and C-USA win since 2018, defeating Louisiana Tech at home. On Saturday, they had a resounding 47-24 road victory over FIU, powered by 100-yard rushing performances by backs Blake Watson and Elijah “Lala” Davis. Quarterback Hayden Wolff returned to the scene of his first career start, throwing for 283 yards and two touchdowns.
At 3-6, the Monarchs’ bowl chances are slim. However, how they finish down the stretch can set the tone of their 2022 season. Watson, a former all-conference performer as a return-man, has turned into one of the better backs in the league and is poised for a 1,000-yard campaign. Tight end Zach Kuntz is fourth in the conference in receptions and should be the first-team selection at the position, while Wolff has an opportunity to establish himself as the signal-caller. Rahne’s club has a chance to make noise as they close out 2021.
Huff’s Herd are Finding Their Form
When Charles Huff was announced as Marshall’s new head coach in January, the feeling amongst the Thundering Herd fanbase was that a change was needed for the program to reach new heights. A native of Denton, Maryland, roughly a seven-hour drive from Joan C. Edwards Stadium, Huff has embraced the culture of Marshall.
“This is who we are, Huntington tough, Herd strong, all the way,” said Huff following the team’s 38-0 win over FIU on October 30.
While not having any issues finding his footing in Huntington, it’s been a work in progress in shaping the Herd’s on-field performance to his image of the program. Following a 2-0 start, Marshall took three consecutive losses, including two disappointing defeats at the hands of East Carolina and Middle Tennessee. Even more disheartening was the fact that the defeats came by combined 11 points, leaving some fans with similar feelings of consternation experienced during the final seasons of Doc Holliday’s tenure with the Herd.
Huff’s club has rebounded to win three straight, including an impressive 28-13 road win over division foe Florida Atlantic, putting the Herd at 6-3 and very much in control of their own destiny as they try to repeat as East division champs. While the three losses may conjure up images of seasons past, it’s clear that the Herd are starting to find their footing in Huff’s vision of the program moving forward.
Southern Miss’ Rebuild
Following Southern Miss’ opening-week loss to South Alabama, first-year head coach Will Hall proclaimed himself “the biggest fraud to come through this place in the last 50 years.”
While the statement was certainly hyperbolic and rooted in disappointment, it served as proof that the Mississippi native is committed to turning around the Golden Eagles — in a hurry. Fast forward nine weeks and Hall may realize that it won’t be an instantaneous task. Southern Miss lost its seventh consecutive game on Saturday as North Texas left Hattiesburg with a 38-14 victory.
As disappointing as the losses may be, arguably the biggest setback of the year may be the quarterback position, which has been besieged by injuries. Five signal-callers have seen snaps for Hall in 2021, in large part due to the 41 sacks allowed by the Golden Eagles offensive line through nine contests.
Hall is well-regarded as a bright offensive mind, whose work with Tulane earned him the opportunity to return to his home state and take over Southern Miss. With pieces like Frank Gore and Jason Brownlee in place, there’s still reason for optimism. However, with the turnstile at quarterback this year, the final three contests will serve as a launching pad into what almost certainly will be an offseason defined by one major goal — identifying 2022’s starter.