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Conference USA: 10 Games to Watch in 2021

Take a look at 10 games that we’re intrigued by on 2021’s C-USA slate.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Florida Atlantic at Marshall Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Conference USA’s 2021 football schedule was released last week and features a litany of intriguing out-of-conference contests and late-season games between C-USA foes that may decide division winners. With under 90 days till the start of the new season, let’s take a look at 10 games in C-USA that we’re keeping our eye on.

Duke at Charlotte — September 3 (CBS Sports Network)

Year three of the Will Healy era will begin with the 49ers welcoming an in-state foe to Jerry Richardson Stadium in early September. For Charlotte, an opportunity at the program’s first Power Five victory serves not only as a proverbial shot in the arm for the Niners’ fanbase, but it would also help put Healy’s rebuild of the program back on track after a disjointed 2020 season that was torpedoed by COVID-related cancellations.

Marshall v Charlotte
Charlotte’s fiery young coach would love to open the season with a party at Club Lit.
Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Marshall at Navy — September 4 (CBS Sports Network)

The defending East division champs open their season against a Navy program that’s looking to get back on track following a disappointing 3-7 season. Expect the Herd to assume a different identity with former Alabama running backs coach Charles Huff taking over for Doc Holliday. It will be worth watching to see how Marshall is able to fare following the graduations of Tavante Beckett and Josh Ball, along with losing receiver Broc Thompson and lineman Cain Madden to Power Five programs in the offseason.

Texas State at FIU — September 11 (ESPN Networks)

Week two presents a unique challenge for Butch Davis’ FIU club. Assuming the Panthers’ season-opener against FCS Long Island is a win, welcoming Texas State to Riccardo Silva Stadium may provide a measuring stick for the program in year five of the Davis era.

Following three straight bowl appearances, Davis has a combined 6-12 record in his last two seasons, including a winless campaign in 2020. A victory over an equally rebuilding Texas State team would put the Panthers in good shape — a loss would saddle FIU with the task of heading to Texas Tech and Central Michigan looking to find an FBS victory before opening C-USA play against rival Florida Atlantic — a team they haven’t beaten since 2016.

Miami v Florida International
Butch Davis is looking to get the Panthers back to their winning ways.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

UAB at UTSA — November 20 (ESPN Networks)

The road to a Conference USA West division title may run through the Alamodome as UAB and UTSA square off in both teams’ penultimate game of the 2021 campaign. Bill Clark’s Blazers are undoubtedly the best in the west, having won the division the previous three seasons. Meanwhile, Roadrunners head coach Jeff Traylor guided the team to a three-win improvement from 2019 and their first winning season since 2017. UTSA returns arguably the league’s top player in running back Sincere McCormick along with standout safety Rashad Wisdom.

Marshall at Florida Atlantic — November 6 (CBS Sports Network/Facebook)

While the previous game has the possibility to decide the West, an early November contest in Boca Raton features two programs that have represented the East division three out of the last four seasons. A shorthanded Florida Atlantic team traveled to Huntington last season and pushed the No. 22 Thundering Herd for three quarters until Marshall pulled away for an 11-point win.

Marshall quarterback Grant Wells will look to atone for one of his worst performances of an otherwise stellar redshirt freshman season as the Owls’ picked off Wells twice in last year’s game. The thought of another Marshall victory deciding the East division is one that certainly fills FAU fans with angst.

La Tech at Mississippi State — September 4 (ESPNU)

The Bulldogs’ season opener in Starkville represents an opportunity at a Power Five win for the program — and a potential victory over an old foe for Tech fans. Former Conference USA signal-caller Jack Abraham transferred to Mississippi State in the offseason could open the year as the starter for Mike Leach’s club. Abraham began his career at Tech before transferring to Southern Miss, but is 1-2 in games against his former club.

Mississippi State Spring Game
Former C-USA quarterback Jack Abraham now resides in Starkville.
Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

FIU @ Florida Atlantic — October 2 (Stadium)

On paper, 2021’s edition of the Shula Bowl rivalry game between FAU and FIU looks like a game worth writing off. However, the timing and potential circumstances surrounding the contest make it a contest to keep an eye on. The conference opener for both programs, the Panthers are looking for their first victory over their rivals to the north in four seasons. A fifth consecutive loss for FIU would further the divide between both programs — while a victory would be a much-needed boost for the Blue and Gold faithful.

From the Owls’ side of things, Willie Taggart’s club may have been a year ahead of schedule, especially on the defensive side of the football. Now, with the addition of former Miami quarterback N’Kosi Perry — expectations are rightfully high in Boca. A loss to FIU could shake some of the confidence in Boca Raton.

Florida International v Florida Atlantic
FAU has dominated the Shula Bowl rivalry over the past four seasons.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky — November 6 (Stadium)

100 Miles of Hate always provides its share of fanfare regardless of the year. However, with both programs coming off subpar seasons, this year’s late-season contest could decide either team’s bowl-game hopes. Tyson Helton has reshaped the Hilltopper offense around former FCS Houston Baptist signal-caller Bailey Zappe in hopes of jumpstarting a passing offense that was mediocre, at best, in 2020. The Blue Raiders’ offense will also look drastically different following the departure of two-year starting quarterback Asher O’Hara and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. By the time this game rolls around, we’ll have enough of a sample size to see how those changes fare for both clubs.

North Texas at Southern Miss — November 6 (ESPN Networks)

Similar to MTSU at WKU, North Texas’ trip to Hattiesburg on November 6th may very well decide if either of these teams will qualify for postseason play. The Golden Eagles look forward to a return to normalcy after a 2020 that saw their starting quarterback enter the transfer portal in November and their head coach resign the first game of the season. Last year’s 3-7 record is a bit of a misnomer as three of those losses were by a field goal or less and there’s reason for optimism under new head coach Will Hall.

Seth Littrell turns to his third defensive coordinator in as many years, with former SMU head coach Phil Bennett taking over for Clint Bowen. Mean Green fans hope that by the time this game rolls around, their team’s defense will allow less than 30 points per game — something they haven’t done since 2018.

Rice at UTEP — November 20 (ESPN Networks)

Southern Miss v Rice
Mike Bloomgren is very close to turning the corner at Rice.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The penultimate game of the 2021 season for both clubs may play a role in deciding the future of both programs. UTEP’s Dana Dimel and Rice’s Mike Bloomgren are both entering year four of their respective rebuild jobs — and it’s not a stretch to say that 2021 is very much a make or break year for both men. While Rice has shown flashes of being further ahead in the rebuilding process, most notably last year’s upset of No. 21 Marshall — both programs have a combined 12-50 record since 2018. Anything less than a .500 record could spell the end of Dimel or Bloomgren’s tenure in C-USA.