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Three Things We Learned From Conference USA — Week 4

UTEP’s legitimate bowl hopes, FIU’s season on the brink and Old Dominion headline the three things.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 UTEP at Boise State Photo by Tyler Ingham/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Week four provided an excellent slate of games that saw nine contests decided by one score or less. While C-USA took four losses against out-of-conference Group of Five opponents, UTSA and UAB headlined the weekend with their victories over American Athletic Conference teams.

FIU and Old Dominion suffered last-minute losses against MAC competition and in the conference, MTSU at Charlotte provided an early candidate for game of the year. Let’s take a look a the three things we learned from the weekend in Conference USA.

UTEP Has Legit Bowl Hopes

During UTEP’s three-win 2020 campaign, there was a tangible measure of frustration amongst Miner fans that the team were robbed of seven games due to COVID-19, including a bizarre Saturday morning cancellation at Rice. While there’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution, each outing lost cost the team valuable reps for a youthful team — and a possible bowl berth. Entering 2021, the Miners were out to show that last year’s win total — one that eclipsed the previous three seasons combined — was not indeed fool’s gold. Saturday’s 20-13 victory over New Mexico gives Dana Dimel’s club its third win of the season, putting UTEP at 3-1 for the first time since 2010.

UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison has plenty of weapons around him.
Photo by Tyler Ingham/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yes, the wins have come against competition that leaves a lot to be desired. However, when you consider the lack of wins over the past decade in El Paso, the start is nothing to be looked down upon. As they open conference play, you can look at UTEP’s schedule and give the team a 50/50 chance at wins in four of their final eight games. The Miners have an excellent pair of wideouts in Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett, plus a stable of backs who are capable of giving the team steady yards on the ground. Cowing leads C-USA in receiving yards with 467 and is second in yards per game with 116.8. AD Jim Senter said over the offseason that “they weren’t there yet” regarding an extension for Dimel. If he’s able to put UTEP in a bowl game, he’ll undoubtedly be receiving a contract on his desk in an expedited manner.

FIU’s Season On The Brink of No Return

For the FIU football program, November 24, 2018 was supposed to serve as the Panthers’ coronation. Led by future NFL draft pick James Morgan at quarterback, Butch Davis’ 2018 club took the field at home seeking its ninth win — one that would have given them an East division crown — against a Marshall team who were down to their third-string running back and a shaky quarterback. Instead, the Herd upset the Panthers 28-25, opening the door for Middle Tennessee State to take the division title.

Marshall v Florida International
FIU hasn’t fully recovered from Marshall’s upset victory in Miami.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Since that game, Davis’ club has gone 7-15, including a winless 2020 campaign.

Butch Davis is looking to get the Panthers on track - in a hurry.
Michael Berlfein/FIU Athletics

After opening the ‘21 season with a resounding win over an FCS team, FIU has lost three straight, including two games that they held fourth-quarter leads in — the latest being Saturday’s 31-27 defeat against Central Michigan where the Panthers led by 17 entering the final period of play. Getting off to a winning start was especially crucial for FIU, considering their slate to open C-USA play. This Saturday, FIU heads to Boca Raton to take on arch-rival Florida Atlantic, a team they haven’t beaten since 2016. Following the FAU game, they welcome 3-1 Charlotte to Miami, followed by an explosive Western Kentucky team and the next week sees Marshall make the trip to South Florida. If FIU isn’t able to stop the skid against FAU, there’s a possibility that the team are facing a 1-7 record exiting this four-game stretch. I asked Davis following the loss at Texas Tech what the mood of his troops was.

“We have nine games left okay, we can go out and win nine or we can lose them all,” said Davis. “The team takes ownership of its own attitude and the way they go out and play.”

Somehow, Davis and his staff have to right the ship and give FIU their first FBS victory since November 23, 2019. They have their work cut out for them as they begin conference play.

Old Dominion’s Heading In the Right Direction

After choosing to opt-out of the 2020 season, there were plenty of questions and curiosities surrounding the ODU Monarchs entering 2021. During C-USA Media Days, when asked by a conference staffer to make an opening statement about his team, head coach Ricky Rahne responded dryly, “I’m not much of an opening statement type of guy.”

After three weeks of play, there were still just as many unknowns about the team, following two losses against clearly superior competition with a win against an FCS foe sandwiched in the middle. Saturday’s heartbreaking one-point loss against Buffalo provided our first real glimpse at Rahne’s rebuild in Norfolk. All things considered, it’s fair to expect ODU to compete and be competitive when games allow for it.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Old Dominion at Liberty
Darriel Mack Jr. looks to lead his hometown Monarchs to success.
Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After trailing 35-7 at the half, Rahne’s club scored 27 unanswered points, led by UCF transfer QB D.J. Mack’s two rushing TD and a 19-yard TD pass to 6-8 tight end Zach Kunts in the corner of the endzone. Mack, a Norfolk native, finished the evening with over 300 yards of total offense and three touchdowns. However, in the midst of the expected celebration, reserve quarterback Reese Poffenbarger left the bench area to join his teammates in the jubilation — and was hit with a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty in the process. Veteran kicker Nick Rice missed the extended PAT and ODU fell by one. Despite the setback, it’s clear that the team won’t be a pushover for C-USA foes.