From August 28th to September 4th, all 14 Conference USA member programs played a football game — something that couldn’t be said at any point last year. The opening week of games provided us with the return of Old Dominion to the college football landscape after opting out of last year, a pair of Power Five victories and an overall impressive showing from the league.
Let’s take a look at the three things we learned from the week in C-USA.
Charlotte Gets a Power Five Victory
When Will Healy took the job at Charlotte in December of 2018, he made it clear that his number one goal was to change the identity of the 49ers — by actually providing them with an identity.
“We want to make Charlotte cool, we know that’s going to take some work, but we want to make Charlotte a destination that kids of think of when it’s time to choose a program,” said Healy at C-USA Media Days before the start of the 2019 season.
After leading the Niners to their first winning season and bowl berth in ‘19, numerous game cancellations last season torpedoed any chance of Healy being able to build on the momentum of the previous campaign. All of this is to state why Friday’s 31-28 upset of in-state foe Duke was more than just a Power Five victory.
@CollegeGameDay ALERT!— (@CharlotteFTBL) September 4, 2021
No doubt still celebrating last night (we're not sure if he's gotten any sleep yet) ... @Coach_heals will join the College Game Day crew from Uptown Charlotte LIVE in just a few minutes on ESPN! #GoldStandard | #PEEP pic.twitter.com/hALwTTBbqT
The win in front of a nationally televised audience gave Charlotte an opportunity to showcase the best of what their program can be. Jerry Richardson Stadium’s capacity of just under 15 thousand provided a more than adequate atmosphere of big-time college football, coupled with the late game heroics of quarterback Chris Reynolds and receiver Victor Tucker, and topped off with the scene of fans rushing the field go a long way in Healy’s goal to make Charlotte “cool.”
Following four lackluster seasons under former head coach Frank Wilson, UTSA fans were cautiously optimistic heading into the 2020 season with first-year and first-time head coach Jeff Traylor. The Gilmer, Texas native spent 15 seasons as a high school head coach in Texas before moving to the college ranks, establishing a track record as an excellent recruiter. Traylor paid immediate dividends for the Roadrunners, getting the most out of the existing roster, taking UTSA to a 7-5 record and its first bowl since 2016.
With the team returning a majority of their starters from last year, there are expecations that UTSA may be able to unseat UAB atop the West division. While that remains to be seen, Saturday’s 37-30 victory over Illinois established Traylor’s program are ready to rise to the occasion.
Quarterback Frank Harris had his most impressive day as a Roadrunner, going 20-of-32 passing for 280 yards and one touchdown and added 33 yards and a score on the ground. While standout running back Sincere McCormick was “held” to 117 yards on 31 carries, capable RB2 Brenden Brady provided 67 yards and two rushing touchdowns. UTSA never trailed against the Fighting Illini and left Champaign with a statement win.
Conference USA Will Be Better in 2021
There’s no denying that as a whole last year, Conference USA had a down year. Five out of 13 teams finished with winning records and all six teams that were able to play their bowl games suffered defeats. To compound matters, a fellow Group of Five conference in the Sun Belt had two teams appear in the top-25 and clearly established themselves as being in better position entering 2021.
While it’s only one week of play, seeing La Tech and Rice look competitive throughout their season-openers against Power Five teams, along with the aforementioned P5 upsets and Marshall’s throttling of Navy provide fair reason to belive that C-USA can have a strong showing come bowl season — and possibly make some noise in the top-25.
Rounding out the improved play in C-USA were the victories by FIU, MTSU, North Texas, WKU, and UTEP. Yes, each victory came against an FCS opponent. However, the Panthers broke a winless streak of 649 days in their 48-10 thrashing of Long Island University, with running back D’Vonte Price living up to his pre-season hype in rushing for 165 yards and three scores on five carries.
UTEP has two wins in the span of six days with the 38-28 win over Bethune-Cookman, giving the program 40% of it’s win total over the previous four seasons combined and MTSU’s 50-15 win over Monmouth debuted a new offensive philosophy guided by former NC State signal-caller Bailey Hockman.