Following Conference USA was something of an emotional roller coaster in 2021. It became clear that the league will look dramatically different in the next two years with six teams leaving for the American Athletic Conference and three moving to the Sun Belt. Four will be added with Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State, New Mexico State, and Liberty moving to Conference USA in the same time frame.
In the midst of all of that, several other teams changed coaches, philosophies, or changed their entire roster. What is it all for the better? We’ll see.
Here are the storylines to ponder as Conference USA prepares for a new season in 2022.
How Do UTEP Respond To Success?
It really wasn’t that long ago that losing football games was a soul crushing certainty in El Paso. In 2021, however, the fourth season under head coach Dana Dimel yielded a 7-6 record and the Miners’ first bowl trip since 2014.
While these sort of peaks in UTEP football are fun to watch, they’ve historically been followed by steady descents back into the valley of despair. UTEP followed up the 2014 campaign with records of 5-7, 4-8, and 0-12 before Dimel was hired. Even then, UTEP won four games combined in Dimel’s first three seasons. If you note UTEP’s season record going back to the early 1990s, you will notice a similar pattern.
Whether or not UTEP break that trend depends on two things.
1.) How well the remaining talents like quarterback Gavin Hardison and El Paso native running back Deion Hankins continue to develop.
2.) How well Dimel can continue to work his extensive JUCO recruiting ties between now and signing day and into the fall.
Do USM, Marshall, and Old Dominion jump Early?
All three of these schools seem to have things moving in an exciting direction. The problem there for C-USA is that all of these schools have a foot out the door. They are all set to join the Sun Belt in July if 2023, but an early afternoon exit is still on the table.
Not much else to say here other than if Marshall and Old Dominion both are not part of the picture in 2022, the race for C-USA East changes dramatically.
Who Takes Over at QB For MTSU?
After starting the season 1-3, MTSU’s then-starting quarterback Bailey Hockman, a grad transfer from North Carolina State, chose to end his football career to focus on his growing family. Redshirt junior and former walk-on Chase Cunningham out of Knoxville Catholic was the next man up and took over the starting role.
As MTSU’s starting quarterback, Cunningham completed 91 of 146 attempts with 13 TDs and 3 interceptions. MTSU went 3-2 with Cunningham as the starter.
Then, in MTSU’s October 30 contest against Southern Miss, Cunningham sustained a leg injury that would ultimately cause him to miss the rest of the season. Nevertheless, MTSU’s “Next Man Up” mentality remained.
For the remainder of the regular season, freshman Nick Vattiato and redshirt sophomore Mike Diliello would split snaps at quarterback, helping the Blue Raiders to wins over FIU and FAU, plus the victory over Southern Miss where Cunningham was injured in the first half.
The differences in style between Vattiato and Diliello were soon apparent. Of course, MTSU are not the first team to make an offense work with two different styles of quarterback switching in and out. But, for Vattiato and Diliello to adjust so quickly with so little experience between the two of them is impressive.
So, which of the three between Cunningham, Vattiato, and Diliello will end up as the starting quarterback when, presumably, everybody is healthy heading into week one of 2022? Having depth obviously isn’t a bad thing, but Rick Stockstill’s staff will have a decision to make.
How Do WKU Rebuild/Reload?
The brightest flames burn the fastest. While we only got one year of Bailey Zappe, Jerreth Stearns, and Zach Kittley all together in Bowling Green, it was a season for the history books. So, how do you replace all that production, plus standout receiver Mitchell Tinsley and several offensive linemen? And that’s not even including key defensive players like DeAngelo Malone, Beanie Bishop, Jeremy Darwin, and Antwon Kincade - all of whom are also gone.
Fortunately for them, the Tops began by promoting from within.
Ben Arbuckle was promoted to Co-Offensive coordinator alongside outside receivers coach Josh Crawford and new offensive line coach Zach Lankford…yes, that’s three offensive co-coordinators. However, Arbuckle will be the one calling plays in 2022. This is important because Arbuckle was a quality control assistant under Zach Kittley at Houston Baptist and at WKU. If any remaining assistant on this team had the best grasp of what makes that pass-heavy attack so effective, it’s him.
In terms of players, the Tops have made a few key moves in the portal over the last week and a half or so. This includes the additions of South Carolina transfer offensive lineman Vinnie Murphy, West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege, and Akron receiver Michael Mathison. We’ll see if they have the same fortune replacing other key positions.
Immediate Payoff on Mike MacIntyre?
New FIU head coach Mike MacIntyre seems very excited about his new role. However, the Panthers have a long way to go as they completely rebuild the program.
New FIU coach Mike MacIntyre ignores the microphone at the press conference, walks straight towards the crowd and says, “ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?!” pic.twitter.com/l6tLVRQAiE— David Drucker (@FIUSportsGuy) December 9, 2021
FIU has an all-new staff as well as a new look roster that will include a number of transfers that should have an immediate impact on the program including VMI offensive lineman Jacob Peace, Eastern Tennessee State linebacker Donovan Manuel, Syracuse receiver Sharod Johnson, and Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg. MacIntyre also convinced a few key FIU players that had entered the transfer portal to stay including receiver Tyrese Chambers and safety Pierce Withers.
With a renewed sense of optimism and increased support for the program from new AD Scott Carr, the Panthers appear to be on the right track, and not a moment too soon. FIU has not beaten an FBS opponent since November 23, 2019.
Will UTSA Repeat?
The Roadrunners made some magic this year. A 12-2 record, a league title, and at one point were a top-15 team in the AP poll. Jeff Traylor signed a ten-year extension and the program will be moving to the American Athletic Conference in 2023. An eventful few months, to say the least.
The losses for UTSA are surprisingly few, but not insignificant. Offensive coordinator/QB coach Barry Lunney Jr. has moved on to Illinois to take on the same position there. All-American running back Sincere McCormick is off to the NFL alongside offensive lineman Spencer Burford and corner Tariq Woolen, both of whom received combine invites. Outside linebacker Clarence Hicks will also try to head to the pros.
Aside from that, UTSA will return several key players including quarterback Frank Harris, receiver Zakhari Franklin, and safety Rashad Wisdom. Can those veterans lead the team back to another title? Easier said than done, however the Runners seem to be in better shape personnel wise than most of the league.