Conference USA held its 2022 media day at Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX — a $1.1 billion venue which opened in 2020 as the home of the Texas Rangers. It was the first in-person media day for the conference since 2019, and the landscape of the league has greatly transformed since the last occurrence of the event.
Three programs — Marshall, Southern Miss, and Old Dominion — departed for the Sun Belt this offseason and six programs — Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA — enter their final season as C-USA members before eventual admission into the American Athletic Conference.
The C-USA is at a crossroads and the 11 teams in the midst of a transition year all converged in Arlington on Wednesday morning to discuss the upcoming season, the state of their programs, and storylines surrounding their offseason:
2021 record: 5-7 (3-5 C-USA)
Charlotte enters its 10th season as a college football program and its eighth as a C-USA institution. After initial growing pains in the mid-2010s, the 49ers program has been escalated to new heights by fourth-year head coach Will Healy. The culture Healy built convinced a slew of senior cornerstones to run it back for one more journey. Former walk-on quarterback Chris Reynolds opted to return for a sixth season in the Queen City, and his commitment subsequently influenced his favorite target Victor Tucker to return. Additionally, the team’s reigning sack leader in Markees Watts joined the offensive duo to remain at Charlotte for a super-senior season.
“You got three guys in Vic, Kees, and Chris that built something special and we’ve got to take it to the next step. That’s a must for me to be able to see them do that,” Healy said. “They are more Charlotte than I am. They’ve been here longer than I am. It doesn’t surprise me — they’re dedicated, they’re consistent, they seem to raise the level of play of everybody they’re around, and people just want to invest in them.”
The established quarterback-wide receiver combo of Reynolds and Tucker already transformed the reputation of Charlotte football, but now they look to augment that impact. After qualifying for the 49ers’ first-ever bowl game in 2019, the pairing looks to finish their senior year with the first-ever bowl victory.
“It was one of the goals I set out when I first signed to come to Charlotte,” Tucker said. “In high school it was a similar thing. The high school I went to, we hadn’t won in a long time — I want to say 10 years — and in my senior year, we were finally able to win one. It was a lot more rewarding when you know how much work you have to put in to do it. Just having a taste (at the 2019 Bahamas Bowl), it makes you more hungry to know that you got to the finish line but were not able to cross it.”
2021 record: 1-11 (0-8 C-USA)
The Panthers are owners of the FBS’s longest losing streak at 11 games. This offseason, the program hired Memphis defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre as head coach to facilitate a turnaround. MacIntyre worked as the architect of several rebuilds in the past, inheriting a 2-10 San Jose State team in 2010 and a 1-11 Colorado team in 2013 — catapulting both programs to double-digit wins and final AP Poll rankings within four seasons.
“What I took from (those previous coaching jobs) is you have to build trust with the players, you have to keep working the community, you’ve got to work in everybody in the university and the community to keep generating support,” MacIntyre said. “When it all comes together, it can be really special and it was at San Jose and it was at Colorado, and we’ll end up doing it at FIU too.”
Acquiring talent from the transfer portal has been a focal point for many C-USA teams in this modern age. FIU succeeded on this front in the Butch Davis era by landing wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, a former FCS All-American. Chambers broke program records in 2021 by becoming the Panthers’ single season leader in receiving yards and touchdowns. After landing an offensive centerpiece, FIU looked to amend its 126th ranked scoring defense this offseason by luring in another FCS All-American in linebacker Donovan Manuel.
“The production will be the same when you move up levels as long as people know how to use you and put you in position to be successful,” Chambers said of the transition from the FCS to the C-USA. “Donovan, he broke some records at his last school. He had the most tackles in his team history. Him bringing that over here is going to be pretty much the same thing as long as we put him in the right position to make those tackles, make those plays, and be successful — the same way as I did.”
Florida Atlantic Owls
2021 record: 5-7 (3-5 C-USA)
Florida Atlantic has attacked the transfer portal with a sense of ferocity since Willie Taggart was hired as head coach. More than half of the Owls’ projected starters in 2022 hail from other colleges including former Miami (FL) quarterback N’Kosi Perry, who was a late addition to the roster last summer — missing the entirety of spring ball. Perry passed for 2,771 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first year as a full-time starter, but after participating in his first spring session, he’s ready to expand his leadership role in Boca Raton.
“I’m a lot more comfortable with the team,” Perry said. “When I came in for training camp (last summer), it was the very beginning for me and I didn’t want to step on guys’ toes. I didn’t want guys to feel like I was just coming in and telling them what to do. Now that they’ve actually seen me put the work in, I can be a great leader now and take that role.”
Taggart arrived in December 2019 just four days after the Owls won a C-USA title. Through two seasons, Florida Atlantic has been unable to revert to that point, but the guise of contention was certainly present through September and October 2021. The Owls stormed out of the gate to a 5-3 record, but they folded in each of their final four matchups to ensure exclusion from a postseason invite. Now caught up on training and conditioning from the COVID season, Taggart believes increased depth is the key to finishing stronger in 2022.
“The COVID year, that was tough for everyone. It was tough coming in and understanding a team when you didn’t have them in the spring and trying to develop our guys when we didn’t have a weight room,” Taggart said. “I was always worried about why we look smaller than every team in the conference. Now seeing guys much bigger and stronger and being able to bring guys in here and recruit depth — that’s a big part of it. Added depth is really gonna help that.”
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
2021 record: 3-9 (2-6 C-USA)
Louisiana Tech exhibited as much stability as any C-USA program in the 2010s. From 2014 through 2020, the Bulldogs attained between seven and 10 wins every year and strung together six consecutive bowl victories. But that stability is no more. The Skip Holtz era finally concluded last November, ushering in Sonny Cumbie’s tenure as the new head coach. Cumbie transitions to the C-USA after spending the last nine seasons as an offensive coordinator in the Big 12. Along with his signature up-tempo offense, Cumbie also arrives in Ruston with a pair of quarterbacks from his former stomping grounds — Matthew Downing (TCU) and Parker McNeil (Texas Tech).
“The thing that is so valuable that they bring is the amount of practice reps, the amount of experience they have in our offense,” Cumbie said. “Both guys were in situations where they played behind really exceptional quarterbacks and they never really had their opportunity to be the starter on a consistent basis. Both of them have a ton of experience, both of them prepare very well, and there’s a value you place in the fact that they’re coaching up a guy like (true freshman quarterback) Landry Lyddy who just got to our program and they’re showing him how to prepare.”
While Cumbie is renowned as an offensive guru, the Bulldogs certainly have room to make up for defensively with an overhauled staff after rating 115th in scoring defense last year. Louisiana Tech returns a viable All-C-USA linebacker in Tyler Grubbs, but the team will have to replace numerous starters around Grubbs as they look to make the trek back to bowl eligibility.
“I think pass defense and creating negative plays and playing really good defense in the red zone — those are the areas I want us to jump the most into,” Cumbie said. “Coach (Scott) Power and his staff have done a nice job in their installation of the defense. They’ve been great teachers, being really clear in how they want to run their coverages and how they want to run their blitzes and fronts. I hope all of that will continue into the fall and allow us to have a lot more success on defense.”
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
2021 record: 7-6 (4-4 C-USA), defeated Toledo in Bahamas Bowl
Middle Tennessee witnessed one of the more impressive turnarounds in college football last season, claiming victories in five of its final seven contests. The Blue Raiders withstood the loss of their two starting quarterbacks — Bailey Hockman in September and Chase Cunningham in October. Then, Nick Vattiato handled signal caller duties for the remainder of the year, earning MVP honors in Middle Tennessee’s Bahamas Bowl victory over Toledo. With Cunningham and Vattiato returning to campus, head coach Rick Stockstill is comfortable with his quarterback room heading into his 17th year as the program’s head coach.
“Chase is a great young man. He’s a great team player. He cares about the team more than he cares about himself. He’s a really good leader for us. He’s healthy now. He’ll have a good competition at quarterback — him and Nick,” Stockstill said. “Nick finished out the year the last four games when Chase got hurt and did a nice job. He got better and had a really good spring so with Chase and Nick at quarterback, I feel good about our situation.”
The Blue Raiders were one of the more adept defensive teams in the league last year, ranking atop the entire country in takeaways produced. Middle Tennessee heavily populated the All-C-USA teams with four defensive selections, but three of those stars are no longer suiting up in royal blue. The lone remaining all-conference honoree is Jordan Ferguson, who shined with 16.5 tackles for loss and a team-high eight sacks in 2021. While the team tries to reload on defense for 2022, Ferguson cited the trend of player-led practices as a useful method for strengthening the depth chart.
“We lost a lot of guys. We got to piggyback off last year. We’ve got a lot of guys who worked really hard — Reed Blankenship, D.Q. Thomas — that we used to look up to, myself as well,” Ferguson said. “We’ve got to show those guys how to do things and it starts with the player-led practices. We know what to look forward to and we set high expectations last year, so we gotta keep going.”
North Texas Mean Green
2021 record: 6-7 (5-3 C-USA), lost to Miami (OH) in Frisco Football Classic
KD Davis is a name abundant on offseason watchlists. The First Team All-C-USA linebacker etched himself into the Nagurski Trophy and Butkus Award preseason watchlists after registering a C-USA-best 120 tackles in 2021. But there was a period of time this summer when North Texas didn’t know if it would be retaining its star player. Davis briefly tested the transfer portal this offseason before ultimately decided to remain in Denton. “Coach Littrell was one of the first coaches to believe in me and my family coming out of high school so I decided to come back,” Davis said. “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. This is Conference USA, and I took some visits to some SEC schools which a lot of people say is one of the best conferences... Just going to those schools, you can get the same amount of exposure that you can get here in Conference USA. When I came back, I told my teammates that we got the right coaching staff, we got the right players here at North Texas.”
Davis’ return injects hope into a North Texas team which concluded 2021 on an inspiring note, completing a rare turnaround from 1-6 to bowl eligibility. But not every transfer returned. The Mean Green recently ranked second in the C-USA behind Marshall in sacks accrued, but the team lost its two leading pass rush specialists in Grayson Murphy and Gabriel Murphy to UCLA. After observing three pivotal defenders enter the transfer portal this offseason, Littrell expanded on college football’s hot topic of transferring, which goes hand-in-hand with NIL legislation.
“The biggest things that guys are talking about right now are transfer portals and NIL,” Littrell said. “I’m not against it. It helps the student-athletes if it’s in their best interest. We just have to be able to adapt. The biggest thing for me is trying to get everyone on an even playing field. That’s the only issue I have with NIL. These young men deserve that right to make money by themselves for what they’re doing, but at the same time, not everyone’s playing by the same rules. Every state is different. Every legislation is different.”
2021 record: 4-8 (3-5 C-USA)
Rice has patiently waited since 2014 to snap the C-USA’s longest active bowl drought. However, the Mike Bloomgren era has seen progressive growth in each of its four seasons, obtaining the most wins since 2015 in last year’s 4-8 campaign. Bloomgren’s Owls have shown the ability to down conference juggernauts — shutting out a ranked Marshall team on the road in 2020 and upsetting UAB in Birmingham last October. The belief is there, but now the program needs to replicate those results in order to snatch bowl eligibility.
“It really goes to one of our themes on our team and that’s consistency,” Bloomgren said of building on such victories. “How do we do it to the best of our ability and make sure we do it at a consistent level? In addition to that, how do we do it next week — even better — but still consistent? Those are great challenges. Part of it will be having the right players healthy and it won’t just happen because they’re healthy, but it’s not just gonna happen because they’re healthy. They’ve gotta prepare in this training camp, they’ve gotta compete, and they’ve gotta become masters of this scheme and masters of their jobs.”
The Owls suffered a massive onslaught of injuries last year. The first domino to fall was starting nose tackle De’Braylon Carroll in the summer, and other starters such as wide receiver Brad Rozner, outside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain, and free safety George Nyakwol followed suit by missing the majority of the season. Thus, Rice was forced to develop new faces given those circumstances, so the 2022 Owls squad is the deepest of the Bloomgren era.
“The great thing about them having missed time is they don’t lose anything mentally. They’re coming back and they’re physically as healthy as they can be. You bring back a defense with a lot of chemistry and that’s really where you see the best defenses come from,” defensive end Trey Schuman said. “We have a lot of guys who are better football players because George coached them up, because Treshawn coached them up. It’s going to be a rude awakening for a lot of people in conference when we’re all together and firing on all cylinders.”
2021 record: 9-4 (6-2 C-USA), defeated BYU in Independence Bowl
The Blazers established themselves as the conference’s kingpin of success, becoming the first team in C-USA history to qualify for the title game in three consecutive years (2018, 2019, 2020). UAB reshaped into a different program since head coach Bill Clark revived it in 2017, but Clark stunningly stepped down from his duties on June 24 due to health concerns. That leaves longtime program staple Bryant Vincent as the interim. Vincent held an offensive coordinator role before the program’s infamous shutdown and reclaimed the same role following the revival.
“All of us owe a lot to Coach Clark. We wouldn’t be where we are without him. We want to honor him this year by having a great year, but this is our guy,” center Will Ryker said about Vincent. “We couldn't be more excited to follow him and having him lead us for hopefully a long time in the future.”
Continuing Clark’s success is no easy task. Vincent’s predecessor won two C-USA championships, claimed the program’s first bowl victory in 2018, and defeated the highest ranked program in Blazer history last December by upsetting BYU in the Independence Bowl. With continuity in the staff and personnel outside of Clark, Vincent believes he can sustain the program’s standards as a new era launches in Birmingham.
“The expectations are still the expectations. The standards are still the standards. It’s my job as the head football coach to continue to elevate those standards,” Vincent said. “One thing that UAB football teams have always prided themselves are on how hard we play, how hard we work in playing together. I think you’ll see a team this year that truly loves each other, that truly plays for each other, and will go from the very beginning to the end.”
2021 record: 7-6 (4-4 C-USA), lost to Fresno State in New Mexico Bowl
The 2022 Miners are very different than previous iterations of the program. There are now expectations in El Paso. UTEP posted a 4-27 record in head coach Dana Dimel’s first four years on campus. But last fall, a 180 degree transformation was observed. UTEP played at an unforeseen level and finished 7-6 to attain the Miners’ second winning season since 2006.
“Now we’re in a different world of expectations for our football team,” Dimel said. “What I’ve seen from our team so far is our marquee players elevate their games. That to me is showing us that we’re not in position to take anything for granted. They’ve got the taste of what victory feels like. They’ve got the taste of what a bowl game feels like. They’ve got the taste of what a 6-1 start feels like. Now that they’ve tasted that, they know for us to get to the point we want to get to, we have to push our game to another level.”
The foundation of UTEP’s rapid transformation stemmed from heightened play in the trenches. Offensively, the Miners’ line stifled opponents to tie for 21st in the FBS in fewest sacks allowed per game. Defensively, UTEP fielded a potent front seven and permitted just 25.2 points per contest — its best scoring defense since 2004. Much of that defensive success was attributed to the havoc caused by First Team All-C-USA defensive end Praise Amaewhule, who has a reasonable claim to the title of the conference’s best player after recording 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2021.
“Being able to have guys push you each and every day on and off the field — having those guys look up to you gives you more motivation to keep going,” Amaewhule said on his status as one of the defensive titans of the conference. “Guys beneath you want to get better and get to a high level as well, so I’m just being a leader in that aspect.”
2021 record: 12-2 (7-1 C-USA), lost to San Diego State in Frisco Bowl
The 2021 campaign was an unforgettable one in the history of this young program. UTSA rewrote its résumé by generating a program-best 12 wins and capturing its first-ever conference title. With a horde of returning talent, especially on the offensive end, UTSA was selected in the C-USA media day poll to repeat as conference champions. Head coach Jeff Traylor realizes that coaching from the mountaintop differs from the journey they traversed to get there.
“The climb up is always the fun part because nobody expects you do to anything,” Traylor said. “But once you get there, staying there is the hardest part because then you got a target on your back every week... Jumping out to 11-0, we had a target on us for a long time, so our kids got used to it real quick. Southern Miss did not have a real good record last year, but it was a very close ballgame going into the fourth quarter, so there’s a great example of where we learned a great lesson that week.”
UTSA’s recent success invigorated a fanbase to unforeseen levels in the nation’s seventh largest city. The Roadrunner faithful consistently packed the Alamodome last season, and the team repaid the city with a 7-0 home record which includes the C-USA Championship Game victory over WKU. UTSA operates under the moniker as San Antonio’s football team, which is fitting considering many key cogs such as quarterback Frank Harris and strong safety Rashad Wisdom hail from the area.
“When people talk about Texas football, they usually go more toward Dallas, Houston, those areas,” Wisdom said. “But I feel like San Antonio football can hang with the best of them. That’s one of the big reasons I decided to stay home was to help the local program, get this thing going. When I came on campus to now, it’s a whole different program and you see where we’re at now. This thing can keep on going as long as the rest of the local kids stay home and have the same feeling we did.”
2021 record: 9-5 (7-1 C-USA), defeated Appalachian State in Boca Raton Bowl
Teams replace good quarterbacks all the time. But teams rarely face the challenge of replacing the all-time FBS single season passing yards and touchdowns leader. That is WKU’s task this season after losing Bailey Zappe, conductor of the second-leading scoring offense in 2021. To replace Zappe, head coach Tyson Helton consulted the transfer portal for former West Virginia starter Jarret Doege and Division II national champion Austin Reed. Doege and Reed enter a competition in fall camp, and the winner will be Helton’s fourth different starting transfer quarterback in four years as head coach.
“Our style of play offensively is very intriguing to quarterbacks,” Helton said on luring quarterbacks to his program. “It puts them on a platform to showcase their abilities and everybody wants to play in the NFL. So when you play in our system, it’s the best system to play in in the country if you’re a quarterback. From a recruiting standpoint, that gives us the luxury of being able to try to recruit the top quarterbacks in the country.”
Things started off rocky for WKU in 2021 as the team stumbled out to a 1-4 start. But the Hilltoppers immediately righted the ship and crafted a seven-game win streak to close the regular season. During those initial five contests, WKU allowed 38.4 points per game but that number dwindled down to 18.9 during that final seven-game regular season stretch, and the defensive refinement coincided with victories. Instead of a midseason turnaround, the Hilltoppers hopes the defense is ready to attack from the jump this time.
“Embrace the playbook,” defensive end Juwuan Jones said on the unit’s No. 1 focus heading into Week 1. “We just have to dive into the playbook, know what we have, know why the defensive coordinator is calling this call. We have to be able to understand why the coach is calling this blitz and calling this coverage, and that will help us get off to a quick start.”