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Three Things We Learned From Conference USA — Week 0

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 27 Charlotte at Florida Atlantic Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a 229-day absence, college football returned to stadiums and our living rooms on Saturday afternoon as the 2022 Division I college football season kicked off with a full slate of games and five Conference USA programs in action.

The Austin Reed era at Western Kentucky began as the West Florida transfer attempts to fill the record-breaking shoes left behind by former Hilltopper signal-caller Bailey Zappe. While Reed wasn’t able to match Zappe’s seven-touchdown performance in his WKU debut last season, he did lead Western to a victory over FCS Austin Peay.

The nightcap saw a pair of conference matchups with Charlotte and Florida Atlantic facing off in a game that saw the pregame hype eclipse the on-field action. C-USA’s most western program in UTEP took on in-state foe North Texas under an electric atmosphere at a sold out Sun Bowl Stadium.

As we look forward to the rest of the league opening their season on week one, let’s take a look back at the Three Things We Learned from a week zero that had its share of surprises and possible revelations.

Big Three — Not so fast

Week zero’s matchup featuring Florida Atlantic and Charlotte was a game that served up intrigue for fans of Conference USA from the day it was announced.

Both programs looked to be shoe-ins for a bowl berth midway through last season — only to see each falter down the stretch with FAU losing their last four games and Charlotte dropping five of its last six.

Each earned invitations to join the American Athletic Conference at the conclusion of the 2022 season and both have charismatic coaches at the helm looking to secure their spot going forward.

All this isn’t to say that Saturday’s game was a make-or-break type contest, but it palpable entering the week that both wanted to put last season’s woes behind them.

“We have some excellent opponents on our schedule this year, including UCF but all of my focus is squarely on Charlotte,” said FAU head coach Willie Taggart on the UDD Conference USA podcast.

Charlotte head coach Will Healy echoed the same sentiments.

“We get to chance to make a statement like we did last season against an ACC opponent but I’ve got to get my team ready for week zero and FAU,” said Healy.

Give the laser-like focus of both men, it has to be wondered about what they made of the “Big 3” feature that appeared in the Charlotte Observer late last week. Niners beat writer (and former UDD staff member) Hunter Bailey wrote a feature where Charlotte’s dynamic trio of wideouts in Grant DuBose, Victor Tucker and Elijah Spencer compared themselves to the much ballyhooed trio of NBA superstars Lebron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

The feature quickly made its way into the Florida Atlantic locker room and it was talked about on social media as to the Owls’ defensive backs feelings on the matter. How much of a difference this played in FAU’s 43-13 drubbing of Charlotte is unknown. However, what was made apparent quickly in the contest is despite the talents of the three players, they’ll need production from a supporting cast — just as the NBA’s version learned in their first attempt to win a championship.

The Niners defense is still a work in progress under first-year defensive coordinator Greg Brown — while FAU’s offense had a tremendous showing in its first game under offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon, who came over from Middle Tennessee in the offseason. FAU gained 482 yards of total offense — and left multiple big plays on the field in the victory.

Postgame, FAU DB Jayden Williams spoke about the chatter entering the game.

Charlotte will need to fix their defensive woes quickly to have any hope of recapturing the success they had in 2019, while Florida Atlantic has an opportunity to continue running on all cylinders as they have a Sunshine State showdown with heavyweight UCF in just over two weeks.

Austin Aune

North Texas quarterback Austin Aune has taken the scenic route to now playing in what should be his final collegiate season. One week shy of his 29th birthday, Aune was a three-star recruit out of Argyle High School in the class of 2012 and signed with TCU, but chose to pursue a baseball career. He appeared in 387 games over six seasons in the New York Yankees’ minor-league system, hitting .226 with 20 home runs but never advanced above single-A ball.

Aune left baseball in 2017 and returned to the gridiron, joining the Mean Green in 2019 and has been the primary starter for previous two seasons. While Aune came into the season having thrown for 23 touchdowns with 13 interceptions, he had the unenviable task of replacing North Texas legend Mason Fine and his pedestrian play left some around the league wondering if he can be the answer at quarterback.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 Frisco Football Classic Bowl - North Texas v Miami (OH) Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UNT head coach Seth Littrell brought in competition over the past three years, but Aune has remained the best option for the program in the end. Coming off a season where North Texas rushed for over 3,000 yards and returns one of the top defensive players in the nation, linebacker KD Davis, it was speculated as to whether Aune can rise to the occasion.

Against a UTEP team that returned one of the more talented defenses in the Group of Five ranks and a sold-out Sun Bowl Stadium for the first time in several years, Aune indeed rose to the occasion.

While his 16-of-29 passing won’t wow many, it was his timely plays in conjunction with using his legs to extend plays that helped lead the Mean Green to a decisive 31-13 victory over the Miners — sending the El Paso faithful home with a disappointing result. Aune threw three touchdown passes in the victory and gave the rushing attack a compliment that was questioned entering the year.

With running backs Ayo Adeyi, Oscar Adaway III, Ikaika Ragsdale and Isaiah Johnson in-tow, the run game will again be the focal point for Littrell’s offense. But if Aune can go from being a reason they don’t lose games — to engineering drives that win games — North Texas could be a sleeper in 2022.

Week 0

Week zero is a relatively new concept in college football, stemming from the College Football Playoff era and many programs choosing to play a week early as to gain an extra bye week.

While this has resulted some high-profile Power Five contests that earn top billing, Saturday’s contests gave Conference USA fans a reason to be excited as well, featuring the two conference contests between teams who are expected to be bowl teams this year. The other game showcased one of the most intriguing and exciting offenses in the nation in Western Kentucky.

CBS Sports Network carried the WKU game and the contest in Boca Raton while Stadium carried the nightcap in El Paso. With just 11 games on the schedule yesterday, week zero could serve as a showcase for the league going forward, especially two of the incoming programs are making the jump from FCS.