If there was ever a weekend that showed proof anything is possible on a college football Saturday (or Thursday) — week four in Conference USA certainly provided evidence to that fact. Rick Stockstill’s Middle Tennessee team traveled to Hard Rock Stadium as 26-point underdogs in their contest against Miami. They left South Florida $1.5 million dollars richer and more importantly — winners over the storied Hurricanes.
After a disappointing start to the season, Dana Dimel’s UTEP Miners welcomed Group of Five heavyweight Boise State to Sun Bowl Stadium on Thursday, being projected to face a similar fate as the Blue Raiders. Instead, the 16-point underdog Miners spearheaded by their defense dominated Boise State en route to a 27-10 win.
Overall, the weekend provided its fair share of storylines and highlights as teams now set their sights on conference play, which goes into full swing this weekend. Let’s take a look at the Three Things We Learned from week four.
Middle Tennessee’s Upset
After a thoroughly disappointing 44-7 opening-week loss to James Madison, expectations for Rick Stockstill’s Middle Tennessee team were tempered by most outsiders. After losing several starters to the transfer portal and star safety Reed Blankenship to graduation, plus a change in offense, it seemed fair that there would be somewhat of drop-off in wins after last year’s bowl game berth.
However, in the three weeks that have followed, the Blue Raiders have won three straight games including two contests that saw them enter as double-digit underdogs. On Saturday, MTSU was expected to take home a payday and an obligatory loss against a Power Five opponent in Miami, but behind 507 yards of total offense — including 408 passing yards on 16 completions by quarterback Chase Cunningham.
The victory was extra special for Stockstill, who grew up in Florida and played quarterback for the Hurricanes’ arch rival in Florida State from 1977-1981.
“I know Tallahassee, I know they’re pretty excited about the mighty Blue Raiders kicking these Hurricanes’ tails because we kicked their tails and I ain’t afraid to say it,” said Stockstill postgame following the victory.
Former FSU QB and MTSU coach, Rick Stockstill on Tallahassee and beating Miami. (Note the Bobby logo on his hat) pic.twitter.com/N3FPmELn4K— WVFT Real Talk 93.3 (@Greg_Tish) September 25, 2022
For his current program, the 3-1 start to the season sets up Middle Tennessee with great position to reach a bowl game for consecutive seasons — with that road continuing this upcoming Saturday against C-USA heavyweight UTSA.
If MTSU can pull off its third upset in four weeks, the conversation around the Blue Raiders will be much different than it was just a few weeks ago.
The FIU Rebuild
When an FBS program hasn’t won a game against a fellow FBS opponent in over 1,000 days and hasn’t won a road game of any kind since 2018, it’s fairly obvious that the team is in desperate need of a rebuild. First-year FIU head coach Mike MacIntyre was under no grand illusions when he took the job in December of last year.
MacIntyre took jobs at San Jose State and Colorado — both of which were deemed places where success couldn’t be achieved — and he led both to 10-win seasons. Given his track record for being a program-builder, there was a level of optimism that FIU could be a more competitive team with a new coach and a new voice for the players.
However, FIU is in a different place than both of those programs were at the time of his arrival. The Panthers lost over 40 players who signed with the program during Butch Davis’ tenure — not including a handful of walk-ons who became scholarship players and transferred elsewhere.
The mass exodus left MacIntyre with the third-youngest team in FBS football and a roster that’s comprised primarily of underclassmen and players who haven’t had starting experience at this level.
Following a one-point victory over FCS Bryant in week one in a game that saw Bryant win in virtually every category except the final score, FIU has been outscored 114-12 in their last two outings including Saturday’s 73-0 loss at Western Kentucky — the program’s largest margin of defeat ever.
As FIU still has games against potent C-USA offenses like UTSA, North Texas and rival Florida Atlantic left on the schedule, the season could see similar defeats for the Panthers and for FIU fans — they may be facing the fact that the rebuild is more intensive than previously thought.
UTEP Finds a Formula For Success
As talked about in last week’s three things column, UTEP’s struggles offensively have put a damper on what was expected to be an exciting season in El Paso. Quarterback Gavin Hardison has been pedestrian, undoubtedly affected by the loss of star wideout Jacob Cowing to Arizona. As Group of Five power Boise State came to town on Thursday, it seemed unlikely that the Miners would be able to fix those issues on a short week.
However, in the team’s 27-10 upset of the Broncos, they turned to a formula that helped them win games during the COVID-shortened 2020 season and early in last year’s bowl season — running the football, playing defense and being efficient through the air.
Hardison went 10-of-11 passing for 123 yards as the offense held the ball for over 40 minutes and went 8-of-15 on third-down conversions. On the ground, Deion Hankins, Ronald Awatt and Rey Flores combined to rush 47 times for 179 yards and one touchdown.
Defensively, led by star defensive lineman Praise Amaewhule, kept Boise State signal-caller Hank Bachmeier under duress throughout the evening, recording 12 quarterback hurries — forcing Bachmeier to an 13-of-34 day through the air.
As the Miners offense, specifically the passing game is still a work in progress, if they can continue to play this brand of football, they may be able to recapture some of the preseason hope.