No league was greater represented in college football’s annual preview slate colloquially known as “Week 0” than Conference USA.
The CUSA, which contracted from 11 to nine teams this year due to six departures and four additions, saw more than half of its members participate Saturday. It also was distinguished as the only league to feature conference matchups in Week 0, as Louisiana Tech battled FIU and UTEP took on FBS newcomer Jacksonville State. To round out the CUSA action, first-year member New Mexico State battled UMass in a nationally televised showdown in Las Cruces.
Louisiana Tech and Jacksonville State emerged victorious in their conference clashes, while FIU and UTEP deal with 0-1 starts in CUSA play. New Mexico State also commences 2023 with an 0-1 record, but the Aggies partook in non-conference action against the independent UMass.
With no shortage of CUSA action in Week 0, here are five takeaways, covering all five participating teams:
UTEP’s play-calling was brutal
In somewhat of a shocker Saturday, a favored UTEP team exhibiting loads of experience was bested by FBS newcomer Jacksonville State, 17-14. The Miners got off to a slow start and trailed 17-7 for into the early minutes of the fourth quarter. But Dana Dimel’s team finagled out of that double-digit deficit with a touchdown and a series of defensive stops to give itself an offensive opportunity for the win.
Trailing by three with under 90 seconds remaining, UTEP faced a 3rd and 1 from the Jacksonville State 24-yard line. The Miners, with zero timeouts at their disposal, opted to take a shot for the end zone, but quarterback Gavin Hardison missed Kelly Akharaiyi on the fade. Then on 4th down, they elected to line up in shotgun, and Hardison targeted Tyrin Smith roughly six yards down the field toward the far sideline, despite Akharaiyi finding an opening in the middle of the field. The throw was late, into a highly-congested area, and picked off by Jeremiah Harris, ultimately providing the Gamecocks their first win as an FBS program.
Overall, UTEP finished a calamitous 3-of-12 on third downs and 1-of-3 on fourth downs, and those failed conversions featured some of the Miners’ worst offensive plays. And on one notable fourth down attempt, UTEP lined up in a bunched-up formation similar to that used for a QB kneel-down. The Miners successfully scored out of this formation in the 2021 New Mexico Bowl using a fake QB sneak element, but on Saturday, it wound up in a disastrous 6-yard sack.
Even after digging itself in a 10-point hole, the opportunities for victory were there for UTEP, but questionable play-calling denied the Miners of a 1-0 start in their first-ever CUSA matchup against Jacksonville State.
Jacksonville State’s offensive brand is well-established
Many college football viewers acquainted themselves with Jacksonville State for the first time Saturday. The Gamecocks kicked off their FBS tenure in Jacksonville, AL under second-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, who is best known for his time at West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona — taking the Mountaineers and Wildcats to a combine three BCS/New Year’s Six bowls.
Just like those Pat White-led West Virginia and Khalil Tate-led Arizona squads coached by Rodriguez, Jacksonville State is going to make itself heard through its rushing attack. The Gamecocks didn’t pass much in its FBS debut, completing just 10-of-20 strikes for 67 yards. But Rodriguez’s squad established a commanding ground presence, totaling 210 yards on 5.0 per attempt. Dual-threat quarterback Zion Webb was difficult to contain from a mobility perspective at times, and the seventh-year senior posted 55 rushing yards and only took one sack against a formidable UTEP front seven. Meanwhile the running back tandem of Malik Jackson and Ron Wiggins did their best Steve Slaton and Noel Devine by adding 76 and 63 yards to the equation on 13 attempts apiece.
The most famous play in Gamecocks history is a 59-yard Hail Mary to defeat Florida State in 2021. But don’t expect explosive passes like that to be the calling card of 2023 Jacksonville State, because this team is built to thrive almost-exclusively in the run department. And with a diverse set of options in the backfield including Webb, it could actually work.
The Harris-Allen duo will be spectacular under Bachmeier
Louisiana Tech defeated FIU, 22-17 in the Week 0 nightcap, and the low-scoring bout comes as a surprise for several reasons. One, both teams fielded bottom five scoring defenses in 2022 and the prior year meeting at FIU ended in a 42-34 final filled with offensive fireworks. Two, Louisiana Tech racked up 450 yards of offense compared to the Panthers’ 182, suggesting the Bulldogs left tons of points on the board.
It was the debut for the highly-experienced transfer Hank Bachmeier, who started 29 games for Boise State dating back to 2019. Bachmeier was a seamless fit for Sonny Cumbie’s offense in Ruston, and he attained his fourth 300-yard game of his college career in his first game as a Bulldog. The former Bronco chipped in 333 passing yards, completing 34-of-44 attempts in the conference victory.
The main benefactors of Bachmeier’s arrival were a pair of incumbent receivers — old and young. Smoke Harris, now in his sixth season with the Bulldogs, racked up a career-high 11 receptions for 155 yards (one short of his personal best) in his first game working with his new quarterback. Meanwhile, true sophomore Cyrus Allen showcased his speed en route to a 5-catch, 48-yard showing as the No. 2 option. Harris and Allen were both critical to the Bulldogs’ game-winning drive, and Bachmeier showed impressive veteran poise as their facilitator, completing a 14-point comeback.
It’s a new-look CUSA and there’s a lot to like about this offense — which would have posted a higher scoring output if not for a pair of turnovers and two missed field goals from 37 and 43 yards out. Harris and Allen will be a lethal combo all season, and you can expect at least one of the two to be pushing the 100-yard envelope on a weekly basis given the fortitude of this aerial attack.
FIU nearly winning with four passing yards could be promising
It’s safe to say FIU won’t finish another game this season with as little as four passing yards. Yes, the Panthers finished with just four passing yards against Louisiana Tech on a 5-of-14 showing from the pocket, complemented by an interception in the final minute of the contest.
Quarterback Grayson James enters his second year as a starter and has proven his potential before. Ironically, his best showing transpired against Louisiana Tech last October when darting for a career-best 321 passing yards and three touchdowns without an interception. But the fact the Panthers almost won that game with four passing yards is impressive in itself. FIU established a 17-3 lead predicated on a dominant rushing attack. This run game, overwhelmingly led by Shomari Lawrence, consistently eroded the Louisiana Tech defense as the tailback garnered 139 yards on 15 attempts — amount to 9.3 per carry.
The past few years of FIU football have seen some ugly defeats, including a 73-0 loss to WKU and five additional losses by 38+ points. But the Panthers’ run defense stifled Louisiana Tech to 3.2 yards per run and penetrated the backfield with eight tackles for loss. Additionally, all facets of special teams were exceptional which could be the difference between wins and losses down the road.
These are all promising signs and if FIU can see even the slightest turnaround in the passing game, Mike MacIntyre could field a much more competitive squad in 2023, after FIU posted an aggregate record of 5-24 the previous three seasons.
New Mexico State’s defeat was nothing short of jarring
One underrated storyline of the 2022 season was the rise of New Mexico State. In a typical year, the Aggies typically find themselves in the basement of the college football rankings, outside of 2017 when the program attained its first-ever bowl victory in a 7-6 campaign. But last season, New Mexico State recorded six wins in a 7-game stretch to claim its second winning season in the last 20 years. The Aggies received a waiver to become bowl eligible since they played an extra FCS team to make up for a canceled game against San Jose State.
Despite earning the bid in unique circumstances, New Mexico State thrived in its postseason opportunity, downing Bowling Green, 24-19 in the Quick Lane Bowl. The Aggies returned their veteran starting quarterback Diego Pavia and looked to build on that momentum when transitioning from independent status to CUSA membership for 2023. However, their home opener in Las Cruces was disastrous in every sense, particularly on the defensive side.
UMass strolled into town with a 3-37 record across its past three seasons, and the Minutemen hadn’t triumphed on the road since Oct. 27, 2018 against UConn. Yet the Minutemen as touchdown underdogs posted 41 points on the Aggies — their first 40-point game since Nov. 3, 2018. It was two-way dominance as UMass registered 389 yards while definitively winning the turnover battle, 3-0, headlined by a 55-yard pick six to build the lead to 34-17 with 6:40 to go.
New Mexico State finished 30th in scoring defense a season ago, although the Aggies were benefactors of a schedule featuring two FCS programs and four 10+ loss FBS teams. But so many explosive plays were yielded and UMass generated six 20+ yard gains and an witnessed an abundance of significant pickups.
Last season, New Mexico State dropped its opener at home to Nevada in a 23-12 final score, and Nevada wound up in the conversation for the FBS’s worst team while the Aggies found themselves with bowl hardware. It’s still early, and this might be the best UMass team since joining the FBS in 2012, but Saturday’s 41-30 loss certainly raises concerns for the new CUSA squad.