Conference USA has served as something of a way station since the league came into existence nearly 20 years ago. As a league born of a merger, it is fitting that so many teams have moved through C-USA.
Like many other leagues, C-USA is in the midst of a membership change, with six brand new members joining eight holdovers for this season. The league will change again with a bit more shuffling of members before the 2014 season.
Conference USA will still hold a championship game. The game is played at the stadium of the team with the better regular season record. So there is an advantage to trying to build up a good record in non-conference games. Each team will play eight conference games: six games within their division and then two crossover games.
So who has the easiest road ahead, and who has the most challenging, relatively speaking? Let’s find out.
1) Southern Mississippi – The Golden Eagles had a long track record of success, but the program absolutely cratered last season under Ellis Johnson. Johnson was swiftly dismissed and replaced by former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken. The rebuilding begins with a five game home schedule and road trips out of conference to Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State within the first month of the season. Southern Miss will also have to travel to East Carolina and to Louisiana Tech. For a program now on its third coach in three seasons, this is a potentially tall order.
2) UAB – The Blazers have only five home games on their schedule, which would present a challenge in and of itself. But with road trips to Vanderbilt and LSU out of conference and East Carolina in conference, the growth of UAB under second year head coach Garrick McGee will be tested.
3) Florida Atlantic – The Owls will not play a home game until September 21 when Middle Tennessee comes calling. FAU also only has five home games, but they do manage avoid facing Louisiana Tech. Still, the mettle of the Owls will be tested right off the bat with games at Miami (FL) and at East Carolina.
4) UTEP – New UTEP coach Sean Kugler is coming back to his alma mater as a first time head coach. His first season will be interesting, with improved New Mexico and Colorado State squads on the schedule, and the always contentious rivalry game against New Mexico State University. The Miners also have road games against Texas A&M and against Middle Tennessee State University.
5) UTSA – The Roadrunners have made it through their probationary phase as a new member of Division I, and will be able to go to a bowl this season. However, if Larry Coker’s squad is going to be bowl eligible, they will have earned it with games against Oklahoma State, Arizona and Houston in the non-conference portion of the schedule. UTSA misses East Carolina, and gets Louisiana Tech at home to close the regular season.
6) Rice – David Bailiff is one of the longest tenured coaches in C-USA, and his program made a bowl game for the first time in four years last season. If the momentum and growth is to continue for the Owls, they will have to face Texas A&M to start the season, and then host Kansas before facing Houston in the Bayou Bucket Rivalry game at Reliant Stadium. In conference, the Owls will travel to Tulsa and North Texas but they get Louisiana Tech at home.
7) Florida International – The Golden Panthers have stout competition on their slate, having to face two of the preseason favorites in the American in UCF and Louisville, and a Maryland squad that could be better as they settle in under Randy Edsall. FIU does get both Louisiana Tech and East Carolina at home, but it might be a bit of a challenge for Ron Turner in his first year at the helm.
8) Tulane – The Green Wave has struggled as a program since the heydays of the late 1990s. This is the final season that Tulane will be playing in the cavernous Superdome, as they move into a new facility specifically for them in 2014. The Green Wave will start with FCS Jackson state and transitioning South Alabama before they face three stout challengers that will allow them to gauge where they stand: Louisiana Tech, Syracuse and Louisiana-Monroe—all on the road. Tulane also faces North Texas and East Carolina back-to-back in mid-October (with a bye week thrown in), but after that, they have a chance to be competitive the rest of the way.
9) Tulsa – The Golden Hurricane are one of the favorites to win the West Division. They will get a chance to set the tone early with two tough road games in the first three weeks at Bowling Green and at Oklahoma, with a home game against a potentially improved Colorado State squad sandwiched in between. Tulsa finishes the non-conference schedule with a home game against Iowa State. The Golden Hurricane will play both of their crossover opponents (Marshall and East Carolina) in a five game span in the middle of November.
10) North Texas – The Mean Green have to travel to Athens, Georgia to face the Bulldogs to finish up their non-conference schedule. But games at Ohio and home for Idaho and Ball State makes for a pretty competitive non-conference schedule with some winnable games. However, in the West Division race, North Texas has to travel to both Louisiana Tech and to Tulsa. That makes winning the division more challenging.
11) East Carolina – The team with one of the coolest helmet logos in college football has one of the best schedules in Conference USA. The Pirates only leave the state of North Carolina four times in the 12 games that they are scheduled to play. Non-conference road games against in-state foes NC State and North Carolina help make that possible, as does a slate of six home games. One of the possible West Division frontrunners (Tulsa) makes the trip to Greenville in mid-November, although the Pirates have to travel to Middle Tennessee and to Marshall if they are going to win the division.
12) Louisiana Tech – The Bulldogs have a new head coach in Skip Holtz. They also are in a new league (C-USA) and are hoping to put the past behind them after the way things ended last season. Louisiana Tech was bowl eligible, but wound up staying home for the holidays after a comedy of errors (some self-inflicted) led to Louisiana Tech being passed over in bowl selection. The Bulldogs are not bereft of talent, though, even with key pieces missing. The schedule starts with a road game against NC State, but then they return to Ruston to take on FCS opponent Lamar. A trip to Kansas and a neutral site game against Army in the Cotton Bowl round out the non-conference schedule. Tech misses East Carolina, Middle Tennessee and Marshall in the divisional crossover games, and hosts Tulsa in the next to last week of the season. It sets up pretty well for Skip Holtz’s first year back in Conference USA.
13) Marshall – The Thundering Herd will stay somewhat geographically restricted in their non-conference schedule. The Herd hosts FCS Gardner-Webb and Miami (OH), then travels to Virginia Tech and visits Athens, Ohio to play the Bobcats to fill out their non-conference schedule. Marshall visits Middle Tennessee in late October on a Thursday night special, and finishes the season with a home game against East Carolina. Those two matchups could have a large say in who wins the East Division.
14) Middle Tennessee – The Blue Raiders are transitioning to C-USA and might be a dark horse candidate to win the West Division. Two potentially challenging out of conference road games at North Carolina and at BYU are balanced by winnable home contests against FCS team Western Carolina and Memphis. Also, MTSU avoids having to play either Tulsa or Louisiana Tech and gets East Carolina at home.