It was ECU and Marshall and that got the hype during the season, but Rice raised the trophy after the Championship Game. Photo: USA Today Sports
With Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF exiting the conference and FAU, FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and UTSA entering, 2013 was a year of change for Conference USA. At least one of those exiting teams made the C-USA Championship Game each of the previous four years with UCF winning the title in 2010. Coming into the season, the biggest storylines pitted the high powered offenses of Marshall and ECU in the East, a question of who would come out of the wide-open West and how would the newcomers fare?
Conference USA at a Glance
The East played out like most thought it would with Marshall and ECU as the big dogs and it came down to the last weekend to find out which of those teams would represent the East in the Championship. Coming off of a big win over NC State the previous week, on six days rest the Pirates got pillaged by Marshall. Out West it was Rice that played solid football season all year long and won four straight down the stretch to secure a trip to the Championship. In surprising fashion, the Owls controlled Marshall in the Championship and cruised to their first C-USA title.
Newcomers North Texas (9-4), Middle Tennessee (8-5), UTSA (7-5) and FAU (6-6) had respectable seasons while Louisiana Tech (4-8) and FIU (1-11) tanked. The Conference landed six teams in bowls, which matched the conference record, but also had five teams that won three or fewer games. For the first time in conference history, three schools won ten games (ECU, Marshall and Rice) and for the first time in conference history eight teams won six or more games.
Biggest Surprise: Tulane
Under second year head coach Curtis Johnson, the Tulane Green Wave made a miraculous turnaround. After going just 2-10 in Johnson's first season, the Green Wave finished 7-5 in the regular season and went to a bowl game for the first time since the 2002 season. A solid and opportunistic defense, overall player development, an improved offensive line and a workable schedule helped the Green Wave be one of the biggest stories in the C-USA in 2013.
Tulane had a huge defensive turnaround in 2013, but with Devin Powell the future could be bright for the Green Wave on the other side of the football.
Biggest Disappointment: Tulsa
Once the team to beat in Conference USA, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane hit hard times in 2013. After three consecutive bowl appearances and winning the 2012 Conference Championship Game, Tulsa went just 3-9 in 2013. Year three of the Bill Blankenship era at Tulsa will likely be one that determines his future.
Best Game: Tulane topples ECU in triple overtime
In week seven, Tulane proved they belonged with the upper echelon of Conference USA. ECU's Shane Carden threw for 480 yards and Justin Hardy caught 17 passes for 230 yards but it wasn't enough. In a game that featured a 6-6 tie at half-time and a 99 yard INT return for a TD in the third quarter, this one went back and forth. ECU rallied from 10 points down in the fourth and had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation but missed a long FG. The two teams then traded TDs in the first two overtimes before ECU missed their third FG of the game and Tulane's Cairo Santos hit his fifth FG of the game, this one the game winner. With their starting QB, Nick Montana out of the game, Tulane came away with their first signature win under Curtis Johnson.
Conference USA tied a record with six teams going bowling. The conference split it's six games going 3-3. Conference Champion Rice got blown out in the Liberty Bowl by SEC opponent Mississippi State, Middle Tennessee got controlled 24-6 by Navy in the Armed Forces Bowl and Tulane lost a tight one to in-state foe Louisiana-Lafayette . On the plus side, ECU rolled by Ohio in the final Beef O'Brady Bowl, Marshall scored a big win over an ACC team, Maryland, in the Military Bowl and North Texas handled UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
C-USA Offensive Player of the Year: QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall
Cato led the league in TD passes and was second behind Shane Carden in yards with 3,916. Cato added another 6 TDs on the ground as he led Marshall to their first ever C-USA Championship Game birth and the most wins since the 2002 season.
Honorable Mention: Shane Carden, East Carolina
C-USA Defensive Player of the Year: CB Lorenzo Doss, Tulane
Doss is called by many the "top ballhawk in Conference USA" as he came down with seven interceptions in 2013 including two that were returned for TDs. Tulane's defensive turnaround was remarkable and Doss was a big reason.
Honorable Mention: Shawn Jackson, Tulsa
Freshman of the Year: LB Nico Marley, Tulane
Marley is just 5'8, 180 but he is a dynamo and many tabbed him as the linchpin of Tulane's defensive turnaround in 2013. As a freshman he had 38 solo tackles and 68 total tackles as well as 11 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 1 forced fumble.
Coach of the Year: David Bailiff, Rice
What Bailiff did at Rice this year was impressive. In his first five years, the team's biggest win total was four. In this "win now" era of college football that would have had most coaches looking for other employment but Rice stayed with Bailiff. In 2012, the Owls won seven games and in 2013 they surprised everyone by winning double-digit games and handling Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game.
Honorable Mention: Doc Holliday, Marshall; Curtis Johnson, Tulane
The conference will continue to try and find it's niche in 2014 as they add two more teams to the mix with WKU and Old Dominion coming on board. Unfortunately, three key schools will leave the fold in 2014 as East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa all head to the AAC. After losing Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF last year, that is quite a changeover. Marshall and Rice will be the teams to beat as we head into 2014 but with so much turnover, I expect the unexpected in Conference USA in 2014.