Conference USA made a case for the strength of its league before a coach or conference official uttered a word this week at the league’s annual football media days in Frisco.
The Bowl Challenge Cup, the trophy the league won for having the highest winning percentage in bowl games among conferences nationally in 2018, was sitting on the table at the front of the room for all to gaze at as they arrived at the Baylor Scott & White Performance Center.
C-USA picked up that silver piece of hardware for finishing 4-2 in bowl season, a performance the league’s coaches see as a sign of the conference’s strength.
“If you go back and look at the numbers from the last four or five years, we have had a lot of success in bowl games,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “It goes back to the balance from top to bottom and the quality of coaches and players in this league.”
The numbers back up the argument that C-USA is remarkably balanced.
That’s both good news and bad news for the league as it enters the 2019 season.
C-USA has won the bowl cup in four of the last eight years and has multiple teams capable of competing for the conference title each year.
For the 4th time in the last eight years, C-USA has the best bowl record of all conferences, making us Bowl Challenge Cup Champs 🏆— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) January 2, 2019
C-USA is now tied for the most Bowl Challenge titles (4) since the award began in 2003. Now that's #TheCUSAWay 😁 pic.twitter.com/jeQz5JGavr
What C-USA hasn’t seen recently is a team make a serious run at grabbing the slot reserved for a team from the Group of Five conferences in a New Year’s Six bowl.
The closest the league came was in 2014, when Marshall nearly capitalized on the perfect setup. The Thundering Herd had a manageable nonconference schedule and a loaded roster featuring a fringe Heisman candidate in quarterback Rakeem Cato.
Marshall ran out to an 11-0 start and had a shot earning that coveted New Year’s Six bowl slot before Western Kentucky spoiled it all with a 67-66 overtime win.
C-USA has featured plenty of good teams since. It just hasn’t had that one dominant team it needs to compete for that spot with the other G5 leagues — the American, Mid-American, Sun Belt and Mountain West.
Parity is great, but C-USA’s coaches admit that having one team break out and elevate the league’s profile would help matters.
“It would be great if a team could do it,” Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin said. “UCF has received a lot of notoriety for what they have done the last two years.”
The Knights have become the latest model for what every team competing at the G5 level wants to accomplish. UCF has played in a New Year’s Six game in each of the last two years and beat Auburn in the 2017 Peach Bowl.
UCF proclaimed itself the 2017 national champion after finishing 13-0, even though Alabama beat Georgia in the official title game.
The impact of playing in those games has been huge for UCF and for the AAC.
The question for C-USA is if there is a realistic path for any of its teams to follow in the Knights’ footsteps.
A C-USA team would likely have to go unbeaten to have a shot. That would mean surviving a nonconference schedule that for most of the league’s teams includes a road game at a national powerhouse before running through the C-USA schedule without dropping a game.
“Scheduling has so much to do with it,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. “Four years ago when Marshall almost did it, they had an out of conference schedule that let them do it. At this level if you lose one game, you are likely out of it. If you lose two, you are definitely out.”
Marshall played Miami (Ohio), Rhode Island, Ohio and Akron in the nonconference season in 2014.
North Texas has the setup that most closely resembles the path Marshall traveled that year. The Mean Green feature the preseason C-USA Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback, Mason Fine, have 13 starters back and what looks like a manageable schedule.
UNT will face one Power Five team in Cal in addition to SMU and Houston in nonconference play. The toughest of those games appears to be against Houston, and the Mean Green will host the Cougars.
UNT coach Seth Littrell knows contending in C-USA will be a huge challenge, let alone making the type of season-long run to represent the league in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Like the rest of the teams in C-USA, even if the Mean Green make it through nonconference play unscathed, they will still have a tough slate of conference games ahead.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we could line up against any opponent in our league and win, but we could also be embarrassed very easily,” Littrell said.
Fine said UNT will focus on what it can control, the day-to-day task of improving, while not looking too far into the future as it aims to make the kind of run few C-USA teams have over the years.
C-USA didn’t have a team finish unbeaten in league play last year, and only MTSU and UAB finished with one conference loss. FAU finished 8-0 in C-USA play in 2017 and is the only team in the league to go unbeaten in conference play the last three years.
Several of the top teams in C-USA might not even make it out of the first couple of weeks of the season with their hopes of making a historic season-long run alive.
FAU is among the favorites in C-USA’s East Division and opens at Ohio State. Louisiana Tech, one of the top teams in the West Division, faces Texas in Week 1, while Southern Miss will travel to Mississippi State in Week 2. UAB and Florida International have easier schedules early but face Tennessee and Miami, respectively, in November.
Marshall won’t face a Power Five team this year but will take on Boise State, Ohio and Cincinnati in three straight games beginning in early September.
Marshall coach Doc Holliday said he will learn a lot about his team during that stretch, including if this year’s edition of the Thundering Herd can accomplish what his 2014 team nearly did.
C-USA’s teams will all be chasing that same New Year’s Six goal this fall that has often seemed out of reach.
“We were so close,” Holliday said. “That’s ultimately our goal.”