C-USA grows even bigger

Published 12:00 pm Friday, July 26, 2013

Asked if he could name them all, McCarney chuckled and said he might take him while.

“But I know there’s 14 this year, I think there’s 13 next year, and hopefully we’ll be back to 14 the next year after that,” McCarney said Wednesday at C-USA media day. “I’m just trying to piece it all together, I know who’s on our schedule, West, East, who’s coming, who’s going.”

The Mean Green are among six new teams in Conference USA, which this fall spans across nine states. The league got bigger even with the departures of Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF to the Big East, whose football members later became the American Athletic Conference.

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Three more teams — defending C-USA champion Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina — are headed to the American Athletic Conference next  year, when Old Dominion and Western Kentucky arrive. Conference USA expects to be back to 14 football teams when Charlotte begins play in 2015.

“If you’re involved with coaching football, you’re in the ever-changing landscape of conference affiliation,” said first-year Southern Miss coach Todd Monken, who was aware of the pending changes when he took over a Golden Eagles team that didn’t win a game last season.

Southern Miss and Tulane are the only schools remaining from when the league debuted with six teams in 1996. The Green Wave leave after this season.

“I sat here last year, same table, same place. I watched Houston, Memphis, all those guys, and I said I hope I never have to ask those questions, and here you are asking me,” second-year Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “You’ve got to take the old raider attitude, just wherever you play, wherever you go, whoever lines up against you, you have to play those guys, play those opponents, prepare your team and prepare yourself.”

Tulsa was the unanimous pick by the coaches in their preseason poll to win the West Division in its last C-USA season. East Carolina, another soon-departing school, is favored in the East after getting 11 of 14 first-place votes.

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said it’s a bit different but “not that awkward” getting ready to play a final season before changing leagues.

“Honestly, it’s exciting to me,” Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. “What I’m more excited about is getting to play Texas-San Antonio and Larry Coker and North Texas in Dan McCarney, and Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech, schools we haven’t had a lot to do with recently. That makes it a lot more exciting for us.”

The six newcomers were split equally among the two divisions, with former Sun Belt teams Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and Florida International in the East. In the West are  North Texas, also from the Sun Belt, and former WAC teams Louisiana Tech and UTSA.

Louisiana Tech has a lot of changes after going 9-3 last season while averaging 51 points and 578 total yards per game. The Bulldogs lost 32 seniors and coach Sonny Dykes left to become head coach at California.

New Bulldogs coach Skip Holtz, who won consecutive Conference USA titles at East Carolina in 2008 and 2009 before going to South Florida, is excited to be back in the league and for Louisiana Tech to have a chance to build more natural conference rivalries.

“I know for us being in Northern Louisiana and having Southern Miss, North Texas, Rice, UTSA, Tulsa, all of a sudden you’ve got car-ride trips for your fan base, where people get in the car and put the flag in the window, and they can go to a game,” Holtz said. “Their fans can also come to our place, which I think is going to be a completely different atmosphere for Louisiana Tech, because being in the WAC, every trip’s been a plane ride.”

UTSA, which didn’t even have a football team three years ago, spent only one season in the WAC and was 8-4 overall. Coach Larry Coker, the former Miami coach, expects C-USA to be a viable league and a great opportunity for the Roadrunners.

Florida Atlantic coach Carl Pelini is in a different conference for the third year in a row.

Pelini was defensive coordinator at Nebraska when the Cornhuskers switched from the Big 12 Conference to the Big Ten in 2011, then spent his first season as head coach in the Sun Belt. He said it’s “kind of fun” preparing to play completely different opponents, something he faces again next season.

“It’s insane,” Pelini said. “But that’s what college football is right now, right? The landscape changes every year.”

As first-year FIU coach Ron Turner put it after spending the past eight seasons as an NFL assistant, “There’s changes in every conference. If you don’t pick up a paper for four months, you may not know who’s in what conference. And from year to year, you’re definitely not going to know.”