FAU Favored To Repeat As C-USA Champs
Lane Kiffin knew very little about Conference USA before he became Florida Atlantic’s head coach. Same for Butch Davis at Florida International.
The high-profile coaches made immediate impacts in their new league, and at their new schools not all that far apart.
FAU is the preseason favorite to repeat as league champs after a school-record 11 wins and its first C-USA title. The Owls, coming off three consecutive 3-9 seasons, overcame a 1-3 start last season and now and carry a 10-game winning streak into their 2018 opener at Oklahoma.
FIU went 8-5, doubling its win total from the previous season for the team’s first winning record since joining the conference in 2013.
“Way better than people think that it is,” Davis said about C-USA. “The level of the coaches in this conference, there’s some damn good football coaches in just about every place. … There’s a lot more talent, there’s a lot of really good athletes in this conference.”
Kiffin, who spent the previous three seasons with Nick Saban at Alabama, had a similar impression about a league that had 10 bowl-eligible teams and sent nine to postseason games (only the SEC and ACC has more).
“Especially (when) you’ve got some games where they’re basically assuming that you’re going to lose early in the year, to be able to still have that many teams bowl-eligible again speaks to the players, but to the coaches, too,” Kiffin said.
Rick Stockstill is the longest-tenured C-USA coach, going into his 13th season at Middle Tennessee. This is Doc Holliday’s ninth season at Marshall.
Louisiana Tech has won bowl games each of the past four seasons under coach Skip Holtz, while North Texas has played in bowls both seasons since former North Carolina assistant Seth Littrell became its coach. Mike Sanford Jr. was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator before going to Western Kentucky last year.
The whole league will be watching when FAU opens at Oklahoma, the preseason favorite to win its fourth consecutive Big 12 title after being in the College Football Playoff last season. So what if the Owls could pull off an upset Sept. 1?
“That would do a ton for the program, and for the conference, and Group of Five,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got a very tough schedule, we’re not putting everything into that game. Then all of a sudden you don’t win that game and … you start losing games that you should win.”
Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill remembers being a little standoffish with the head coach when he first got to school there “just to try to prove that I was there was a football player and not because of (being) his son.” Stockstill goes into his senior season already as the Blue Raiders career leader in touchdown passes (77) and 300-yard passing games (14).
“It’s everything that I wanted it to be, and more,” said the younger Stockstill, who plans to be a coach like his dad. “We’ve grown closer and closer and really tried to just do it the right way and show people that it’s a special opportunity.”
Rick Stockstill said it’s hard to put into words how much he’s enjoyed the time coaching his son.
East Division: Florida Atlantic returns 15 starters, including running back Devin Singletary and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, the preseason C-USA offense and defensive players of the year. Singletary led the nation with 32 rushing touchdowns while running for 1,920 yards, and Al-Shaair had 147 tackles. The Owls will have a new starting quarterback — former Oklahoma player Chris Robison or DeAndre Johnson, by way of Florida State and East Mississippi Community College.
West Division: Two of the losses by North Texas last season were to FAU, and both were lopsided — first in the regular season and then in the C-USA championship game. But the Mean Green were 7-0 against other C-USA opponents. Quarterback Mason Fine (school records of 4,052 yards passing and 31 TDs), last year’s C-USA offensive player of the year, is among 17 returning starters. Top tackler E.J. Ejiya is also back. FAU visits Denton on Nov. 15, about two weeks before the league championship game.
Mike Bloomgren takes over at Rice as a first-time head coach after the past seven seasons as a Stanford assistant. The 41-year-old Bloomgren replaced two-time C-USA coach of the year David Baliff, fired after Rice finished 1-11 in his 11th season.
New UTEP coach Dana Dimel was previously head coach at Wyoming (1997-99) and Houston (2000-02), and was an assistant at Kansas State, his alma mater, the past nine years. The Miners were the only Division I team that didn’t win a game last season.