As we continue our series breaking down the schedules of the so-called “non-AQ” conferences, we see the continued shuffling of conference pieces at the highest levels of college football resulting in some new additions to the 2013-14 Conference USA lineup. Former Sun Belt members Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and North Texas join the mix for the upcoming season, along with fellow new clubs Louisiana Tech and UTSA. These new members will replace UCF, Memphis, Houston and SMU, who are departing the conference.
The conference followed up a somewhat tough 12-36 (7-35 against FBS opponents) non-conference schedule in 2012 with four wins in five bowl outings, the lone loss suffered by East Carolina at the hands of UL Lafayette in a wild 43-34 New Orleans Bowl. The new conference teams bring a new set of non-conference opponents, and some chances to quickly turn around the results of last year’s slate.
For more non-conference schedule rankings, feel free to check out our previous reviews for the ACC, American, Big 12, Big Ten, MAC, MWC, Pac-12, SEC and Sun Belt. Do you have thoughts on our rankings? Leave us a reply below.
14. Tulane Green Wave
Tulane struggled through a tough 2012 non-conference schedule, losing all four games by a combined score of 167-35. All four non-conference opponents participated in bowl games. The Green Wave get a bit of a break in 2013, starting the season with FCS opponent Jackson State and South Alabama, who is in their first full season as a Sun Belt member. A tough contest in the Carrier Dome against the Syracuse Orange takes place in September, despite the loss of quarterback Ryan Nassib and head coach Doug Marrone. Tulane’s final non-conference opponent, ULM, defeated the Green Wave 63-10 in the Superdome in 2012.
13. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Louisiana Tech comes off of a nine-win 2012 season in which they did not participate in a bowl game (one of two new C-USA teams not to be invited, despite being eligible), and will begin play in Conference USA without their star quarterback, Colby Cameron, who is in camp with the Carolina Panthers. Their head coach, Sonny Dykes, has also left the program to take over at Cal. Skip Holtz takes over the Bulldog program, having been relieved of his duties at South Florida. While we don’t quite know how the new-look Bulldogs will play on the field, we at least know their opponents.
Tech opens against another school with a new coach and new look, the Dave Doeren-led NC State Wolfpack. The ‘Pack went 5-1 at home in 2012, and they figure to have an advantage opening at Carter-Finley. The Lamar Cardinals of the FBS travel to Ruston the following week, with a game at Kansas and a neutral site contest against Army in the Cotton Bowl closing out the month of September. Those final two non-conference opponents combined for just three wins in 2012.
12. Marshall Thundering Herd
It’s time for some MACtion for Marshall before they begin their conference slate, taking on two Mid-American Conference foes in Miami (OH) and Ohio. Sandwiched between those games is a visit from Gardner-Webb of the FCS. The Runnin’ Bulldogs should look a little different under new head coach Carroll McCray, but a victory in Huntington will be a tough task. Miami struggled to a 4-8 finish in 2012, with Ohio capping off a nine-win season by thrashing ULM in the Independence Bowl. The Thundering Herd close their non-conference matchups with an extremely tough semi-regional game against the Hokies in Blacksburg. Marshall last defeated Virginia Tech 73 years ago, notching a 13-7 win in 1940.
11. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Middle Tennessee enters Conference USA a year ahead of schedule, and an interesting group of opponents awaits them. The Catamounts of the FCS visit Murfreesboro to kick off the season on the final Thursday of August, with a trip to Kenan Stadium to take on North Carolina looming the following week. The Blue Raiders and Tar Heels both lost their top running backs, with Benny Cunningham and Giovani Bernard having moved on.
Cross-state rival Memphis has struggled of late, particularly against Middle Tennessee. The Raiders defeated the Tigers 48-30 in the Liberty Bowl in 2012. An always-challenging BYU club wraps up the out-of-conference season for MTSU in a nationally-televised Friday contest at the end of September. The Cougars closed their 2012 season with a victory over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl, a season in which they went 5-1 in LaVell Edwards Stadium, losing only to Oregon State.
10. UTEP Miners
The Miners look to rebound from a 3-9 season in 2012 by looking to first win bragging rights with their border state. UTEP takes on both schools from the Land of Enchantment in the first two weeks of non-conference play. The Lobos and Aggies went 5-20 between them last year, with UTEP claiming a 41-28 victory over NMSU. A trip to Colorado State is next, with the Miners facing a Rams team that accumulated just four wins last season. The “other” Aggies will host the Miners in November, and if you need any proof of their talents, look at our breakdown of Rice’s schedule, or think back to last season.
9. FAU Owls
The names on FAU’s 2013 schedule look a bit more imposing than the results we saw on the field in 2012. Miami comes off a self-imposed postseason ban in a season in which they could have competed for the ACC title. New coach Willie Taggart’s USF Bulls will host the Owls on September 14th, looking to rebound from a 3-9 season that resulted in Skip Holtz being dismissed.
When speaking of down seasons, Auburn and New Mexico State are prime examples of down seasons. The two teams combined to go just 4-20 in 2012, with both schools getting new coaches for the 2013 season. Last year aside, winning at Jordan-Hare is an amazingly tough task. The Owls stand a pretty solid chance of emerging victorious over the Aggies at home, and a 2-2 record out of conference (at worst) would be an acceptable start in Boca Raton.
8. North Texas Mean Green
We’ve already talked about Ohio a bit, but Idaho travels to Denton to start the season coming off a 1-11 campaign in 2012. This game looks to be the best shot for the Mean Green to secure an out-of-conference victory. Ball State was a bowl team in 2012, as we previously mentioned, but the Cardinals allowed just 1.6 fewer points per game than they scored. If UNT can control the ball and keep Ball State’s defense on the field, this helps their chances of pulling the upset. A trip between the hedges to Sanford Stadium finalizes the four non-C-USA games for North Texas, and is by far the toughest out of the four games.
7. Rice Owls
In terms of toughness, this schedule may be interchangeable with that of North Texas, though the opening trip to Kyle Field makes things slightly tougher for the Owls. Ryan Swope and others may be gone, but Heisman winner Johnny Manziel is still at the helm for the Aggies, leading an offense that finished third in total offense a year ago. Rice was a bowl team in 2012, so they should be competitive (at the least) in the final three games; however, keep in mind that Rice’s defense allowed 30 PPG last year. The Owls barely scraped by a Kansas team that went 1-11 in 2012, winning 25-24 in Lawrence, while falling by three touchdowns to Houston last year. A 3-1 record out of conference is not out of the realm of possibility, assuming the Owl defense rises to the occasion.
6. FIU Golden Panthers
Former Illinois head coach Ron Turner takes over the reins of the Panthers as they make their Conference USA debut. Maryland’s struggles at quarterback in 2012 were well-chronicled, but last year’s injury issues are far behind the Terps. Combine returning quarterback C.J. Brown with weapons like Stefon Diggs and Nigel King, and this ACC foe is quite a tough draw to open the season.
A pair of in-state opponents will follow the Terrapins. UCF is coming off a ten-win 2012 season, including a victory over Ball State in the St. Petersburg Bowl. The Knights also defeated FIU 33-20 in Orlando in 2012. The Bethune-Cookman Wildcats of the FCS will make the trip south from Daytona Beach the following week.
This sets up the marquee matchup against Teddy Bridgewater and the Louisville Cardinals. Charlie Strong’s club welcomes the Knights to Papa John’s Stadium, fresh off a BCS victory against Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. FIU was one of seven Sun Belt clubs to allow greater than 400 yards per game on defense (402.9), and that defense will be put to the test against Bridgewater and the Cards.
5. UTSA Roadrunners
Larry Coker’s Roadrunners take the field for the 2013 season as a member of their third different affiliation in three years (the school was an independent in 2011 and a WAC member in 2012). Under revised NCAA rules, UTSA is bowl-eligible in 2013 even though they are still in provisional Division I status, and they will look to at least duplicate their 3-1 non-conference mark from 2012. Oklahoma State would appear to be a slightly easier opponent with Wes Lunt having transferred; however, even with the Cowboys coming to the Alamodome, the odds of escaping with a victory are somewhat long. Arizona went 6-2 in the desert in 2012, and this makes for a tough back-to-back opponent after the Cowboys visit.
4. UAB Blazers
UAB begins the 2013 season by taking a trip to cross-state opponent Troy. Larry Blakeney’s Trojans had an uncharacteristically rough 2012 season, going 0-4 against top 50 clubs. Troy also went just 2-4 at home, making this a somewhat winnable game for the Blazers. FCS foe Northwestern State should provide little problem for UAB at Legion Field; however, two SEC road games at LSU and rising Vanderbilt would appear — on paper, at least — to have the Blazers over-matched. A 2-2 non-conference record would seem to be about the best UAB can hope for in 2013.
In reality, any of the top three could be the toughest schedule with no problem, so the order may change as circumstances evolve.
3. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
The Golden Hurricane’s final season in Conference USA shapes up to present a formidable group of opponents. Bowling Green hosts Tulsa on the opening Thursday of the season, fresh off an 8-5 2012 season. The Falcons lost to San Jose State in the Military Bowl, but did win five of six at home during the season. Colorado State should be a favorable matchup for the athletic Golden Hurricane, though two Big 12 matchups follow that contest. Tulsa compiled 11 wins last season — three against top-50 teams — and will get another crack against one of those top-50 opponents in a trip to Norman to face Oklahoma. Bill Blankenship’s squad also gets a shot at revenge 12 days later, as Iowa State travels to Tulsa. The Cyclones defeated Tulsa 38-23 last season.
2. East Carolina Pirates
Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates get an early crack at a future Conference USA squad in Old Dominion — though East Carolina will not be a part of Conference USA when ODU joins. ODU is in their final year of FCS play, while ECU is in their final year in C-USA. Old Dominion made the 2012 FCS playoffs, winning ten regular season games.
The Pirates then head to the ACC to finish their non-conference tilts. ECU last defeated Virginia Tech in 2008, escaping with a 27-22 victory in Charlotte. This is a different Pirate team now, though, with quarterback Shane Carden and tight end/receiver/matchup nightmare Justin Jones manning the offense. The Pirates have also gone a few years without a victory against North Carolina, with their most recent win coming in 2007. ECU won that game 34-31 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. NC State is just an hour and a half away from ECU’s campus, and the last time the two teams met in 2010, the Pirates won 33-27. Any — or all — of these games could result in victories for ECU, but all three matchups do present a problem for the Pirates.
1. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Welcome to Hattiesburg, Todd Monken! The new Golden Eagle leader made the trip from Oklahoma State to take over a team who went 0-12 in former coach Ellis Johnson’s only season, only to be greeted with an amazingly tough non-conference schedule. Texas State is led by former TCU coach Dennis Franchione, and the Bobcats are in just their second year in FBS play. The first-year Sun Belt school should be a favorable matchup for Southern Miss — and from there, things get really tough.
Arkansas suffered a bit of an unusual season in 2012, going 4-8. Bret Bielema takes over the Razorbacks after leaving Wisconsin, though, so expect a considerably different look from Arkansas in 2013. One would almost never imagine describing Arkansas as the best possible outcome of a trio of games, but two ten-plus win opponents in Nebraska and Boise State flank that Arkansas contest. Memorial Stadium and the blue turf in Boise are two of the toughest places to play in college football — with Arkansas certainly nowhere near a so-called “cupcake” — and the task of facing these three opponents on the road appears incredibly daunting.