It won’t attract the monster markets, nor will big-time analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musberger be announcing play-by-plays on Saturday night primetime.
The Conference USA matchups won’t be the initial reason to exchange pleasantry in your local pubs; there’s a rare chance that your server is going to oblige to your desire to watch the Rice Owls come Saturday afternoon. However, it shouldn’t take away from the significance of future non-conference contests.
We have our handful of games that could act as serious turning points for certain C-USA clubs.
Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt (Week 1)
The Hilltoppers-Commodores rendezvous won’t even sniff the top of the must-watch television come opening weekend; it’s the kickoff of 2015, and there remains far glamorous match ups that perhaps already have implications for the rest of the season.
It’s the new fad, apparently. The Western Kentucky bandwagon is crammed to the brim with fair weather fans, but even at 8-4 in 2014, I’m maybe not grasping the affection that some have with the Hilltoppers. The game appears rather even, and this one could perhaps be one where the team with possession last comes out victorious.
Vanderbilt rarely exploded for big plays on offense a year ago, but the Commodores do return quarterback Johnny McCrary. He’ll hope to continue the C-USA beat downs, as SEC teams are outscoring the mid-majors by nearly 30 points since 2013.
If Western Kentucky can march into Vanderbilt and oust the ‘Dores in Week 1, then the momentum builds for Weeks 2 and 3 versus Louisiana Tech and Indiana. Fail to do so, and the Hilltoppers are liable to break open the season at 0-3, and before you know it, they’re scurrying for a postseason game.
Louisiana Tech at Kansas State (Week 3)
With Jeff Driskel at the helm for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, Week 3 emerges as his first real test of proving himself. Call it the rebirth, the reincarnation, whatever you’d prefer. But Driskel’s biggest roadblock remains his own self, and the mentality to regroup following a couple of mediocre seasons at Florida.
I doubt the Bulldogs find any trouble Southern in Week 1, and Western Kentucky Week 2 could be one of the best C-USA games of the season, but I’m specifically pinpointing Week 3 versus Bill Snyder and Kansas State. Perhaps the lack of defense in the Big 12 conference played a significant role in perception, but the Wildcats supplied a sneaky-stout one in 2014. While it may be a rebuilding year for Snyder’s ‘Cats, it’ll be the first real competitive defense that Driskel measures up with, and we as fans get to see our own ‘fight or flight’ response from the ex-gator.
UTEP at Texas Tech (Week 2)
Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury nearly endured a slip up in 2014 versus the UTEP Miners, the Red Raiders securing a four-point win as visitors to avoid a substantial road upset. A Davis Webb touchdown pass to Bradley Marquez with 2:32 remaining in the final quarter, and Tech would escape a near heartbreak.
I touched on the Miners earlier last week and why this program is so unorthodox compared to the remnants of the C-USA. They refrain from barn burners, and are fundamentally sound, two factors that nearly resulted in upending a Big 12 foe. Texas-El Paso chewed up nearly 40 minutes of game clock. 40.
Texas Tech supposedly is back on the saddle for 2015 and the kinks are currently being worked out by Kingsbury. I’m also not doubting that months of preparation and constant reminding from coaches that the big bad Raiders were nearly shocked by a C-USA team will play a role.
But Texas Tech’s forte has not been the defense, and the Miners game plan should be eerily similar to 2014’s. I’m not calling for an upset, but UTEP’s resilience and fundamentals could make this one a must-see.