I want to be in Boise, Idaho on September 12.
That’s when the Broncos of Boise State will have their first chance to win their 100th game since 2000. Granted, they would have to have beaten preseason hype-machine Oregon on opening day but I make a habit of never underestimating Idaho’s best.
The college football landscape continues to evolve with on-field competitive parity and off-field recruiting diversity. Because of that it's the right time to look closer at which conference and which programs could rise above their middle class standing and begin to challenge the best of the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference.
Welcome to Conference USA. It’s time to load up the RV and make a little road trip east to Greenville, North Carolina and south to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It’s time for ECU and USM to plague the BCS in the tradition of the MWC and WAC.
The formula for mid-major success is to recruit the heck out of it, coach the talent out of it, and revolutionize the game through it. It doesn’t hurt when “it” is a respected winning program with a history of quaint and commendable bowl appearances.
At ECU “it” all starts with Skip Holtz. But anyone who knows a Holtz knows that they don’t do quaint and commendable.
I’m quick to admit it—I have a certain affection for the Holtz family. I’ve read father Lou’s Wins, Losses, and Lessons four times. I nervously pick grass when I’m directing traffic at our Sunday “used-to-be-or-never-was” touch football games. I spent three months of my eighth grade year talking with a lisp before my father finally threatened to make me homeless.
Jocularity aside, Coach Holtz has the first part of the formula in place with a university in the middle of an ideal recruiting nuclei. ECU sits three hours south of the tidewater area, an hour east of the North Carolina triangle, and not too far north of Atlanta and Florida to pull in respectable three-star recruits from each respective hot spot.
A few of those athletes evolved into offensive stars like Patrick Pinckney and Chris Johnson during first years of the Coach Holtz era. Others have turned into legit defensive players like 09’ returning linebacker Nick Johnson (102 tackles in ’08), senior free safety Van Eskridge (97 tackles), and senior front men C.J. Wilson (70 tackles and 10.5 sacks) and Jay Ross (5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for a loss).
But it always comes back to Skip Holtz. Regarded as a “players coach” he inserts young players (51 lettermen return for 2009), emphasizes speed and toughness on defense (just 333 total yards allowed per game in ’08), and possesses that rare ability to mix a family atmosphere with the discipline of a top program.
With that approach in place Holtz has pioneered a handful of shocking victories in recent years. The Pirates beat Virginia Tech and West Virginia in 2008 and edged North Carolina in 2007 before stunning the aforementioned benchmark program, Boise State, in a memorable 41-38 Hawaii Bowl.
Without fear, Coach Holtz and ECU scheduled FCS power Appalachian State and road trips to WVU and UNC for 2009. Two big wins and the successful navigation of an advantageous CUSA schedule and East Carolina could pirate the BCS.
Enhanced recruiting, a dominant head man at the helm, an innovative defense, and the top rusher, receiver, passer, and tackler back for 2009; the Pirates are middle class no more.
Much like the rise of Utah, TCU, and BYU in the Mountain West conference, Conference USA can watch the rise of both East Carolina and Southern Mississippi in the next decade.
Stop the presses. Hasn’t Southern Miss always been good? 10 straight winning seasons under Jim Bowers? Four CUSA championships? Bret Favre? What’s different? What makes USM a real top 25 threat now?
Nationally recognized recruiting and a revolutionary offensive approach in Hattiesburg are a good start.
Southern Miss has put together four straight top CUSA classes according to Rivals. They were ranked No. 37 nationally in 2008 thanks to five-star coup DeAndre Brown, now one of the top wide receivers in the country. Coming off a broken leg in last years New Orleans Bowl, Brown was still named to the Belitnikoff watch list for the top receiver award in the country for the upcoming season.
In addition to Brown, USM added seven four-star players from 2007 to 2009. Head coach Larry Fedora now has the foundation for a tremendous run in CUSA and in the national race for January attention.
Fedora, who replaced the successful Jeff Bowers (119-83-1 in 17 seasons) in 2008, brought his innovative version of the spread offense to the underclassmen talents of quarterback Austin Davis (3128 yards and 23 TD in ’08), Brown (1117 receiving and 12 TD’s), and back Damion Fletcher (1347 rushing and 10 TD’s). The result was a solid 7-6, a bowl victory, and a 2009 returning line-up that includes 10 players on offense and nine on defense.
The talent-rich recruiting landscape Southern Miss draws from includes traditional SEC states like Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, as well as Mississippi. Coach Fedora’s recruiting success proves that he can get off the porch and run with the big dogs of the deep south. The result has been a Golden Eagle offense that is high-flying, abundantly skilled, and on par with SEC programs like Arkansas and South Carolina and miles ahead of the likes of Auburn and Mississippi State.
With that offense in place, a horde of stars returning, and an enhanced degree of national attention Southern Miss is a program primed for the spotlight. A 10 win season and the dream of a BCS bowl are both possible for Southern Mississippi.
A Boise-like decade of program excellence and a new era of systematic challenges to the BCS establishment are coming straight out of Greenville and Hattiesburg. East Carolina and Southern Mississippi are ready to rise.