The 5 Most Interesting C-USA Matchups this Season

Welcome to The Most Interesting Matchups, the series about interesting gridiron matchups (get it?) from the upcoming season, as taken from the series’ history. Think of it as “Drunk G5 History” or “Trivial Pursuit: CFB Edition.”

Each week, I’ll highlight one conference and its particular out-of-conference matchups. I have to rule out teams like UTSA and Georgia State, since their programs are so young, and my methodology is not the least bit scientific—though numbers play a huge part. This week is Conference USA.

Check out previous entries here:

Sun Belt

Mountain West

5. Rice at Hawaii

2018 Date: Saturday, September 8
Series: Rice, 5-2

In 1996, the mighty Southwest Conference collapsed. Well, at that point “mighty” would be an overestimation. Two years before, five teams split the conference title with a 4-3 record, and the death of SMU still affected the conference’s market share on TV.

SMU, TCU and Rice all joined the WAC, which featured teams such as BYU, Air Force, San Diego State… and Hawaii. The conference had 16 teams—effectively the first “superconference”—spreading across four time zones and nine states.

I know what you’re thinking.

“What does this have to do with Rice-Hawaii?”

The teams didn’t play against each other for Rice’s first three years. Then, half the WAC left to form the Mountain West. Rice and Hawaii were forced to travel nearly 4,000 miles—that’s one way—every other year, beginning in 1999.

Rice won the first two games by an average of 22 points. The next year, the Warriors welcomed the Owls to Aloha Stadium for the home opener. Compared to previous matchups, the Warriors put up a fight.

Rice was down 21-7 at halftime. Over the next 18 minutes, the Owls rallied to tie the ballgame at 24. With 2:26 left on the clock, kicker Brandon Skeen nailed the go-ahead field goal, giving Rice the 27-24 victory.

The next two games weren’t as kind to Rice, losing by 5 and 12 points, but in 2004 it restored order. Rice won 41-21 and with a 4-2 lead in the series followed SWC rival SMU to the C-USA. This year’s game is the second of a home-and-home that started with a two-touchdown win for Rice in 2014.

Honestly, I expect the outcome to be similar.

4. Tennessee-Martin at Middle Tennessee

2018 Date: Saturday, September 8
Series: Middle Tennessee, 18-7-1

Heard of the 100 Miles of Hate? This is the 167 Miles of Mild Annoyance.

UT Martin joined the NCAA College Division in 1961, won its conference in 1962 and found itself without a football conference the next year: The Volunteer State Athletic Conference dropped its support of football.

(That’s not entirely true. In 1967, the Junior Vols—actual nickname—won the “Atlantic Coast College Division Championship,” or the “Eastern Regional Final” held at the Tangerine Bowl. That game is now the Citrus Bowl, the Junior Vols have been the Skyhawks since 1995 and I digress.)

In 1963, the Blue Raiders hosted the Junior Vols for the first time, winning 21-14. The next year ended in a 0-0 tie, the only draw in the series. The two teams played nearly every year until 1981, at which point Middle Tennessee owned the relatively close series 8-6-1.

For the next nine years, the teams only met once. The Blue Raiders smothered their western neighbors 39-3 in 1983. Then, the Skyhawks began the transition to I-AA play, scheduling Middle Tennessee yearly and joining it in the Ohio Valley Conference in 1992.

UT Martin went 1-9 in this time, and that 1993 win was part of Middle Tennessee’s first losing season in 13 years. The MTSU coach, Boots Donnelly, became the athletic director in 1999, just as his team jumped to Division I play. That same year, the two teams played their last matchup: a 70-14 blowout in Murfreesboro.

The two teams have not played since, but the score may not be much better for UT Martin this millenium.

3. Old Dominion at East Carolina

2018 Date: Saturday, September 29
Series: East Carolina, 4-3-1

The previous entry featured an 18-year drought. That’s nothing. Try 73 years and the resurrection of a program.

In 1930, Coach Tommy Scott put together a football team two days after being asked if the school (then the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary) should have one. Two years later, the school received an invitation from Miami—as in Florida, the Hurricanes—intended for the main campus’ team. Norfolk responded and played the game, losing an impressive 6-2 match at the Orange Bowl.

That story alone would make for an entry in this series, but they don’t play either Miami this year. They do play East Carolina this year, the very same team the school first played in 1934. The two teams tied 0-0.

East Carolina won 10-6 in 1935, and 25-0 the next year. The series lead never grew more than a single game, and the losing team only scored in the one matchup. By the time Old Dominion shut its program down in 1940, the series was deadlocked 3-3-1.

Sixty-five years later, the Board of Visitors (Trustees) reinstated the football program. Bobby Wilder became the head coach and led the Monarchs to back-to-back FCS playoff appearances and a conference title in 2012. ODU had its football team again.

In 2013, ECU invited its pre-war opponent back to Greenville and won an offensive display 52-38. The next year, the Pirates moved from the C-USA to the AAC, and Old Dominion effectively took its place.

This year’s game is only the second matchup in 78 years, but the teams set up a home-and-home. I can’t tell you what the 2019 game will look like but this year should see the series even back up.

2. New Mexico State at UTEP

2018 Date: Saturday, September 22
Series: UTEP, 57-36-2

I know it’s not realistic to say that a rivalry where one team only won four games over one 31-year span (1926-1957) is interesting. That same team has only won three times since 2004. In 1948, a team won 92-7.

I’d argue that any series that has tied more than once is worth a look, and these two teams are less than 50 miles apart. These two played all but 7 times over the last 104 years, and half of those were due to WWII. From 1935 to 1961 they were in the same conference.

UTEP’s first football opponent (apart from the local YMCA—seriously) was NMSU. The Aggies and the Miners play for a Silver Spade. The Battle of I-10 is just plain good.

If nothing else, I’d like to pick out one particular game: the 1960 battle of I-10. Never before or since had a team come into this game ranked, and the undefeated Aggies were No. 15. UTEP (then Texas Western) was 4-4-1, hoping to squash the Aggies’ hopes of a perfect season.

The Miners took an early lead, but Bob Gaiters, the NCAA’s leading rusher, led a comeback that put Texas Western away 27-15. The Aggies went on to beat Utah State in the Sun Bowl and cap off its undefeated campaign.

That was New Mexico State’s last bowl until its grudge match with the other Aggies last year. The Border Conference (to which both teams belonged) fell apart after the following season, and though both teams went separate ways the rivalry continued.

This year, the Aggies should make the most of its new independence, and a win over UTEP would likely get them back into a bowl game.

Honorable Mention: ULM at Southern Miss

2018 Date: Saturday, September 8
Series: Southern Miss, 4-1

Southern Miss’ football history is interesting by itself—playing as independent three separate times. The Golden Eagles joined one conference only to abandon ship just before it sank, and they joined another and left after four years. This is my obligatory mention of Brett Favre.

The thing is, these two teams are not too far apart: Hattiesburg is only 20 miles further from Monroe than Lafayette, home of the Warhawks’ Sun Belt rival. In fact, the year after USM left the Gulf States Conference, ULM (then Northeast Louisiana) joined it. Both teams were D-I independents in 1994 and 1995, and yet these teams have only played five times.

This isn’t an interesting matchup but it truly could have been.

The Golden Eagles invited the Indians to The Rock in 1982, 1986 and 1987, taking the first two wins. The 1987 matchup featured a 6-5 Eagles team led by a freshman QB named Brett and the eventual I-AA National Champions. The Indians won by 10.

The last matchup in Hattiesburg was 25 years ago, but it was hardly any different from previous games. 1993 was ULM’s last year at the I-AA level and the two didn’t meet again until 2014. That was the first of the home-and-home that ends this year.

This is honestly the Warhawks’ best shot at beating USM. They have the offense to keep up, but if the Golden Eagles’ defense can shut them down the story of this series will not be changing.

1. Marshall at Miami (OH)

2018 Date: Saturday, September 1
Series: Miami (OH), 30-13-1

Ignore the 24 years these teams shared a conference and the 50-year stretch where Marshall went 24-1-1. This series goes back to 1905. They have played in every decade going back to the 1930s.

This series may be lopsided, but there’s a lot here. These two teams are about the same distance apart as ULM and Southern Miss. Between The Herd and the Hawks there are two national titles and 35 conference championships, and yet they aren’t rivals at all—the obvious reason is how occasionally these teams play.

If there weren’t gaps of 28, 17, 9 and 5 years between games this could be a historic matchup. It has featured players such as Chad Pennington, Randy Moss, Bo Schembechler and some guy named Ben Roethlisberger. That said, there’s one game in this series that sets it apart.

We all know the story of the 1970 plane crash. We all know how the program shut down, cancelled the last game and regrouped. The next year, The Herd lost game one at Morehead State but won game two at home against Xavier.

Miami was the opponent in game three. Coming off the cathartic home victory, the team met an old foe as well as reality. The RedHawks (then Redskins) demolished Marshall 66-6.

The Herd got revenge five years later, but that was the one win in that stretch I mentioned earlier. It lasted till 1997, but that includes the 17-year gap I also mentioned earlier. Since then, Marshall has gone 9-1—The one loss was in 2003, the senior year of that Roethlisberger guy… that I mentioned earlier.

This series is the epitome of “Most Interesting.” These games literally punctuate college football history, and that’s as interesting as it gets. By the way, Marshall’s streak will be 10-1 by this time next year.

Next time on Most Interesting Matchups: Mid-American Conference.

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