Arlington, Texas (AP) Western Kentucky football coach Tyson Hilton was part of the inaugural season of the 1996 USA Conference, as the quarterback for his father’s Houston team that ran the first title. He was also previously an assistant coach for two other league teams and is now in a transitional state.
The Hilltoppers have won twice in nine games and have been playing in each of Helton’s three seasons. They were league runners-up last season, and are among only five of the current 11 C-USA schools that will remain part of the league a year from now.
“I’ve seen this conference re-establish itself many times, and each time it gets stronger,” Hilton said Wednesday at the league’s media day. “It’s always been an exciting conference to play in… I’m focused on 2022. We have some great Conference USA teams still in the conference, so it has to be really competitive.”
The defending champion and pre-season favorite will leave UTSA for the American Athletic Conference next summer, along with Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and Charlotte.
UTSA quarterback Frank Harris, the league’s top offensive player pre-season, said the Roadrunners should prepare in the same way they did last season, and have the same chip on their shoulder that they did when they won a record 12 games and become top players. 25 teams for the first time. He said that being their last season at C-USA doesn’t change anything.
“We just have to go out there and compete,” said Harris, who bowled for 3,177 yards and 27 touchdowns last season and ran for 566 yards and six points. “Game after game, go out and do what we’ve been doing, and try to have another great season.”
There were 14 schools in the USA before Marshall, Old Dominion and southern Mississippi left this summer for the Sun Belt. Miss South, the last of the original six C-USA teams to leave, shared that title in 1996 with Houston, who left the league after the 2012 season in favor of the American.
Commissioner Judy MacLeod said it has been difficult to predict where things will settle down, and without being specific, there are “several people” who would like to join C-USA. For now, she said, the league is pleased with the array of schools in place for the 2022-23 school year.
“Schools that are going to move, the USA Conference has been great for those schools, and those great schools have been great for us,” MacLeod said. “So we are expecting a huge year across the board and I am really excited about our next future.”
Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville and Sam Houston State are already preparing to join C-USA for the 2023 season.
My personal opinion is that I don’t think it’s over yet. “I think there will be more teams to come,” said Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill, the league’s longest-serving coach in his 17th season. “I think if you look at it geographically across the country, I think there will be a lot of movement within the conferences. But I think we are in a great position.”
Hilton’s first C-USA job was as a Memphis assistant from 2004-06 when the Tigers were still in the league, before going to UAB and then Cincinnati after the Bearcats had already left. Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — former C-USA teams now in America — have jumped into the Power Five when they go to the Big 12 next year.
Helton predicts that C-USA will continue to grow and develop, and will look back in a couple of years and say, ‘Man, they’ve done a great job at re-establishing themselves again.’
The league’s first-year coaches are Mike McIntyre at the FIU and Sonny Combi at Louisiana Tech—the two remaining schools. Bryant Vincent is the interim coach of the ATP after his offensive coordinator was promoted in late June when Bill Clarke retired to deal with chronic back problems.
After finishing last season as interim head coach at Texas Tech, his alma mater, Cumbie said he didn’t hesitate to jump into the C-USA variant. McIntyre described himself as enthusiastic about the league.
“It has always reinvented itself over the years and has always been thriving,” said McIntyre. “And you will do it again.”
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