IRVING, Texas — Of the eight schools joining Conference USA, perhaps none is more excited than North Texas.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” coach Dan McCarney said during Wednesday’s C-USA Media Day. “When you sit there and talk about eight national television games for North Texas, six bowl opportunities from Hawaii to New Orleans…
“I know this much, there’s all types of schools in Division I that would like to be in our shoes.”
UNT begins its first season in C-USA along with returning member FIU, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, UTSA and returning member Charlotte. Old Dominion will begin C-USA play in football in 2014 and Charlotte in 2015.
They join holdovers East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Miss, Tulane, Tulsa, UAB and UTEP for a 14-team league in 2013.
North Texas received a boost with the opening of sparkling Apogee Stadium in 2011. The Mean Green were 4-8 in their last season in the Sun Belt, but C-USA’s higher profile should help UNT better exploit the advantages it already has.
“We didn’t get this opportunity because of recent success in football,” McCarney said. “It’s because of potential, location, leadership on our campus, that’s why we got this opportunity.”
North Texas will kick off its first year in C-USA with its first home opener in 12 years on Aug. 31 against Idaho. The Mean Green are also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the football program.
“North Texas has been getting on a bus or a plane every year to start a season,” McCarney said. “Rick Villarreal, my AD, and I worked together on this. I wanted a home opener for our fans. It’s our 100-year celebration. We’re honoring our all-century team at North Texas. We’ve got a home opener.
“Now one small detail: Go win a football game.”
Returning skill players make Tulsa heavy favorite in C-USA West
Defending champion Tulsa received all 14 first-place votes to finish atop the West Division in the coaches poll. Returning experience at the skill positions is a major reason.
The Hurricane return starting quarterback Cody Green, leading ballcarriers Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas, as well as all three starting receivers in Keyarris Garrett, Jordan James and Thomas Roberson.
But as coach Bill Blankenship points out, it all starts out up front where guards Jake Alexander and Stetson Burnett are the returning starters.
“You have a little confidence knowing that the pieces are there, now what’s the identity going to be?” Blankenship said. “Just how quick can our offensive line gel together I think will really dictate who we are, what we are as an offense.”
Rice was picked second in the West Division followed by, in order, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, North Texas, Tulane and UTSA.
East Carolina was tabbed the East Division favorite with 11 first place votes followed by Marshall (2), Middle Tennessee (1), UAB, Southern Miss, Florida Atlantic and FIU.
The person most glad to see Tulane play one more year in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is kicker Cairo Santos, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner.
“Yes,” Santos said. “This season eight of our 12 games are indoors. Not only the six at home, we go to Syracuse and Texas-San Antonio. For sure, for a kicker you can’t ask for a better place.”
Tulane will open its new, on-campus Yulman Stadium next season, but Santos, a senior, won’t get to kick there. Playing most of his games in the Superdome has been good for Santos, to say the least.
Last season, Santos recorded the first 21-for-21 season on field goals in FBS history. Santos was 12-for-12 from 40-plus yards, including a 57-yarder and a 54-yarder.
Rice had to win its last four games last season just to make the Armed Forces Bowl, which the Owls then won, 33-14, over Air Force.
The experience of having to win with its backs to wall should benefit the Owls, who return nine starters on offense and 10 on defense.
“We found that resiliency, and I think that’s something we haven’t had before,” quarterback Taylor McHargue said, pointing to the Tulane game during that stretch run in which the Owls blew a 21-point lead but held on for a 49-47 win. “That was a game we had to win. Teams in the past, I don’t know if they would have been able to do that.”
Playing with their bowl hopes on the line for four straight games should pay dividends this season as well.
“You grow from that,” McHargue said. “We have  of 22 starters coming back and a huge senior class. That’s something that it was great for, not only the seniors to experience, but that the young guys also saw and we’ve all kind of carried over.”
UTSA looking up in new league
New conference member UTSA was picked last in the West Division in the coaches poll, but the Roadrunners have been underestimated before.
Two years ago, UTSA went 4-6 in its inaugural season of football. Last season in the WAC, the Roadrunners went 3-3 in conference play and 8-4 overall.
“Like I told I told our guys last year – we were picked last in our league last year – don’t let people label us. Let’s label ourselves,” coach Larry Coker said. “The beauty of athletics is, it’s not what people think, it’s what you do on the field. If you win, you have a chance to move up.”
Moving up is exactly what UTSA plans to do. The Roadrunners already benefit from their San Antonio location and having the Alamodome as a home stadium.
Coker believes C-USA membership will allow UTSA to recruit at a higher level, and therefore increase the potential he sees in the program.
“Don’t even put a ceiling on it,” Coker said.
Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire
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