By Stephen Hawkins/The Associated Press
IRVING, Texas — Conference USA seems to be in a perpetual cycle of change.
There were plenty of new faces at the league’s football media day Wednesday, with five of the 12 teams having new coaches. That includes coaching changes at defending Conference USA champion Southern Miss and runner-up Houston after its 13-win season.
“A bunch of people starting new,” first-year Memphis coach Justin Fuente said. “It’s a lot better than jumping in there with 10 guys that have all had their stuff in place for the last 10 years.”
Then next year, there will be four new teams — North Texas, Louisiana Tech, Florida International and Texas-San Antonio — and more to come after SMU, Houston, Central Florida and Memphis leave for the Big East.
Southern Miss and Houston are also among the five teams that had 3,000-yard passers last season that are no longer around.
“It’s probably at least an open door that I’m not the only new guy and we’re not the only people breaking in a quarterback,” new Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson said. “Hopefully that is something that gives us a chance to get off to a good start and compete in this league from day one.”
Austin Davis threw for 3,496 yards and 30 touchdowns last season as the Golden Eagles set a school record with 12 wins, including a victory over Houston in the C-USA championship game that kept the previously undefeated Cougars out of a BCS game.
Johnson, who replaced North Carolina-bound Larry Fedora, said there are five guys that have a shot at being the Southern Miss starter, though “we don’t have a clue” which one will be on the field for the first snap in the season opener.
Houston is more set in replacing Case Keenum after he threw for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns in his unusual sixth season of eligibility last year.
Sophomore David Piland was redshirted last season after being forced into action as a true freshman when Keenum was hurt. Piland threw for 2,651 yards and 24 TDs in his eight games two seasons ago.
Cougars coach Tony Levine, promoted from assistant head coach before a bowl victory when Kevin Sumlin left for Texas A&M last December, said he has made it clear to Piland that he only has to be himself.
“I told him this word for word — Case Keenum, I physically saw him months earlier leave the locker room after he was done playing and he took his shoes with him,” Levine said. “There are no shoes to fill for David Piland. He’s got his own shoes, he wears a different size. … He’s young, but he does have eight games of starting experience under his belt.”
Tulsa was 8-5 last year, overcoming an early stretch against three top-10 teams and winning its first seven C-USA games before a loss in the regular season finale to Houston. The Golden Hurricane have to replace quarterback G.J. Kinne (3,090 yards passing, 28 TDs), but have their top two rushers and top two receivers back for second-year coach Larry Blankenship in the changing league.
“It is interesting. A year ago, I was the only new coach in the league. This year to have five more, I’m quickly climbing the ladder to be the dean,” Blankenship said. “It seems like of strange.”
Former Texas starter Garrett Gilbert is the likely new quarterback at SMU after J.J. McDermott threw for 3,471 yards last season when the Mustangs made their third consecutive bowl game under June Jones.
Jones, going into his fifth year at SMU, is keeping his focus on the final season in Conference USA, and not looking ahead yet to the Big East.
“I think when the next offseason comes from a football standpoint it will change. Now I’ve got to start worrying about who I haven’t played, I haven’t seen and I haven’t looked at on film,” Jones said. “Right now, it hasn’t changed.”
The other new coaches joining Ellis, Levine and Fuente were UAB’s Garrick McGee at UAB and Tulane’s Curtis Johnson.
The coaches at their schools the longest are UTEP’s Mike Price and UCF’s George O’Leary, both going into their ninth year and coming off a 5-7 season. Neither attended Wednesday.
UAB hasn’t had a winning season since 2004, and Tulane has gone two years longer since a winning record and goes into this season with a 10-game losing streak.
Johnson, a receivers coach for the New Orleans Saints the past six seasons when they won their first Super Bowl, has one of the league’s most experienced quarterbacks in third-year starter Ryan Griffin.
“It’s very important because it’s settling for me to have a quarterback that has already played,” Johnson said. “This is not the first time, he’s not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”