We may never again see a program make the move from the FCS to FBS with the success experienced by Marshall in the late 1990s, but the University of Texas-San Antonio is currently staring down a golden opportunity to come as close as we may have seen since the Thundering Herd's storming of the MAC.
UTSA accepted a spot in the car pool lane on the conference realignment highway despite not quite being prepared for such a path. The program began playing football only in 2011 as an FCS independent and joined the FBS ranks as a transitional member about two years than initially planned when they joined the WAC in 2012. Fortunately they hired a head coach who understands what it takes to win at the FBS level when they brought in former Miami Hurricanes and BCS championship head coach Larry Coker to lead the program. Starting from scratch is not usually a job a coach in his mid-60s seems fit for, but Coker has embraced the opportunity and has the program heading in the right direction. Now, one full year before expecting to be in the FBS, this little program that could finds itself in a reshaped Conference UTSA with a bight future ahead of it. As fate would have it, the Road Runners could take another giant step this weekend when they host Big 12 favorite Oklahoma State in the Alamo Dome for what will surely be the biggest games of the program's infancy. As if the game itself were not already significant enough, UTSA will take on the Cowboys on national TV with the game being broadcast on Fox Sports 1.
Texas-San Antonio won eight games last season but due to the transition from FCS to FBS the program was not eligible under typical NCAA rules to attend a bowl game. The 2012 schedules consisted of a mix of FCS and FBS opponents as the program was in their transition year. In order to see UTSA in a bowl game there would have needed to be a good handful of bowl vacancies to fill. UTSA would have been the ultimate last resort for any bowl game needing to fill a spot, but this year UTSA can ensure their bowl eligibility with six victories, meeting the typical NCAA postseason eligibility requirement.
Getting to six wins may be considered a reach, but it is certainly not impossible. The Road Runners picked up a road victory last week at New Mexico to start the year, scoring 21 unanswered points in a 21-13 victory. It was only New Mexico, but UTSA held the Lobos to just 277 yards of offense. To complete the come-from-behind victory, UTSA orchestrated a 99-yard touchdown drive that was capped by an 11-yard touchdown run by senior quarterback Eric Soza in the fourth quarter. The victory was anything but a fluke. This week will be a completely different story of course, and could serve as a good measuring stick for the young program.
Oklahoma State is coming off a 21-3 victory over the SEC's Mississippi State. Cowboys sophomore quarterback J.W. Walsh led the team in passing (135 yards) and rushing (125 yards, 1 TD) but it was the Oklahoma State defense that really opened some eyes. Though not entirely in shut-down mode, Oklahoma State held Mississippi State to just 2-of-16 on third down conversions and came up with two turnovers. Oklahoma State is a trendy pick to win the Big 12 this fall, which means UTSA could be going up against one of the top programs in their region. The Road Runners may have their own dual-threat under center, with Soza leading the team in passing and rushing in last weekend's road victory at New Mexico. Soza passed for 20 touchdowns and was intercepted just three times last season. He was also sacked just three times last year, but was sacked three times last week.
If UTSA needs to draw on any inspiration, they just need to look at what took place within the Big 12 last weekend. Defending Big 12 champion Kansas State was upset at home by North Dakota State, the top-ranked and back-to-back FCS national champions, and Iowa State went down at home to Northern Iowa. Oklahoma State should be on a different level than each of those fallen Big 12 squads, but the any-given Saturday theme could continue.
The next two weeks could be huge for UTSA, regardless if they win or lose. Right now the program is still about growing and building experience. Doing so against teams like Oklahoma State and Arizona accomplish just that while giving an idea of where the program is situated among the bigger programs. But here's the catch: In time, UTSA could develop in to that sort of program.
UTSA has a student enrollment of 30,000 including graduate students, which is not exactly in the mix with Texas and Texas A&M but is a far cry from the likes of South Alabama and Appalachian State. That is important because Conference USA is currently invested in the long-term future growth of its members. Western Kentucky will join the conference in 2014. Old Dominion joined the conference this year to begin their official transition and Charlotte is building their program on another accelerated path for 2015. The conference also has added Florida Atlantic and Florida International to help establish young programs in key recruiting areas with plenty of room to grow. UTSA may have a head start on all of these programs in some respects.
UTSA plays in the Alamo Dome, which may not be state of the art but remains a pretty solid venue and last season they fared decently in packing in anywhere between 25,500 and 30,000 fans for home games. It may be a far cry from the capacity crowds seen in some of the largest stadiums in college football, but it shows there is a foundation in place. Location is key for UTSA. In the heart of Texas, the program is in a state rich in high school talent but with plenty of competition. Nobody is suggesting it will be easy to recruit talent to stay close to home and play for a program lacking history and tradition and exposure, but that will come with winning.
Coming away with a 1-1 split over the next two games would be huge for this program. Pulling off a 3-0 start to the season would do wonders. Embrace the opportunity Road Runners.
Photo: UTSA Athletics