With football season around the corner, Conference USA coaches and select players met virtually with the media Wednesday and Thursday.

A variety of topics were covered in the two-day virtual media days, including each team’s personnel, the disrupted 2020 season, vaccination rates and name, image and likeness rules, among other things, but the common theme among the league’s 14 teams was a hope for a more normal 2021 season.

“If you look back a year ago, we were trying to put everything into place, things were changing daily, but no one really knew if we were really going to be able to play and have those opportunities for our student athletes,” C-USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod said Wednesday on the 2021 Ryan Conference USA Football Kickoff show, which aired on ESPN+ at the same time that virtual media conferences were taking place. “It’s like we’re here and coaches can talk about their players and what their offenses are going to look like – just normal things that we took for granted for so long – and now here we are, actually talking about football.”

Several of the league’s teams were left in a scheduling scramble for much of last season – both in conference play and nonconference play – after other leagues changed the format of their seasons or canceled play entirely, or their own team was limited in available personnel due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Western Kentucky led the C-USA East Division with 12 games played, including a bowl game, and the next highest total was Marshall’s 10 games, and that included the C-USA championship game and the Camellia Bowl. The fewest games played in the East Division were Florida International’s five.

“Finally seems like we’re going to play a regular season – it’s been a long time coming,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “We’re really excited about our upcoming season.”

This season, C-USA won’t be postponing or making up games, MacLeod said in the Kickoff Show.

“We’re in a position we won’t be postponing games, we won’t be making up games, so it may be the healthiest team that makes it through to the end,” MacLeod said. “I would hate to see somebody that’s in the running get hit with COVID because they haven’t been vaccinated. People are still losing their lives and this country is not out of the woods, so I just think it’s important for us to be as healthy as we can and to protect our people.”

The league’s head coaches didn’t provide specific vaccination rates among their respective teams, but because games won’t be made up, as well as for general player safety, they said they’re trying to educate their players as much as possible.

“Instead of just making it check this off the list – ‘Hey, we had a doctor talk to them, we’re good, now go get the vaccine’ – it’s like I need to know their real concerns and they need to be able to have somebody that they trust that has a lot more knowledge of it than we do address them about it,” Charlotte coach Will Healy said. “I understand the pressure that’s coming down the pipe with this vaccination. I get it, I understand it. I understand, as the head football coach, I’m responsible for our football team having the best chance to win football games and play football games.

“I also understand there’s a heckuva lot more things going on in this world that are bigger than the game of football, so you can’t lose sight of that with just forcing this thing down their throats saying, ‘You’re going to get vaccinated so we can go play football.’ They need to understand what they’re doing and they need to understand what this vaccination really is and what it can do to themselves and what it can do to their chances, and then make the best decision for themselves.”

The league announced Monday its predicted order of finish, chosen by media members, with a rematch of last year’s title game between Marshall and UAB chosen as the likely finish this season.

Marshall received 17 of the possible first-place votes in the East, while Florida Atlantic received six and was chosen second in the East. Western Kentucky was chosen third with one first-place vote, followed by Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, FIU and Old Dominion – the final of which did not play last season.

“Expectations are a privilege,” first-year Marshall head coach Charles Huff said. “People expects losers to lose and expect winners to win, so it’s a privilege to have those expectations, but it doesn’t change the day-to-day work we’ve got to do to get there. No team is going to come out and say, ‘Oh, they picked you guys to win some games, so we’re going to go back in the locker room.’ “

UAB received 15 first-place votes in the west, followed by UTSA in second with nine first-place votes. Louisiana Tech was selected third, before Southern Miss, Rice, North Texas and UTEP. The Blazers are the defending champions, beating Marshall last season, and have won two of the last three league titles.

Despite that, UAB was unable to play in a bowl game. Its matchup with South Carolina in the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl was canceled.

It was part of a disappointing bowl season across the league, and something the coaches are hoping improves this season. In the 2020 bowl season, C-USA teams went 0-6 in bowl games. North Texas fell to Appalachian State in the Myrtle Beach Bowl, Georgia Southern beat Louisiana Tech in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Memphis beat FAU in the Montgomery Bowl, Buffalo beat Marshall in the Camellia Bowl, Louisiana beat UTSA in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl and Georgia State beat WKU in the LendingTree Bowl.

“I think probably something that didn’t get talked about enough is I think we were – three of the last five years before that – we had the best conference record in the bowl games in head-to-head competition,” UAB coach Bill Clark said. “Last year was a tough year. We didn’t get to participate, so maybe we would have got one in – we don’t know – but it’s a big deal to all of our coaches. We’re ultra-competitive. I believe in our coaches. I believe in the teams in this league – I know how tough they are – so we want to do well in the bowl games, no doubt.”

The NCAA in June elected to allow student-athletes to earn money based on their name, image and likeness. The topic was discussed during Wednesday and Thursday’s media availabilities, and many expressed optimism for it, including UTSA coach Jeff Traylor.

“I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity. We’re the seventh-largest city in the country,” Traylor said. “We’ve got to do a great job as a university of educating our businesses and our student-athletes on how they hook up with each other and how we can make this profitable for both sides. I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

The first game of the 2021 C-USA football season is Aug. 28 when UTEP travels to New Mexico State. WKU is scheduled to open the fall season at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Sept. 2 against UT Martin.{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.