NEWPORT, R.I. — The two coaches expected to be Skip Holtz's toughest competition for a Big East title are new to the conference, but USF's coach knows Pittsburgh's Todd Graham and West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen quite well.
Holtz's two Conference USA championships at East Carolina came in wins over those two coaches. The Pirates edged Graham's Tulsa team 27-24 in the 2008 league title game, then beat a Houston team with Holgorsen at offensive coordinator in a 38-32 shootout in 2009.
"Skip is a guy I have tremendous respect for," Graham said at the Big East media day on Tuesday. "I didn't like the last time I played him. We lost the conference championship and were actually picked to win that thing."
Graham and Holgorsen are known for prolific offenses — in the '09 C-USA title game against ECU, Houston quarterback Case Keenum went 56-for-75 passing for 527 yards (and lost), and in 2008, the Cougars piled up 621 yards in knocking off ranked ECU in Greenville.
"This conference is in for an eye-opening offensive explosion," Holtz said of his two new colleagues. "We all better get ready, because it's different than what anybody else has done in this league. Having played against them, they're of that mind-set that they're going to snap the ball every eight seconds. … They both do a great job and I'm excited they're in the league."
The two new coaches met last season when Tulsa faced Oklahoma State (where Holgorsen spent one season as offensive coordinator) and the offenses combined for 1,150 yards in the Cowboys' 65-28 win.
The gaudy numbers that Graham's and Holgorsen's teams put up at Tulsa and Houston were against comparably soft C-USA defenses. Holtz pointed out that USF ranked 17th nationally in total defense last year and 22nd in scoring defense, while ranking fifth in the eight-team Big East in both categories.
"When you get on the inside, you realize how good our defense is (in the Big East)," he said. "I think it's going to be interesting to see the true emphasis of 'Does offense or defense win championships?' "
Speaking of defense, USF defensive coordinator Mark Snyder also knows Graham and Holgorsen well, having been head coach at Marshall when both were in C-USA. His Marshall team took a 30-3 lead in beating Houston 37-23 in 2008, but also lost 38-31 and 38-35 to Tulsa in 2007-08, allowing more than 500 yards in each game.
"They put up some points. We had some barnburners," Snyder said last month of his games against Tulsa.
The first reunion is Sept. 29, with USF's Big East opener at Pittsburgh. Holtz and Graham have a history of tight games — that first conference title came down to a field goal with 1:43 left after ECU forced seven turnovers. In 2006, a Rice team coached by Graham beat Holtz and ECU, rallying from a 17-9 deficit in the final three minutes and winning on a 40-yard field goal with 3.1 seconds left.
Holtz and Graham look forward to meeting again, but count Holgorsen as the least nostalgic of the group, saying his background with the coaches won't change how he prepares for USF or Pittsburgh at all.
"It adds a storyline for you guys," he said. "It doesn't matter how familiar I am with Skip or Todd or any of that. You're going to treat the game the same. At the beginning of the week, you're going to watch a bunch of film to try to figure out what their football team is all about. … Good storyline, doesn't affect what we do from a coaching angle whatsoever."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.