Old Dominion will play its first Conference USA game Sept. 20 against defending champion Rice and runner-up Marshall two weeks later, as the 2014 schedule was released Monday.
The Monarchs also have conference home games versus Middle Tennessee State (Sept. 27), Florida International (Nov. 8) and Louisiana Tech (Nov. 22). They make two trips to Texas for league games, facing UTEP (Nov. 29) as well as Rice.
ODU also travels to Western Kentucky (Oct. 25) and Florida Atlantic (Nov. 29) in the season finale.
"There's an unbelievable amount of energy in the building, among players and staff, because of the newness of the schedule," ODU coach Bobby Wilder said. "It reminds me of when we found out our CAA schedule in 2011. After spending the previous two years in kind of no-man's land in regard to the schedule, it was like we had a home."
Rice defeated Marshall for the conference title and both played in bowl games last season. Rice lost to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl, while Marshall defeated Maryland in the Military Bowl.
The Thundering Herd, who come to Norfolk on Oct. 4, return C-USA Player of the Year Rakeem Cato at quarterback.
Old Dominion plays its second season as a Football Bowl Subdivision program. The NCAA requires a two-year transition period, but Conference USA accommodated ODU with a full conference schedule one year early, and voted to allow the Monarchs to compete for the conference title.
Should the Monarchs win the title, they would not be eligible for a spot in the Liberty Bowl, since the NCAA determines bowl eligibility — not individual leagues. ODU can go to a bowl only if there are not enough bowl-eligible teams to fill all slots.
The Monarchs are in the East Division of C-USA and will face five of six division opponents, with three crossover games against teams from the West Division: Rice, UTEP and Louisiana Tech, which is coached by former East Carolina head coach Skip Holtz. Alabama Birmingham is the only East Division team the Monarchs miss this season.
The East Division has seven teams, and the West six. Charlotte joins C-USA next season, which will give the league an even 14 teams.
"I think the conference office did an unbelievable job with the schedule," Wilder said, "given that it's an unbalanced league with seven teams in one division and six in the other. The fact that nobody plays back-to-back road games and that everybody still gets four home and four away games is tremendous."
ODU opens the 2014 season at home Aug. 30 against Hampton University. The Monarchs' four non-conference games already were set and include road games at N.C. State (Sept. 6) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 1) and a home game versus Eastern Michigan (Sept. 13).
The Monarchs went 8-4 last year against a schedule with five FBS opponents. ODU defeated all seven Football Championship Subdivision teams, as well as FBS opponent Idaho. The Monarchs lost to FBS teams East Carolina, Maryland, Pittsburgh and North Carolina.
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.
2014 ODU schedule
Aug. 30: vs. Hampton
Sept. 6: at N.C. State
Sept. 13: vs. Eastern Michigan
Sept. 20: at Rice
Sept. 27: vs. Middle Tennessee
Oct. 4: vs. Marshall
Oct. 11: at UTEP
Oct. 25: at Western Kentucky
Nov. 1: at Vanderbilt
Nov. 8: vs. Florida International
Nov. 22: vs. Louisiana Tech
Nov. 29: at Florida AtlanticCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun