CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In their first season playing football as an FBS program, the Charlotte 49ers knew wins would be hard to come by.
Charlotte jumped into the deep end of the football pool when it launched its football program in 2013 with an FBS transition model already in place.
The school hired Brad Lambert as its first-ever head coach in 2011. Lambert had been the Wake Forest defensive coordinator after stints as an assistant coach at Georgia, Marshall and Oklahoma. He was tasked with building a football program from scratch.
The 49ers went 5-6 in each of their first two seasons as an FCS independent, playing three games against Division II schools and splitting with Division III Wesley College. Charlotte did not play an FBS school in its first two years, making the 2015 FBS transition even more challenging.
But the 49ers won their first-ever FBS game, beating Georgia State – another FBS program in its infancy – at the Georgia Dome. A win over FCS Presbyterian followed, but the 49ers have lost five straight since, including four losses within Conference USA.
The 49ers will face their biggest test yet with Marshall coming to Jerry Richardson Stadium on Saturday.
“This is something we can really measure ourselves against,” Lambert said Tuesday of Marshall, which won a pair of FCS national titles before transitioning to the FBS level in 1997 as part of the Mid-American Conference. Two years later, the Herd went 13-0 and finished ranked 10th in the country.
“These guys have won a lot of games over an extended period of time,” Lambert continued. “It’s one of the really good programs in Conference USA, so we’re looking forward to that opportunity to see where we are.
“When we made the decision to go to Conference USA, we knew who was in the league and who the team was that is the standard in the league.”
The Thundering Herd have played for the C-USA title each of the last two seasons. The Herd went 13-1 last year following a 52-23 win over Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl to finish the season ranked 23rd. Marshall is 7-1 this season, but unbeaten in conference play.
“It’s exciting. They’re the standard of excellence right now and that’s where we want to be,” senior defensive lineman Devon Johnson said Tuesday. “They’re a top-tier program and we have to beat a top-tier program to get to where we want to be.”
If there is a program that Charlotte would most like to resemble, it’d be South Florida. After launching its football program in 1997 with Jim Leavitt as the coach, USF spent four seasons at the FCS level. USF played its first two FBS seasons as an independent before joining Conference USA in 2003. The Bulls were 11-11 in those first two seasons in C-USA, but because of five straight winning seasons prior to joining the conference, the Bulls received an invite to join the Big East.
Following a 6-6 season in 2005, the Bulls rattled off a pair of nine-win years, including the program’s first bowl victory by beating former C-USA foe East Carolina in the inaugural Papajohns.com Bowl. The Bulls rose to a No. 2 ranking in 2007 following wins over Auburn, North Carolina, West Virginia, FAU and UCF.
That is a 10-year curve Lambert would love for his program to take, and a win over Marshall would be monumental.
“In in the ’90s they won 114 games and we’re on game 30. We’re just playing No. 30,” Lambert told me. “I told my team, this is the standard. You want to measure yourself as a player and a coach and that’s what we’ll do Saturday afternoon.”
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