USA522letterBWPrintAccording to the Herald-Dispatch, a West Virginia paper, the long-expected departure of Tulsa from Conference USA is on the horizon. Chuck Landon, the writer of the piece, had apparently been hoping that Tulsa would see no percentage in the move due to the fact that it has taken so long. As I said a while back, however, no Conference USA team is going to turn down an invitation to the conference soon to be formerly known as the Big East (henceforth referred to as Conference TBA, a perfect nickname that Landon came up with), as long as they can afford it. The exit fees to Conference USA are hefty, and it will take a while for the TV contract differential to make up the difference, but none of that matters. What matters is that Conference TBA will have more prestige and for the more desirable of the C*USA schools, will be full of more of the teams with which they have more and a better history than that of Conference USA. That’s leaving aside the possibility that Conference USA’s TV contact is about to take a serious hit. More on that in a minute.

(Those of you that have been on top of realignment can skip the next two paragraphs.)

So, what next for Conference USA? For those keeping score, of the twelve teams that were in Conference USA last season, six (Houston, SMU, Memphis, and Central Florida this year, Tulane and East Carolina in 2014) are committed to join C-TBA. Tulsa will make seven. Of the six Conference USA teams to win either a conference or a divisional title, four are among those leaving and Tulsa will make five. That’s assuming that there isn’t any more movement.

In exchange, Conference USA has eight incoming teams: UTSA (WAC), Louisiana Tech (WAC), North Texas (Sun Belt Conference), Middle Tennessee (SBC), Florida Atlantic (SBC), Florida International (SBC), Old Dominion (Colonial Athletic Association), and Charlotte (Atlantic 10). Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee were late additions, but they will be starting next year. Old Dominion will be starting football in 2014, and Charlotte won’t be ready for football until 2015, though both will be starting other sports immediately (I will be ignoring this for the rest of the post, focusing on football). These schools will be joining UTEP, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB, Marshall. The conference is currently slated to have fourteen football teams next seasons, thirteen the season after that (ECU and Tulane leave, Old Dominion joins), and then fourteen the season after that (Charlotte joins). I leave Tulsa in there because it is unknown whether they would be leaving in 2014 or 2015.

It is important for Conference USA to keep twelve teams because their TV contract almost certainly depends on it. That’s why, when four teams initially left, they replaced them with six. They couldn’t dip below twelve while waiting for ODU and Charlotte. Likewise, when Tulane and East Carolina announced their departure, they added two more. However, since Old Dominion will be joining the conference in 2014, I’m not sure that they technically have to replace Tulsa. Depending on how things shake out, it may be in there best interest not to. Losing Tulsa now and, say, Southern Miss or Rice a year from now would allow them to stay rock-solid at 12. Replacing Tulsa now would mean that they would have to replace Southern Miss a year from now unless they want to stay at 13 (and it doesn’t appear anybody wants to stay at 13).

To be honest, Conference USA does not have good candidates to choose from. Their four initial choices were actually pretty solid. They all represent either a good market or, in the case of Louisiana Tech, a good football tradition that’s on the upswing. Also, solid or good academics all-around. When Tulane and ECU left, they had to dip a little bit lower (FAU’s redundant market, MTSU’s academic profile). The only remaining candidates all have significant, potentially dealbreaking problems.

When evaluating teams, there are basically three areas where conferences look. In no particular order, it’s athletics program quality, academic profile (including academic culture), and TV market (including geographic expansion). BYU had every advantage over Utah, but the Pac-10 invited Utah because of culture. Florida State was a more natural fit for the SEC than was Missouri, but Florida State didn’t represent geographic expansion and new TV markets.

The problem with the available programs generally fall into one or more of the following categories: Either they are good on the field but do not suit the conference academically (Troy, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe lately, Western Kentucky), are fine academically but field poor teams (New Mexico State, Georgia State), or hover too closely to existing programs (Louisiana, Troy, South Alabama, Texas State). Only one of them has a good market, Georgia State, where they are overshadowed by Georgia Tech (and the Falcons).

Rumors surfaced a while back that Conference USA’s next candidates were Western Kentucky and New Mexico State. Landon says that Western Kentucky is in. Western Kentucky is a good candidate because of their superior athletics budget and recent football success. They recently demonstrated their commitment to winning by hiring Bobby Petrino as their coach. They are also natural rivals to Middle Tennessee. WKU has three main problems, however. First, they do not represent any significant TV market. Second, their academic profile is well below that of everybody in the conference except for Marshall. Third, it screws up the divisions because it would force UAB to the west and create a division that is almost entirely made up of Sun Belt and FCS implants.

My preferred candidate is New Mexico State. NMSU is a solid academic institution. It’s a land grant institution. Geographically it’s not a great fit, but they would be good travel partners for UTEP. NMSU produces their own football and (at least some) basketball games which means greater exposure for the conference (it’s easier for me to watch New Mexico State games than it is University of New Mexico games). Unfortunately, NMSU’s football program is terrible. They’ve had four winning records in the last forty years. Their coach just left to take a positions coaching job in the NFL and the replacement appears to be a cast-off from Kent State.

The last time Conference USA was at this crossroads was almost a decade ago. They had just lost Louisville, South Florida, and Cincinnati to the Big East. The schools they chose to bring in were SMU, Tulsa, Rice, Central Florida, and Marshall. Of these, only Marshall truly stood out as a football program. The others had mostly struggled. Flash forward, and SMU, Tulsa, and UCF all became very competitive. Marshall, on the other hand, did not live up to expectations. So the conference was left with an academic outlier (not in the good way) that added little value to the conference. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. There is no reason for NMSU to be as bad as it is (their basketball program is actually pretty good). They could grow in the conference. WKU could wilt.

It may well be that Conference USA simply can’t afford to go my preferred route. Conference TBA has taken many of their best programs and up to this point they have avoided the Sun Belts best programs for one reason or another (academics, markets, or a nearby rival). Of the four bowl-playing teams in the SBC, C*USA has taken… none of them. Middle Tennessee is the first bowl-eligible team from the SBC they took. Louisiana Tech is a good grab and FIU and FAU have had success in the non-too-distant past, but they are already counting on schools like North Texas and UTSA to step up their game. If they don’t, it is not inconceivable that if C*USA doesn’t start taking the Sun Belt’s performers, they could be surpassed (the Sun Belt is elevating FCS powerhouse Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, both of whom could do really well). And of the Sun Belt’s performers, Western Kentucky and Louisiana (Lafayette) are the best options. Louisiana has had some success lately, and they are a research school. But their athletics budget is tiny and their success has been on the shoulders of a single coach.

When Big East lost Louisville and Rutgers, and in exchange took East Carolina and Tulane, that was a tipping point. Tulane in particular. That was when people stopped looking at it as even a somewhat hollowed out Big East and started looking at it like something else. I fear that Western Kentucky will be that tipping point for me. WKU may be the best of available options, but that will be the point at which I will start to really look at Conference USA differently.

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7 Responses to W(h)ither Conference USA

  1. Peter says:

    What’s funny is that even though there are many different college sports, everything except football and men’s basketball is completely meaningless. Baseball may be a major professional sport, but no one cares about college baseball.

    • trumwill says:

      Baseball, hockey, and women’s basketball get some attention. Women’s basketball you can at least get regular score updates on. And they get some TV. Baseball gets practically no TV until the playoffs and you can only get scores in the Top 25 from ESPN (and nothing from Yahoo). Hockey isn’t easy to get scores on, but interestingly enough they do get on TV for regular-season play.

      The baseball one is interesting to me, because that is probably the only sport I’d like to be able to see but can’t. I think it’s because it’s up against college basketball and then MLB and so there’s a lot of other sports to show.

  2. Mike Hunt Rice says:


    Conference TBA will become the American Athletic Conference. This is the number 1* conference name in the entire NCAA.

    In all seriousness, this name is terrible. It sounds like something a video game would use when they don’t want to pay a rights fee to use the name of an actual conference. I’m glad Rutgers will only be there for one more year.

    *alphabetically among conferences which sponsor football.

    • trumwill says:

      I agree. It’s better than America 12 Conference, but just barely. When they rejected the America 12 Conference, I was hoping it was the “America” they were rejecting. The name Metro 12 Conference actually grew on me.

      I thought Conference USA should have kept the Metro name. Conference USA grew on me. Maybe AAC will, too.

      I think there’s just a rule now that new conference have to suck. Anything distinct being tossed out for fear of being too regional or something. But if the Pac-12 can have Colorado, and the Big 12 can have ten and the Big Ten can have 12, I think some flexibility is okay.

      Of course, I am partial to “Eastern Metro Conference” myself :).

    • trumwill says:

      Apparently, they don’t want to be called the AAC. They want shorthand to be “American.” How dumb. If you don’t want to be the AAC, name yourself something different.

      I also refuse to go by the MWC’s request to be drop the C. They’re not the Mountain West, they’re the Mountain West Conference. The BE is the only one I really acknowledge.

      Ditto for schools who are really particular about what they’re called. I’ll call Central Florida UCF, but I’m not going to pretend that they’re not Central Florida. Same with TCU, ECU (for a while), and even LSU.

      Y’know, it might have been cool for “American” to go name themselves the American Athletic Association… I’d call them 3A, if they wanted.

      • trumwill says:

        Hmm, well, Dr. Saturday apparently approves.

        Also, an interesting fact: 2012 champions of the Big East, Conference USA, and Sun Belt respectively were Louisville (football and basketball), Tulsa (football), and Western Kentucky (basketball). All of which of course are changing conferences after 2013. In fact, the only champion of either sport in any of the three conferences not leaving the conference they are champions of is Arkansas State.

  3. Mr. Blue says:

    Memphis is out after this year, so I don’t care too much what happens to C-USA. Whatever care I had left went away when they invited MUTS.

    Western Kentucky *does* televise its games, though. In HD, which NMSU doesn’t. Six of one, half-dozen of another.

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