If the ACC is the new Big East and the Big East is the new Conference USA, does that make Conference USA the new Sun Belt?
It’s looking that way. With this morning’s official announcement that Middle Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic will join Conference USA in 2014, the conference will have four former Sun Belt members. North Texas and Florida International were already coming aboard. The league also will eventually feature an FCS team moving up (Old Dominion), a two-year old football program (UTSA) and a brand new football program (Charlotte).
Conference USA acted swiftly in replacing Tulane and East Carolina, who bolted Tuesday for the Big East, which had lost Rutgers to the Big 10 and Louisville to the ACC.
“We are excited to announce these two schools will join Conference USA,” Commissioner Britton Banowsky said in a news release. “Besides being tremendous institutions, this is a logical move for us. These schools fit well within our strategic plan to be a major market, two-division conference that is student-athlete and fan friendly. We know they will make great contributions to our bright future.”
Conference USA will indeed have a future, but how bright it will be probably depends on who you ask. While Middle Tennessee State has had more success on the football field than Tulane of late, the Green Wave were a good match for Rice in terms of academics, competition and geography.
Rice Athletic Director Rick Greenspan said on Tuesday he was disappointed to see Tulane leave.
“Tulane has been a member in good standing and shares our goals for success both academically and in Division 1A athletics,” he said in a news release. “The current volatility in the configurations of the various conferences is far from complete. Such drastic and ongoing changes are not healthy, but unfortunately appear to be a way of life in collegiate athletics.”
Central Tennessee and South Florida are good TV markets and both schools have large enrollments, which translates into decent alumni followings. Middle Tennessee State is heading to its fourth bowl game in seven years, has a terrific women’s basketball program and the men’s hoops team earned votes in the AP top 25 poll last season.
Florida Atlantic has a one-year stadium, though not much of a history of football success. They were Sun Belt co-champions in 2007, but went 1-11 last year and are 3-8 this season. Mike Jarvis is a well known men’s basketball coach, but he has a losing record in his tenure with the Owls.
It’s been reported New Mexico State and Western Kentucky could join C-USA as well. South Alabama remains a possibility as well.
The problem is these programs offer little in the way of national exposure or relevance. Conference USA appears to be falling further behind the Mountain West in the conference pecking order. With the WAC gone, only the gutted Sun Belt is in worse shape.
The flip side is it should be easier for Rice football and men’s basketball teams to contend for conference titles while already winning programs like baseball, volleyball and women’s soccer could be perennial favorites to win C-USA titles.
The conference has retained Marshall, Tulsa, Southern Mississippi, UAB and UTEP so there’s some good teams left in various sports. However, overall the level of competition is weaker. By playing former Sun Belt or FCS teams, Rice could in theory win more games, which would help recruiting and maybe draw in fans.
But maybe not, if Rice can’t get fans to show up for SMU or Tulane, it’s hard to fathom huge turnouts for Old Dominion or Florida International, especially for alumni who recall when Rice played Texas, Arkansas and TCU every year.
Today’s news helps the Florida Atlantic Owls, but time will tell if that’s also true for the Rice Owls. And who knows, maybe Rice will look at other conferences in the future. For now, the company line remains a commitment to the highest levels in athletics.
“Rice intends to continue competing at the highest levels in athletics and supporting the academic achievement of our athletes, and we will work to assure them the best opportunity to do so,” Greenspan said.