Last week, the buzz was East Carolina (and maybe Memphis) offering to do anything for the Big East – and they mean anything – in an all-out effort to get the hell out of Conference USA. This week, it's ECU athletic director Terry Holland's idea to inflate the league until it naturally cleaves into two separate leagues under one banner, an idea that meets with some non-committal assent from Charleston Daily Mail sports editor Jack Bogaczyk, whose not sure what's up with Marshall being in a conference with UTEP, anyway:
Marshall's home conference stretches from Huntington to Greenville, N.C., to Orlando, Fla., to El Paso, Texas, and back, but maybe that's not big enough. Maybe 12 teams aren't enough.
So figures East Carolina Athletic Director Terry Holland -- and just maybe his concept for expanding C-USA isn't as outrageous as some might think.
SO, WHAT is Holland's idea for helping create more financial stability and rivalries in C-USA?
It's an expansion from 12 to 16 or 18 teams. It's two divisions under one conference umbrella.
Holland said in an expanded C-USA, divisional championships could be based on seven or eight divisional games and everyone would essentially play the same schedule each year. It also balances the competition.
In the current setup, if Marshall faces West games against Tulsa, Houston and UTEP and Southern Mississippi plays cross-division foes Rice, SMU and Tulane, who do you think will finish higher in the East?
"My point is," Holland said, "that if you can't go back to eight or nine teams for the conference, then move ahead to eight- or nine-team divisions. Twelve is simply the wrong number in my opinion."
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(Hat tip: The Wiz)
What? They're natural rivals. Just give it another another three or four championship games.
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My first reaction to this was the same as the rest of the conference: thanks, and don't forget to have your parking validated. The WAC tried the 16-team, two-division, continent-hopping format in the mid-nineties, and it destroyed the conference; the older, stronger members balked at the travel and the relative watering-down of the league and split to form the Mountain West, which a decade later is the strongest non-BCS conference (in football, anyway) by a mile and certainly a stronger outfit than the leftovers in the WAC.
But C-USA already has this problem – it stretches from the Atlantic coast to the far western edge of Texas – and Holland and Bogaczyk are onto the fundamental trouble with the league in its current setup, whose members can be plucked by more attractive conferences almost at will:
Three years in, just who are Marshall's rivals in Conference USA? Real rivals? There's ECU, mostly because the schools are tied forever from a final game before a 1970 airline tragedy and then a wild, double-overtime bowl game.
What other schools? Who is ECU's rival besides -- loosely -- the Herd?
C-USA, as a new conference and with its geographic spread, can not possibly develop rivalries unless we play each team the maximum number of times in each sport," Holland said. "So playing the West Division teams sporadically does us no good at all.
"I would rather eliminate those games entirely and schedule geographic rivals instead or expand each division and let each division function as a 7-, 8- or 9-team conference under the C-USA banner."
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A smaller, geographically-centered conference with a focus on nearby rivals is a great idea: it's what C-USA was in football, theoretically, before poaching snatched Louisville and sent the conference scurrying to add competitive dead weight in the west. As a Southern Miss fan, the appeal of playing UTEP, Rice and SMU is basically nil: so far, these schools have served only to seize me with some minor fear that USM might actually lose to them – which it did last year, shamefully, in a horror show of a game against Rice that was much more about the progressive suck of the "old guard," if a 12-year-old conference can have such a thing, than the progressive competitiveness of the new. Houston, Memphis and Tulane don't excite me as opponents, but they don't depress me like the new additions, either, because they're natural geographic rivals for Southern and have been on the schedule for years; I remember specific games with all of them that were thrilling or that must be avenged. There's a desire to beat them for the sake of beating them, not just to avoid the embarrassment of a loss. East Carolina and UAB have been in the mix long enough that it's even true of the Pirates and Blazers when they're competitive, though ECU is less of a natural fit, geographically. A rotating schedule with far flung also-rans with zero historical significance as rivals and that only appear on the schedule sporadically drags already suspect interest into the dust. It's much worse for the less centrally-located schools.
But if the end result is two watered-down halves that are only loosely tied to one another, what is the point of even keeping the banner? Why not, like the Mountain West schools, break away in some sensible fashion and exploit the niche? Mainly because there aren't enough teams right now to cobble together anything that looks like an improvement: in Holland's words, "there is no one out there who brings enough value." That might have been true when the league restructured three years ago, too, except for the inherent value of a twelfth team, whoever that had to be to facilitate the conference championship game.
That magic number, along with the subsequent numbers in the bank account, is the reason all of this talk of contraction, expansion and members bolting for greener pastures, for now, doesn't even reach the level of pie-in-the-sky. It's idle offseason chatter. The league has to take into account factors like Rice's national prowess in baseball, about which I could not care less. When the season rolls around, C-USA will look the same, and likely will for a few years to come as long as the Big East bulges at 16 teams in basketball. Everyone involved hates it, apparently, and is growing increasingly restless. But just, you know, grin and bear it, chief.