Sometime during the last season, looking at a conference schedule that included Rice, Marshall and a lot of unfamiliar anagrams (UTEP, SMU, UAB, UCF), a fellow Southern Miss expat disgustedly said he’d like to see Southern dump Conference USA and go back to the old days as an independent, when at least the team had a reputation for playing (and competing against) a schedule from hell. To him, C-USA in its current incarnation is for the birds – I mean, the other birds, that is, not eagles. Especially since we haven’t had the satisfaction of winning the damn jalopy in four years, or for another three before that. All USM is getting out of its affiliation is a crummy bowl tie-in (so we don’t feel bad about not going to a bowl, which would be too embarrassing) and dwindling attendance. Not only is the league unfamiliar and devoid of even a minor sense of rivalry since the migration and two-division shake-up in 2004; it’s just bad. And our proud program is getting progressively worse along with it. Standing alone and insisting on a brutal schedule would be a niche, at least. So the argument goes.
This will not happen. But apparently, the restless feeling is mutual. According to anonymous sources close to another longtime, better geographically-positioned C-USA member in the Hartford Courant, at least one team is willing to sell itself into indentured servitude for a chance to get out of this backwater:
...what if a deal too sweet to beat existed? Just for kicks, let's put one on the table in the form of, say, a job application. The school should be willing to:
• Play a conference football schedule with zero compensation from the Big East so current members don't have to give up any of their share of revenue.
• Be responsible for negotiating a television contract for home games until the league wants the school to be a part of its package.
• Not expect any of the league's BCS revenue until earning a BCS bid of its own representing the conference.
• Come in as a football member only. Other sports would play in another league in order to not interfere with the league's current 16-member setup for all other sports.
• Show a solid track record of putting fans in the seats at home, on the road and at bowl games — all on a trial basis for a few years.
Who would take that chance?
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, insiders with knowledge of East Carolina's position talked of doing all of the above.
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Hat Tip: The Wiz
[UPDATE] The Wiz catches an article that Memphis has been talking to the Big East , too, which comes as zero surprise.
This is just a couple days after a Middle Tennessee State fan indignantly posted below my critique of Florida International, talking shit about Conference USA re: the Sun Belt, for god’s sake, a conference that two years ago went 1-27 against non-I-AA outsiders. But look, the Sun Belt, 4-43 against the rest of college football in 2006-07, is 8-7 against C-USA in the same span, and before last year’s bowl games, Jeff Sagarin had the Sun Belt, the Independents and two I-AA conferences ahead of C-USA in his conference rankings (these have since been revised, but as the SBC’s only bowl team beat a C-USA team in the New Orleans Bowl, and C-USA overall was 2-4 in the postseason, I don’t know why). That’s how bad Conference USA is now. So if East Carolina and Memphis want out, I can’t blame them. At least the Pirates are in a position to make a run for it, geographically, and the Tigers are in position to compete in basketball.
Fly, little birds! Fly away to freedom!
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For some perspective, look at how quickly the place has been hollowed out. In the league’s first nine years of existence, from 1996-2004, C-USA teams won just shy of 30 percent of their games against teams from one of the six BCS conferences (59-138 by my count), a respectable mark given the circumstances. Louisville had a winning record, maybe thanks to an annual date with Kentucky, and so did TCU, albeit at just 4-3 during its short, noisy stay. During the same years, the Mountain West won 33 percent of its games against BCS conferences; these were very comparable leagues and their champion-on-champion tie-in with the Liberty Bowl was one of the best December games. From 1997-2004, the Conference USA champion was ranked entering the game all eight years (the only exception was 2003, when Southern Miss wasn’t ranked, though runner-up TCU was), with Tulane in 1998, USM in 1999 and Louisville in 2004 turning in top 15 finishes with zero wins over a winning BCS opponent between them. The Mountain West champion has been in the polls every year since 2001 with a similar death of major upsets. If voters didn’t pay much attention to these leagues, at least they saw some value in earning the championship.
With Utah, TCU and now BYU alternating big years, the MWC streak is still going. Since the mass exodus and restructure, Conference USA’s is long gone: none of the polls have touched a C-USA team since Louisville blew the rest of it to bits in 2004. I’m not sure how many votes the conference has received in the “also receiving votes” category, but they’re few and very far between. This has nothing to do with bias:
|vs. BCS Teams
|vs. All Non-Con.
This exact trajectory was obvious enough when Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East in a lurch and forced it to come a-courtin’ Louisville, Cincinnati and trailer-dwelling noob South Florida; I saw the writing on the wall then, as did TCU, which made a supposedly lateral move that’s left it in a much healthier, more competitive situation with BYU and Utah. Memphis has a market and a basketball team and Central Florida has a market and a huge student body; otherwise, there is not much upward mobility among the cluster of tiny private schools (Tulsa, Rice, Tulane, SMU) and geographically disadvantaged holdovers (Southern Miss, UAB, UTEP). It’s like football limbo. Judging from the onset of full-fledged, MAC-like, spread offense pinball last year, there’s no reason to be optimistic about this pattern.
This is not an argument that Southern Miss is too good for Conference USA, which would be difficult to make as USM has won the league only once in the last eight years, lost at least three conference games in seven of those years and finished a dismal fourth last year in the division it was unanimously predicted to win before the season. It’s more of an evaluation of this partnership: when East Carolina and Memphis, improbably one two of the more attractive members at the table at this point, are desperately looking for an escape route, it’s probably time to start drawing up an exit strategy of your own. Not for any immediate use. Just in case.