Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

June 1, 2013

Herd should benefit from changes in Conference USA

BLUEFIELD — Fans of Conference USA had grown used to schools known by initials, such as UAB, UTEP, SMU and UCF.

The time has come now to recognize USTA, MTSU or FAU and FIU.

Welcome to the ‘new’ Conference USA, or should it be C-USA?

“There is an old saying, ‘You can’t tell the players without a program’,” said Roger Topping, the president of Marshall’s Four Seasons Country Big Green Club. “You can’t tell the schools without a program right now.”

How true.

Outside of the Big East, no other Division I league has been hit as hard by conference realignment as the aptly-named Conference USA.

“That is Conference USA,” Topping said. “It seems like just about every conference in the country has changed memberships.”

The question is, was it worth all the effort for C-USA?

With the Big East, now the American Athletic Conference, having lost its top programs, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse — and Louisville and Rutgers in 2014 — the league had to go hunting for reinforcements.

The AAC — not to be confused with Bluefield College’s former league, the Appalachian Athletic Conference — raided Conference USA, bringing in four schools, including Central Florida (long referred to as UCF), Houston, Memphis and Southern Methodist (also known as SMU).  

Conference USA, which will also lose East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa to the AAC in 2014, had to do the same, and has gone from 12 to 14 teams with the addition of six schools for this year, and will add three more next season, and remain — at least for now — with 14.

New to Conference USA for this season is Florida Atlantic (get used to FAU), Florida International (ditto for FIU), Middle Tennessee State (MTSU) and North Texas. Two more school have joined from the now defunct Western Athletic Conference (WAC), including Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio (remember UTSA), which does have one of the better nicknames (Roadrunners) in college sports.

None of those schools, however, exactly strikes fear in the opposition.

Believe it or not, three more schools will join in the fun next year, including Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky, also from the Sun Belt, and a pair of programs that have been reborn, Charlotte and Old Dominion.

Ditto. Not exactly a who’s who of college sports.

While Conference USA might seem like an odd name for a league, it fits. Nine different states will be represented among the 14 teams this year, and Kentucky and Virginia will be added in 2014,

“There are lot of new teams in the league that we are in,” Topping said. “We are in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, so we have got schools from those three states that have been added in.”

The question is, though, is the league better?

In reality, absolutely not.

If you are a fan of Marshall — or should it be MU — it certainly is. The Thundering Herd will have the opportunity to compete for championships in the revamped Conference USA in the ‘big two’ — which is football and men’s basketball — and they should be competitive in most of the other sports as well.

Marshall has more tradition on the gridiron than any of the other schools that will be part of C-USA next year. Of course, much of that was in Division I-AA, when the Thundering Herd was a dominant program.

They’ve pretty much disappeared from national consciousness these days, but should at least compete for the C-USA title, and get a bid to the Liberty Bowl, which is about all that league champion can hope to achieve.

For those who think that Marshall could be considered for a big-time bowl game when the College Football Playoff becomes reality next year, dream on.

The system, much like the BCS, is meant for the big boys only.

Sometimes I wonder why any of these ‘lesser league’ schools would want to be part of Division I in football when conferences like C-USA, the Mid-American, Sun Belt and Mountain West — Boise State could be the rare exception — get shut out of the big bowls, and the same could happen in the future to the AAC, and any Independent not named Notre Dame.

Believe me, Marshall can finish 12-0, win the C-USA championship, and still wind up in Memphis for the Liberty Bowl.

When it comes to men’s basketball, C-USA has pretty much become a one-bid league in recent years, and with Memphis no longer part of the league, that could become an annual tradition.

Still, the Herd should have a chance to compete for the title with holdovers like UAB (Alabama-Birmingham) and UTEP (Texas-El Paso), who will remain part of the league, along with Southern Mississippi and newcomers like Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky.

All are competitive, but losing Memphis leaves C-USA without a nationally known hoops program.

I also sometimes wonder why so many schools are anxious to move from the FCS schools — I preferred Division I-AA — to the FBS or Division I?

It has to be money, why else would Georgia Southern and Appalachian State — a pair of school that have long been a dominant force in the FCS — want to join the Sun Belt, with little hope of ever winning anything other than a no-name league and some bowl game that no one has ever heard of.

Those programs simply can’t compete at the highest level. Not even schools like FIU, which — believe it or not — has an enrollment of nearly 48,000 students. Who knew?

Topping, whose Four Seasons Country Big Green Club will host the Marshall Coaches Tour on Tuesday at the Chuck Mathena Center in Princeton, is optimistic about the future of Conference USA.

“I think in a little bit of time it is going to be a really, really good conference,” Topping said. “It is going to be pretty strong conference.”

At least the Herd has a place to call home.

On the local level, Bluefield State appears to be heading toward Independent status for the upcoming school year. After the Big Blues’ tennis team lost in the national tournament last month, coach Louie Belt called from Arizona and asked, ‘What I am playing for next year?’

Why not Conference USA? With initials like BSC, the Big Blues might fit right in.

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encouraged feedback at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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