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Conference USA Preview: The League Has Gotten Bigger. But Is It Better?

 

The tectonic plates of conference realignment appear to have ceased shifting at this time. Sure, there are a few minor moves that still have to officially occur, but the announcements of which team(s) will be joining which league(s) are over and done with for now.

Conference USA was a league that was hit hard by the realignment wars of the last four years. Poaching by The American led to the departure of four schools this coming season (UCF, Memphis, Houston, SMU) and will lead to the departure of three others in 2014 (ECU, Tulane, Tulsa).

The conference reacted, however, by being aggressive and expanding to 14 teams for 2013, with two more programs joining in 2014. The Sun Belt Conference and the desiccated husk of the WAC were the primary victims.

As C-USA stands right now, it is a league that has essentially consolidated itself within the South and Southeast. However, with the powerful SEC and an expanded ACC, C-USA will find itself competing primarily against the league it just raided, the Sun Belt. The league, while bigger, has lost some of its strongest teams via this raid; the parallels to the Sun Belt are more appropriate now more than ever.

What will be interesting to see going forward is exactly where the conference will find itself in a few short years. The last time a superconference was attempted was when the bloated WAC operated in the mid 1990s. That led to the eventual schism that created the Mountain West Conference.

Part of the issue with the WAC was geography. At the time of the schism, it was a league that stretched from Hawai'i to Oklahoma. That impacted the travel costs for the programs and also there was a concern among some of the older members of that league that the quality of the league from an athletic and academic standpoint had been compromised.

It seems highly unlikely that that will occur with the new members of Conference USA, as the schools are all clustered in about two of the ranking categories utilized by U.S. News and World Report. There is not a high level of academic variability among the 16 schools that will make up the conference in 2014.

Athletically, the travel should not be an issue. While the footprint of the league is significant, it does not even begin to approach the travel issues that the 1990s WAC faced. It will require some creativity in scheduling, however, in order to keep all of the constituent groups that make up the league satisfied.

Could a schism take place at some point? It is certainly possible, but that would depend most likely on an off-the-field factor such as revenue sharing. Given the current membership of the conference, it does not appear that an imbalance in the on-field product is likely at this time, although stratification of talent does happen in every league. It is hard to project at this time exactly where the power teams will come from in Conference USA or even if a dominant program or two will truly develop. This is not like the SEC or the Big Ten, where a coach can become entrenched and develop; more often than not, especially as more money pours into the power conference schools, coaches from a league like C-USA will be pulled away to become head coaches at the highest levels of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

It might be safe to say, though, that the future of Conference USA is stable for now. Of course, all it takes is one domino to fall to cause the next round of chaos to ensue.

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