By: MTN sports reporter Adam Brown MURFREESBORO – Tenn, Conference Realignment has shaken the makeup of College Athletics, and the chain reaction that started at the top is here in Conference USA.
Cause and Effect and The Big Picture
The chain reaction that is shaking the makeup of college athletics started with two of the biggest brands in sports, The University of Texas and The University of Oklahoma. The Longhorns and Sooners respectively, shocked the sports world with rumors circling in late July of 2021, that both universities were considering leaving the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference. This was said to have been a complete blindside to the commissioner and member schools of the Big 12.
This left the Big 12 in flux. To stay competitive, they needed to add more schools. Of course, all the headlines were predictions of exactly what course of action the conference would take. Eventually, The Big 12 added BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. The last three of those are currently American Athletic Conference members. This caused the chain reaction that started in Austin, Texas and Norman, Oklahoma to reach Murfreesboro, Tennessee
American Athletic Goes School Searching
With the AAC now down three schools they set their sights on CUSA. Shortly after it was announced that UAB, UTSA, Rice, North Texas, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic would all be joining the AAC, leaving the CUSA with eight schools.
The Sun Belt Sees an Opportunity
This is where the pattern breaks. The remaining schools in CUSA were not content to sit around and see what the conference decided to do. With CUSA not having a stellar TV deal, it made sense to look elsewhere. With rumors swirling it eventually became apparent that The Sun Belt Conference, who has a TV deal with ESPN through 2031, was going to try to capitalize on the situation. The rumored list of schools consisted of Southern Miss, Old Dominion, Marshall and James Madison had been confirmed, reducing the number of conference members to just five.
The conference has “a hodgepodge TV deal” according to yahoo sports. ESPN carries a select number of games as well as Stadium, and they also have a deal with CBS that expires in 2023. This along with the exit of the six schools to the AAC would give the remaining schools more than enough motivation to try to get out. The one positive is the exit fees that the schools leaving have to pay Conference USA, which according to Pete Thamel, of Yahoo Sports is “roughly $3 million per school.” Altogether, those resources, the remaining member schools not leaving and adding new members are the biggest hope for the survival of the conference.
This brings us to MTSU. Will they stay? Will they find somewhere to go? Why wasn’t MTSU a target for the American Athletic? (The Sun Belt and MTSU have a spotty history with MTSU leaving the conference in 2013.) We reached out to MTSU’s Athletic Director Chris Massaro as well as others in the athletic department about these questions and did not receive an answer at the time of writing this.
The only information we have truly received from the university or Massaro was a statement on the athletics social media accounts from October 19. Shortly after the AAC announced their expansion at the expense of CUSA.
The statement seemed much more like a sales pitch in a scramble rather than a show of strength like the new AAC schools were able to do with their new conference. Athleticdirectoru.com would echo this with the data it contains. The site offers a “power index” type ranking, based off a scoring system, in a survey of conference administrators and their view of the other member schools. This is how the site describes it, “Dozens of sitting Athletic Directors or executive-level administrators who currently are or could soon be a Conference USA AD were invited to share feedback on each AD job in the league. The data was used to provide detailed insights about the potential for success at each school.”
They have two different rankings. One is Conference USA Realignment Potential, and the other is Conference USA AD Jobs. MTSU is ranked 13 of 14 in realignment potential and 11 of 14 in AD jobs. When the Sun Belt passed on MTSU (bad history or not) it further enforced that sentiment. Middle Tennessee News reached out about this site in the email that we did not receive a response to. We asked about the site and the rankings, as well as provided the link to the website itself. Why do our peers from CUSA hold us in such low regard?
CBS Sports is reporting that Conference USA has invited Liberty, New Mexico State, Sam Houston and Jacksonville state. However, in that same report Dodd states that according to his sources It is “probable” that MTSU and WKU will join the MAC leaving CUSA with just three current members.
The MAC is definitely a better location for MTSU as far as stability, but when you compare the overall conference strength to the conference strength of CUSA before the exodus of schools it’s not close.
A good model for MTSU would be UCF. UCF started out as an independent, then moved into (ironically enough) the MAC, then into Conference USA from 2005 until 2012. After that seven-year stint in Conference USA they moved to the American Athletic and in 2017 their football team went undefeated and even beat Auburn in The Peach Bowl. They have steadily climbed the conference ranks, and now as previously mentioned, are members of a Power 5 conference. This puts not only football, but all of their athletic programs in a better position to succeed nationally. MTSU could learn from their example on how a group of five program can still succeed in a saturated power five market like Florida and Tennessee. MTSU moving to the MAC, to some, isn’t a move up at all but more of a lateral one.
UPDATE: Recent reports are saying that Conference USA has officially added Liberty, New Mexico State, Sam Houston and Jacksonville State, with sights set on 2023 for the new additions to begin conference play.