Friday, May 04, 2012

North Texas to join Conference USA, and other realignment news

The conference realignment dominoes continue to fall. Conference USA, which is losing Houston, SMU, Central Florida and Memphis to the Big East after the 2012-2013 season, is back-filling its ranks by picking up a handful of schools, including North Texas:
Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky today announced that the University of North Texas has been extended and accepted an invitation for Conference USA membership, effective July 1, 2013.  UNT is one of five schools that will be joining Conference USA, along with the University of Texas-San Antonio, Louisiana Tech University,  Florida International University and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

"This is validation that the progress we have made in our athletic programs in conjunction with our university's academic reputation has made us a suitable fit for the high standards of Conference USA," Director of Athletics Rick Villarreal says.  "Conference USA provides a great partnership with several schools in our geographic proximity and will help all of us create outstanding regional rivalries.  It is a tremendous opportunity for North Texas athletics."

Each new member will join the league in all sports for 2013, Charlotte will begin conference participation in football in 2015. The metro area population of these schools is nearly 18 million. Existing members are East Carolina University, Marshall University, Rice University, University of Southern Mississippi, Tulane University, The University of Tulsa, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and University of Texas El Paso (UTEP). Divisions will be set in the near future.
I think this is a good move for the Mean Green. However weak C-USA might be perceived nationally, it is still a step up from UNT's current home in the Sun Belt Conference. As of right now, Conference USA has more bowl tie-ins and a better television contract than the Sun Belt. Furthermore, the geographic compactness of the new western C-USA - Tulsa, Louisiana Tech, Rice, and Texas-San Antonio are all relatively easy drives from Denton, and Southern Miss, Tulane and Texas-El Paso are doable for the more adventurous - reduces travel costs to the program and allows the Mean Green faithful to see more road games than they were able to do in the Sun Belt, which had no other schools in Texas and whose nearest school to UNT was in Monroe, Louisiana.

In addition to North Texas, four other schools will be joining Conference USA in 2013. Louisiana Tech won the Western Athletic Conference football championship last year but had never been a good geographic fit for the WAC. Texas-San Antonio has only been playing college football for one year but, given that it is the only FBS football program in the nation's seventh-largest city and plays in an outstanding facility in the Alamodome, has a lot of potential. The addition of Florida International University allows C-USA to keep a presence in the recruiting hotbed of Florida, and the Panthers have gone bowling the last two seasons. UNC-Charlotte was a non-football member of Conference USA from 1995 until 2005. It will rejoin C-USA for all sports except football in 2013 and its nascent football program will begin conference play in  2015.

In other conference realignment news, Utah State and San Jose State are leaving the WAC to join the Mountain West Conference, while South Alabama, Texas State and Georgia State are becoming members of the Sun Belt. Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel notes that one-fourth of the Football Bowl Subdivision's teams will have changed conferences during this current round of realignment and provides a handy recap for those who might be confused. He also notes that this current reshuffling of programs will leave the WAC with only two members, both of which might be forced to drop down to the Football Championship Subdivision. Brett McMurphy of CBS Sports plays taps for the once-proud WAC while simultaneously noting that its demise will mean more money for the remaining ten FBS conferences.

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