Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The conference realignment carousel, and a dire situation for C-USA

Last summer, once Texas and Oklahoma announced their plan to leave the Big XII for the SEC, another round of realignment musical chairs was inevitable. The Big XII backfilled by taking Houston and two other schools from the American Athletic Conference. Now it's the American's turn, and they're poaching a handful of schools from Conference USA: 

Six schools -- Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB -- have accepted invitations to join the American Athletic Conference, the league announced Thursday.

No date has been set for the schools to join the conference, but a source told ESPN that the earliest they could join would be the 2023-24 season.

"I think they will definitely take great advantage of the exposure and the platforms that are going to be provided by this conference," AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said of the additions. "So we look forward, down the road, and we're not certain when they're going to come in yet. That's still to be decided."

Once all the announced realignment shuffles out, the additions would give the American 14 teams in football and basketball. Aresco conceded that growing to 14 was a way for a conference that has become a feeder league for the Power 5 to be prepared for future poaching.

While nobody's going to confuse any of these additions for marquee programs, the American clearly hopes that their locations in major media markets - Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, the DFW Metroplex, San Antonio, Houston and Birmingham - will allow the conference to retain at least some of its TV contract value once the Cougars, Cincinnati and Central Florida depart.

Aside from maintaining the conference's presence in the Houston area, the inclusion of Rice gives the other three private schools in the American - Tulane, SMU and Tulsa - as well as service academy Navy another "peer institution" they they feel comfortable competing against. I'm also happy that the Mean Green got the call up, but they need to earn this promotion by turning their struggling football program around. (I'm somewhat surprised, in fact, that SMU agreed to the addition of a North Texas program that competes with it for recruits and media bandwidth in the Metroplex.)

Normally, one would expect the next domino to fall to be the Sun Belt, which would get raided by C-USA. But in fact the opposite is happening:  

Southern Miss has joined the Sun Belt Conference and will enter the league as a full member no later than July 1, 2023, the league announced Tuesday.

The addition gives the Sun Belt 11 football-playing members (Little Rock and Texas-Arlington are also in the league).

"This is a big day for our conference," Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said in a prepared statement. "Southern Miss brings a host of strengths to our conference. They are competitive across all of their sports, have a strong brand and are supported by a great fan base. The electric atmosphere surrounding their games is a tradition we are proud to now be a part of."

Sources say the Sun Belt also is close to adding Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison, which would increase the football membership to 14.

Marshall and Old Dominion are also members of C-USA. Why is the Sun Belt also taking a bite out of C-USA, rather than the other way around? 

One reason is on-field success: a few years ago Conference USA may have been perceived as a stronger conference than the Sun Belt, but thanks to recent success from programs such as Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette, the Sun Belt has overtaken Conference USA in terms of prestige. This appears to be the result of a deliberate strategy on the Sun Belt's part: while other conferences focused on media markets, they focused on competitive programs: 

“At the end of the day it probably doesn’t make a difference if they are in a major metropolitan area or if they are inside the Sun Belt footprint,” former Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told the Daily News-Record this week. “Those teams still have to deliver, particularly on the football field.”

Benson, who retired from his Sun Belt post in 2019 and moved into the world of college sports consulting, put the SBC on its current path during the 2012-13 realignment saga. Conference USA snagged programs in big cities while the Sun Belt looked for passionate fan bases and on-field success.

Fast forward to present day, the Sun Belt could make a case for best Group of Five football league while Conference USA fights for its very existence. That makes it all the more strange the American Athletic Conference chose to follow the C-USA model. The American responded to losing Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida to the Big 12 by adding UT San Antonio, UAB, Florida Atlantic, Rice, Charlotte and North Texas.

To be sure, there is some grousing that the American did not invite any current Sun Belt teams to join. If I had to guess why this is the case, it probably has to do with television network politics: ESPN is the main broadcast partner for both the American and the Sun Belt, while C-USA's main broadcast partner is CBS Sports. ESPN probably told the American to leave the Sun Belt alone and go after a competitor's property instead.

In any case, the end result of the American's and the Sun Belt's predations is that C-USA will be left with five far-flung members - UTEP, Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, and Florida International - once these moves occur. This makes the conference too small, per NCAA rules, to receive automatic bids to tournaments, and leaves the conference's future in doubt

Conference USA's options are slim. They could add FBS independents like New Mexico State (which has had exactly four winning seasons in the last 30 years, but would be a travel partner for UTEP), or they could entice current Football Championship Subdivision programs, such as Missouri State, to make the move up to FBS. According to Indiana sportswriter Todd Aaron Golden, this marks the "desperation phase" of realignment

C-USA is clinging for life. There aren't many FBS options left for them. When this happens, the fertile fields desperate conferences go to are to the FCS Division, where they try to hook the latest sucker into thinking there's a pot of football gold at the end of the rainbow. 

Golden argues that there is no pot of gold for FCS schools that move up to FBS: whatever revenues schools like Missouri State might gain from being an FBS school will be more than offset by higher salaries, more scholarship requirements, and more travel costs. But that hasn't stopped schools from making the transition in the past, and that's what might save Conference USA.

CFN's Pete Fiutak offers his thoughts on the American's expansion, while Awful Announcing ponders the future of Conference USA. For anybody who is having trouble keeping track of all this collegiate reshuffling, ESPN has a handy realignment tracker.

Houston 31, East Carolina 24 (OT)

A five-and-a-half hour rain delay meant that a game that would have kicked off at 3 pm in front of a homecoming crowd at TDECU ended up kicking off at 8:30 in front of an almost-empty stadium. The ensuing game was hard to watch: Houston had a 24-10 lead at halftime, but the second half was an unholy mess of poor playcalling, even poorer execution, stupid penalties and a disastrous turnover. The Pirates scored twice in the fourth quarter to force overtime, and the UH faithful (the several hundred that were there, at least) once again began to fear the worst. 

Fortunately, the Cougars ended up winning overtime rather easily. Their winning streak now stands at six games.

The Good: Marcus Jones returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. Alton McCaskill busted off a 25 yard touchdown run on the first play of overtime. The defense forced three fumbles, two of which the Cougars converted into touchdowns and the third of which sealed the overtime victory.

The Bad: The lengthy weather delay was not good for anyone, especially the players, which is why Ryan is willing to cut them some slack for their poor performance: 

But instead of ripping everyone, I think the players should get some leeway here. They were ready and amped up for 3 pm, they went through their routine Friday night and Saturday, ate their pregame meals, did walk-throughs, went to the stadium, got taped up and stretched, and had started drills when the delay began. So they sat in a locker room for hours with little to do other than stretching, doing homework, or playing on their phones. Then, they were given 30 minutes to get up and get mentally and physically prepared for the game. It’s hard to turn that on and off and back on again.

It sucks and that’s partially why the play was uneven and, at times, just flat awful and I’m willing to excuse them for that. Both Tune and ECU QB Holton Ahlers were not good and you have to allow that some of that was the weather delay. Tune missed throws that he hadn’t missed in more than a month and looked tentative like he did in the Tech game and during parts of last year. 

The Ugly: Everything else. Where do I even begin?

  • The Cougars ran for only 87 yards, 25 of which came on McCaskill's game-winning scramble in overtime. 
  • Clayton Tune passed for only 169 yards and was sacked five times. 
  • The offensive line did a piss-poor job at blocking; it was so bad that Dana Holgorsen himself went over and screamed at them when they were on the sideline. Between the poor running attack and the five sacks allowed, it's clear that the O-line is still a huge liability, seven games into the season. 
  • Speaking of Holgorsen, Houston's playcalling was ridiculous and that falls on him. The Coogs ran the wildcat - on third down - three separate times - to no effect.
  • After catching a short pass, Christian Trahan fumbled that ball at the UH 16 yard line. This resulted in East Carolina's game-tying touchdown two plays later.
  • Overall, the Cougar offense was simply inept. Of Houston's 16 possessions, 7 ended in punts, two ended in missed field goals, one ended with a fumble and two ended at the ends of the two halves.
  • The Cougars committed 10 penalties for 80 yards. Some of these were boneheaded personal fouls; a few of them gave ECU a fresh set of downs when the defense seemingly had them stopped.
  • Dalton Witherspoon missed two of three field goal attempts. To be fair, one of them shouldn't have even been attempted.

This isn't to say that ECU's stats were any better. The Pirates turned the ball over three times, converted only one of 12 third down attempts, were 0-3 on fourth down attempts and rushed for only 82 yards themselves. Clearly, the long weather delay adversely affected both teams. This was not a fun game to watch.

What It Means: The ugliest win is always better than the prettiest loss, so I'll take the result. But the Cougars host a ranked SMU team this weekend, and if they play anywhere as close as badly this Saturday as they played last Saturday, they will be humiliated.

At least the weather is expected to be better.

Hurricanes and snowfall, revisited

Many, many years ago, I pondered the relationship between hurricanes and snowfall in Houston, as there seemed to be a prevalent perception among Houstonians that a hurricane striking the Houston region during the summer made it more likely that a snowfall would occur that following winter. I based my post on a now-deleted blog entry from a now-retired local TV meteorologist, who at the time wrote: 

Is there a connection between southeast Texas hurricanes and snowstorms? I don't know. But I do know there are larger patterns within the atmosphere that we don't completely understand. If someone had a lot of time and a lot of money, this would be an interesting weather connection to investigate.

As it turns out, Space City Weather recently did some investigating about this phenomenon and determined that there is no such correlation: 

One of the most common winter forecast refrains I’ve heard since moving to Houston in 2012 is that if we have a hurricane in summer, we almost always have snow in the subsequent winter. 2021 saw us get hit with Hurricane Nicholas, so obviously that means we should get ready for an 1895-style snowball fight, right? In words of the great philosopher Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.”

After defining what "hit by a hurricane" means (and explaining, for example, why Harvey does not qualify), Eric Berger and Matt Lanza do some statistical analysis:

Since 1895, the data (plus 2021) suggests Houston has seen snow in 23 percent of all winters, hurricane or no hurricane. Based on the hurricane data, seven out of 30 winters following a hurricane hit since 1895 have seen snow, placing our odds at—wait for it—23 percent. The takeaway? It’s fun to say that Houston sees snow in winters following a hurricane. The statistics say that is false, and the odds of snow in a post-hurricane winter are perfectly identical to the odds of snow in any other winter.

The belief that a hurricane hitting Houston in the summer causes a snowfall the following winter is an example of illusory correlation; i.e. the perception of a relationship between two variables that in fact have none. While this particular one may have brought comfort to Houstonians - "the hurricane was horrible, but at least this means we'll get snow this winter" - it is nevertheless an illusion.


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Houston 40, Tulane 22

The Cougars jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first half, but Tulane then began to rally while the UH offense sputtered and the Coogs' lead was cut to two at the half. After the Cougars started the second half with a four-and-out, the Green Wave scored again to take the lead, 22-17, less than two minutes into the third quarter. 

This could have been the point of no return - the back-breaking moment where the momentum swings decisively in Tulane's favor and where the Cougars meekly fade down the stretch. In previous seasons, this probably would have been the case. But not this time. Later in the third quarter, Houston forced a Tulane fumble and then went on a 23-0 run to win comfortably.

It's that kind of mental resilience that gives me hope that the program is indeed improving. 

The Good: Clayton Tune threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns, while the Cougars rushed for 147 yards and two more scores. The offense did not turn the ball over. The Cougar defense sacked Green Wave QB Michael Pratt a whopping eight times; one of those sacks resulted in the fumble recovered by D'Anthony Jones which marked the point at which the game began to swing back into Houston's favor. 

The Bad: Between their second touchdown at the end of the first quarter, and their field goal (following Jones's fumble recovery) midway through the third quarter, Houston's offensive possessions looked like this: punt (3 plays, 3 yards), punt (3 plays, 8 yards), field goal (7 plays, 20 yards), punt (5 plays, 7 yards; Tune sacked twice), turnover on downs (4 plays, 9 yards), punt (3 plays, 5 yards). While the UH offense got stuck, Tulane scored three touchdowns. These prolonged offensive lapses have become a hallmark of UH football under Dana Holgorsen and he needs to address them.

What It Means: the Cougars have won five in a row, including back-to-back games on the road, and have won at Yulman Stadium for the first time since 2015.

Houston now gets a well-deserved week off before hosting East Carolina on October 23.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Houston 45, Tulsa 10

The Cougars went to Tulsa last Friday as 3.5 point underdogs. They came back with a dominating win.

The Good: Houston's offense. Freshman RB Alton McCaskill rushed for 77 yards and three touchdowns. QB Clayton Tune completed 17 of 24 passes for 241 yards and 2 touchdowns. He only threw one interception and did not get sacked. The Cougars jumped out to a 28-3 halftme lead and racked up a total of 405 yards of offense.

The Better: Houston's defense. Gervarrius Owens essentially sealed the win for the Coogs with a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown right after halftime. This was one of three turnovers forced by the UH defense; they also sacked Tulsa QB Davis Brin four times. 

Tulsa could not run the ball against Houston. They ended the game with 28 rushing yards - with 27 of those coming on their last drive of the game!

The Bad: The Cougars committed way too many penalties: they were flagged 11 times for 90 yards. UH PK Dalton Witherspoon missed another field goal, making him 3 of 7 on field goal attempts this season.

What It Means: The Cougars have now won four games in a row as they approach the halfway point of the season.

Next for UH is the second half of their two-game roadtrip, tomorrow night at Tulane.