MTSU prepares for life after Sun Belt in Conference USA

Monday, July 1, 2013 at 12:32am

If Rick Stockstill is to believe national perception — and his gut — Conference USA is a stronger football league than the Sun Belt Conference.

Even without Memphis, Kermit Davis believes the C-USA boasts more depth — top to bottom — in men’s basketball.

When it comes to baseball, Jim McGuire ranks the C-USA among the top five conferences in the country.

All three Middle Tennessee State coaches soon will find out for themselves. On Monday, the Blue Raiders officially join Conference USA, ending a 13-year partnership with the Sun Belt. 

“I don’t want to say it is to step into the big time but this is a lot bigger deal now than the Sun Belt Conference,” Stockstill said.

Sizing up Conference USA is a difficult task considering the league’s massive overhaul.

MTSU’s addition coincides with those of Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, University of North Texas, Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio. Western Kentucky climbs on in July 2014, making it the fifth school to leave the Sun Belt for the C-USA.

Also next week Central Florida, Memphis, Houston and Southern Methodist leave the league. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa head out next July. All seven teams are joining the new American Athletic Conference or what’s left of the old Big East.

By 2014-15, Conference USA will have 14 members. Marshall, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB and UTEP are the only ones currently on the roster.

“There are a lot of new teams,” Davis said. “I think there are a lot of question marks and we’re going to actually have to go through the year [before they’re answered] because of new teams like us coming in.”

Initially, MTSU thought about staying in the Sun Belt through the 2013-14 school year. But athletic director Chris Massaro and the Blue Raiders opted to pay an exit fee of $700,000 and leave early.

How a quicker move into the league affects MTSU remains to be seen. But recruiting opportunities also should open up.

Stockstill and Davis both said they gain a leg up thanks to a more expansive TV package with Conference USA, which boasts reaching 14.5 million TV households thanks to deals with Fox Sports Networks, CBS Sports Network and ESPN. Nine of MTSU’s 12 football games this year will be televised (three national broadcasts and six regional).

“When your team gets into these different markets I think you’ll see recruiting get better,” Davis said. “Young kids right now a lot of them don’t know who is in what league because of the change. It is hard enough for us coaches to keep up. It is going to take us a year to get into that league and our different sports having a footprint in different areas. After that we’ll definitely see recruiting expand.”

But with a larger pool — the league will dip into the markets of Nashville, Charlotte, San Antonio and New Orleans — comes greater competition.

Stockstill said the stakes have been raised as the Blue Raiders face programs with deeper resources. His wish list includes an indoor practice facility – he’d like to see that up in 2014 – improved outdoor practice fields and a separate outdoor football complex (the offices are currently housed in the Murphy Center).

But some areas are within the Blue Raiders’ control, Stockstill said. MTSU’s Floyd Stadium, with a capacity of 32,000, averaged just 17,738 in five games in 2012. East Carolina averaged more than 47,000 fans at six home games last year.

The coaches have their own ideas about what they’re up against, but they all stand to benefit in terms of exposure, recruiting and – for most of them – postseason opportunities by making this move.

Most of Conference USA’s postseason success revolves around baseball and men’s basketball.

Since it was founded in 1995, C-USA put teams in the College World Series six times with Southern Miss making the most recent trip in 2009. Perennial power Rice went to Omaha three times during that span and seven all time, winning the national championship in 2003.

MTSU has reached the NCAA Tournament 14 times, the last coming in 2009. But the Blue Raiders underwent a rebuilding year this past spring with a 28-28 record and failing to make the league tournament as the Sun Belt sent a record-tying four teams to the NCAA Tournament.

Without a question, the biggest program on the rise in Murfreesboro is men’s basketball. Davis, entering his 12th year, has won 55 games over the last two years and was the Sun Belt’s all-time winningest coach. The Blue Raiders won three of the last four regular-season crowns and return three starters from a team that won a school-record 28 games and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989.

For the better part of a decade, C-USA was a one-horse league. Memphis won 64 straight league games over five seasons. The Tigers snagged the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament seven of the last eight years. Before it was raided by bigger conferences, C-USA was deep in basketball with Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis and Marquette. Memphis was minutes away from the league’s first basketball national championship in 2008.

“We would love to still have Memphis in the league,” Davis said. “It would be fun. They are very good — no question about it — and they have dominated Conference USA. But we would love to be in the same league as Memphis. But with that team leaving obviously that is a really good team that it is out of the equation. It probably will open up for a number of other teams to compete for the championship.”

The opportunities for postseason trips in football are bountiful in the C-USA. Last season, the league went 4-1 in bowls for the second straight year. This year, it adds the Military Bowl for its sixth bowl tie-in — four more than the Sun Belt. Most national publications project Tulsa to win the West Division and Marshall and East Carolina sharing the top spot in the East, where MTSU will reside.

Under Stockstill, the Blue Raiders have gone to three bowls in seven years. But he says even in a new conference, where they’re picked sixth, their role will stay the same — as the underdog. MTSU finished 8-4 and tied for second in the league last year despite a preseason prediction of sixth by the conference coaches.

While coaches and athletes feel their new home out, expectations won’t change. MTSU began and ended its Sun Belt tenure the same way — by winning the league’s annual all-sports trophy. In all, the Blue Raiders
won nine all-sports trophies and 58 league championships in 13 years.

“The culture of our program is we want to win, we want to compete for the championship every year,” Stockstill said. “What is our goal this year? To win Conference USA. Are we good enough? I don’t know. We’ll find out when we start playing and see how we stack up against everybody else. But that will be our goal every year.”