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Watch for Denny O'Brien's feature on Scott Cowen's fruitful confrontation with the BCS in this summer's Bonesville Magazine.

Pirate Notebook No. 199
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Last hurrah for status quo should be a doozie


Good riddance? If only those were the appropriate parting words for Conference USA's exiting members.

If that were the case, next week's gathering of C-USA players and coaches in Memphis might have a totally different feel. Instead of a Shakespearean ending, perhaps we would witness the turning of a new, more prosperous chapter in the league's gridiron history.

But that opportunity was lost when Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida, and Texas Christian decided to bolt for new neighborhoods after the upcoming season.

There is a positive slant to the final year of the league's current configuration: As C-USA edges closer to implosion, it should do so with a bang.

This should have been the year when C-USA finally made a permanent move up a rung on the pigskin pecking order. Top to bottom, this fall should prove to be the strongest showing ever for a league that long has tried to carve a reputable niche on the major college scene.

For starters, four C-USA clubs — Memphis, Louisville, TCU, and Southern Miss — have legitimate Top 25 credentials. Add to them another handful of programs that could enter the postseason conversation and C-USA should overtake the Big East in the league power rankings.

My guess is the conference race will capture more media attention than the Mid-American demanded last fall. With a talent pool far deeper than the MAC, C-USA is in a position to become the darling of ESPN's talking heads in 2004.

Though the household names aren't aplenty, there is no shortage of quality players with early-round NFL draft potential. From Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams to Southern Miss linebacker Michael Boley, C-USA is stacked with players destined to earn Sunday paychecks.

So much so that no team is likely to escape the league gauntlet with less than two losses.

Selecting a C-USA favorite this year is like picking a puppy from a litter. On one hand, Louisville and Memphis have enough offensive firepower to decimate a third-world army. On the other, Southern Miss and TCU should again boast stout defenses.

If you didn't know better, you might say C-USA is a league finally hitting its stride in football. On the contrary, it is a conference that, in its current configuration, is on its last leg.

In a more perfect world, C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky convinces the bye-bye bunch to sit tight. For ammunition, he cites the Big East's questionable long-term status in the BCS and even tempts them with a little expansion plan of his own.

With Army's exodus following the '04 season, Banowsky would have been in prime position to add two more attractive programs — Marshall and Central Florida, for example — to the remaining ten. Perhaps he even persistently courts West Virginia and Syracuse.

But apparently neither was a part of C-USA's gameplan.

"To a certain extent, we've got to understand how the Big East is going to go forward for us to be in a position to react," Banowsky said last summer. "I don't think we can be in a position to pre-empt anything relative to the Big East, and I'm not sure it would be appropriate, anyway, given where our members are.

"We'll just have to wait and see. I think we're prepared to do what we need to do to make the league stronger and that would include adding teams to the conference."

Now, Banowksy best be prepared to fend off any other potential aftershocks. Included is the possibility that C-USA loses some of its bowl tie-ins, including its flagship game — the Autozone Liberty Bowl.

At the least, there's this season. By every measure, it is shaping up to be the league's best.

For C-USA's sake, let's hope it isn't the peak.

Callaway ERC Drivers

Dividing line too straight

With C-USA set to move to 12 schools next year, much has been speculated about the two six-team divisions. The most popular model divides the league regionally in an East-West format.

Central Florida, East Carolina, Marshall, Memphis, Southern Miss, and UAB would comprise the East. Houston, Rice, SMU, Tulane, Tulsa, and UTEP are likely to be grouped in the West.

It's hard to argue with that set-up from a geographic perspective. But with access to the Bowl Championship Series set to become more inclusive after next season, perhaps the league's direction setters should consider balancing the competition instead.

By a landslide, the East is more heavily stocked with football tradition. ECU, Marshall, and Southern Miss have deep-rooted gridiron cultures and have enjoyed significant national exposure over the past decade — and history suggests they won't fade away.

Add to them the recent ascension of Memphis and UCF's potential under new coach George O'Leary, and the likelihood of any team escaping the East with a perfect record is slim.

If C-USA is serious about making a run at BCS money, it will consider balancing its two divisions. An easy solution would be to switch Southern Miss and Tulane, which essentially would make little difference in terms of geography.

Cowen still pushing on reform

Tulane president Scott Cowen is best known for his efforts to make the BCS more inclusive. Now that schools like Tulane have gained more legitimate access to the big ticket bowls, Cowen is shifting his focus elsewhere.

High on the agenda is academics. Cowen said recently he would like to see the NCAA institute heavier academic restrictions on member schools, which would include punishing programs that fail to meet a certain set of standards.

"From day one, I have been a very strong proponent of such legislation," Cowen said. "I absolutely believe that a school, in the end, should only be allowed to compete in postseason play — and I even think retain the number of scholarships that we're allowed — if they indeed meet some standard of the continuing eligibility of their student athletes and have some standard around the graduation rates of their student athletes."

Back when Cowen formed the Presidential Coalition for Athletics Reform, the reduction of Division I-A football scholarships to 65-70 also had potential as a cause. However, Cowen said that hasn't received much discussion.

"I haven't been privy to any conversation about that over the last year," he said. "The only group that I think has talked actively about it is the Knight Commission."

Division I-A schools currently are allotted 85 scholarships.

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02/23/2007 01:56:49 AM

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