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C-USA's realignment possibilities take on new twist

From staff and wire reports

Conference USA may be ready to pull the trigger on an ambitious expansion plan of its own if it loses several current members to the Big East and the Atlantic 10.

If a telecast out of Memphis turns out to be correct, the shifts in the landscape could lead to C-USA slipping a bit in basketball but emerging stronger in football, baseball and regional rivalries — and with a conference football title game to boot.

Various media accounts have Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and Marquette leaving C-USA for the Big East, and Charlotte and Saint Louis departing for the A-10. In addition, football-only member Army announced in July it would withdraw from C-USA after the 2004 season to rejoin the independent ranks.

A Memphis television station is reporting that C-USA is poised to invite five schools into the fold, structuring itself into an association of programs with similar athletic interests, in that all members would field Division I-A football teams.

Western Athletic Conference members Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa, and Central Florida and Marshall of the Mid-American Conference are set to move to C-USA if the next round of realignment unfolds as expected, according to WREG News Channel 3.

Under the C-USA contingency plan, the league would forge ahead with 13 members and would split into two divisions.

A six-team Western Division would group C-USA holdovers Houston, Texas Christian and Tulane with WAC targets Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa.

The seven-team Eastern Division would include current members East Carolina, Memphis, Southern Miss, South Florida and UAB, along with newcomers Central Florida and Marshall from the MAC.

One line of reasoning for having seven teams in the Eastern Division might be to protect against the unsettling scenario that could develop if one of that Division's members — East Carolina, Central Florida or South Florida — is added to the Big East's shopping list for expansion.

In the event of such a move by the Big East — which is not far-fetched considering the scheduling advantages the Big East could achieve with the nine-team football alignment that would result — C-USA would still be left with two stable and evenly dispersed six-team divisions.

The Big East is actively analyzing formulas for reconstituting itself in the wake of its losses of Miami and Virginia Tech to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The defection of marquee programs Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and Marquette would be seen as a blow to C-USA, particularly in basketball, but Tulsa would bring the league impressive hoops credentials of its own.

Significantly, the new conference configuration would offer some distinct advantages that might help offset the loss of several of its higher-profile basketball members.

Marshall would be seen as more than offsetting the loss of Louisville's football stature, while UCF would give C-USA a second bridgehead in the fertile prep football recruiting grounds of Florida.

Rice and SMU would add to the the market presence Houston and TCU give the league in Texas, one of the nation's most populated states.

C-USA, already one of the nation's premier college baseball leagues, would get a substantial further boost on the diamond with the addition of the Owls, last season's College World Series champions.

With each division devised along geographic lines, travel expenses could be reigned in somewhat by weighting each school's schedule towards teams in its own division.

From a revenue perspective, the divisional lineup would meet NCAA requirements for staging a lucrative conference football championship game.

In addition, the new mix of schools would spawn a number of fan-friendly rivalries, an ingredient that has for the most part been missing in the league's far-flung, single-division current alignment.

UCF versus USF could be expected to become an instant rivalry. Houston versus Rice (both located in Houston) and TCU versus SMU (both located in Dallas-Fort Worth) would also assume big stakes.

East Carolina and Marshall, whose past meetings have produced two of the bigger news stories in college football history, would seem to be naturals to become heated rivals.

The Thundering Herd, led by current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich, overcame a large halftime deficit to defeat the Pirates 64-61 in triple overtime in the 2001 Mobile Bowl. That ECU team was quarterbacked by David Garrard, who is Leftwich's backup with the Jaguars.

On Nov. 14, 1970, after suffering a 17-14 loss at East Carolina, the Marshall team's return home ended in tragedy. The team plane went down on a Wayne County, WV, hillside in bad weather on its approach to the Tri-State Airport, killing all 75 aboard.

Fans of both schools recall the crash as a particularly poignant moment in the histories of their programs.

©2003 All rights reserved. Information from a broadcast by Memphis television station WREG News Channel 3 was used in compiling this report.

02.23.07 11:47 AM

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