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Is super conference really better for Owls

By Daniel Elledge     2/22/12 6:00pm

With the college conference landscape changing more than it ever has, the Owls were wondering when the effect of realignment would finally reach them. Conference powers the University of Memphis, Southern Methodist University, University of Central Florida and archrival University of Houston accepted invitations to join the Big East starting in 2013, leaving Conference USA and Rice in a gigantic hole.

In October, Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky and Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson announced that there was a possibility the two conferences would merge and form a football super conference that would hopefully land a coveted automatic Bowl Championship Series bowl bid to help the conference and the schools get more revenue and more national exposure.

After those discussions, C-USA and MWC took an even greater step forward as they announced on Feb. 13 that they would be forming a super conference in all sports, which could possibly include as many as 24 teams, a size that has never been mentioned before in NCAA collegiate sports.

The potential members include all that is left of the Mountain West, which is the Air Force Academy, Colorado State University, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the University of New Mexico and the University of Wyoming. Conference USA will contribute existing members Rice, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, East Carolina University, the University of Marshall, the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Texas at El Paso, Tulane University and the University of Tulsa. The three other members, Fresno State University, the University of Nevada and the University of Hawaii, are coming in from the Western Athletic Conference to join the super conference. Hawaii is only joining the conference in football and will stay in the WAC for all other sports.

Looking at the merger and the size of the conference, one would think it would be all pros and no cons. But the real question is, in reality, how super of a conference is it? Look at the departures from both the MWC and C-USA. Texas Christian University and Boise State University were two of the top "mid-major" teams in college football. TCU won the Rose Bowl against the University of Wisconsin in 2011 to cap off an undefeated season, and Boise State has posted a record of 50-3 over the past four seasons. San Diego State, which is also leaving the conference, has not been as much of a talent on the football field as it have been on the basketball court. The Aztecs made it to the Sweet 16 last season as they managed an impressive 35-3 record.

C-USA is arguably losing some of its most coveted athletic programs. Houston posted a 13-1 record this season and almost landed a bid to an exclusive BCS bowl game, while SMU has been one of the stronger C-USA football teams in recent memory. UCF has been ranked in both basketball and football at some point in the past few years, while Memphis has been one of the perennial mid-major basketball powers of the past five years, including a trip to the 2008 national championship game.

With all of their major members leaving, does the merging of C-USA and the MWC deserve automatic qualifier recognition? Out of its potential 16 members, the only team to have made a BCS football game in the past 10 years was Hawaii, which was throttled in the 2008 Sugar Bowl against the University of Georgia. Other than that, all of the participants in this new power conference have had their ups and downs in football with no major bowl berths in the recent years.

Even with the super size of 16 teams, does this conference really deserve to have an automatic bid to the BCS? It will be interesting to see if Banowsky and Thompson can pull in more teams from outside conferences to join, but with so much realignment already in place, it will be tough to bring in any teams that will increase the conference's chances of landing an elusive automatic qualifier label.

Even though the new super conference may be lacking elite members, it is still more beneficial for the Owls than for Conference USA on the whole. At least in this new conference, there is a possibility Rice could win the regular season title and make it to the BCS. C-USA was never going anywhere in football. Besides Houston's success this past season, C-USA has never produced teams that warranted a chance to play in the major bowl games.

Also, in basketball, there will still be elite teams, like Memphis, that will enhance the reputation of the conference. UNLV and New Mexico have both been ranked in the top 25 of the national polls this season, while Southern Miss has maintained an outstanding record of 22-5 and is in line for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.

In the long run, this might have been the best move the Owls could have hoped for. There is no way any of the power conferences like the Big East, the Southeastern Conference or the Big 12 Conference would have taken Rice in as an additional member. The only major sport the Owls excel at is baseball, but since that is not where most of the athletic revenue comes from, it does not play much of a factor.

Hopefully, the introduction of this new power conference will improve all Rice athletics and give the Owls a chance at becoming a part of a power conference again for the first time since their involvement in the Southwestern Conference in 1996. What looked like a potential disaster with Memphis, UCF, Houston and SMU bolting for greener pastures might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Rice for years to come.

Daniel Elledge is a sophomore at Sid Richardson College and Thresher sports editor.

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