The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 29, 2012

Thundering Herd will emerge from C-USA mess

I heard it and read it more than once. “Back to the MAC.” Certainly, the current state of Conference USA looks hopeless for Marshall. The Big East that will start to take shape in 2013 may not be as viable as it once was, but the way it has ravaged C-USA has left Marshall’s conference seemingly on life support.

Things sure look different from the way they appeared seven years ago, when Marshall joined the league, leaving behind the Mid-American Conference after eight seasons of dominating the likes of Miami (Ohio), Kent State and Ohio. The move had its share of detractors who thought it was a “lateral move” (another term I heard more than once) and didn’t like the increased travel the change would bring — it’s much easier to get to Akron than it is to El Paso.

It just made zero geographic sense, they argued. In the MAC, the Thundering Herd had a natural rivalry with Ohio University. The closest C-USA team would be East Carolina, just a leisurely eight-hour drive to Greenville, N.C.

Those in favor of the move (count me among them) were armed and ready with reasons why it had to be. Increased revenue sharing, more bowl tie-ins (none of them in Detroit) and a major boost in visibility in the fertile recruiting lands of Florida and Texas, not to mention a better TV package.

Financially, and for prospects of future progression, it was a move that was necessary for Marshall to make.

But with Tuesday’s announcement that ECU and Tulane will be leaving C-USA for the Big East, hindsight is making those who didn’t support the move stick out their chests in a manner that screams, “I told you so!”

Four teams — SMU, Houston, Central Florida and Memphis — are already making their C-USA farewells before joining the Big East in July; ECU, which will join as a football-only member, and Tulane won’t wave goodbye until 2014.

The four original deserters represent four of the top 50 television markets in the nation. Three of them — SMU (Dallas, fifth), Houston (10th) and Central Florida (Orlando, 19th) — are in the top 20. Memphis checks in at No. 50.

Obviously, all of this conference reshuffling is about money, and TV markets have a lot to do with it. That’s what makes Tulane an attractive addition for the Big East — the New Orleans market is 53rd in the country.

The fear that Marshall will be negatively affected by all this is well founded. Will recruiting suffer? Will the number of bowl tie-ins and the TV package decrease now that the conference’s most lucrative TV markets are gone?

Legitimate concerns, to be sure.

To its credit, C-USA made its move to counteract the loss of the four original schools, adding schools that will provide a similar marketing punch. Joining in 2013 will be Florida International (Miami, 16th), North Texas (located less than an hour from Dallas) and Texas-San Antonio (37th).

The Charleston-Huntington market is well into the top 100 itself at 65th, and an Associated Press report came out Wednesday indicating that Middle Tennessee (30 miles from Nashville, 29th) will be leaving the Sun Belt to join C-USA, as well.

The gutting of C-USA might not seem quite so bad to Herd fans if not for the success the MAC is having during a season that has been abysmal for C-USA. Kent State and Northern Illinois will play for the conference championship this weekend, and both are ranked in the BCS Standings. Kent State is 17th and Northern Illinois 21st.

Kent State, should it win, has an outside shot of earning an at-large BCS bid.

(And to think, the Golden Flashes’ season started with Andre Parker running the wrong way after recovering a muffed punt.)

But that success will prove to be an anomaly. And under athletic director Mike Hamrick’s leadership, Marshall will emerge just fine, one way or another.

Hey, the Big East has another opening with Louisville now headed to the ACC.

Maybe the “Back to the MAC” chants can be replaced.

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