The 2013 football season came to a close today for Conference USA with North Texas beating UNLV, 36-14, in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, marking the beginning of another new phase in C-USA football.
It was a mixed bag for the league during the bowl season with a 3-3 record. Marshall, which beat Maryland in the Military Bowl, and North Texas had impressive performances while Rice struggled in the Liberty Bowl and Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill had to apologize for his team's poor display of sportsmanship in a 24-6 loss to Navy (of all teams) in the Armed Forces Bowl.
In 2014, Conference USA will again have to deal with defections of key football members. UCF, Memphis, Houston and SMU left after the 2012 season. Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina will join those teams in the American Athletic Conference for the 2014 season.
Of the three teams leaving, East Carolina is the departure that hurts the most for C-USA. Tulsa football had plenty of good seasons in C-USA, but East Carolina was an important piece of the league due to a winning tradition and the league's best attendance.
Western Kentucky and Old Dominion join C-USA for the 2014 football season. The Hilltoppers will be a nice addition to C-USA coming off an 8-4 season under first-year coach Bobby Petrino. The move will likely be a little tougher for ODU, which is still transitioning to the FBS level.
North Texas (9-4), Marshall (10-4), Rice (10-4) and Texas-San Antonio (7-5) are the returning members who have the most momentum headed into the 2014 season. Middle Tennessee (8-5) should challenge in the East and new Florida Atlantic coach Charlie Partridge has plenty to work with on a team coming off a 6-6 season.
Southern Miss will shift to the West Division (probably along with UAB) next year, joining Rice, UTEP, North Texas, UTSA and Louisiana Tech.
With a strong tradition and a good fanbase, it's important for C-USA that Southern Miss jump back into contention as soon as possible. It's somewhat of a stretch to assume that USM can get to the six-win mark in 2014, but it should see marked improvement next season from a 1-11 campaign.
While North Texas, East Carolina, Tulane and Marshall had nice fan followings at the bowl games, support for Rice and MTSU was underwhelming.
While Rice is an outstanding school and Dave Bailiff has done a great job as head coach, the Owls still can't draw a respectable crowd.
The loss of East Carolina will leave a gap in the league as a program that drew close to 50,000 fans a game.
It's still to be determined, but programs with likely the best football fanbases in the new C-USA will be Marshall, Southern Miss, UTSA, Old Dominion, North Texas, UTEP and Louisiana Tech.
UAB, Rice and FIU attract home crowds that are negligible.
While C-USA may be in better shape as a football league entering 2014 than many experts expected thanks to North Texas, Marshall and UTSA, there will be growing pains in the next few seasons.