Keeping Score

Grading C-USA: 2013-14 had its ups and downs

The 2013-14 season in Conference USA wasn't expected to be an easy one, and it certainly had a bumpy path.

Houston, Central Florida, Memphis and SMU left prior to the season for the American Athletic Conference. Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina will leave to join the AAC for the upcoming campaign.

Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, Charlotte, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, North Texas and Texas-San Antonio all completed their first year in C-USA. Western Kentucky joins the fray for 2014-15.

There's no denying that the Conference USA brand has taken a significant blow in national respect. The league built national credibility with the help of former members like Louisville, TCU, Marquette, Cincinnati and Memphis. 

The best example of a snub this year for C-USA was the fact that the basketball teams of Southern Miss (27-6) and Louisiana Tech (27-7) didn't receive serious consideration for the NCAA Tournament despite both having worthy resumes. Tulsa earned the automatic bid with a C-USA Tournament victory. The Golden Hurricane faced the daunting task of playing UCLA in San Diego, and lost in the opener.

Not only were USM and La. Tech left out of the NCAA field, but they each received No. 3 seeds in the NIT. That's all you need to know on where the two teams stood in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee.

In all fairness, major turnover in the AAC also led to that league being underrated in the selection process. Louisville, the defending national champ at the moment, was an inconceivable four seed and UConn won the national title as a No. 7 seed.

C-USA made a respectable showing in almost every sport. There were good teams and there were bad teams, but the top half of the league was often nearly as good as it had been in the past in most sports.

There were embarrassing moments for the league. Maybe none more so than C-USA champion Rice's 44-7 loss to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl. Middle Tennessee also put on a bad display of sportsmanship with dirty play in a 24-6 loss to Navy (of all teams) in the Armed Force Bowl.

In football, there were some bad teams at the bottom of the conference. Southern Miss, FIU, UAB and UTEP all combined to win a total of six games and rank among the worst squads in the nation.

The league featured significantly better depth among its basketball and baseball teams. That will likely remain the case for several years until the newer football programs catch up and holdovers such as USM and UAB find a way to rebound.

North Texas (9-4), Marshall (10-4) and East Carolina (10-3) all fielded fine football teams in 2013 and would have likely put up much better fights in the Liberty Bowl than Rice. 

I'll address the future of the league, but let's get the 2013-14 grades out of the way for C-USA's members:

UAB 

Football: F

If there was such a thing as an F-minus, I might hand it to the Blazers here. The much-despised head coach, Garrick McGee, is gone following a 2-10 season and a disastrous 5-19 mark in two years at the school.

Basketball: B 

Jerod Haase's first year as head coach ended with an 18-13 record and impressive wins over North Carolina, Nebraska and Southern Miss. Other than that, the Blazers were about as average as it gets in league play with a 7-9 mark.

Baseball: B+

UAB doesn't have very good facilities, but coach Brian Shoop has done a fine job after leading the Blazers (35-21, 20-10) to a second-place finish in C-USA.

OVERALL: C+

CHARLOTTE

Football: Won't join until 2015

Basketball: C

The 49ers (17-14) appeared set for a special season after beating Kansas State and Michigan in November, but the second half of the season was a mess. 

Baseball: C-

There was reason to believe that the 49ers might be able to compete immediately in C-USA, but that wasn't the case with a 19-31 record.

OVERALL: C-

EAST CAROLINA

Football: A

After some early struggles, Ruffin McNeill has the football program back in a great place with a total of 18 wins the last two years.

Basketball: C-

There was some thought that ECU could build off its CIT championship in 2013, but that wasn't the case with a mediocre 17-17 season.

Baseball: C-

Mediocrity has crept into the ECU baseball program (33-26 in 2014) after some strong years.

OVERALL: B

FLORIDA ATLANTIC

Football: B

The 2013 season was an adventurous one with two head coaches, but the Owls closed very strong for a 6-6 record. They will be a team to watch this year.

Basketball: D-

The Owls beat Harvard and UTEP, but that amounts to little with Mike Jarvis getting fired following a 10-22 season.

Baseball: D

FAU was expected to immediately factor into the title hunt, but it didn't make the C-USA Tournament and finished 28-25.

OVERALL: C

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL

Football: F

If it wasn't for USM, the Panthers wouldn't have had a win this past season.

Basketball: C

After losing Richard Pitino to Minnesota, FIU made a quality hire in Anthony Evans. Despite not being postseason-eligible, the Panthers finished 15-16, 7-9.

Baseball: C+

FIU finished 36-20 and 16-14 to finish in a three-way tie for sixth-place.

OVERALL: C-

MARSHALL

Football: B+ 

Marshall finished with a nice win over Maryland in the Military Bowl, but it should have beaten Rice in the C-USA title game to earn the Liberty Bowl spot.

Basketball: F

Tom Herrion's last season as basketball coach was a debacle with a record of 11-22.

Baseball: D

It's going to be a struggle in baseball until Marshall finally builds a stadium. The Herd may face the toughest situation of any baseball team in America.

OVERALL: C-

MIDDLE TENNESSEE

Football: B-

The Blue Raiders (8-5) had a chance to compete for an East Division title this year, but struggled early on. A poor showing in the bowl game has to leave a bad taste for fans.

Basketball: A

Kermit Davis has built a consistent winner in Murfreesboro with an NCAA Tournament in 2013 and a 24-9 mark and a first-place tie in C-USA in 2014.

Baseball: B

The Blue Raiders (31-27, 17-13) were competitive in their first year in C-USA and should be going forward.

OVERALL: B

SOUTHERN MISS

Football: D-

Even though the Golden Eagles (1-11) looked worse than the 2012 team at times, you can't argue with the fact that they finally won a game and showed progress late in the year.

Basketball: A

There was no NCAA Tournament for USM, but it set a school record with a 29-7 mark and a tie for the C-USA regular season title. 

Baseball: C+

USM (35-25, 20-10) finished in third place in C-USA, but there was no postseason bid for a third consecutive season. USM fans expect to be in the postseason every year, and they are impatient at the moment.

OVERALL: C+

LOUISIANA TECH

Football: D+

Skip Holtz didn't have much to work with in his first season, and it showed with a 4-8 record. 

Basketball: A

Mike White has built a winner in men's basketball at La. Tech, which is a tough thing to do. The Bulldogs went 29-8 this season.

Baseball: F

Coach Wade Simoneaux was fired after a 15-35 season.

OVERALL: C

NORTH TEXAS

Football: A

The Mean Green might have been the best football team in C-USA this year with an impressive nine-win season.

Basketball: C- 

Johnny Jones had a good thing going at North Texas before he left for LSU. North Texas was as mediocre as it gets with a 16-16 record this year.

Baseball: Does not play

OVERALL: B

RICE

Football: A-

It was a great season for the Owls (10-4), but they still can't hang with teams with elite athletes as proven by the Liberty Bowl.

Basketball: F

Rice was just flat awful this year and coach Ben Braun was fired because of it.

Baseball: A+

Wayne Graham is a tremendous baseball coach and has the most consistent winning C-USA program in any sport.

OVERALL: B

UTEP

Football: F

Sean Kugler's first season as head coach was not a good one with a 2-10 record.

Basketball: B

Expectations are high at UTEP, but coach Tim Floyd did a good job of getting the team to play well late with a 24-9 overall record.

Baseball: Does not play.

Overall: C-

UTSA

Football: A

The Roadrunners weren't even quite bowl eligible yet as they made the full transition to FBS, but they ended up with a 7-5 mark and 6-2 record against C-USA competition.

Basketball: D-

UTSA's first season in C-USA was a difficult one with an 8-22 record.

Baseball: B+

The regular season was a mixed bag for UTSA, but it showed up strong in the league tournament with a spot in the title game.

OVERALL: B

TULANE

Football: B

Curtis Johnson has done a great job of rebuilding Green Wave football coming off a 7-6 campaign.

Basketball: C

There was no in between for Tulane this season. It either got whipped badly or it narrowly pulled out victories for a 17-16 record.

Baseball: F

Rick Jones has stepped down after the Green Wave (23-29) missed out of the C-USA Tournament.

OVERALL: C-

TULSA

Football: D-

The Golden Hurricane crashed and burned in a 3-9 season when many expected them to be among the best in the West.

Basketball: A

You can't argue with 21 wins and an NCAA Tournament bid.

Baseball: Does not play.

OVERALL: C+

OLD DOMINION

Football: ODU becomes a C-USA member this year, but will not be postseason eligible as it transitions to FBS following an 8-4 record in 2013.

Basketball: B+

An 18-18 record may not seem worthy of a B+, but the Monarchs went 9-7 in league play and made major progress after a 5-25 season in 2012-13.

Baseball: A

Old Dominion went 36-24 and earned an elusive at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. 

OVERALL: A

If I had to grade the league as a whole in its first year with a vastly new membership, I'd give it a B-minus. The competition was generally good and the league as a whole was underrated on many levels. 

C-USA has to find a way to do a better job of getting deserving teams into the postseason, and this was a major point of discussion during C-USA's recent spring meetings.

C-USA's TV exposure improved this past year with the arrival of Fox Sports 1 as a national network, but programs didn't always put their best foot forward when receiving national broadcast slots. Both UAB and MTSU played football games in empty stadiums during Fox Sports 1 broadcasts in 2013. The league's title game in Houston between Rice and Marshall was played in a mostly vacant Rice Stadium.

This does little to improve the league's image.

While there are major issues, the 2014-15 season has a chance to be a unique one for Conference USA.

There is the potential for a special football season at Marshall, which plays an incredibly soft schedule and features a possible Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Rakeem Cato.

Louisiana Tech could have the best men's basketball team in the program's history. If it knocks off some powers in the non-conference schedule, it could elevate C-USA as a basketball league in 2014-15.

In baseball, Rice will continue to win just like any other year. The question is whether C-USA can become a consistent multi-bid league again.

C-USA can make up ground in lost national respect, but it has a  lot of work ahead.

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