Patrick Magee

C-USA Value Rankings: Breaking down the top dogs and dead weight

Dylan Bradley of Southern Miss splits the blockers on Marshall's offensive line to pressure quarterback Chase Litton on Oct. 29, 2016, at M. M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg.
Dylan Bradley of Southern Miss splits the blockers on Marshall's offensive line to pressure quarterback Chase Litton on Oct. 29, 2016, at M. M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

Conference USA just finished its third year in its current 14-team lineup and it’s been a mixed bag of results during that stretch.

Now is a good time to take stock of the conference’s members and what they bring to the table, ranking each school based on their value to the conference.

There have been some bright moments in competition over the last three years, but there have also been some particularly miserable moments away from the field for C-USA.

There’s good reason to be encouraged in football and men’s basketball. For three consecutive seasons, C-USA’s lone representative in the NCAA Tournament has pulled off first-round upsets. In football over the last three years, conference members are 12-6 in bowl games.

That success is tempered by the fact that TV revenue has hit rock bottom and fan support within the conference has been downright embarrassing at times.

Top dogs

I’ve broken down the C-USA Value Rankings into four categories and we’ll start if off with the top dogs. Fan support, tradition, facilities, market size, potential and performance in the major sports are all factors that play into these rankings.

While there’s no dominant program in C-USA, here’s a look at how all 14 schools stack up:

1. OLD DOMINION

Breakdown: One of the newest members of C-USA has turned into arguably its most valuable. ODU is located in a large market (Norfolk, Virginia) and has proven competitive in all major sports — football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and baseball.

Facilities: ODU has arguably the best basketball arena in C-USA and is in the process of renovating its modest football stadium, Foreman Field. The only minor concern going forward is that ODU is able to continue investing in athletics while trying to pull back from a heavy reliance on student fees.

Fan support: ODU has 54 consecutive sellouts for football and has one of the most active fan bases in C-USA.

2. SOUTHERN MISS

Breakdown: USM isn’t quite the football title contender each year that it once was, but the school is in this position thanks to tradition and a passionate fan base. Football still runs the show and USM averaged 28,588 fans a game last year to easily lead the league in attendance. The USM baseball team ranks with WKU football and MTSU basketball as the best programs going in C-USA.

Facilities: Roberts Stadium stands out as one of the best stadiums in the conference and Pete Taylor Park plays host to a passionate baseball following. Reed Green Coliseum needs a major upgrade.

Fan support: Aside from men’s basketball, which is still suffering from NCAA sanctions, USM has the best fan support in C-USA.

Southern Miss beat Charlotte 6-5 Saturday to stay alive in the C-USA tournament in Biloxi.

3. MARSHALL

Breakdown: Like USM, Marshall offers a quality football brand. The Herd is coming off rough 3-9 campaign, but you can’t ignore a combined mark of 23-4 over the two previous seasons.

Facilities: Marshall hits the mark in football and basketball, but the lack of a baseball stadium in Huntington is still baffling.

Fan support: Marshall ranked second in C-USA in football attendance at 24,760 despite stumbling badly in 2016.

Important pieces, but need to do better:

4. UAB

Breakdown: Much of the conference is still annoyed with UAB over its boneheaded decision to drop football for a couple of seasons, but the school continues to be an important member in spite of poor leadership. Following the departure of Memphis, Birmingham became arguably the most important market to C-USA. Football is back this year.

Facilities: Bartow Arena is one of the better gyms in the conference. The baseball stadium is a poor facility and Legion Field is still a rusty bucket.

Fan support: Things appeared to be turning the corner when UAB shut down its football program in 2014. We’ll see if the Blazers pick up where they left off.

5. UTEP

Breakdown: Like UAB, UTEP offers strong tradition in men’s basketball. The school’s football and men’s basketball programs have been terribly inconsistent in recent years. El Paso remains an important market for C-USA and deserves a chance to host another basketball tournament.

Facilities: UTEP has two of the more attractive facilities in C-USA with the Sun Bowl and Don Haskins Center.

Fan support: The El Paso community supports UTEP and has shown up when hosting tournaments.

6. WKU

Breakdown: WKU officials will likely be irritated by this standing, but the program has to deliver more than wins on the field. According to WKU, the Hilltoppers have claimed a total of 21 C-USA regular season titles or C-USA tournament titles over the last three years, outpacing Rice (10) and UTEP (8).

Facilities: E.A. Diddle Arena is a quality gym that attracts a strong following for basketball. L.T. Smith Stadium is on the tiny side with a capacity of 22,113.

Fan support: A lack of football fan support is a concern. The announced crowd of 13,213 for the 2016 C-USA football title game on Dec. 3 at Western Kentucky provided a sobering moment for the conference. The actual attendance appeared to be much smaller as WKU topped Louisiana Tech in an otherwise entertaining 58-44 game.

7. LOUISIANA TECH

Breakdown: Louisiana Tech is one of the best additions to C-USA in the major sports, fielding strong teams in football, men’s basketball and baseball.

Facilities: If Tech continues to make investments in Joe Aillet Stadium, it will be more competitive in the long run. The Bulldogs’ basketball and baseball facilities are both above average compared to the rest of C-USA.

Fan support: Tech does have a passionate fan base, but it’s a relatively small one. Very good football teams regularly play in front of mediocre crowds.

USM relief pitcher Nick Sandlin gets out of a ninth-inning jam to get a save in University of Southern Mississippi’s 5-2 win over Louisiana Tech in an elimination game in the Conference USA baseball tournament at MGM park in Biloxi on Thursday.

8. RICE

Breakdown: Rice offers the Houston market and a prestigious academic institution. The Owls have dropped off in football with a combined record of 8-16 over the last two seasons. Rice baseball has been to the postseason in 23 consecutive seasons.

Facilities: It may be mostly empty, but Rice Stadium is still a neat place to watch a football game. Reckling Park is an outstanding baseball stadium.

Fan support: This will always be the biggest problem. Aside from baseball, Rice doesn’t draw much interest in Houston.

9. MIDDLE TENNESSEE

Breakdown: Like WKU and La. Tech, MTSU has been competitive in a wide range of sports. The men’s basketball program is currently the class of C-USA with back-to-back NCAA Tournament bids.

Facilities: The basketball arena and baseball stadium are quality facilities and the football stadium seems perfect for a school like MTSU.

Fan support: Like WKU, a lack of fan support weighs down MTSU. The football program lacks a large, devoted following and a very good men’s basketball team doesn’t draw like it should.

Good potential, but still lagging:

10. TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO

Breakdown: Big things were expected of UTSA when it joined C-USA in 2013 with a large market and substantial support for football, but the program needs more time to grow. The 2016 season was an important step with a bowl bid and the conference’s third-best attendance at 23,038 a game.

Facilities: This is the main reason that UTSA is in the bottom half of the rankings. While the Alamodome is great stadium for football, the baseball and basketball facilities rank among the worst in the conference. Roadrunner Field, the school’s baseball stadium, falls far short of what you should expect out of a college facility.

Fan support: UTSA gets good support for a young football program, but attendance for other sports is underwhelming.

11. NORTH TEXAS

Breakdown: With C-USA based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it made sense to add a large public university like North Texas. The program has tons of potential, but fan support is lagging and the football program has been inconsistent.

Facilities: Apogee Stadium is one of the nicest football stadiums in the conference, but it doesn’t draw great crowds. UNT Coliseum is a little bigger than necessary for the basketball programs.

Fan support: UNT fans have shown up strong at their two bowl games at the Cotton Bowl stadium (2014 and 2016), but crowds at Apogee Stadium aren’t very good.

12. CHARLOTTE

Breakdown: Charlotte was a smart addition when Conference USA needed to bolster its roster with a large market. Unfortunately, the 49ers haven’t delivered much in men’s basketball since rejoining in 2013. The football team is coming off a promising 4-8 season in it just its second season at the FBS level.

Facilities: Charlotte didn’t exactly go big when it built 15,314-seat Jerry Richardson Stadium. Halton Arena is a quality gym while the baseball stadium is quaint, but nice.

Fan support: It’s hard to gauge support for a football program that’s just getting going, but the 49ers did average 4,551 fans a game for men’s basketball this past season.

Dead weight

13. FLORIDA ATLANTIC

Breakdown: FAU has a nice, new football stadium and a strong baseball program. Other than that, the Owls haven’t had much to offer since joining C-USA in 2013. Maybe Lane Kiffin will generate some buzz in Boca Ration this year.

Facilities: The football stadium is a fan example for Group of Five programs looking to build a new facility. The basketball and baseball facilities are less inspiring.

Fan support: FAU attendance ranks near the bottom in C-USA for basketball and football.

14. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL

Breakdown: If there was one school that would be voted off the island by the rest of C-USA, it would be FIU. The Panthers have offered little other than a somewhat competitive baseball program since joining the conference.

Facilities: The baseball stadium ranks in the top half of the conference, but FIU’s football stadium has knocked Legion Field out of last place in C-USA as far as the worst stadium.

Fan support: There is no significant support for the major sports at FIU.

Watch Southern Miss pull off an 8-6-3-2 play and celebrate 3-2 win over Rice in the Conference USA title game in Hattiesburg.

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