Movin' On Up

It began with a whirlwind of rumors, unconfirmed reports and tweets. Several hours later, Middle Tennessee finds themselves with a new conference home and positioned to write the next chapter in the program's history.

Fans have wanted it, the administration has worked for it and yet when the announcement that Middle Tennessee was joining the Conference USA people were genuinely shocked. Some people were ecstatic, others hated it and a lot of people were excited to hear the news but concerned as to whether it was the right move.

Either way it's happening.

Beginning in the Fall of 2014, Middle Tennessee will be a full-fledged member of the Conference USA. Personally, I've been saying that's the next logical step for the athletic department to make for well over a year. Then I started questioning whether that was the right move on the heels of yesterday's announcement that Tulane and East Carolina were headed to the Big East.

After spending most of the day doing research and looking into what each scenario has in store, I'm back on board with the move. Here's why:

First of all, moving to a conference that has established itself like the C-USA instantly gives Middle Tennessee a bump in notoriety. People can say that it's lost a lot of what made it known in the first place, but I've yet to have anybody convince me that 2014's C-USA lineup will be superior to that of the Sun Belt's.

Secondly, the motivating factor in all of these conference shakeups is money. Programs don't operate for free and the more money you have coming in from your conference affiliation, the more you can invest back into your program. As it stands right now, Conference USA will be adding the Dallas, Miami and Nashville media markets in the next two years. Those three cities rank 5th, 11th and 45th in the nation according to Arbitron's Fall 2012 media market ratings. All totaled, C-USA gets 9,151,200 more television sets to use as leverage in the next round of television contract negotiations.

Combine that with the name recognition that comes with existing teams like Southern Miss, Tulsa, Marshall and UAB and now the average fan has more to be excited about – which ideally results in increased donations and home attendance.

For those wondering, the likely breakdown of this 14-team version of the Conference USA (assuming there are no more changes) will look like this:

1. Middle Tennessee
2. Florida International
3. Florida Atlantic
4. Marshall
5. UNC Charlotte
6. UAB
7. Old Dominion

1. Southern Miss
2. North Texas
3. Rice
5. Tulsa
6. Louisiana Tech
7. UT San Antonio

Compare that to the Sun Belt's 2014 lineup and it's easy to see why athletic director Chris Massaro and president Sidney McPhee accepted the invitation:

Arkansas State
Western Kentucky
South Alabama
Georgia State
Texas State

While some of those teams have respectable football programs, none of them have been able to achieve any long term success. The Sun Belt is about as up-and-down a league as there is in college football and the fan interest in regional teams with little to no tradition really works against the league.

Despite the progress that the league has made it still lacks a decent television deal and a respectable amount of bowl tie-ins. With five bowl eligible teams in 2012, it's a very real possibility that a few might get left in the cold when selection Sunday rolls around. Compare that to Conference USA, which has six bowl tie-ins and it's an exciting prospect to no longer have to worry about playing in the post-season with eight wins.

All in all, we truly won't know the impact of this move for years. It could turn out to be a knockout win or a terrible decision, but it was a move that the university had to make based on the facts available to them now. If they had declined, you could replace one of the 2014 Sun Belt teams with Middle Tennessee and try to convince yourself that THAT was where the Blue Raiders bread would better be buttered (how about that alliteration, eh?).

For now, just sit back and wait on the real numbers to start rolling out: exit fees, entrance fees, C-USA revenues, donation increases, etc. That should calm the nerves of a lot of people worried about this move and prepare them for the swan song that will be the 2013-14 academic calendar.

Say goodbye to the Belt, folks. It's been a fun ride and we've all made plenty of friends, but it's time to move on. And ideally it's a move that will set off a wave of exponential growth for the university and athletic department both.

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