Derek Redd: Realignment allows Herd to move up C-USA ladder
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Winds of change have pushed a Golden Hurricane east toward Providence, R.I. In its place was left a big, red ... umm ... something.
Tulsa officially accepted its invitation to the newly named American Athletic Conference on Tuesday, and will join fellow Conference USA expatriates Houston, Tulane, Southern Methodist, Memphis, East Carolina and Central Florida in 2014. (The name change from "Big East" is appropriate, considering this amalgamation of teams doesn't have much to do with "East" and isn't exactly "Big.")
C-USA's countermove actually came the day before that, when it announced Monday it welcomed in Western Kentucky and its mascot, Big Red, a round, crimson whatzzit, albeit a cheerful-looking round, crimson whatzzit. That should end C-USA's role in this conference realignment jamboree for the time being.
("Should" is the operative word here, since there's never any certainty that anyone will be safe at any time from Realign-mageddon.)
For Marshall, which has sat back and watched old neighbors move away while new ones unpack in their place, those winds of change have left more than an amorphous opposing mascot. It's left opportunity.
Many Thundering Herd fans have lamented that the teams that will replace the defectors to the American, when everything shakes out in 2014, have damaged the conference's quality. Well, not entirely.
Men's basketball-wise, C-USA loses Memphis, the biggest dog in the yard. It finished with an RPI of 12. Yet that's the only men's basketball team among the departing members that's in the RPI top 100. The conference adds three RPI top 100 teams from 2013 - No. 28 Middle Tennessee, No. 53 Louisiana Tech and No. 68 Charlotte. Plus, you have WKU and Florida International lurking just outside the top 100 and looking like they'll be better in the future.
If the Thundering Herd can compete in this new version of C-USA, it should bolster its resume and its chances of earning that elusive NCAA tournament berth. C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky made sure that when other conferences started poaching his teams, he kept basketball a top priority when he restocked his roster while other conferences sacrificed other sports to the football gods.
Speaking of football, there's no question the 2014 slate of contenders doesn't have the same luster as the group that battled for the 2012 crown. Tulsa, UCF and East Carolina all were good teams, SMU had back-to-back bowl wins and Houston was on the rebound.
Some of the teams sliding into their spots, like MTSU, Louisiana Tech and WKU, are pretty stout and look like they could get better. Others like UTSA, Florida Atlantic and North Texas aren't going to remind anyone of the Golden Hurricane or the Pirates any time soon.
Herd fans grumble that C-USA's new solid teams aren't spectacular and the ones bringing up the back of the pack make Marshall's new look conference look like small change.
But that should make the conference easier to win, shouldn't it?
The Herd went 4-4 in C-USA last season. Three of those losses came against teams on their way out the door - UCF, ECU and Tulsa. Those happen to be the conference's top three teams in 2012, combining for 21 conference wins against just three conference losses. Now that trio can beat each other up in the American in 2014.
Meanwhile, Marshall moves up the C-USA ladder without changing a thing.
On paper, Conference USA looks like a pretty winnable football conference for the Herd.
Marshall still has to brawl with ECU and Tulsa for the 2013 crown, but the Herd returns most of the important pieces of its offense and its defense should be on the mend. It should have enough weapons to contend.
And when the realignment dust settles in 2014, Marshall still should have senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, senior receiver Tommy Shuler and junior running backs Kevin Grooms and Steward Butler on its roster.
The defense has a chance to further jell under coordinator Chuck Heater. Sure, two years under Bobby Petrino should make WKU a better team, Middle Tennessee could build upon its strong 2012, and new Louisiana Tech Coach Skip Holtz didn't do too bad in C-USA his first time around. But Marshall should be growing right along with them.
College football fans want bowl games. College basketball fans want NCAA Tournament appearances. This new version of Conference USA should help Marshall achieve both. All the Herd has to do is hold up its end of the deal and win.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.