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C-USA Bowl Ratings

As a few conference commissioners, a handful of athletic directors, and several hundred thousand football fans anxiously wait perched on the edge of their seats for the next series of conference realignment dominoes to start falling, take a gander at these 2009 bowl television ratings posted by Jay Christensen of The Wiz of Odds, a fabulous college football site. These numbers confirm what knowledgeable fans already suspected: Conference USA football generates negligible national interest, which explains the chatter of schools seeking to bolt.

Of the eight lowest-rated 2009 bowl games (34 games total), four involved C-USA programs:

New Orleans Bowl (Southern Miss-Middle Tennessee): 0.7 (33rd)
Armed Forces Bowl (Houston-Air Force): 1.6 (t30th)
St. Petersburg Bowl (UCF-Rutgers): 1.6 (t30th)
Hawaii Bowl (SMU-Nevada): 1.7 (t27th)

What is particularly troubling about these ratings is ESPN owns three of those four bowl games: Armed Forces, St. Pete and Hawaii. Bowl games on ESPN typically equate to a (relative) ratings bonanza - witness the 200% ratings increase in the ESPN-produced 2009 Texas Bowl (Missouri-Navy) from 2008 (Rice-Western Michigan) when the game was aired in obscurity on the NFL Network. As should be expected, the Liberty Bowl matchup between the C-USA champion (East Carolina) and a second-tier SEC school (Arkansas) carried the ratings flag for the league by pulling a 3.8 and finishing 14th overall. But that solid number merely kept C-USA from finishing dead last among the 11 FBS conferences in average rating. C-USA averaged a 2.0 rating to finish ahead of the Sun Belt (1.55) but behind the MAC (2.2), which dropped 13 consecutive bowl games before Central Michigan edged Troy in the GMAC Bowl.

Finishing near the bottom of the ratings barrel is nothing new for C-USA. In 2008 the league finished dead last in average rating (1.22) thanks in large part to the 0.1 rating the Owls-Broncos matchup produced on the NFL Network. Five of the eight lowest-rated 2008 bowl games involved C-USA teams, including three - the aforementioned Texas Bowl, the New Orleans Bowl (Southern Miss-Troy) and the St. Pete Bowl (Memphis-USF) - ranked in the 30s.

It wasn't much better in 2007, when four of the six lowest-rated games included C-USA programs. The league finished eighth in average rating that postseason (1.57), buoyed yet again by the Liberty Bowl (UCF-Mississippi State) and its 3.5 rating. If not for those matchups with the SEC, C-USA's annual bowl ratings would barely register a blip on the national radar.

So what does this mean for Rice? It's a foregone conclusion that UCF will jump to the Big East if given the opportunity. The Knights' facilities are in order, and UCF has a large enrollment (53,000-plus) and a budding rivalry with Big East member USF. The league would love to tap into the Central Florida television market, so if Rutgers leaves the Big East to join the Big 10 and help it reach a dozen teams, expect C-USA to lose one of its East Division members.

If Missouri migrates north from the Big 12 to the Big 10, expect a more direct impact on Rice. The Big 12 would be wise to fill that hole with TCU, although many believe Texas provides enough of the Metroplex television market that adding TCU isn't an absolute necessity. Arkansas would lose money moving to the Big 12 from the SEC and leaving behind its share of that gaudy television contract, so which school would be left for the Big 12 to poach? Utah or BYU from the Mountain West? If the Mountain West were to suddenly have a vacancy, would it fill the void with Rice? SMU? UH? UTEP? The options are aplenty, and rest assured that ADs (very) near and far are already positioning themselves for the upcoming realignment.

Whatever happens next, if C-USA loses UCF or Memphis or one of its West Division schools, Rice can ill-afford to be left behind. If the right combination of schools depart, the league will be left on equal standing with the Sun Belt, and no one on South Main is interested in that.
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