With Texas declining the Pac 10’s invitation to be part of a 16-team conference, the likelihood of collegiate athletics shifting into a 21st Century model of mega conferences has come to an end – at least for now. However, the prospect of realignment or expansion will remain a constant in coming years as institutions jockey for position with more prominent and lucrative conferences.
Perhaps some of the biggest winners are institutions located in non-AQ conferences, such as Houston or Middle Tennessee, that may have been left out in a seismic shift of the collegiate sports landscape. In fact, the sudden deceleration of conference expansion offers non-AQ schools with more time to continue enhancing and growing, which may make programs like Houston and Middle Tennessee more attractive when future expansion begins to take shape. Both are in top 30 media markets and Houston is one of the largest in the nation.
For Middle Tennessee, one of the greatest challenges it faces isn't the lack of market size or academic rating, it's one of perception. However, of all of the teams in non-AQ conferences, Middle Tennessee may actually possess the greatest amount of raw potential of any of them.
For starters, the Blue Raiders are coming off their first 10-win season and reached that milestone in its first 10 years at the I-A level. With a head coach that spurned offers from Memphis and East Carolina at the end of the 2009 season, sitting in the 29th largest media market and growing to become the largest undergraduate University in Tennessee despite retaining one of the lowest admission rates in the state, Middle Tennessee has a lot of momentum to be part of a new modern-day collegiate landscape.
By now everyone understands that television contracts (which are largely tied to the size and number of a conference's media markets) are driving many of the decisions on who wants whom and which programs get invitations to bigger and better conferences. This provides a great deal of momentum for Middle Tennessee - particularly a conference that would like to enter the market where the Blue Raiders call home. The Nashville-Murfreesboro designated media market (DMA) could be an important region for a conference whether that be the Big East, a future merger between the Sun Belt and C-USA or a new conference that is formed out of leftover schools from other conferences should it ever come to that.
A primary benefit of being nestled in the backyard of one of the nation’s top media markets is the fact that so many alumni of potential conference mates call the Nashville-Murfreesboro area home. Take the University of Louisville for example, which has one of the largest alumni bases of any other University in the Nashville area including many SEC schools. It stands to reason that Louisville may prefer the opportunity to be aligned with a conference that includes the Nashville-Murfreesboro DMA over the one in Bristol, CT, especially if the Big East is unable to survive future expansion efforts by the Big 10 or ACC.
When Middle Tennessee is weighed up against its competitors pound for pound President Sydney McPhee and Athletic Director Chris Massaro have to like their location and their chances, but the University faces perception problems.
And perception problems are difficult to overcome. Although Middle Tennessee is not a research institution and suffers from the perception of being a "small school" in spite of its actual size, the University has raised admission standards several times over the past decade and continued to grow despite more stringent requirements. Furthermore, when looking at the average admission statistics with its peers that might be jostling with it to impress conferences and University presidents few other institutions have much of an academically advantageous background to separate itself from Middle Tennessee, but few know the steps the University has taken in recent years to enhance its academic stature.
According to data provided by StateUniversity.com, the average ACT/SAT score for incoming students at Middle Tennessee is 24 and 1140, respectively. Middle Tennessee accepts only 39% of applicants. By contrast Louisiana Tech's average ACT score is 25 and their admission rate is 96%. Looking at other institutions, Western Kentucky's ACT and SAT numbers are 24 and 1040, respectively with an admission rate of 96%. Troy's ACT is 23 and admission rate 74%. Memphis' average incoming ACT/SAT is 25/1200 with an admission rate of 66%. And when you consider that each of these markets are smaller than Middle Tennessee’s DMA, there’s a compelling argument to be made that you’re getting more bang for your buck with the Blue Raiders.
Comparatively speaking none of the aforementioned University's have a statistically significant advantage over the other. If we compared each of these to a institution like Vanderbilt with an average ACT of 33 and admission rate of 33% only Middle Tennessee's rate of admission is comparable likely driven by the popularity of the University and its environment-rich location.
And it’s those attributes; Dr. McPhee is likely selling when the issue of academics arise in the discussion of conference affiliation. And if that doesn't work, McPhee can point to being ranked 47th in Forbes list of America's Best Colleges and Universities. But it’s the total package - the aggregate of a blossoming football program (not to mention an all around athletics department that just won its sixth all sports trophy since 2001), a prime media market, and a University that has undertaken a significant academic revolution over the past two decades.
McPhee and Massaro have both stated their preference is to make the Sun Belt as strong as possible, but there continue to be so many uncertainties about the future, Middle Tennessee isn’t sitting back. It’s working diligently to make itself as attractive as possible. Continually increasing attendance during Rick Stockstill’s tenure, becoming a model with the NCAA’s Athletic Progress Rate (APR), and enhancing what’s already the Sun Belt’s top facilities are all part of the University’s efforts to ensure it is well positioned in the future.
With that said, there are areas Middle Tennessee needs to improve. The biggest is the endowment and fundraising arm of the University. Middle Tennessee lags behind many of its peers in this area, and will need to increase revenues generated from annual giving. Another and perhaps less severe is the stigmatization and subsequent perceptions associated with being unable to change the name to the University of Middle Tennessee, which has helped engender a small-school mentality toward the institution by outsiders.
Those issues aside, Middle Tennessee has certainly done everything it can and it certainly possesses a number of intangible benefits in its corner if or when realignment makes its way to Murfreesboro. The potential of McPhee's University (which is just now barely beginning to be scratched) may well exceed that of Middle Tennessee's competition -- Universities that previously maxed out their potential. The unknown at this point is whether conferences will look at Middle Tennessee with pre-existing prejudices based in false assumptions or on the facts and merits that Middle Tennessee brings to the negotiating table?