C-USA emerges as one of nation’s best
Six of Conference USA’s nine teams are in top 50 of RPI
PEARL, Miss. -- Toiling in the shadow of bigger baseball conferences, Conference USA doesn’t get a lot of national attention.
Considering the way its teams are playing, that will change.
Six of Conference USA’s nine teams were in the top 50 of the NCAA’s first RPI rankings released Tuesday. Only the Southeastern Conference (10) and Atlantic Coast Conference (8) have more, while the Big 12 (6) is tied with C-USA.
Southern Miss, the highest in C-USA at No. 2, has been the league’s best team so far with a 22-6 record. The Golden Eagles also have a 2-1 record against teams from the SEC—long considered the gold standard for college baseball.
Southern Miss isn’t alone. One of the best indicators of C-USA’s combined strength is the league’s record of 12-11 against the SEC, up from 8-14 last season.
“You’re seeing these blue-collar schools have no fear,” Southern Miss shortstop B.A. Vollmuth said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re facing an SEC team or a Conference USA team, we feel we should win.”
Southern Miss, East Carolina (No. 21 in RPI), Rice (No. 22), Central Florida (No. 32), Houston (No. 35), Tulane (No. 47) and UAB (No. 61) all have legitimate postseason aspirations halfway through the season.
UCF picked up one of the league’s marquee wins Tuesday, beating Florida 4-3 on the road. The Gators are ranked No. 4 in the USA Today coaches’ poll and have one of the nation’s best pitching staffs.
But the Knights weren’t fazed, beating Florida just days after getting swept by Southern Miss on their home field.
“We feel good about it,” UCF coach Terry Rooney said. “This is my third year and I accepted this job with one goal—get this program into the national spotlight. I think that’s very attainable. We’ve been recruiting well and I feel good about our progression. This is the most talent we’ve had in a long, long time.”
Success isn’t foreign to Conference USA. Rice is a perennial powerhouse, winning a national championship in 2003, and Southern Miss made the College World Series in 2009. Programs such as East Carolina, Houston and Tulane also have a history of success.
But rarely have all the teams been so good at the same time. Rooney said the reason for the league’s continued improvement is simple: money.
“You’re seeing a lot of schools commit to college baseball—people are putting millions into facilities,” Rooney said. “From a financial standpoint, schools see that it’s becoming a revenue producer. If you make baseball your No. 1 or No. 2 priority, you’re able to be nationally competitive and go to regionals and super regionals.”
There’s several reasons for baseball’s parity, including the increase in resources for teams in non-BCS leagues. The NCAA allows teams to issue just 11.7 scholarships for 27 players, making it difficult to stockpile too much talent.
That’s helped C-USA grab some of the nation’s best talent. The league is home to several of the nation’s top hitters, including Rice’s Anthony Rendon and Southern Miss’ Vollmuth. Rendon is batting .370 while Vollmuth leads the league with nine homers. Both are highly coveted by Major League Baseball scouts.
“It’s just hard work,” Vollmuth said. “It doesn’t matter what school you’re playing for. We’ve got good coaches and they’ve helped me get better. When I came to Southern Miss, I had some talent, but they’ve helped me develop it.”
There’s also the new metal bats that have drastically reduced scoring this season, making games closer. Mississippi State beat Southern Miss 5-4 on Tuesday at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss., which will host the Conference USA Tournament in May.
Cohen said he still feels the SEC is still the country’s best conference because of its depth, but there’s no question that leagues like Conference USA are closing the gap.
“It used to be there were 20 or 25 teams in the country way ahead of the others,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “But that’s not the case anymore. Funding has caught up and so has knowledge. There aren’t a lot of secrets anymore and a lot of schools are playing at a high level.”