2020 Conference USA Baseball Stock Watch
This offseason, we’re taking deep dives into all 31 Division I baseball conferences, using five years’ worth of data to examine where each league has been and to try to project forward to where they might go.
Conference USA came into this five-year data sample as a league trying to sort itself out. It had previously been arguably the best non-power conference in college baseball, but realignment had robbed the league of many of its best baseball-playing members.
That development, combined with the general trend of NCAA Tournament at-large bids increasingly going to programs in power conferences, left one to wonder what C-USA’s future would hold.
What we’ve seen is that most of the programs that were competing nationally before realignment have continued to do so. Southern Miss has developed into the class of Conference USA, getting to four regionals in five years and hosting a regional in 2017. Florida Atlantic has become even more consistent than it was before, also reaching four regionals in the last five seasons.
The C-USA power that hasn’t kept it going is Rice, which in the last five years has gone from a program that expects to compete for a shot to make the College World Series to one in the throes of a rebuilding project.
What hasn’t happened in the league, however, is the arrival of new contenders using the power vacuum to announce themselves as players on the national stage. That’s not to say there haven’t been close calls, though.
Louisiana Tech has become a consistent winner, but thus far, it hasn’t been able to parlay that into being a consistent regional team. Florida International is recruiting at an extremely high level, but it hasn’t been to the postseason since 2015, before it was recruiting like it is now. Charlotte, with a new coach in Robert Woodard and some built-in advantages like location and a quality stadium, has plenty of potential, but hasn’t proven it yet.
USM and FAU appear steady, and while Rice is a question mark right now, its history will always give it cache in the sport and a chance to rebound. What would be a big boost to Conference USA and help insulate it from falling victim to the phenomenon of mid-major regional bids disappearing to an even greater degree is having one or more other teams develop into consistent postseason contenders.
*2020 records not included
|Team||C-USA Record||Winning Pct.||Overall Record||Winning Pct.|
|Middle Tennessee State||57-91||38.51||121-157||43.53|
The five-year standings crystallize the extent to which Southern Mississippi and Florida Atlantic have distanced themselves from the rest of the conference in recent years. USM is more than seven percentage points ahead of everyone else, but second-place FAU is also nearly 11 percentage points ahead of third-place Rice. From there, the standings get extremely congested, as there are fewer than 10 percentage points between third and eighth, showcasing the struggle the conference has had in developing another breakout program capable of competing for regional appearances.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each Conference USA program performed over the last five full seasons. The arrow designation of up, down and to the side represent the results of the last five seasons, not a projection of the years to come.
After missing the postseason altogether every year from 2012-2015, Southern Miss headed back in the right direction with four straight postseason appearances to end this data sample, including a standout 2017 season when it went 25-5 in Conference USA play, won 50 games overall and hosted a regional for the first time since 2003. The Golden Eagles backed that up with another regular-season title in 2018 and then got to the regional final in Baton Rouge in 2019.
With four regional appearances in the last five seasons, FAU is currently on its best run since it went to six regionals in seven years from 1999-2005 as a member of the Atlantic Sun. The Owls have not only made a habit of getting into the postseason, but they often do a good job of playing well once they’re there, and they made a regional final in 2015 and 2018. FAU made a super regional back in 2002, and if it continues to push its way into postseason play at its current rate, it’s likely just a matter of time before it breaks through again.
Rice - ⬇️
Rice regressed as the last five years went on. It hosted a regional in 2015, was a No. 2 seed but advanced to a deciding game seven in the Baton Rouge Regional in 2016, got to the final in Baton Rouge but was eliminated in the sixth game in 2017, and then missed the postseason altogether in 2018 and 2019, breaking a postseason streak that went back to 1995. Rice’s history, location and facilities give the program tons of upside, but right now, it is in rebuild mode.
The Bulldogs have been a little bit snakebitten over the last five years. A regional trip in 2016 is their only one in the last five seasons, and they’ve been on the wrong side of the bubble in the three seasons since, despite having postseason-quality teams. In 2018, for example, Louisiana Tech went 39-20 overall and 21-9 in Conference USA, good for second place in the league, but an RPI that spent most of the second half of the season in the 50s and 60s didn’t cut it. The quality of play in Ruston remains high, so it's a safe bet that postseason appearances will follow at some point.
Old Dominion has had some successful seasons in the last five years, such as a 2017 season that saw it finish 37-21 overall and 19-11 in Conference USA, but none of those seasons have led to a postseason appearance. The Monarchs last broke through to a regional in 2014, the year before this data sample began. Things are actually looking up now, as ODU was off to a 12-4 start when the 2020 season prematurely ended and it looks to have another talented team ready for 2021.
Florida International snuck a postseason appearance into this data sample, scoring a regional trip in 2015 under Turtle Thomas, but in the previous five seasons, from 2010-2014, the Panthers went to regionals in 2010 and 2011. Current coach Mervyl Melendez took over prior to the 2017 season and has since turned FIU into a recruiting machine, but those standout recruiting classes have yet to pay dividends in the form of postseason success.
Texas-San Antonio - ⬅️➡️
UTSA last went to the postseason in 2013 in its one season as a member of the WAC, but the arrow for the last five seasons points to the side rather than down because the program moved from the Southland to the WAC to Conference USA, a jump up in league competition, and continued to be competitive. Three times in the last five seasons, the Roadrunners have finished .500 or better in C-USA, but they’ll look to take the next step moving forward under Patrick Hallmark, whose first season at the helm was cut short in 2020.
It’s an apples to oranges comparison because Charlotte spent much of the five-year period between 2010-2014 as a member of the Atlantic 10, but the arrow points down because the 49ers went from being among the powers of the A-10 to struggling to find consistency from year to year as members of Conference USA. In their last four years in the Atlantic 10 (2010-2013), they won two regular-season titles, came in second place once and made a regional appearance in 2011. Since moving conferences ahead of the 2014 season, fourth-place finishes in the standings are the best they have to offer.
Marshall - ⬆️
It hasn’t resulted in Marshall’s first postseason appearance since 1978 or in any hardware being added to the trophy case, but the program has shown subtle improvement in the last five seasons. In 2016, in fact, the Thundering Herd enjoyed their best season as a member of Conference USA, going 21-9 in league play and finishing in second place, both high-water marks as members of the conference. A new stadium, which has been delayed but is still planned for the 2022 season, can only help the program moving forward.
From 2010-2014, UAB showed very real signs of progress toward becoming a more consistent contender in C-USA. In 2012, it made a Cinderella run to the conference tournament title for its first regional appearance since 1991. Then, in 2014, it went 20-10 in conference play, good for second place. Since then, however, things have been more difficult, with a 15-15 league record in 2015 the only time the Blazers have been .500 or better in Conference USA.
Middle Tennessee State—⬇️
The Blue Raiders began this data sample on a good note, finishing fourth in the conference with a 19-11 record in 2015, but things have been tougher since then, with two last-place finishes, a 10th-place finish and a ninth-place finish in that time. Jim Toman, the former longtime coach at Liberty, is now tasked with getting MTSU headed back in the right direction.
The 2019 season brought some good news for Western Kentucky, as a 16-13-1 conference record and fourth-place finish were the best for the program since 2011, but otherwise, it was a tough five seasons for the Hilltoppers. They finished no better than 11-18 in any of the four other seasons and bottomed out with a 6-24 mark in 2017. The hope for WKU is that 2019 is the start of positive momentum.
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Regional Recap by Year
|2019||Southern Mississippi||2-2 in Baton Rouge Regional|
|2019||Florida Atlantic||1-2 in Athens Regional|
|2018||Florida Atlantic||3-2 in Gainesville Regional|
|2018||Southern Mississippi||1-2 in Fayetteville Regional|
|2017||Southern Mississippi||2-2 in Hattiesburg Regional|
|2017||Rice||2-2 in Baton Rouge Regional|
|2016||Rice||3-2 in Baton Rouge Regional|
|2016||Louisiana Tech||2-2 in Starkville Regional|
|2016||Southern Mississippi||1-2 in Tallahassee Regional|
|2016||Florida Atlantic||1-2 in Coral Gables Regional|
|2015||Rice||2-2 in Houston Regional|
|2015||Florida Atlantic||2-2 in Gainesville Regional|
|2015||Florida International||1-2 in Coral Gables|
Once upon a time, Conference USA teams were no stranger to advancing to super regionals and even the College World Series, as Rice made a habit of going to Omaha under Wayne Graham, Southern Miss made the trip in 2009 and former member Tulane went under the C-USA banner in 2005. The postseason results post-realignment, including these last five seasons, aren’t quite to that level, with Rice in 2013 the last team from the conference to win a regional. Conference USA teams continue to get to regional finals with regularity, so there’s little reason to think of the league as having fallen off the face of the planet in terms of results, and it seems like just a matter of time before USM or FAU gets back to super regionals, but it’s probably fair to say that we’ve seen the league take a moderate step back in recent years.
Top Draft Picks
|Matt Wallner, OF, Southern Mississippi||2019||39th overall|
|C.J. Chatham, SS, Florida Atlantic||2016||51st overall|
|Matt Canterino, RHP, Rice||2019||54th overall|
|Tyler Frank, SS, Florida Atlantic||2018||56th overall|
|Nick Sandlin, RHP, Southern Mississippi||2018||67th overall|
What’s perhaps most interesting about Conference USA’s recent draft results is that the years which saw the league have the most players selected weren’t the years when its highest-drafted players were taken. The 36 players drafted in 2015 and the 32 selected in 2017 were the highest totals from the last five drafts, but no players from those two drafts appear in the above table. Wallner is the highest-drafted player from Conference USA since East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman was taken ninth overall in 2014, before ECU moved to the American Athletic Conference. With his selection, Canterino became the highest-drafted player from Rice since Anthony Rendon was taken sixth overall in 2011. Chatham is the highest-drafted player in FAU history, and two years later, Frank became the second-highest-drafted player in program history.
|2019||Charlotte||Loren Hibbs||Robert Woodard|
|2019||Texas-San Antonio||Jason Marshall||Patrick Hallmark|
|2018||Middle Tennessee State||Jim McGuire||Jim Toman|
|2018||Rice||Wayne Graham||Matt Bragga|
|2016||Florida International||Turtle Thomas||Mervyl Melendez|
|2016||Louisiana Tech||Greg Goff||Lane Burroughs|
|2015||Western Kentucky||Matt Myers||John Pawlowski|
The biggest shoes to fill in this group are obvious, and that’s Matt Bragga taking over for the legendary Wayne Graham at Rice. Considering that Graham really is Rice baseball, there’s no way for Bragga to replicate what Graham did, but that doesn’t mean the job doesn’t come with pressure to keep the standard high in Houston. The hires made in 2019 are particularly intriguing. Patrick Hallmark turned around UTSA’s crosstown rival Incarnate Word in a flash, which should inspire confidence that he might be able to do the same with the Roadrunners. Robert Woodard comes to the job at Charlotte with an impressive track record that includes CWS appearances as both a player and a coach at North Carolina, and in his short time with the 49ers, he has worked to quickly modernize the program from a player development standpoint.