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The Murray State News

The Murray State News

Jakob’s Take: Murray State’s time in the OVC is up

Murray State’s time in the OVC is coming to a close and it is time for the university to make a move elsewhere. Photo courtesy of Dave Winder/Racer Athletics.

Jakob Milani
Sports Editor
[email protected]

There are a lot of questions about the once strong mid-major conference that had fans from all over pouring their souls into its teams. One thing is for certain, however; the Ohio Valley Conference has struggled in recent years to keep teams in the conference. 

In the last two years alone, the OVC has lost four schools. Entering the 2021-22 athletic year, Eastern Kentucky University and Jacksonville State University packed up and left for the Atlantic Sun conference. Now, as the season has progressed, Austin Peay State University and , most recently, Belmont University have announced their departure from the OVC, with Austin Peay joining the ASUN and Belmont joining the Missouri Valley Conference.

With the most recent announcements of departures, eight teams remain in a deteriorating OVC, and Murray State is caught in the middle of it. Many fans have voiced their frustration on social media, saying that the Racers should have left years ago. Now, with more and more teams departing, Murray State is left with a big decision, but the roads are ever winding in the college athletics scene. 

Athletic director Kevin Saal released a statement on Friday, Sept. 24, discussing the future of the Racers’ athletics. He said that Murray State is keeping its options open and looking for the best possible outcome.

“Murray State University remains actively engaged in a thoughtful and thorough vetting process as it relates to conference realignment,” Saal said. “Murray State is a nationally recognized brand and promising discussions about the future of Racer Athletics are ongoing. Whether within or outside the Ohio Valley Conference, Murray State University is considering all options in order to position our Athletics program in a thriving environment and offer a first-class student-athlete and fan experience.”

This begs the question: what are Murray State’s options? What conference best suits the Racers without making any crazy moves? The biggest issue becomes finding a conference that includes football. For instance, the ASUN doesn’t field football, but fields most other sports. The same applies to the Big East Conference, The Summit League, The Horizon League and the Atlantic 10 Conference, which means those five conferences are out of the running for Murray State.

There’s the idea of staying in the OVC. Ride it out. Murray State has won 27 OVC championships and has won the OVC tournament 17 times. The Racers also had 29 consecutive winning seasons from 1987 to 2016. In football, Murray State was picked to win the OVC this season after a surprising 5-2 finish to the Spring 2021 season. In other sports, Murray State soccer has excelled recently, just barely losing the OVC championship last season and picked to finish top three this season. Baseball made its way all the way to the OVC championship game in 2021. Sports are thriving for Murray State in the OVC, but that just means it makes more sense for them to go look for better competition. 

Murray State could make the jump to the FBS after Murray State’s football team battled against other FBS schools in Cincinnati and Bowling Green this season. Three conferences that would be brought into the conversation geographically are the Mid-American Conference, Conference-USA, and the Sun Belt Conference.  The problem with all three of these conferences, though, is enrollment numbers. Murray State would be last in enrollment in both the MAC and CUSA by a noticeable margin. In the Sun Belt Conference, Murray State would be third-to-last in enrollment. While the FBS idea is cool, Murray State just doesn’t have the numbers to compete.

Murray State could move to the Missouri Valley Conference with Belmont. The two schools were seen as rivals in basketball in the OVC, so it makes sense to make that move with Belmont, not to mention the higher competition the MVC brings. Though prior moves to the MVC have been shot down, the possibility is still there. It makes sense geographically and enrollment sizes are similar across the conference. While the MVC is where most fingers are pointed, there’s no guarantee that Murray State will make this move. 

Other FCS conferences include the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the Southern Conference and the Pioneer Conference. The Pioneer Conference is made up of all private schools, so it seems very unlikely that Murray State makes the move there. In the SAC, Murray State would be second in enrollment based off of the 2020 number of 9,456. Murray State would also be top five in enrollment in the Southern Conference, making those moves seem likely. 

Murray State could also compete independent of a conference, like the University of Notre Dame in the FBS. Murray State would need to align with a conference for tournament and other sport purposes, but the football team could compete without being forced to play within a conference. This means Murray State could take on the higher ranked teams like North Dakota, South Dakota , James Madison and others without facing issues within their conference.

The best option for Murray State would be the Missouri Valley Conference, as they already have connections within the conference. If Murray State’s move to this conference gets blocked  then it might be worth a shot to look into the SOCON or SAC, as they would be high in enrollment in those conferences, but the travel might not be favorable, as both conferences have teams far south of Murray State.

All options are on the table for Murray State, and the best options seem somewhat obvious. The longer that Murray State stays in the OVC, the bigger the issue becomes for Racer Athletics.

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