CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After a few weeks of speculation, Conference USA announced that Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic are entering the league a year early. The two schools will join six other new members on July 1.Both schools already had announced plans to switch conferences last November no later than July 1, 2014. But officials at both universities had been negotiating recently with Conference USA and their current home, the Sun Belt, to speed up the move in all sports."It was felt that it was in the best interest of the University, our student-athletes and supporters to accelerate our move to Conference USA,'' Middle Tennessee President Sidney A. McPhee said in a statement.The Murfreesboro-based Blue Raiders weren't happy at losing out on a bowl berth last December despite finishing second in the Sun Belt with an 8-4 record. They joined the Sun Belt in July 2000 and leave having won a league-best 50 Sun Belt games and eight all-sports titles with 54 conference titles.FAU President Mary Jane Saunders said the move helps the Owls with increased national exposure and opportunities. This caps a move from Division I-AA and puts the Owls in the league with rival Florida International, which also joins C-USA in 2013.FAU, a Boca Raton-based school with 28,000 students, opened a 29,419-seat football stadium on campus 13 months ago after winning the Sun Belt football title in 2007."The league's television partnerships, large footprint and bowl tie-ins will expose our student-athletes to new experiences as they compete against schools across 10 states and in several of the top media markets in the country,'' Saunders said in a statement.
Conference USA also is adding North Carolina-Charlotte, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio starting in July, when Memphis, Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida leave for the Big East. Tulane and East Carolina will follow in 2014.Charlotte's football program, which plays its first down this fall, is expected to compete in C-USA in that sport in 2015. Old Dominion, which restarted football last decade and has become an FCS contender, was scheduled to become eligible in 2015, but that may be moved forward to '14.The Sun Belt had raised its exit fee to $1 million last May, but both MTSU and FAU will pay $700,000. McPhee said Middle Tennessee will use money from private donations to the athletic department with $350,000 due within 30 days and the rest by June 30. But McPhee said MTSU will make that money back quickly through the higher revenue sharing in C-USA.Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said the league agreed to a reduced exit fee to help their athletic directors finish setting their 2013 football schedules."While the seven-game conference schedule is not perfect, the understanding is that this would only be for one season,'' Benson said in a statement.The departures leave the Sun Belt with eight football members and 10 total for 2013-14, so they will have a seven-game football schedule and a double round-robin 18-game schedule for men's and women's basketball.Benson said there are currently no pending invitations to schools to join the Sun Belt, which includes Arkansas State, Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy and Western Kentucky in 2013-14 and non-football members Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington. "However, we know that there are a number of teams interested in joining our league,'' Benson said.