The Big XII is currently structurally the weakest of the Power conferences. They don’t have a championship game, and that extra game is proving to be meaningful to the CFP selection committee. Also, much like the old Big East, they are riven by internal politics. In the Big East it was the smaller power-basketball schools vs. the football schools; in the Big XII it’s Texas that might be the cancer, preferring to focus on their own brand to the detriment of the conference as a whole.
So let me propose this scenario. Texas leaves the Big XII — either deciding to go the Independent route (a very plausible scenario, should an Independent get into the CFB sometime in the next couple of years) — leaving the rest of the conference free to act as they please. Texas leaving would result in a nine-team Big XII. Forget a CCG: three of the Power Five are now 14 teams each, the Pac-12 poaches based on academics rather than athletics, and in a more-teams-for-more-media-markets arms race, the Big XII will need to make inroads among more schools to protect against the Pac-12 and ACC’s academic poaching. So the Big XII adds five teams. Let’s explore the realignment implications of such an action.
The Big XII
Under this scenario, the Big XII would likely extend invites in this order:
- Boise State
- Colorado State
Why Houston? Well, Texas going independent would leave the Big XII without a significant presence in the East Texas media markets — a perfect void for Houston to fill. Why Boise State? An athletically competitive program the Pac-12 passed up. Why Colorado State? A hedge against one of the previous schools (here’s looking at you, BYU) refusing, as well as returning the Big XII to the Colorado media market. Cincinnati and Memphis also provide virgin markets, as well as hedge against West Virginia being courted by, say, the SEC if the Eastern conferences want to expand to 16 teams.
Let’s say BYU elects to stay independent, or joins the Pac-12 instead. The result of this expansion would be that the Big XII adds two (2) Mountain West teams and three (3) American teams. The Mountain West had had Power ambitions in the not-too-distant past (until TCU and Utah got skimmed, and BYU left), but outside of Boise State, there’s a fair degree of conference parity. The American currently has Power ambitions, and will most certainly find it necessary to reload should some of its cream get skimmed.
The Mountain West
Fortunately for the Mountain West, there are a couple of Sun Belt teams that would be fine Mountain West replacements, geographically. Unfortunately for the conference, these two teams are, not to put too fine of a point on it, terrible. They are:
- New Mexico State
Outside of these programs, Texas’ Group situation is pretty dismal. American schools would perceive Mountain West membership as lateral, if not a downgrade; the C-USA and Sun Belt Texas schools — UTEP, UTSA, North Texas, and Texas State — are, as a bloc, utterly dismal. To make things worse, there isn’t any other decent Group program (of non-AAC affiliation) west of the MIssissippi. While it’s probable the Mountain West would invite Idaho — most likely contingent on upgrades to its athletic facilities and greater administrative commitment to the program — to replace BSU in the Boise media market, I’m not so sure about the other replacement.
There are essentially two options the Mountain West can pursue: they can either invite Group Texas school that might not look good now but does have a decent foundation to build upon — or they can transition an FCS program to the FBS. There is one good option either way — North Texas for the former, and North Dakota State for the latter.
When TCU was a Mountain West school, they had access to the Dallas media market — this suggests to me that returning to that market would be an excellent plan for the conference. North Texas it is. And — should the Pac-12 plunder a Mountain West school — there’s a 50/50 chance that the conference would either invite another Group Texas school or NDSU.
The American would lose more members — three — to this conference realignment than the Mountain West. However, unlike the latter, which inhabits a region that seems to be a bit sparse in Group talent, the American has quite a lot of talent-rich cream. Moreover, it has active Power designs. It will have to reload, and as the Power conferences expand to 14, the American (in this scenario) follows suit.
That means, like the Big XII, they will want to add five new all-sports members:
- Western Kentucky
- Middle Tennessee? Arkansas State? UAB?
Okay, before you break out your torches and pitchforks, let me explain my reasoning here.
Marshall and Western Kentucky are no-brainers here. The Big East used to raid C-USA whenever the ACC raided teams from it, and the American — by far the strongest G5 conference, and one with a Power-level profile, top-to-bottom (well, it was the Big East), is an improvement for MAC, C-USA, and Sun Belt teams. MTSU and UAB also fit into that mold; A-State is an improving Sun Belt team that would most likely be hungry for more media exposure.
Army is a good football-only addition, like Navy. It would come loaded with one of football’s most famous rivalries, too.
Buffalo is not a terribly great fit for the MAC. Actually, they have a history closer to Temple’s, UMass’s, or UConn’s. While the enrollment is approached or matched by a couple of other MAC schools, Buffalo is SUNY’s flagship school, in a solid contrast to the generally divisional world of the MAC. It offers access to the nearly virgin media market of Buffalo, and its fandom is significantly more supportive of its team than other MAC schools. I sense Buffalo will find itself fitting in much better with the American.
Finally, UMass has had terrible luck at football since joining the FBS. Much of that is that they’ve been a cupcake every Power team wants to roll — but they do have the foundation to succeed long-term. Much more importantly, however, is its basketball program, one with A-10 heritage. Losing Cincinnati and Memphis is just as big a deal there, since the American is — doesn’t just fancy itself as — is a basketball Power conference.
Ah, basketball. Even though the American would have 12 all-sports members, I also see them purloining the A-10 to improve its basketball competitiveness as well. Since the American operates in the Northeast, which is full of strong basketball programs but that don’t have football programs, the conference can most likely add four to six basketball programs without developing internal tensions (especially since this governance structure would clearly be football-first). With conferences like the Horizon League and Colonial Athletic to choose from, the A-10 can easily replenish itself — and indeed, has a long history of doing so. And for the American, these basketball programs also present opportunities to develop football programs as well, in this preference order:
- George Washington
- Saint Louis
- George Mason
where VCU would replace a failed Richmond invite, and George Mason a failed George Washington one. The idea is, in the long term, to have a pool of FCS teams to draw from in the eventuality that the other eastern Group conferences stop providing talent to purloin.
Where We Stand
At this point, realignment was instigated by the Big XII, which took two Mountain West teams and three American ones. The Mountain West, in turn, took a Sun Belt team (Idaho) and a C-USA one (North Texas); the American took two C-USA teams (Marshall, Western Kentucky), two MAC ones (UMass, Buffalo), and an independent (Army), expanding to fourteen schools in the process. That means that, of the other three Group conferences, C-USA is down three teams, the MAC is down two, and the Sun Belt is down one.
Teams “moving up” into these conferences are not other Group teams, but rather FCS ones.
It may have lost two teams, but it only needs to regain one to retain its CCG. The MAC is, by and large, a content and thoroughly midmajor league. It has also played host to Temple, Marshall, UCF, and most recently UMass football teams as they’ve either rebuilt themselves from the ground up (in Temple’s case) or transitioned from FCS to FBS. A couple of schools may be interested in making that transition, Richmond and Dayton among them. But these programs are transient MAC members; the MAC is, at its core, an all-sports conference, and it seems as if the core schools offer hospitality to the football-only programs and little more.
If the American takes Buffalo, then the MAC will need a new core (i.e. all-sports) school to replace it. This is tricky. The A-10 is a much better basketball league than the MAC — and, on top of this, the Missouri Valley Conference has been strengthening its SOS to the point where a move from the Valley to the MAC might not be seen as a step up.
That said, there are three potential candidates for the MAC to consider adding, all in Illinois:
- Southern Illinois
- Western Illinois
- Eastern Illinois
All three schools play in the Missouri Valley Football conference; Southern and Western Illinois are full Valley members, while Eastern Illinois is a member of the Ohio Valley conference. The OVC is substantially weaker than the Valley, but Eastern Illinois is also much closer to the Chicago market than either Western Illinois (in the virgin Quad Cities market) or Southern Illinois (in the St. Louis market).
The real question among these three is whether or not the MAC is perceived as an all-sports step up from the Valley. If not, then Eastern Illinois would be the MAC’s new full member; if so, then Southern Illinois is the best choice.
Conference USA has long been a key part the pipeline for ambitious teams aiming for Power status. Of the American’s 11 current full members, fully nine are former C-USA schools: Temple and UConn are the only exceptions. Former C-USA teams also play in the ACC and the Big XII.
This high turnover — only two charter members Southern Mississippi and UAB, have played in C-USA continuously since its 1995 inception — has meant that C-USA has always been aggressive at inviting new programs: half of its programs joined in the wake of the early 2010s conference realignment. When the Big East was a Power conference, C-USA could vie with the Mountain West as the strongest mid-major; with the Big East’s successor the American now considered a mid-major, C-USA has lost some of its raison d’être — but none of its aggressiveness.
This scenario projects that C-USA loses three teams, two to the American and one to the Mountain West. To replenish itself, the conference will likely turn to its two favorite tactics: raiding the Sun Belt and adding FCS schools.
Raiding the Sun Belt
Two of the Sun Belt’s newest teams are also their most standout: Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. These schools come as a unit, a unit featuring an intense rivalry with each other. Incredibly, in its first year of FBS qualification, Appalachian State has already garnered media attention, currently ranked in the mid-30s, far better than most of the conference’s other schools. Good luck holding on to these programs, Sun Belt.
In addition to those schools, Sun Belt programs looking to up their image (and quality of play) will see value in C-USA. Arkansas State, Texas State, and New Mexico State are all prime examples.
Adding FCS Schools
Charlotte and Old Dominion, C-USA’s newest members, are both transitioning. Charlotte didn’t even have a football program a couple of years ago; Old Dominion was formerly a member of the FCS Colonial Athletic Conference, moving to FBS level as its program improved. There may be another wild card in the mix for C-USA.
The Sun Belt
By far the weakest of the FBS conferences, the Sun Belt is generally the first place Southern FCS schools come after they’ve moved to the FBS. Four Sun Belt programs have left in this scenario — these would be filled with teams from the various Southern FCS conferences (Southland, Big South, Southern Conference, etc.) Coastal Carolina, due to start playing Sun Belt football in 2017, is an excellent example of the process.
There is one more wild card of a program: North Dakota State is a very ambitious and growing program in a part of the country that doesn’t have the national spotlight. An FCS power, and one with an excellent basketball team, NDSU could well make waves in no fewer than three potential conferences — the Mountain West, the American, and C-USA (it’s probably too ambitious for the MAC).
I judge the Bison will be making an FBS transition in the not-too-distant future. It boasts a strong fanbase, one that has been selling out crowds at its current home stadium, and once it’s made the jump, it’ll Boise State everyone. It should not come as a surprise when it does.
This is one possible scenario of G5 shuffles caused by Big XII expansion. In this scenario, we found that the actions of one Power conference could have repercussions through all of the Group conferences, as the Mountain West and American raided C-USA, C-USA raided the Sun Belt, the American raided the MAC, and the Sun Belt and MAC raided the FCS to get more teams in their leagues once the process was set in motion. In addition, we noted that the next conference realignment will likely come with at least one interesting FCS crasher, NDSU, into the FBS party.