Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Conference realignment follow-up: Conference USA survives

Following up on my post from a few weeks ago: it appears as if the dust has settled and the current flurry of collegiate conference realignment (which is driven primarily by football but affects all sports) has come to an end. At least for now.

The big question in this most recent round of realignment - the survival of Conference USA as a viable FBS football entity - seems to have been resolved. The beleaguered conference was first able to avoid further predations by other conferences, after the Mid-American Conference decided not to invite current C-USA members Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky to join. C-USA then issued invitations to current FBS independents New Mexico State and Liberty, as well as FCS programs Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State. Those invitations were accepted, and those schools will join what will be a nine-team conference - stretching from Lynchburg, Virginia to Las Cruces, New Mexico - in time for the 2023 season. 

The first two additions make sense. While Liberty University is a highly problematic institution, its athletics program is competitive. While New Mexico State's football program is moribund, its mens basketball program is decent (7 tournament appearances in the last decade) and it provides a travel partner for current C-USA member UTEP. Most importantly, both Liberty and NMSU are established FBS football programs. 

Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State (in Jacksonville, Alabama, and not to be confused with my wife's alma mater in Jacksonville, Florida), on the other hand, are not. Both these programs are highly successful at their current level - the Bearkats are reigning FCS champions, and JSU recently gained notoriety by upsetting Florida State - and that, along with the fact that both schools fill geographic gaps for C-USA, are likely why they were offered invitations. But the move to FBS comes with significant commitments - scholarships, salaries, travel - that both schools will need to make. 

The Huntsville Item's Colton Foster thinks SHSU's move "seems like a reach for the program, with major hurdles" such as finances, attendance and facilities that SHSU will have to overcome in order to be competitive in Conference USA. For one thing, the Bearkats will have to compete for recruits and television sets in a crowded FBS neighborhood: Texas A&M is only 50 miles to the west of Huntsville, and Houston and Rice are both 70 miles to the south. 

Conference USA was also apparently courted by two other independents - Massachusetts and Connecticut - but no invitations have been extended to either school. Geography is likely a factor, as is the fact that both schools wanted to be football-only members. One can only imagine how UConn might be regretting their decision to leave the American Athletic Conference a few years ago. 

Old Dominion, on the other hand, seems very pleased about their new home in the Sun Belt (which is probably the biggest winner of this round), while a Rice Thresher article explains why the Owls' move to the American is good for that program. ESPN has updated its college football realignment tracker for those trying to make sense out of this latest shift in the college sports landscape. 

And if you don't like where your school ended up, don't worry: we'll probably be doing this again in a few years.

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