Predicting the Next Conference Realignment Moves
Conference shuffle fever began sweeping through the collegiate sports world in 2010 with South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Boise State, Utah, Fresno State, Hawaii, Denver, Nevada, BYU, Southern Utah, North Dakota, Texas State, TCU and Texas at San Antonio announcing their intent to join new conferences.
Eighteen additional teams joined that list soon after.
Just like in the 2005 conference realignment, the Big East, ACC and Conference USA are at the center of it.
Earlier this week the Big East surprised many by choosing to extend an invite to the University of Memphis, one of the founding members of C-USA, over Temple and East Carolina universities.
Yesterday, the Big East and West Virginia University representatives reportedly reached a $20 million settlement that will allow WVU to officially gain early full Big 12 membership on July 1 as opposing to waiting.
Many expect Louisville to soon make a jump to the Big 12 as well.
With conference realignment having a reputation for unpredictability, it is kind of hard to say what will happen next but we do know shuffling is not quite over yet.
Here is my prediction, with some less likely scenarios mixed in, of what should happen over the next couple of months.
Conference USA and Mountain West
It is appropriate to start with the Conference USA and Mountain West because their potential merger has already been heavily discussed.
After losing Houston, SMU, Central Florida and Memphis, C-USA is left with eight members. Mountain West will also have eight, provided Air Force remains, after adding Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii.
So a merger between the two conferences will basically look like this:
Air Force, Fresno State, Nevada, Hawaii, Colorado State, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming in the West division.
UAB, Southern Mississippi, Tulane, East Carolina, Tulsa, UTEP, Rice and Marshall in the East division.
So this is what actually happens...
A football conference championship game will more than likely be created as well, which is essentially like a partnership in which the Mountain West winner and C-USA winner meet to determine both an overall champion and a BCS bowl bid.
Despite a potential attempt to make this conference appealing to gain automatic qualifying status, this will still end up being a "mid-major" conference.
Southern Miss, Nevada and Air Force are the only teams in this potential conference that stand out as being able to qualify for a BCS bowl and give their opponent a good game. Honestly, saying that is a bit of a stretch.
The BCS committee has discussed getting rid of the automatic qualifying status. Doing so would provide equal opportunity for all college football teams.
Talks will continue for a while as to whether or not the merger should happen. There is a chance this conference will indeed become a reality. However, there is a stronger chance it does not. C-USA has some remaining teams that appeal to other conferences. Meanwhile, Air Force has not decided if they will stay in the Mountain West.
Conference USA Disbands
If invites from other conferences are extended, East Carolina (which has applied for membership in the Big East), Tulsa, Marshall and Southern Miss are also gone from C-USA.
That could happen, perhaps not this year, but in this scenario we will look toward the future.
Where the four previously mentioned teams could possibly end up will be discussed in the next few slides.
For now let's look at the four remaining C-USA teams, UAB, UTEP, Rice and Tulane.
Pictured is a map of where Sun-Belt Conference teams are located. Despite what Brian Mackin, UAB Athletics Director, says (refer to the article in previous slide) joining this conference fits the remaining C-USA teams better than joining the Mountain West or any other conference would.
The new Sun-Belt Conference would look like this:
Arkansas State (Sun-Belt), Louisiana Lafayette (Sun-Belt), Louisiana Monroe (Sun-Belt), North Texas (Sun-Belt), Rice (C-USA), Tulane (C-USA) and UTEP (C-USA) in one division.
Florida Atlantic (Sun-Belt), Florida International (Sun-Belt), Middle Tennessee State (Sun-Belt), South Alabama (Sun-Belt), Troy (Sun-Belt), UAB (C-USA) and Western Kentucky (Sun-Belt) in the other.
One thing that stands out is, rivalries remain intact and new ones can be created. UAB and Troy, for example, have had a long-standing in-state rivalry. Both could establish one with South Alabama. Troy will get a jump start on that opportunity during the 2012 season.
There is also a sense of balance in this conference (provided the divisions are designed in the way I currently have them), especially basketball-wise.
Arkansas State and Louisiana Lafayette would be the initial favorites in the first division, while Florida Atlantic, Troy and Western Kentucky would be the favorites in the other.
That may appear biased toward the Sun-Belt schools, but nobody knows yet how much immediate change Garrick McGee and Curtis Johnson will bring UAB and Tulane, respectively. UTEP and Rice have to improve in certain areas or may be looking to start fresh with new coaches soon.
Lastly, this conference would remain intact for years to come. The only likely defection would be Arkansas State.
This mid-major conference could provide some entertaining matchups.
The most logical thing is Southern Miss applying and hoping to be accepted for membership in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
The Golden Eagles could enjoy a rivalry with Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn. In addition, their new head coach, Ellis Johnson, has spent time coaching at Alabama, Mississippi State and, most recently, South Carolina.
Mississippi State and Southern Miss are on tap to restart their long rivalry in 2014 after a 20-year hiatus. The Golden Eagles hold the series lead 14-12-1.
Southern Miss has shown they can recruit, especially in both Mississippi and Alabama, with the best of them. In the team's history, they have had 30 All-Americans (12 were first-team selections) and numerous players have made it to the NFL. We all know who Brett Favre and Ray Guy are.
Overall, Southern Miss has totaled 67 winning seasons (currently coming off a 18th consecutive winning season), 23 bowl appearances (11 wins) and five Conference USA championships.
Sounds like an impressive resume to me, but not one that is good enough for the SEC and their fans.
So the Big East is a more realistic destination, who could lose Louisville, Rutgers and UCONN down the road.
If Louisville decided to join the ACC (Rutgers and UCONN's likely destination) instead of the Big 12, the Golden Eagles may also get a call if the ACC desired 18 teams. It is a long shot, but possible.
Obviously, East Carolina does not desire to remain in Conference USA, hence applying for membership in the Big East. So if the conference disbands, as predicted, they will be a happy bunch.
It could also be guaranteed that former head coach Skip Holtz chooses ECU over South Florida if they played in an AQ conference, and he could continue producing the same success as playing in the C-USA.
The problem with the Pirates is that their athletic program as a whole does not appeal as much as others. This may explain why Memphis was chosen instead for Big East membership. That or the success of the Memphis basketball program was the deciding factor.
With Carolina-based teams Wake Forest, Clemson, Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State in the ACC, ECU may feel left out. Yet they are aware that there is a better chance to gain membership in the Big East than ACC.
Plus, competition-wise it makes the most sense. If, by chance (a slim chance), ECU received an ACC invite, developing a reputation as a winning program in the conference will not be an easy task.
Their best bet for now is Conference USA staying alive.
Marshall is appealing enough to have several options if Conference USA disbands.
They could return to the Mid-American Conference, where they had a lot of success. This move would be the result of either Temple finally receiving an invite to rejoin the Big East or Temple staying and the MAC adding one other team along with Marshall to put them at 16 teams.
Missouri State is an affiliate member of the conference for field hockey. There may be a possibility of convincing them to transition to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Bowl Division as a full member of the MAC.
Speaking of the Big East, Marshall could end up there. You replace one Virginia school with another. Plus their athletic program, with the exception of baseball, is decent enough to be competitive in the Big East.
Another scenario features Marshall and East Carolina joining the Sun-Belt conference. This would help make the conference seem more like a merger with C-USA.
Tulsa joined Conference USA in 2005 after nine years in the Western Athletic Conference. Unless faced with no other option, the Golden Hurricanes are not going back to the WAC.
Ideally they should apply for the Big 12.
Here is why: Tulsa is known for being an offensive juggernaut, but their defense is never among the best. Big 12 teams are known for the same style of play.
Tulsa is located in Oklahoma, a state that has two universities in the Big 12. Considering other Big 12 teams are located close by as well, travel-wise this is excellent for the Golden Hurricanes and their fan base.
In the C-USA, Tulsa had the luxury of playing in a west division that featured UTEP, Houston, SMU, Rice and Tulane.
Houston and SMU took their talents to the Big East. Both were Tulsa's main competition. If the C-USA remains intact, the divisions may become extinct. So the Golden Hurricanes and Southern Miss become the favorites for a while with Marshall, UAB and East Carolina surprising every now and then.
That will become boring after awhile. Therefore, Tulsa will desire a bigger challenge. Joining the Big 12 takes care of that. Or they could apply for membership in the Mountain West.
Although the Mountain West is not as exciting, it does provide new challenges.
Mountain West and the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Merge
The Mountain West has taken a lot of teams from the WAC over the years (several have since joined new conferences). So it kind of seems like they are already headed into a merger.
This season Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada officially become members of the Mountain West. Meanwhile, the WAC will gain Texas State, Texas at San Antonio, UT Arlington, Denver and Seattle. Only TSU and UTSA have football teams.
So the new merged football conference should look like this:
Fresno State, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, San Jose State, UNLV and Wyoming
Colorado State, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico, New Mexico State, Texas State, UT San Antonio, and Utah State.
With Boise State rejoining the WAC in all other sports, a merged basketball division would have 18 teams. It will not be a megaconference of top-notch teams, however.
Overall, this looks like a solid conference.
Louisiana Tech gains closer competition. It puts rivals New Mexico and New Mexico State in one conference. Newcomers Texas State and UT San Antonio have a fair shot at possibly winning the conference or at least their division upon settling in.
Basically it is a win-win situation for everybody involved.
As it stands right now, Central Florida (UCF), Houston, Memphis and SMU are the new full members of the conference. Boise State, Navy and San Diego State are associate members.
The Big East also loses Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia.
So that means Big East Football currently looks like this:
UCF, Memphis, Louisville, South Florida, Navy, UCONN.
Boise State, San Diego State, Rutgers, Cincinnati, Houston and SMU.
If Louisville, UCONN and Rutgers leave as expected Big East Football should look like this:
UCF, Memphis, South Florida, Navy, Marshall, and Southern Miss.
Boise State, San Diego State, Cincinnati, Houston, SMU and Tulsa.
This may not be the most ideal situation. Heck, one division looks way stronger and more exciting than the other. However, it settles the drama of distance.
If Rutgers and UCONN stayed, they would not want to travel to Boise and San Diego St. The same goes vice versa. So putting those four teams in the same division would not work.
Also if Rutgers and UCONN stayed, Marshall and Southern Miss would not receive invites. Therefore, the division with UCF, Memphis, USF and Navy would work just the same.
Boise and SDSU would be better off in a division like the one proposed. The only team that is far off would be Cincinnati. Mostly it works out fine as well.
Ideally you want Louisville to stay. Louisville and Memphis as conference foes in basketball would lead to some epic battles. Charlie Strong is gradually improving the Louisville football team. Justin Fuente could provide a spark in Memphis football.
For now we will go with Louisville, UCONN and Rutgers leaving the Big East.
Air Force is another school to watch closely.
They are widely expected to announce a conference move soon, one in which the football program would join a major conference and their other sports would be placed in a smaller conference.
The Big 12, location-wise, seemed like the better fit. However, Air Force reportedly had concerns about being able to compete with the conference's talent level. So for that reason, and playing against alongside Navy and potentially Army, makes the Big East a better option.
Joining the Big East, would bring more balance to the recent Boise State and San Diego State moves to the conference.
Air Force, however, will eventually decide to stay put in the Mountain West, especially if they merge with the WAC as predicted earlier. It just makes more sense to stay put. They have a better chance to not only win, but stay in constant position to win the conference.
They could win in the Big East. Yet winning the conference will never happen.