A wave of college football realignment that began with Oklahoma and Texas head to the SEC has destabilized the Big 12, AAC, and has inflicted serious damage on Conference USA. Now, the league’s major rival, the Sun Belt, could deliver a potentially fatal blow in the coming days.
In response to the impending loss of OU and Texas, the Big 12 poached the AAC for three teams: Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF. The league is also adding independent program BYU.
It was unclear how the AAC would react, but this week it announced its own, even larger scale expansion. The league is going even bigger after those losses, taking six programs from Conference USA after failed overtures to Mountain West programs. UAB, Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice and UTSA are all AAC bound, in a round of expansion that mimics one that C-USA itself took years ago, adding big markets with and emergent programs without a ton of history, or consideration for regionality.
The Sun Belt has overtaken C-USA in recent seasons, and now may be in position to cripple the league even further. According to reports by CollegeAD and Matt Brown of the Extra Points newsletter, three C-USA teams could make a jump over to the Sun Belt—Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss—while FCS power James Madison, which C-USA has also had eyes on, could be the fourth new member.
Think @collegead had this first, but I expect the Sun Belt to add Southern Miss, Marshall, JMU and ODU as early as early next week
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownEP) October 22, 2021
It doesn’t look like anything is official, but this follows reports that the Sun Belt could look to poach from the rival league. Taking two consistent C-USA powers in Marshall and Southern Miss, while expanding a solid footprint in the Virginia area with ODU and JMU would be a big move.
If those teams do leave, there are significant questions about the long term feasibility of Conference USA.
The league would be left with FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, UTEP, and Western Kentucky in the football league. All of those schools have had their moments, but it is hard to see them making up the core of a good Group of Five league.
C-USA could try and add Liberty, which has been ranked throughout the last two years but has typically been scoffed at by most of college football for myriad reasons. New Mexico State is another independent that could pair with UTEP as the league’s Western flank, and maybe even the Northeastern combination of UConn and UMass would be interested in joining to alleviate some of the challenges of filling out a schedule as independents, as football-only members. There are other FCS programs that could be interested in jumping up as well.
Even so, these aren’t very attractive options, and if the MAC or Mountain West came calling for some of the leftover teams, it’s hard to see the league continuing forward.
Update: The Athletic’s Chris Vannini confirms that the Sun Belt is making a play for those four schools, though things are not a done deal yet.
What I reported @TheAthletic earlier this week remains the case.
The Sun Belt is targeting up to four additions in Southern Miss, Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison. The league feels confident, but has not yet secured commitments from all of them, per sources.
— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) October 22, 2021
We’ll have more as it comes out.
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