Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Figuring Out the Big East's Future

I don't know this for a fact but I am willing to be that their have been more blog articles written in regards to the future of the Big East Conference than any other athletic conference in America.  For those who don't know the Catholic 7, Rutgers, and Louisville are all leaving the Big East and San Diego St and Boise St have decided not to come.  Pending the determination of the exit dates of those schools, in 2014 the Big East will consist of:

South Florida
Central Florida
Southern Methodist
East Carolina (fb only but presumably will be names a full member)

Navy is supposed to join in 2015 for football only but they may decide to cancel those plans.  The Big East needs to have a long conversation with officials from the Naval Academy to determine for certain whether or not the midshipmen still consider the Big East a suitable home and/or if the departure of any certain school (or schools) would change Navy's mind.

I also think East Carolina is owed full membership due to their willingness to sign on to this league in their hour of need.

Once things are straightened out with Navy and ECU the Big East needs to determine what course of action they are going to take.  Adding Tulsa seems like a no brainer--they are a competitive team that has a history with all of the western members of the Big East particularly fellow private schools Tulane and SMU.

Tulsa's addition would put the Big East at 11 members for all sports and 12 for football provided Navy is still honoring their agreement.  I think this is a tenable set up.  Scheduling for Olympic sports might be a little hectic but I think this is the best possible scenario for the Big East (unless of course Army decided they would like to be a football affiliate and then the Big East would be in the position where they would need a 12th all-sports/14th football member.

UMass keeps getting thrown into the Big East expansion conversation but the Minutemen simply are not ready for Big East play.  They were pitiful in their first year of FBS in the MAC and their average attendance was around 10,000 a game.  This simply will not be tolerable in the Big East.  The problem is that Temple is pulling for them and UConn either is agreeing with Temple or at least not vocally opposing Temple's suggestion.  Their are two schools of thought regarding UMass--one says that the best way to get UMass up to par is to go ahead and add them; the other is to wait and let them prove themselves in the MAC.  The potential problems associated with adding them now are quite obvious.  They could be a flop and the BE would be permanently stuck with them unless their were terms written into their BE contract that would allow the BE to expel them if certain performance and attendance benchmarks were not met.  the other potential problem with them is that if another if the ACC loses another member then UConn is the next school to join that conference.  Depending on how hard the ACC is hit in a future raid the BE's other northeastern member Temple might even work their way into that conversation.  This would saddle the rest of the Big East with a geographic outlier, UMass.

Rice also gets talked about in Big East conversations because they are old friends of SMU, Tulane, and Tulsa.  But Rice also has a tiny alumni base and are completely overshadowed in their own media market, a market that the Big East already has with Houston being a member.  

Southern Mississippi, a stand up member of C-USA also gets talked about in Big East talks but they don't bring any sort of media market and media markets are the driving force of expansion nowadays.

I am putting UTSA in the Big East expansion conversation because I think they are program on the trajectory to have the same meteoric rise as USF and UCF.  Their attendance is amazing even though they have only played lackluster opponents thus far.  They are also in a top 40 media market that is without the NFL.  Maybe they don't get added right now but this is a program to watch closely. Maybe the Big East adds them in a couple years alongside UMass if UMass improves.  The thing with the UTSA Roadrunners is that the MWC is also monitoring the program closely. The MWC would love to get into Texas and UTSA would be a great add for them as well. If the Big East wants them they will have to move before the MWC does.

I am also going to slide an FCS program on this list but only because I think they have the potential to make the same kind of FCS to FBS jump that UConn did.  The school I am talking about is Delaware.  They are a perrenial Top 5 school in FCS attendance so they can draw enough fans to support an FBS program (which UMass has yet to prove).  They are also a highly competitive conference, the CAA, and they are an FCS playoff regular.  

In my mind, the 2015 Big East should look like this:

East: UConn, Temple, Navy*, East Carolina, Central Florida, South Florida
West: Cincinnati, Memphis, Tulane, Tulsa, Southern Methodist, Houston

by 2017 UMass or Delaware could be added to the East and UTSA to the West.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Is 16 C-USA's target?

C-USA has been one conference that has not shied away from radical expansion recently.  In total they have lost six of the twelve members from their 2005 line up.  It is expected that they will soon lose a seventh as Tulsa has set it's sights on the Big East and a reunion with many of its old conference mates.  C-USA has not only restocked but raised their status quo from a 12 member league to a 14 member league.  They've taken a fairly balanced approach to expansion--adding for both television markets and taking into consideration on field performance---North Texas, UTSA, FAU, FIU, Charlotte, Old Dominion, and to some extent Middle Tennessee augment the league's media presence in large southern cities while LA Tech and Middle Tennessee bring very competitive programs into the fold.

Tulsa's departure is probably going to necessitate adding at least one more member but they could go for three and bring league membership to 16 and in doing so probably cripple their less affluent rival the Sunbelt.  Personally I am a fan of the Sunbelt and I would hate to see C-USA kill them just for the sake of eliminating rivals but college sports alignment is a cut throat world where only the most Darwinian and Machiavellian survive.

The options for C-USA are fairly obvious--there are the 8 Sunbelt football schools and New Mexico St available for discussion:

Western Kentucky--WKU is first on this list because they are the one of the most likely to get a call up.  They have a good relationship and healthy rivalry with nearby Middle Tennessee and I think the Blue Raiders will campaign for, rather than try to block the Hill Toppers' inclusion.

UL Lafayette--The Ragin' Cajuns are among the top tier of the SBC.  They have great attendance and they make bowl games most years.  What they lack is a strong media market.  There is also the fact that LA Tech styles itself the third best (if not 2nd best) school in Louisiana and may want to fend off competitors.  For years the Bulldogs played in the far flung WAC rather than join the SBC because they felt they were superior to their instate rivals.

UL Monroe--Despite recent strong seasons the Warhawks prospects at getting a C-USA are even worse than UL Lafayette as they are the weaker of the two ULs and in LA Tech's backyard.  They also have no television matket to speak of.

Arkansas St--the Redwolves don't have much of a market but their attendance and on field performance has been solid.  On the bright side, C-USA has no schools within the state that would try to block them.

Troy--Good football, decent attendance, lousy location.  UAB already gives them a presence in the state and I doubt the Blazers would want them in.

South Alabama--On the contrary, South Alabama is in Mobile which is an alright market.  Including them probably means landing the GoDaddy.com Bowl and UAB is probably less likely to oppose their inclusion because unlike Troy, the Blazers are better than the Jaguars.

Georgia St--Great television market, lousy team, lousy attendance.  People in Atlanta have yet to get excited about the Georgia St Panthers.  Then again, expansion is often market driven so they could sneak in.  They are just a start up and will hopefully get better...then again people said that about UAB two decades ago.

Texas St--The Bobcats could quickly become UTSA's little brother.  Letting them in would give them in would solidify the san Antonio market and maybe get a sliver of Austin but the Bobcats are probably a superfluous add unless UTSA (and UTEP) are actively campaigning for them which I don't expect to happen.

New Mexico St--The lone non-SBC candidate.  The only reason I see them getting in is if UTEP is pushing for them but UTEP is eying MWC membership so I am not sure that NMSU to C-USA is a realistic possibility.  I'm under the impression that both UTEP and the MWC's New Mexico want to keep the Aggies down and I don't see either school having a sudden change of heart.  It would also be silly for C-USA to replace a departed UTEP with NMSU because the loss of UTEP would allow the league to significantly shrink the conference footprint and eliminate some long and costly flights.

WKU is probably the first school to be taken by C-USA.  If the idea is to indeed go to 16 then I think the next two call ups are Arkansas St and Georgia St.  Should UTEP also leave necessitating 4 additions to get to 16 then either South Alabama or UL Lafayette would be the next in line.

What is the Sunbelt to do?

The 2012 realignment cycle has hit the Sunbelt Conference hard.  About a year ago the Sunbelt looked poised and well positioned going into the future with 10 football members and 12 members overall with the additions of football playing members Texas St and Georgia St and non-football school Texas-Arlington.  Conference USA has gone to the Sunbelt to replenish its depleted ranks, taking Florida Atlantic, Florida International, North Texas, and Middle Tennessee from the league (as well as WAC refugees LA Tech and UTSA, FCS upgrade Old Dominion and Charlotte's football program which will play its first down this fall).

These leaves the SBC in a precarious position.  It has just 8 football playing members---
Western Kentucky
Georgia St
South Alabama
UL Lafayette
UL Monroe
Arkansas St
Texas St

and non-football members---
Arkansas-Little Rock

Tulsa's imminent departure from C-USA to the Big East will likely deprive the SBC of yet another member and should other shifts occur (another C-USA school to the BE or UTEP to the MWC) the situation could become even worse.

The SBC desperately needs to get commitments from FCS programs willing to upgrade to the FBS level if they are going to continue as a conference.  Fortunately for the SBC, the Southeastern US has plenty of potential candidates that could make the jump.  They should also consider bringing in New Mexico St in as a full member and maybe even Idaho as a football affiliate.

Georgia Southern is a natural addition--they would be the easternmost member of the SBC but they have a natural rivalry with Georgia St as they have long fought over which university owns the initials "GSU".  Georgia Southern is an FCS powerhouse too.  Georgia Southern is also feeling somewhat threatened by their upstart rivals in Atlanta which could prove as a motivator for the transition.

Appalachian St would be a dream addition but courting them seems to be a challenge.  They seem comfortable where they are in FCS in the elite SoCon but if their rival Georgia Southern announces they are moving attitudes in Boone, NC could change.

Jacksonville St is an Alabama school with some history with Troy.  They are one of the Ohio Valley Conference's top programs and they have solid attendance.  They aren't a sexy pick put they are an available option.

James Madison is a school in Northern Virginia that is equipped to make the move provided they are willing to commit to traveling the SBC's Deep South conference footprint.  Their attendance, facilities, and on field performance are all top notch.  There is also the fact that their current home in FCS, the Colonial Athletic Association is very factionalized and the conference's commitment to playing FCS football at a high level is waning as only 4 full members currently sponsor the sport.

Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia would be a natural companion for the James Madison Dukes.  The university's chancellor has already expressed his desire to take the Flames up to college football's highest level of competition and styles his school as the Evangelicals' Notre Dame.  They too would have to commit to some serious increases in travel expenditures by moving to the SBC but their FCS home, the Big South, is currently in shambles and is down to 6 football members.

Encouraging Texas-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock to revive their dormant football programs would also help the SBC's woes.  Texas-Arlington has a suitable on-campus stadium already and I've suspected that an expressed interest in reviving the program helped get them included the last time the SBC expanded.  UALR could play in War Memorial Stadium, where the Arkansas Razorbacks play when they make their annual visit to the state's capital city.  I suspect that that the Razorbacks will be resistant to any attempts by their little brother to play college football however.

There are also options within the Lone Star State that the SBC could explore.  Schools like Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston St, and Lamar come to mind.  These schools would struggle to meet FBS attendance requirements (but them again Georgia St has yet to prove they can get their average over the 15,000 mark and over half of the MAC meets that requirement.  Sam Houston St has appeared in back-to-back FCS title games so they could definitely come in and make a respectable showing in the SBC.

An honorable mention should go out to UT Chattanooga. UT Chattanooga of the SoCon could attempt to make the jump with Georgia Southern and Appalachian St.  The Mocs aren't at the same level as some of the other candidates but they could turn to them if others pass on the SBC.

Missouri St could also work their way in to the conversation if they are willing to part ways with the Missouri Valley Conference.  They are in Southwest Missouri and not a terribly long trek from Arkansas St.  Their name change to Missouri St a few years ago seems to indicate to me that they are looking to go to a higher level.  It also fits with the "Fill in the blank" St theme the conference has going (i.e. Arkansas St, Texas St, Georgia St).

That's a total of ten programs that they could pursue to make the jump up to FBS.  And that total does not include New Mexico St or Idaho, nor the revival of football at UALR or UT-A.  I also heard a rumor that the University of North Florida in Jacksonville was considering adding football; presuming they want to follow the same path as FAU and FIU the SBC would be the perfect place to start.  Another idea floating out there is that SBC should recruit some of the bigger HBCU's to join their league--Florida A&M, Alabama St, Tennessee St, and Jackson St.  Bringing in the HBCU's would certainly elevate the quality of SBC halftime performances.

The moral of this blog post is that the Sunbelt Conference can survive but to do so they need to start bringing in new blood and do so quickly before C-USA returns to pick them clean once more.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The MWC should add Gonzaga

The Mountain West Conference would love to reclaim BYU as a member of their conference.  However there is a slight problem--BYU seems content as an FBS independent and the West Coast Conference has proved to be an excellent conference of convenience for BYU.  BYU is one of 3 stellar basketball programs in that conference--the other two being Gonzaga and St Mary's, and that great triumvirate will guarantee the WCC at least two bids for the foreseeable future.

When it comes to MWC-BYU affairs there are a few things to consider.  BYU has television clout and can command a few million dollars a year for their home games in television revenue.  What BYU lacks as an independent is ample access to the new playoff system--something that the MWC has so long as their champion is ranked higher than the champion of the Big East, Sunbelt, MAC, and C-USA.  BYU on the other hand has to be ranked in the top 4 to be guaranteed a spot in one of these elite games.  So far in discussions BYU has taken the attitude that the MWC needs them more than they need the MWC.  For the most part this is true--so long as BYU has a stable home in the WCC for their Olympic sports.

Should the MWC create instability within the WCC this could all change.  The MWC currently has 11 full members and Hawaii as a football only affiliate.  This was due to an arrangement with Hawaii when the WAC was collapsing where the MWC would take in their football program if Hawaii parked the rest of their sports in the less prestigious Big West.  11 is an awkward number for scheduling purposes; 12 would be more ideal.  This is where Gonzaga fits in.  Gonzaga, who does not sponsor football and has no aspirations to do so, could even out the MWC and take Hawaii's spot in Olympic sports.  Gonzaga has already demonstrated that they would be willing to knife their private school WCC brethren in the back when they announced that they would be willing to join the Catholic 7 if the Catholic 7 wanted to become a nationwide conference (and presumably St Mary's would come too).  The MWC is a better basketball conference than the WCC.  According to ESPN's Joe Lunardy's Bracketology for 15 January 2013 the MWC is a 6 bid league--5) San Diego St, 5) New Mexico 7) UNLV, 8) Boise St, 10) Wyoming, and 11) Colorado St.  Meanwhile only BYU and Gonzaga of the WCC are currently predicted to make the tournament.  If Gonzaga could be convinced to jump to the MWC it would severely weaken the WCC and might give the MWC the leverage needed to land BYU.

If they were successful in pressuring the Cougars into returning another football school would be needed to balance out the league at 14 and UTEP would be a natural fit.  They have a decent football pedigree and a strong basketball program.  The MWC also has another strong basketball program coming in for 2013--Utah St.  If this gambit was successful it would make the MWC the undisputed top basketball conference in the West and reduce the WCC to a one-bid league.  The addition of BYU to the MWC for football would likely give the MWC a stranglehold on the bid for a big money bowl in the new playoff system.  As far as divisions go Boise St would anchor the Western Disvison while BYU would anchor the Eastern (Mountain) Division:

Mountain (East)
Utah St
Colorado St
Air Force
New Mexico

Boise St
San Diego St
Fresno St
San Jose St
Hawaii (fb)/Gonzaga (Olympics)

Another side effect of this move is that Gonzaga would be a convenient travel partner for Boise St.

With all of this considered the Mountain West should make a gutsy attempt to lure Gonzaga and BYU into the conference.  Even if bringing in Gonzaga isn't enough to lure BYU it would still bring the MWC some basketball revenue and relieve a few scheduling headaches for the commissioner's office.

Friday, January 11, 2013

What's the hold up with San Diego St?

If you've been following college sports realignment than you know that San Diego St was part of a package deal with Boise St to become football only members of the Big East Conference.  Since then the Big East has lost Automatic Qualifying status to the BCS, which is being replaced by a 4-team playoff and a system of "access" bowls, as well as a few members--Rutgers to the Big Ten, Louisville to the ACC, and the seven non-football schools to a new yet-to-be named conference.  After considering all of this and the travel subsidies that they were going to have to pay the Big West for being their conference of convenience Boise st opted to renig on the Big East and stay in the Mountain West, which gave them a sweetheart deal to stay.

Part of the deal the MWC made with Boise St is that San Diego St has the right-of-first-refusal until January 31st.  What this deal didn't specify was what terms the MWC had to offer San Diego St.  So San Diego St is sitting in limbo.  The MWC schools are being childish and trying to take the Aztecs to the cleaners for their transgressions (which Boise St encouraged them to make but somehow has gotten forgiven for).

San Diego is stuck in this bad situation where they are stuck in between the Big East and Mountain West.  The Big East deal wasn't incredibly awful for SDSU.  It meant paying a ton to fly the football team to the other side of the country but in the long run the athletic department was set to save $100,000 a year compared to what they would pay as an all sports member of the MWC by having the rest of their sports in the Big West which is essentially a California bus league (+Hawaii).

San Diego St is in a position where the MWC makes the most sense but the MWC has opted to be dicks about the situation and make San Diego St pay for a move that was ultimately Boise's idea.  Where on the other side you have Mike Aresco of the Big East begging you to stay in his league.

Personally I would like to see the MWC wisen up, drop the air of pretension and recognize that SDSU is essential to the health of the MWC.  San Diego is one of the MWC's biggest television markets so it makes sense to hold onto the Aztecs.  Also, it seems in poor taste to be creating bad blood with San Diego St.  If these schools are going to coexist peacefully in the same league then they need to drop the threats of not admitting SDSU and let them in and waive their MWC exit fees and MWC entrance fees.  Leaving the Aztecs in the Big East is bad for business.   A Jilted Aztec program is going to be looking to get back at the MWC and potentially deprive it of Frenso St or UNLV by working with the Big East and Big West to bring them into a football membership in the former and all sports member of the later.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

(Big) EAST or (Mountain) WEST?: The Waiting Game Continues

The fates of several schools' athletic programs are hanging in a state of limbo right now.  Ultimately a handful of schools have the power to make or break conferences, one conference commissioner is trying to orchestrate a double play that could cement his league as the undisputed 6th best, and another desperately tries to hold onto what his league's western assets.

The MWC has the power to court 2-4 schools from the states of Texas and Oklahoma--namely from the pool of Houston, Southern Methodist, Tulsa, UTEP, and UTSA and if they are successful in attracting the right schools could strike a major blow to the Big East.

On the other hand Mike Aresco is trying to keep the Big East intact and secure its future albeit a diminished one in the new world order of college football.  Aresco's Big East is down to 10 members in 2014 and presumably 11 in 2015 if Navy follows through with their plans to join.  He desperately needs to keep both Houston and Southern Methodist in the league to keep it alive.

Fortunately for Aresco, it seems Southern Methodist prefers life in the Big East than the western frontier.  SMU would be very comfortable with fellow private schools Tulane (already in the BE in 2014) and Tulsa (presumed to be the next BE target), and would like to see Houston honor their commitment and be a Big East member as well.

Houston on the other hand seems to be more open to the MWC's overtures.  No one from Houston's administration has made any statements affirming their loyalty to the BE only that they were unhappy with Boise's decision to forego their BE plans.

The other schools in the region are essentially pawns in this chess match between the MWC and BE:

Tulsa seems to be in a good position no matter what happens.  They will no doubt end up in either the BE or the MWC when all the dominoes fall.  The best case scenario would be to be with both Houston and SMU in the BE.  Going with them to the MWC wouldn't be bad either nor would ending up in the BE with SMU (and Tulane and Memphis) but without Houston.  There's even the chance of going to the MWC with Houston too.  In the worst case scenario they end up in the BE with the aforementioned Tulane and Memphis and probably some other Texas school while Houston and SMU end up in the MWC.

UTEP's future is somewhat more tenuous.  The Miners need at least Houston to decide that the MWC is the way to go.     This could give them an opening into the MWC and a lifeline out of the much depleted C-USA.  UTEP would have to beat out other suitors to get the spot though---Tulsa, UTSA, and even BYU if they are interested, could be in the mix for that spot.

UTSA is in a bit of a bind.  They clearly have loads of potential but they seem to be overlooked by both leagues at the moment.  If the MWC decided to go to 16 they could slip in while in the BE it seems as though academic snobbery could prevent UTSA from even becoming part of the conversation.  It looks like they are probably going to have to bide their time in C-USA for a few more years until conference shifts occur elsewhere.

Rice has the potential to slip into the Big East if Houston passes on Big East membership.  despite being a program living in the past and far removed from their glory years they have powerful friends in Southern Methodist and Tulane that could help them make them to jump.  Tulsa is no doubt the BE's first choice but they could be the BE's second pick.

Southern Miss would love to get a BE call up but Southern Miss cannot even be considered by the BE until they get their Texas situation settled.

While not in the same region as the others, UMass is another school eying the BE.  They too are left playing the waiting game.