In another chapter of this year’s conference realignment news cycle: Conference USA has been gutted by the American Conference, Southern Miss. is pivoting to the Sun Belt. Marshall, a two-time former MAC school, is expected to make the same move to the Sun Belt.
From The Athletic’s Chris Vannini on Thursday, last week:
So where does the Sun Belt turn now? It has three options: stay at 10 football members, add two or add four. Growing to 14 is on the table, and staying within the footprint is important, as much of the league currently buses its sports team to many SBC competitions. (Non-football members Texas-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock are expected to be out sooner rather than later as the Sun Belt focuses on football.)
People in the Sun Belt were largely surprised by the AAC’s decision to go big and feel it’s a sign of desperation. The Mountain West stayed pat and the Sun Belt could too if it doesn’t see enough value in the other options. So what are those options?
Southern Miss and Marshall are largely viewed by people in the Sun Belt as the strongest choices. Both have football history, long runs of success and, most importantly, engaged fans who travel, especially when they’re successful. Much like the Sun Belt benefited from adding App State and Georgia Southern from the FCS because they had solid fan bases (as opposed to “TV markets”), Southern Miss in particular is smack dab in the middle of the Sun Belt’s footprint.
Old Dominion and James Madison are in Virginia and a bit outside the footprint, but they could work as travel partners. They have large athletic budgets, in the $50 million range, though those budgets are heavily subsidized by student fees. ODU is a young program but recently rebuilt its football stadium, while JMU has good facilities. JMU is one of the top FCS programs, and the Sun Belt has found a lot of success adding from the top of the FCS with App State, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina.
The MAC’s getting talked about a little bit in all of this. C-USA schools Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee are said to be on the table. If the MAC scooped those schools up, it’d certainly be a boost for… basketball. Could adding them help the conference’s schools out in terms of enrollment? Either way, it doesn’t seem like there’s a super obvious reason for the MAC to grow to 14 just because two former Sun Belt schools are currently left in C-USA limbo. If the MAC does take a swing on WKU and MTSU, it’ll have to prove to be a calculated move that benefits every school still in the league, and it’ll have to be something every school in the league would already have to be down with. If adding any one school truly upsets any of the 12 that have been in the league for as long as they all have, then I wouldn’t expect any wasted efforts on this front.
In my head, the MAC should only expand if there’s an obvious slam-dunk decision to improve the quality of football in this conference. Marshall obviously would’ve been great for it, but Marshall also came and left the conference twice already. Is a global health pandemic a good enough reason to let bygones be bygones? After all, a lot of people in charge of a lot of those decisions back then are gone now, and there are Covid-era monetary concerns to think about here. Marshall hasn’t officially agreed to join the Sun Belt yet, but I’m sure it will. And the MAC, which desperately needs a Marshall, will probably continue to stand pat through the wave of re-alignment because it’s simply not in a position where it can just add schools all willy-nilly.