Western Kentucky is reportedly the latest target of Conference USA, which is losing several members to the conference currently known as the Big East. The Sun Belt Conference — already adding four new members reported last week — is targeting two more.
James Madison and Liberty to the Sun Belt is the latest rumored conference realignment move. For those keeping score, that’s 10 Football Championship Subdivision programs making the leap in the last year. South Alabama was always committed to the Sun Belt after beginning a football program in 2009, so its newly minted FBS status does not qualify.
- Appalachian State: The three-time national championship winner (2005-2007) and FCS standard bearer accepted an invitation to the Sun Belt last week.
- Charlotte: 49er football kicks off this fall, dipping its toe into the shallow end of the FCS pool in preparation for its move to Conference USA. The 49ers are playing as an FCS independent before beginning FBS transition*.
- Georgia Southern: Long-time FCS powerhouse Georgia Southern was tabbed for Sun Belt membership last week. The Eagles are routinely among the subdivision’s elite, dating back to the 1980s.
- Georgia State: The fledgling program began play in 2010 under Bill Curry. Minor miracle worker Trent Miles takes over for Georgia State’s move to the Sun Belt.
- Old Dominion: Another new addition to the college football ranks, Old Dominion had immediate success with its 2009 inception and reached the FCS Playoffs the last two seasons. The Norfolk community embraced ODU football, evident in considerable attendance figures.
- Texas State: One of the Western Athletic Conference’s last ditch efforts to maintain football, the Bobcats played in the WAC this past season and are headed to the Sun Belt in 2013.
- UMass: 1998 national champion and 2006 national runner-up UMass moved almost 100 miles off campus for its first season in the Bowl Subdivision. Some university faculty demanded the program move back to FCS following a disastrous 1-11 campaign.
- UT-San Antonio: Impressive attendance at the Alamodome in its lone FCS season earned UTSA an FBS invite. The Roadrunners join Conference USA in the coming season.
Other FCS programs were invited to FBS leagues in recent years, including Montana, Cal Poly and UC Davis. Villanova was a hotly rumored candidate for Big East membership at one time. Other names have circulated at various times.
An increased amount of defections — particularly from high profile FCS stalwarts like Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and James Madison — challenges the very existence of the FCS. Its total membership in 2013 is 127, will decrease again in 2014. The subdivision’s postseason expands to 24 teams next year, but two conferences will not participate in the playoffs: Ivy and SWAC; the Pioneer League receives its first bid next year.
University athletic departments are chasing a dream and dollar signs when they make the leap. Results vary; Boise State is the obvious benchmark others try to emulate. In-state rival Idaho proves how difficult the transition can be.
Some of the more recent moves make sense. Old Dominion, Georgia State and UT-San Antonio are all brand new programs, located in major metropolitan areas. GSU and UTSA both play in large venues more suitable for FBS programs. If James Madison and Liberty to the Sun Belt reaches fruition, those programs are taking similar gambles as Appalachian State and Georgia Southern: none are in large population centers, and they are banking on their FCS successes translating to the FBS. And in Liberty’s case, even success is negligible.
Aforementioned Western Kentucky is coming off consecutive winning seasons, but the 2002 Div. I-AA champion Hilltoppers suffered through a few very bleak years upon moving up in the latter-half of the 2000s. Their continued success after the departure of Willie Taggart to USF relies on the consistently unreliable Bobby Petrino.
Still, the little bit of success WKU is parlaying into a conference upgrade is enough to give other programs hope. If that school in Bowling Green, Ky. can do it, why not us?
The more universities that adopt this mindset, the more diluted FCS becomes.
With the NCAA tournament ongoing, now is an interesting time to consider the possibility of a unified Division I. Such a thing once existed. The split began in 1978, making football the only sport that drew clear distinctions between Division I programs.
Conference realignment was originally believed to further splinter Division I — and realistically, it still could. Such a scenario is more likely than a reclassification that puts current FBS and FCS under the same banner.
However, the latter is not an entirely far-fetched idea. The NCAA tournament is a gold mine for the NCAA, and this year’s in particular has attracted substantially increased viewership. The forthcoming football playoff promises to command even more eyeballs, and thus higher revenue.
*Editor’s note: An update was made to this column on April 2. Charlotte is updated from a potential CAA member to FCS independent.