New Mexico State, Idaho Face Uncertain Futures Without Sun Belt Invites


Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson confirmed on Wednesday that the conference would not extend invites to the last remaining Western Athletic members, Idaho and New Mexico State. Bowl Subdivision options are all but exhausted now, given the SBC once hosted each school and seemed the most logical fit now.

The Mountain West recently added Utah State and San Jose State from the WAC, reaching 10 in its ranks. NMSU and UI would give the league 12, and thus the possibility of divisions and a conference championship game. The MWC began expansion talks in 2010 with the aspiration of becoming a factor on par with, at the very least, the Big East and ACC. Replacing TCU, Utah, Boise State and TCU with SJSU, USU, NSMU and UI hardly accomplishes the conference’s ultimate goal.

Even with the geographic logic and theoretical conference title game, one has to question if those benefits worth expanding via two teams that have a combined two bowl appearances since the Macarena was big. Both were Idaho’s, in 1998 and 2009. NMSU last reached a bowl game in 2009. NMSU has never lost a bowl game; then again when it last bowled, John F. Kennedy was President-elect.

Conference USA has added teams with track records of postseason futility, and others with no postseason history whatsoever. While that might seem like hope, UT-San Antonio, North Texas, Old Dominion, FIU and Charlotte all bring top 50 television markets. UI and NMSU face the double-edged sword of unsuccessful football and small broadcasting footprints.

There’s irony in Benson so flatly shutting out the Aggies and Vandals. As WAC commissioner from 1994 until earlier this year, Benson is synonymous with a bleak era for the conference. The WAC was a thriving league in the 1980s and early 1990s, thanks to LaVell Edwards’ high octane BYU teams, Fisher DeBerry’s Air Force squad, and Sonny Lubick building Colorado State into a perennial top 25.

The three were among an eight-team split in 1999 that greatly weakened the WAC. Despite the future success of Hawai’i, Fresno State and Boise State, the conference was never quite as strong after that split. To wit, the WAC boasted four top 30 teams in ’98: BYU, AFA, CSU and Wyoming. Fresno State was a great addition, and BSU brought national attention to the league. Of course, Benson was unable to keep either in the fold.

A commissioner is an easy, singular target for criticism, much like a quarterback or president. There are numerous factors in play with these decisions, but Benson’s been at very least the figurehead when the WAC dissolved, leaving UI and NMSU on these islands. He’s now the one passing by in a boat with no life preserver.

Maybe his decision not to expand westward is a sign of maturity; after all, it was expansion that began the WAC’s long march to oblivion. The decision to expand to 16 was ahead of its time — too much so. The MWC owes its existence to over-expansion. The WAC owes its death to it. Perhaps he was simply trying to avoid a similar fate for the SBC.

Whatever the reasoning, NMSU and UI face a likely option of moving down to FCS.

I contend UI is ready made for such a move. The Vandals were successful as a Big Sky member before joining the Big West and thus, Division I-A. Their home venue, the Kibbie Dome, is among the nation’s smallest FBS stadiums. In FCS, would be apropos. Further, the Big Sky sits at 13 members in football. The Vandals would make a nice, round 14.

NMSU’s move is much more complex. Surely the Aggies would fit the Southland Conference well geographically, and FCS would make the perpetually struggling program competitive. However, Aggie Memorial Stadium seats nearly 31,000. That’s a consummate, lower level FBS stadium. NMSU would also putting a pair of nearly century-old rivalries in jeopardy by reclassifying. The Aggies have played New Mexico virtually every year since 1905, and UTEP since 1921.

Reclassification could also have an interesting impact on the Aggies’ coaching staff. While Idaho has Robb Akey seemingly for the long haul, NMSU is just beginning to turn a corner under DeWayne Walker. Last season showed significant improvement in the Aggies’ ability to compete weekly, as NMSU beat Fresno State (a pipe dream for Aggie teams past) and played Hawai’i tough on the road (virtually unthinkable in years past).

There’s almost a stigma with moving down. From a competitive standpoint, a move to FCS is practical. However, more and more universities are throwing their names in the FBS discussion for the prestige, and pursuit of being that next Boise State. The circumstances are different, but other Pacific, Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State opted to completely disband football rather than move down during widescale realignment two decades ago.