When Idaho and New Mexico State joined the Sun Belt in 2014 as football-only members, it was known that the agreement wasn't a long-term solution.
The deals, which are four-year contracts with the option to renew or terminate after two, are now at the halfway point, so it's decision time for the Sun Belt.
Idaho President Chuck Staben, in speaking to the Idaho Statesman, was very candid about what could happen to the Vandals football program.
It was revealed by Staben that the vote on whether to extend Idaho and New Mexico State's football-only membership is on March 10th during the spring meetings following video presentations in February.
One of the major factors in the vote will come in the next week as the NCAA votes on conference championship game deregulation. If passed, the new rule will allow conferences with under 12 members to hold a football conference championship game. Currently, the only two FBS conferences with less than 12 members are the Big 12, with 10 members, and the Sun Belt, with 11 members.
Despite having only 11 football-playing members, which include Idaho and NMSU, the Sun Belt voted this past fall to add Coastal Carolina, whose football team will join the league in fall 2017. This will put the Sun Belt at 12 members and with clear-cut geographical divisions.
If conference title game deregulation passes, the Sun Belt likely wouldn't need NMSU and Idaho to hold a conference championship game at 10 members.
With their Sun Belt fate uncertain, Staben has admitted that a move down to FCS is a real possibility. The Big Sky Conference, where Idaho is a full, non-football member, has a 13-team FCS league that offers geographically-friendly foes like Idaho State, Montana and Eastern Washington. The Big Sky has an open football invitation for Idaho should the Vandals decide to move down.
But the trade-off for Idaho would be a loss of CFB Playoff money, which goes into the seven figures per school depending on how the Sun Belt does each season. Not to mention the hit on recruiting due to being in the lesser subdivision.
Since no team has gone from FBS to FCS since 1982 when the subdivisions were in their infancy, it's hard to say what the transition period would be as there's no set NCAA rules. Idaho would have to go from 85 scholarships down to 63 and wouldn't be FCS Playoff eligible until they got down to 63 scholarships, which would likely take at least two years.
Another option for Staben is to go FBS Independent as the Vandals did for the 2013 season. However, no league revenue, no conference championship to play for and the geographical location make the idea a distant Plan C.
For New Mexico State, if their football-only deal with the Sun Belt is terminated, the situation would be tricky. The Aggies full membership is in the WAC, which doesn't have football anymore. Plus, NMSU don't have an obvious FCS conference to fall into as they are outside any FCS conference footprint. Plus, just like the Vandals, FBS Independence seems to be a non-starter.
The good news for NMSU is that the western members of the Sun Belt seem to vouch for them, going by their endorsements for the Aggies to join as full members, due to their proximity. NMSU hasn't publicly commented on the vote or any possible move to FCS.
For Idaho, there's no great fit now or in the near future. Staying in FBS would likely mean traveling thousands of miles to every away conference game, but going to FCS would mean a loss of prestige and CFB Playoffs payouts.