In the three seasons that I’ve penned the weekly Conference USA recap, the objective has been to take a look at a multitude of storylines that have been shaped on the field and attempt to bring a trio of them to light throughout the season.
However, there has undoubtedly never been a week like the one passed in the history of this series — or in the eight years since Conference USA’s last reshuffling in 2013.
As the future of the league is uncertain, let’s take a look back what was arguably the most pivotal week in the conference’s 26-year history.
American Athletic Conference Announces the Addition of Six Universities
As announced on October 21, six Conference USA member programs have applied and been accepted into the American Athletic Conference. Florida Atlantic, UAB, Rice, Charlotte, North Texas and UTSA are slated to begin play in the American in time for the start of the 2023-24 season.
“We’re adding schools that not only share our philosophy of competition at the highest level, but have shown they’re willing to make the necessary investments to do so,” said AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco during the announcement of the new schools on Wednesday.
The moves are indicative of the balance and position of power among the Group of Five ranks, especially considering the offer from C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod to the American earlier this month. The letter, initially obtained by Sports Illustrated, laid out a proposal that would call for a partial merger between both leagues.
The American’s raid of Conference USA is essentially their power play establishing that they were more than capable of pulling Macleod’s plan — without C-USA’s help.
Southern Miss — and Potentially More Are Headed to the Sun Belt
The last remaining charter member of Conference USA’s humble beginnings in 1996, Southern Miss, along with FIU, was the only other school not to release a public statement when news of the aforementioned departures broke. That appears to have been with good reason, opposed to the Panthers’ attempted radio silence, as the Golden Eagles have a press conference scheduled for today.
Please be advised that we will be holding a at 3:30 PM inside the Trent Lott Center on Tuesday, Oct. 26.— Southern Miss (@USMGoldenEagles) October 25, 2021
Trent Lott Center
⌚️ 3:30 PM
Press Conference & Fan Reception#SMTTT pic.twitter.com/EQbfVseG8D
The anticipation is that they will announce a move to the Sun Belt Conference — and they may not be the only ones leaving. Reports have Marshall and Old Dominion potentially joining the SBC as well, leaving C-USA facing the prospect of only having five (FIU, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee) programs left.
Whatever the next moves are, they’ll need to be done quickly and have to involve convincing Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee that there’s long-term viability that can come from staying in C-USA — with potential moves to the MAC looming.
What’s Next for Conference USA
When Conference USA selected programs to join the conference in time for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the moves were seemingly made strategically to prioritize growing media markets in conjunction with schools that appeared to have large potential for growth. When looking at the programs that have left or appear to be leaving, many of them, while still haven’t seen their full potential come to fruition — seemingly will reach their apex under the guidance of their new leagues. Florida Atlantic, UAB, Charlotte, Old Dominion, North Texas and UTSA all have built new practice or game venues within the last decade.
Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Louisana Tech all provided natural geographical fits given the construct of the league. Now, with the impending departure of nine member institutions, C-USA may not have the luxury of building based on the same principles they had almost a decade ago. UMass, New Mexico State, Sam Houston State and Tarleton State have all been mentioned as potential additions.
When looking at the landscape of what’s left — and what’s desirable — C-USA’s administration may need to take a serious look at tapping into the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) landscape. Of the top-15 attendance leaders among FBS teams, seven are HBCU’s and currently meet the FBS’ 15,000-seat minimum average attendance (paid attendance) threshold.
Programs such as Jackson State, Alabama State, Southern, North Carolina A&T and Florida A&M would help keep some semblance of regional cohesiveness. Also, each of the five come from traditional football-hungry locals that have a built-in culture of college football Saturdays. A selection from this group may serve as the league’s best option as movement continues to be fluid. However, as is the case with virtually a majority of HBCU’s, student enrollment averages less than 10,000 students, with Florida A&M boasting the largest HBCU enrollment in the nation (10,856).