Conference USA's future is in crisis, and the solution is basketball.
To quickly recap the facts:
- After expected departures to the American and Sun Belt, C-USA will have only five remaining members: FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, UTEP, and Western Kentucky (WKU).
- NCAA bylaws require FBS conferences to have a minimum of 8 full members. Football-only members don't count towards this 8-member minimum: The conference needs at least 8 members participating in all sports, including both football and basketball.
- New Mexico State appears to be the only FBS Independent that has expressed interest in joining C-USA for all sports. UConn and UMass are not interested in leaving the Big East or Atlantic 10 for their non-football sports.
- This implies that to reach the 8-member minimum for an FBS conference, C-USA will need to find at least two new members that meet all of the following requirements:
- Currently competing in football at the FCS level.
- Able to meet all requirements for FBS classification within the next ~4 years (assuming the NCAA is relatively generous with waivers in the interim). This includes a requirement to reach an average home game attendance of at least 15,000, which requires both a large stadium and enough fan interest to substantially fill that stadium for most games.
- Has a large enough athletic budget to handle the increased scholarships and staffing required at the FBS level, as well as the travel costs involved in competing in all sports in a far-flung conference stretching from El Paso to Nashville to Miami.
- Motivated enough by the possibility of FBS membership to join a conference with high travel costs and an uncertain future.
The list of programs that meet the first 3 requirements above is extremely short, and most of the programs that meet it will likely choose the stability of their current FCS conferences, rather than jumping into the uncertainty of C-USA. This has lead many to speculate that C-USA will likely fail to hit the 8 member minimum, and will dissolve, with its 5 remaining members becoming FBS Independents and joining other conferences for non-football sports.
However, this isn't the only possible future for C-USA. An alternative vision would be to drop football at the conference level, and build a regionally-focused non-football conference of strong basketball programs. All remaining members would transition their football teams to FBS Independent status, while their other sports continue to compete in the reconstructed conference.
Of the remaining C-USA members, WKU and La. Tech have relatively strong basketball programs, and Middle Tennessee has historically had a solid program, with highly-ranked teams as recently as 2018. WKU and Middle Tennessee are also located in a region with a large number of consistently good basketball programs that currently play in non-football conferences. This is a strong core to build a basketball-focused conference around.
The basic approach would be to build the "Atlantic 10 of the Upland South and Midwest" by inviting members from that region who have solid basketball programs, and aren't currently affiliated with an FBS conference.
As geographic outliers, it's likely that UTEP and FIU would leave this conference, and join non-football conferences in their respective regions (likely the WAC and Atlantic Sun, respectively).
The table and map below detail a possible 14-member conference that could be created by adding the strongest basketball programs from the Missouri Valley Conference, Horizon League, and the Midwestern outlier members of the Atlantic 10.
Possible basketball-focused C-USA membership:
|Member||2022 KenPom Basketball Preseason Ranking||Current Conference||Football Conference|
|Louisiana Tech||88||CUSA||FBS Independent|
|Western Kentucky||90||CUSA||FBS Independent|
|Middle Tennessee||272||CUSA||FBS Independent|
The list above has 14 members, but in the (likely) event that some of them decline to join, the conference would be workable with as few as 8 members.
- Top MVC and Horizon League teams increase the average strength of their schedule by leaving the less successful basketball programs in their conferences behind.
- Strong in-conference basketball schedule would help the conference earn multiple NCAA tournament berths every year.
- Reasonably compact geographical footprint, with in-state opponents for all but two teams (Milwaukee and La. Tech).
- If the Missouri Valley Football Conference teams (Missouri St. Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois) reach a point where they are ready to move up to FBS, the conference would only need to add 2 additional FBS-eligible teams (e.g. from the MVFC or ASun) to become an FBS conference again.
- Missouri Valley Conference is already a strong basketball conference, and the "upgrade" in the level of competition might not be enough to make it worth leaving a stable conference.
- Conference would be inherently unstable, because WKU, La. Tech, and/or MTSU would be almost guaranteed to leave if they are ever offered membership in a conference with FBS football.
- Including a large number of non-football programs makes it politically more difficult to re-add football and become an FBS conference in the future. Priorities of conference leadership will be different, and there may not be "open spots" in the conference to add the necessary number of programs with football.
- Middle Tennessee is not currently an attractive conference-mate in men's basketball.
If the programs listed above don't join, there are a variety of additional candidates that could be invited to join a non-football Conference USA, including:
- The current non-football members of the Sun Belt: UT Arlington and Little Rock
- Other programs that currently play football in the Missouri Valley Football League, and might eventually develop enough to be FBS-eligible: Indiana St., Illinois St.
- Other moderately strong basketball programs: Cleveland St., Oral Roberts, Bellarmine
The maximal version of this plan (with top-tier teams joining from the Missouri Valley Conference and Atlantic 10) is a serious long-shot. There is a lot of uncertainty involved, so most programs would likely prefer to stay in the stability of the MVC and A10. At the same time, C-USA leadership will have a substantial ~$27 million war chest from the exit fees of departing members, which might be enough to pull this together.
A more scaled-back version of this plan (WKU, MTSU, La. Tech + top teams from the Horizon League + the non-football members of the Sun Belt) is also plausible, but would be dead if any of the 3 C-USA teams accepted an invite from an existing conference (e.g. La. Tech to the WAC, or WKU to the MVC). If top teams from the MVC aren't joining, the pitch to the Horizon League teams is much less compelling.
Despite the challenges of pulling it off, redefining as a basketball-focused conference may be Conference USA's best chance to survive and play on.