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Conference USA Roundtable: Expansion Candidates and Targets

The Big 12 Conference voted to accept four new members — including three from the American. What could this mean for C-USA schools? Our UDD Staff opine.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Appalachian State at Marshall Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the latest round of college football shuffling and reseeding, this time involving the Big 12’s raid (or addition depending on your vantage point) of UCF, Houston and Cincinnati from the American Athletic Conference, it’s only fair to look at where the American may turn to find new members. While there’s a tentative target date of 2024 for the three AAC members to begin play in the Big 12, all three schools may be let out prior. Our UDD Staff gives their thoughts on how the latest expansion could affect Conference USA and which schools may be prime candidates for the AAC.

Which programs could C-USA least afford to lose?

Eric Henry: If we’re speaking strictly in terms of football, UAB and Florida Atlantic have to be considered the top two teams. Yes, I know that answer will upset the folks in Huntington. However, given the infusion of money and upgrade facilities, both programs have yet to scratch the surface of their long-term potential. Now, in respect to the Herd, the same argument can be made as far as on-field results — but we all know that the discussion surrounding conference expansion is larger than that — as Boise State fans can attest.

Jake Auten: All things considered, whether it be attendance numbers, academic progress rate, program stability etc., winning games is still the make-or-break factor for overall growth, and this league can’t afford to lose its consistent contenders. UAB and Florida Atlantic immediately top that list, with programs like Marshall & Western Kentucky filling in as overall winners you wouldn’t want to let go if you didn’t have to, but not necessarily being irreplaceable from the standpoint of their geographical footprint and where they’re located.

William Sumner Macdaniel: If we are looking at on-field success and the programs that would keep C-USA competitive as a G5 conference it would have to be those schools that are always at the top—UAB, Marshall, and FAU. But there is a good chance that at least one of those schools leave for the AAC so the teams C-USA really cannot lose are those that have strong potential to be consistently competitive and impactful in the future. I think there are really only four: UTSA & Charlotte for marketability and growth potential, and La Tech & WKU for programs that often field competitive teams.

Joe Londergan: Obviously, this is my own opinion...and I’m taking football-only into consideration. But I think this UTSA program is on a path to being something really special. Jeff Traylor has things going in a great direction on the field, the new facilities look like the inside of a spaceship, and this program is barely a decade old. If C-USA wants to continue to grow its national footprint, letting this sprout continue to grow is essential. I think you can also make arguments for most of the other teams in the conference, at least on some level. I will say that Charlotte and Marshall are also on the precipice of something exciting if Will Healy and Charles Huff stay for at least a few more years and add on to what they have started building.

Which programs are in the best position to leave?

Eric: Hate to be repetitive here, but FAU and UAB’s recent additions as far as facilities are complete game-changers. Prior to Protective Stadium’s arrival in Birmingham and the competition of the Schmidt Family Complex in Boca, both teams would have been in position on-field, but were severely lacking in terms of the type of athletic facilities needed to be viable contenders at the next level. The biggest thing holding back Florida Atlantic, if we’re accounting for more than football is an abysmal basketball arena.

FAU Arena is a glorified high-school gymnasium. It’s much easier to fathom the likes of Penny Hardaway and Memphis or UConn making the trip to Bartow Arena than them ever letting their teams step foot in The Burrow.

Jake: This one should be fairly unanimous for us all, but it’s 100% UAB and Florida Atlantic for all the obvious reasons. Two extremely deep-rooted football communities in the Deep South, the ability to sell your program doesn’t come at a premium in Birmingham and Boca Raton like it does in other cities that are home to Conference USA programs. With the AAC losing Houston and UCF to the Big 12, naturally both of these programs could fill those spots and immediately bring in a similar level of readiness to compete. Memphis & UAB playing for a 100-lb. bronze statue of a rack of ribs in the Battle of the Bones was top-tier college football content that needs to be revisited, conference realignment be damned.

Sumner: UAB and FAU. They have the facilities, the pedigree, the community buy-in, and recent success. Those are the conventional and accepted answers to me. But there are a few sleeper candidates that I think are in good positions despite lacking the qualities of UAB and FAU. To me, those schools are Charlotte, Marshall, and UTSA. Marshall has the history and the program name to carry it into the conversation. Charlotte and UTSA are a bit different. Neither school has had tremendous success historically or has national name recognition. But conference realignment happens fast and the teams chosen are chosen for a multitude of reasons, including some bit of luck. Both UTSA and Charlotte might have caught lightning in a bottle with the timing of this realignment because both programs are young, are in untapped markets, and just happen to be catching national exposure with their respective P5 upsets last week. I know “potential” is a loaded word but the AAC might very well take that gamble with two programs that could be on a non-stop growth train.

Joe: FAU and UAB, frankly. FAU is a relatively young program as well (their first season was in 2001) but the progress that the program has made is impressive between facilities improvements, increases in revenue generated, and those conference titles 2017 and 2019 in particular. I will say that you’d want the fan attendance numbers to improve from about 17,000 per game in their stadium that seats about 30,000, if FAU does consider the American the best G5 conference that they could join. With UAB, it just makes sense. Consistently good results on the field, passionate fan base, new stadium, and they’re just one of the sexier names in G5 football in recent years.

If teams were to leave, where would C-USA turn?

Eric: This may be a different direction than others may take. If Conference USA loses multiple teams, you have to take a long and hard look at some sort of conference consolidation with the Sun Belt. Most likely, they’re going to lose a program or two themselves in the next shuffle. This leaves both leagues with “the best of the rest” from their respective conferences. If that’s not the case, here’s a lukewarm take — followed by a hot take. James Madison has a long history of solid football at the FCS level and would be a nice addition, along with Jacksonville State, who also fit that billing. I’d be in favor of taking a look at Division II power West Florida.

Since beginning play in 2016, the Argonauts have been to two D-II championship games and won in 2019. Before COVID brought the majority of football outside of the FBS level to a halt, West Florida was primed to contend again in D-II. They have a beautiful stadium on the coastline in Pensacola and boast an enrollment on par with Southern Miss and Lousiana Tech. By the time the next round of expansion talks will heat up around 2024-2025, an accelerated transition from D-II to FBS would be a possibility.

Jake: From a geographic standpoint, some sort of a merger between the C-USA and the Sun Belt seemingly would bring a lot of fluidity to leagues that span all the way from the Carolinas to Texas, but in my own opinion it’s just not ever going to happen. An FCS powerhouse like James Madison immediately stands out as a team that could make the jump and not be a complete washout. They have the facilities, they have the coaching staff, and Bridgeforth Stadium is a consistent draw for crowds of 20,000+ in an area where Charlotte is lucky to see 12,000. The fit is there if the Dukes were given the opportunity to move up to the FBS level.

Sumner: It has to be the Sun Belt right? Assuming that the Sun Belt itself doesn’t take C-USA members then I’d think that C-USA would look to try and get a more regional-based conference with some teams coming to that conference. But I think realistically C-USA’s best bet is in the FCS ranks. The reality is that conferences are getting bigger so there will be room for some of the better FCS teams to move up. If some do then C-USA would probably look there.

Joe: I can definitely see a Sun Belt team getting added. You also have a few different FCS programs that have looked into jumping up to FBS, namely James Madison, who might just get their wish. At this point, I doubt we’ll get any indication of new C-USA teams for about a year.