To this point in college football history, conference realignment has consisted of one league raiding another for its teams. Conference USA is climbing an uphill battle to change that, but hopes to shift how realignment works, and add some regionality back to the sport in the process.
The AAC is losing Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF to the Big 12, which will also add independent program BYU. The league made that move after its own massive loss of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC.
In response, the AAC targeted Mountain West programs Air Force and Colorado State, but were rejected. Conference USA is understandably concerned that they’re up next. UAB has been a popular name, as the Blazers have been a consistent power in the league after returning from the brief folding of the program. UTSA, North Texas, and others could also be targets if the AAC wants to bolster its presence in the Lone Star State with Houston leaving.
Years ago, Conference USA looked to target markets over brands in its own expansion, with some of those Texas programs that jumped up to FBS, as well as schools like Charlotte and Old Dominion. The results have been mixed, and the Sun Belt, a conference that occupies much of the same footprint but has more regional consistency, has seen more year-over-year success with programs like Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Troy, and Arkansas State all finding plenty of success. According to a report by CBS Sports‘ Dennis Dodd, CUSA hopes to head future expansion off at the pass by making a proposal to the AAC and Sun Belt to just reshuffle all three leagues to make more regional sense.
News: CUSA to hear proposal to regionalize AAC, Sun Belt, CUSA in attempt to slow realigment (and keep American from picking off its schools). https://t.co/W8d1tKd2vQ
— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) October 9, 2021
“The redundancies of C-USA, AAC and Sun Belt membership are clear. The AAC and C-USA each have schools in Texas, Florida and North Carolina. C-USA and the Sun Belt each have teams in Texas, Alabama and North Carolina,” Dodd writes.
“Just one example of how this could work would be a 12-team Southwest league that would include these teams from Texas and Louisiana: Arkansas State, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, SMU, Texas State, Tulane, UTEP and UTSA.”
Conference USA, which has retained former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney and former Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg to work on this, is hoping that a common sense shift in the current leagues could hold off the constant reshuffling in the Group of Five, after Power Five leagues poach from them. Increased regionalization could make for more fun local rivalries, like the Sun Belt has in Georgia Southern and Georgia State, and more interest in those leagues. It’s certainly not without some merit.
“What a lot of us are thinking is it’s time to at least investigate the possibility of regionalization. We’re trying to figure out if there is a constructive collaborative situation that could be developed where we have more regional rivalries and cut down on travel time for students.”
It is highly unlikely that either other league goes for it. The AAC, even after its recent losses, is clearly a rung above Conference USA. Sun Belt probably sees itself above CUSA as well, and already has a more cohesive college football league.
When asked about the C-USA concept, an AAC spokesman told CBS Sports, “We have zero interest in that. That’s not in our plan.”
Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill took a similar stance: “We’re really not interested in a merger. We feel really good about where we are.”
It may not happen the way its being proposed, but conferences banding together to try and counter moves of the bigger leagues may become more of the norm. We already have the nebulous AAC/Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance. Short of a large-scale realignment, perhaps we can see more coordination among the G5 college football leagues down the road, especially as the Power Five seek to distance themselves further.