It's starting to look like Conference USA is going to be finished as a Division I FBS Football Conference
When it comes to the feeding frenzy of conference realignment, the conference that acts last is in the weakest position of all. In the early 2010’s feeding frenzy is the Western Athletic Conference, which ultimately stopped sponsoring football and now is a basketball conference the stretches from California to Illinois and Washington to Texas.
It seems like Conference USA is on the chopping block this year.
When the Big 12 raided the American Athletic Conference by adding Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, the American turned its eyes to Conference USA. They added six schools from CUSA: Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA. The old Conference USA basically reunited in the AAC.
Conference USA was expected to then raid the Sun Belt. Except the Sun Belt struck first by adding Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss (along with Division I FCS James Madison).
That leaves five teams in Conference USA in the near future: Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, UTEP, and Western Kentucky. Hardly a geographically proximate or interesting conference.
That isn’t much left for Conference USA to raid at this point. They basically have three choices, and none of them are great for CUSA.
The first is to just add more teams from other conferences and for the few independents left.
There only independents left are Army, Liberty, New Mexico State, Notre Dame (ha!), UConn, and UMass. Realistically, Army and Notre Dame are not likely to be interested. UMass and UConn got kicked out of their last football conferences. Liberty is a better geographic fit for the Sun Belt, if they choose to go that way. New Mexico State would be a good rival for UTEP, but it’s hardly an inspiring choice.
The only conference left to raid is the MAC. I don’t see any of those schools being interested in leaving the stability of the MAC for the uncertainty of CUSA.
The second choice is to start raiding Division I FCS schools that want a crack at the FBS level. Not that the FBS level needs any more freaking teams. Longtime FBS power schools like Missouri State, North Dakota State, Sam Houston State, or South Dakota State might want to take the next step to the next level (and a future payday in a larger conference).
The third choice is to follow the lead of the WAC and disestablish football at the DI-FBS level. It was only this season that the WAC re-established football at the DI-FCS level through a WAC-Atlantic Sun partnership. It took nine years for the WAC to bring football back at any level. Perhaps Conference USA needs to follow the same route.
In my estimation, disestablishing football as a conference sport is probably the best way to go.
Currently, CUSA has football broadcasting partnerships with ESPN, CBS Sports, Stadium, and their own CUSA.tv site. It’s hard to imagine that either ESPN or CBS will be interested in renewing their partnerships when they expire which would harm the conference bottom line.
It’s hard to imagine that the CUSA bowl affiliations would stay alive either. CUSA has direct affiliations with the New Orleans Bowl and the Independence Bowl, and is in the pool to be selected by ESPN for the Bahamas, Cure, Boca Raton, Frisco and Armed Forces. Unless the team adds quality programs like Liberty, North Dakota State or South Dakota State, it’s hard to imagine that CUSA teams would stay in the mix for as many quality bowl games.
Conference USA’s inaction has put them in this position. But they can be proactive in ending football as a sponsored sport. This would better fit the profile of the schools they have and expand the number of schools they can add by getting quality non-football schools into the mix.
The Big East has shown that a conference can be successful as a quality basketball conference after discontinuing football. CUSA isn’t in that league (pun intended) as far as basketball programs though, but they could be.
A return to a non-football conference would be a fitting end for Conference USA. CUSA was formed by the merger of two successful basketball-only conferences, the Great Midwest and the Metro Conferences, who joined up to become an all-sports conference in 1995. It would be fitting the conference to ultimately end up returning to its roots.