So, in part-1 we looked at the high-altitude view of the “Power 5” conferences for 2022 and offered a hint of things to come beyond 2022.
Now it’s time to get into the forest of fun and change. The reality is that most of the conference movement action is currently happening in what has been termed, the “mid-majors”. These programs have been aggregated into the FBS and are now colloquially known as the Group of 5 conferences. In addition to the conference associations, there are the vast majority of Independents that fall into the “mid-major” descriptive.
No one is fooling too many people when we say that a jump into the mid-major puddle will result in more than a minor splash. There are few nationally known programs and certainly only a single digit number gain any sort of poll or playoff traction.
The problem is that among these modestly known programs, there is a major boiling realignment going on that is absolutely challenging any spreadsheet master in formulating with a solid year to year projection. We have done our best to set up the conferences as they should appear in 2022, but then we’ll see where the current information puts the post 2022 configurations. Suffice it to say that Conference-USA is taking a hit, and at least three FCS teams are moving up to G5 conference play.
So, we are prepared to be slightly off, or don’t peg us to this when something else changes because it probably will.
Group of Five Conferences and the Bulk of Independents as of 2021/2022
Note: This isn’t in alphabetical order because there just isn’t any way to figure out what sort of “power” order to put them in as they churn.
American Athletic Conference (AAC)
The American looks to be pushing the boundaries of being the top conference in this particular category. It is going to lose its top two teams to the Power 5. The BIG XII is replenishing with the more competitive teams of that conference with Cincinnati and Houston. So, it spent some serious effort recruiting top programs from the other mid-majors. It seems that there is a sort of copy Owl going on as three of the programs’ mascots are night hunting raptors. At the end of the swap over period, presumably by the 2025 season, the AAC will have 14 fairly competitive programs that include the Naval Academy, East Carolina, Temple, Memphis, and Tulsa. AAC Program fans might just have some fun football to watch, soon.
Conference USA (C-USA)
Talk about going from what was the premier mid-major league to a struggling stump looking for some sort of rescue has not entirely been dismissed. C-USA found itself staring into an abyss with just weeks ago, and still will be struggling to have a single division conference. It started 2021 with fourteen teams, and over the course of the end of the season, had dropped six total teams to the AAC, and three teams to the growing Sun Belt Conference. In order to round out some sort of functional 10 game conference schedule (9 teams total, for now) C-USA reached out to two Independent FBS programs (Liberty and New Mexico State) and then promoted two FCS programs (Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State) up to FBS level exposure. The remaining potential teams of a 14-team conference would have to come from somewhere down, so C-USA has made it known that it’s staying put for now. It’s safe to say that C-USA was pretty much gutted, and their level of competition is not going to rise to the level of a championship competitive conference for quite a while if ever.
Mid-American Conference (MAC)
The MAC is the most stable and consistent of the mid-major conferences. They have a 12-team league that spans what a good representative sample of the old Rust Belt. In fact, it’s really the Ohio League with most of the programs falling into that state, and a sprinkling of teams as far east as Buffalo, New York and west in Chicago. The entire footprint of the member programs is basically the southern shores of the Great Lakes. This league has a pile of teams of mixed capability, and result. Not many folks would know, however, because they largely play games amongst themselves with only a few non-conference games scheduled for each team. It’s a very self-contained league without a huge desire to expand or spread out beyond its current footprint. There were some considerations to expansion to the south to pick up Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky, but those talks eventually amounted to decisions to stay put for the immediate future.
Mountain West Conference (MW)
The Mountain West is waiting for what looks to be a disintegration factor. These teams from wildly different geographic locations, Hawaii to as far east as Air Force and Colorado Springs makes the league a bit of a travel challenge. The teams largely play within their own footprints, even in non-conference situations stay in the West. The exception being Air Force which plays Navy and Army every season. You rarely see any of the other programs schedule games east of the high plains. This limits their east coast exposure, and tamps down on nationwide viewership, much like the MAC teams. The big issue with the MW is that many of their media contracts are expiring in 2024, which means some of the bigger named programs are thinking of bolting for more lucrative environs. Money is driving that particular cart, and there really don’t seem to be many big sticky rivalries to keep teams from bolting the fold. Post 2024 we might see the Mountain-West go through a dissection like C-USA just had.
Sun Belt (SUN)
If there is any major move going on in the Mid-Majors over the next few seasons, the long neglected and quiet “poor cousin” of the SEC has been struggling along gathering a few teams here and a few teams there. The 2021 list of programs had 11 teams stretching across the south from Texas to the Carolinas and seemed to be made up of the “other state university squads”. Many of them new to the FBS, and certainly with very regional and local followings. Over the next few years, the conference is filling in some geographic gaps, adding Virginia and West Virginia to the map. This was done largely at the expense of C-USA as they lost three programs to the realignment. The end result will be a 14 team Conference with modest sized mid-tier university programs competing in a region more suited to collegiate competition but with a broader appeal for the better media markets. The promotion of FCS powerhouse James Madison and the inclusion of Tidewater’s Old Dominion pushes the conference boundary’s northeast coast and presents a major recruiting challenge for the 2-star and 3-star players that make up the bulk of ACC football. Look for the Sun Belt to begin to appear as an operating challenge to the ACC as playing time and full scholarship offers swamp away walk-on opportunities in the P5 teams sharing the region.
Mid-Major Independents heading for conferences from 2021-2024
This article is more about conferences and conference realignments so there aren’t many mentions of individual teams, but there are four teams in the “Independent” category that still have not shown much of an interest in joining a conference. Army West Point Black Knights, BYU Cougars (heading to the revamped BIG XII soon), Connecticut Huskies, and the Massachusetts Minutemen. Arguably, BYU is a functional Power 5 team, and will be joining the BIG XII; it’s the P5 conference in the most trouble and has room - the move is expected around the 2023–2024-time frame. UConn and UMass are definitely G5 level programs, and absent a true Northeastern Conference they’ll have to go somewhere like the repopulating C-USA. Army is its own special G5 case. It sits in a gray area similar to UMass and UConn. There are just no real Northeastern conferences that make sense even though the other service academies are in conferences.
At some point Army and Notre Dame will have to be pushed hard to join a conference. There is some speculation as to how that is to be accomplished and where especially if there is ever going to be a 12-team true playoff system developed. But that’s for the wrap article where we blue sky and spit ball some ideas.
The Mid-Majors Don’t want to be “Also Rans”, “Cupcakes”, and “Booger Bowlers”
I have been told by several people something to the effect of “who cares?” regarding including the Group of 5 programs in this series. “They don’t matter.” Was the direct quote. Folks, I have to disagree with that assessment. As you can see, the G5 mid-major conferences are going through a massive churn and realignment. It looks very much like the conferences are finally realizing that they need to start working in cooperation to get some level of respect and a better level of media contract funding. Most of the conference media contracts are ending within the next few years. The conferences need to put themselves in better positions for those negotiations, but also, critically they need to have some level of real presence at the table of the full FBS realignment and playoff expansion negotiations.
The current issues that are hanging up the playoff revision are pretty simple, conference membership and media money. No one is going to make major bank off of any of these programs’ alumni fan bases and lack of nationwide media appeal. They have to find some other way to begin to broaden their exposure so that the big network sports divisions are willing to pony up cable money to feed their needs.
The fact remains, that these programs are voicing some serious frustration with the current playoff situation and never being allowed to compete, on the field, for the only championship of FBS football. They are also working to build some talent levels that will help them stop being looked at as “warmup” or win padding “cupcake” opponents when they do get a chance to play P5 teams for bigger money. The reality is that the big post season rewards for Group of 5 clubs are conference championships and decent paying bowl games that don’t actually cost them money. That condition is the sum total of what these players get for an entire season or career.
This mid-major realignment is just a preview of some of the mayhem that is about to befall the power programs. Tell us what you are thinking.
Does the Group of 5 really matter in FBS football?
This poll is closed
Yes, the bulk of the teams in all of FBS are really Group of 5 talents, and what happens there will happen here.
No, they are small programs with small fan bases and limited talent on their rosters. Their national attention is limited to whatever booger they picked, and no one cares.
Maybe? It really depends on the success of their re-alignment, media contracts, and those all-important playoff expansion negotiations.
When most of the P5 teams aren’t much better, none of this makes any sense at all. FBS college football needs a serious re-org, top to bottom with multiple levels and championships. The now "thing" is abusive and silly.