The Cross Cannibalization of Mid-Major Conferences
This is going to be the “weird” section of the series because, for one; most Hokie fans are pretty unaware and uninterested in the “Mid-Major” teams (aka Group of 5) and secondly the G5 is a league that is undergoing the most radical changes in Collegiate Bowl Series football. That set of realities makes this a tough sell, but a necessary discussion topic because the upper tier of the mid-major conferences play a significant role in the “real playoff” discussion, in particular the 12 and 16 team playoff schemes being discussed.
No one is really fooling anyone, this all about the Benjamins, folks. Many of the programs listed as “mid-majors” are really good, consistent, and long lived -even storied- football programs. Even though Army is an “independent” it’s more appropriately placed among the mid-majors in revenues and capabilities. Until it arranged to jump up to the Power 5, Cincinnati was a major player in ranked football for several decades now. Central Florida has bubbled up to ranked status more than a few times. Navy is aways hanging around due to its long-storied presence. Temple was a first-rate power in the 60’s and 70’s.
Then Cable TV and “The Mouse” happened. ESPN began to scarf up larger fanbase programs and leagues with lots of lovely cash money for media contracts. Some contracts were more lucrative than others but what separated the “Power 5” from the “Group of 5” seemed to be mostly which league had a big-time network deal for cable TV broadcast rights, and who didn’t. That unbalance of revenues broadened and deepened the differences between the unofficial Division 1 and Division 2 of the FBS over the past 20 years. The end result as the discussion and final evolution of the real college football playoffs has been a brutal melee of programs shifting conferences. The churn is now approaching the chaos level.
The first two conferences that we’ll discuss for this article are probably the most visibly affected by the seemingly chaotic activity: the AAC and C-USA. The American Athletic Conference (the AAC was a Big East trickle off) gaining some good programs. Conference USA which sort-of picked up a scattering of different clubs over the past 20 years has gotten the worst of the churn. Right now, the mess seems to be more of a series of raiding parties across similar league boundaries. We’ll get to the big winner/gainer, the Sun Belt Conference, to close out this three article sub-series.
The unkind and pretty ugly reality is that in that situation someone has to lose since there are only so many bowls, and only limited numbers of teams that can support bowl attendance and media draw requirements. There are limits to the attractiveness of minor bowl games played in the holiday season. Add to that the on-field football reality that many of these teams haven’t even a remote shot at getting to anything approaching even a 16-team playoff series and what you get is a mix of small fanbases and a tiny potential market capitalization.
The AAC is the First of Two Winners in the Realignment
Let’s look at the relative winner in the churn, the AAC. Here is the way that it looked at the close of the 2021 season.
The American Athletic Conference at the end of the 2021 Season
|Cincinnati Bearcats (Going to Big XII)||A||The level conference grade is beside the point, they made the playoffs because of record and "reasons" and are bolting for the bigs.|
|East Carolina Pirates||C||This is a team that is in complete disarray following the unexplainable firing of Ruffin McNiell. They haven't been relevant since.|
|Houston Cougars (Going to Big XII)||B+||Never been a hugely successful program but their last few seasons enabled their bolt for the Big XII door.|
|Memphis Tigers||B||Got here by way of Fuente and that's probably where he should have stayed.|
|Navy Midshipmen||C||A long time coach running Paul Johnson's "cracked option". Their ceiling is a B but their floor is the basement.|
|Southern Methodist Mustangs||B||Once banned twice shy, rarely better than average this past season they seemed to have gotten a bit of traction.|
|South Florida Bulls||B-||Can be good if well coached, but there are lots of Floridas competing for three star talent.|
|Temple Owls||B-||In this conference they are barely average, in others way less so.|
|Tulane Green Wave||C||Haven't been much of anywhere in the W/L or money ratings in - well, ever.|
|Tulsa Golden Hurricane||B||They could end up being the top of the reformed conference. Independence Bowl shootout, remember?|
|Central Florida Knights (Going to Big XII)||B+||They are like USF, same action different part of the state. Flying the coop to the Big XII with Cinci and Houston.|
The AAC ended the season as it started, a single division with 11 teams. None of the programs are particularly noted as “barn burners”. There was the undefeated season for the Cincinnati Bearcats. They have excellent coaching, and the program was decently well accounted for over the past several decades. Tech has had more than a few fits with them, including the disappointing loss in the rainy, dreary 2018 Military Bowl. Luke Fickell took the team’s helm in 2016 not too soon after the prior Tech coaching change. The directions for the teams couldn’t have been more different. The Bearcats managed an undefeated season in 2021, and pushed their way into both he conversation and a spot in the current “Fakeoffs” even though several Power football teams complained bitterly. The interesting note is that the Houston Cougars were right behind them in the conference standings with an undefeated 8-0 conference record, but with an 11-1 finish to their season and a surprise victory over Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. In fact, the AAC put seven of their eleven teams into post season bowls in the 2021 season. There might have been some hope going into the post season, but the three best teams in the league for the season found greener pastures and a birth in the “Power” ranks by joining the Big XII.
That sent the AAC scrambling to fill up enough holes to actually keep the conference ship from sinking. The Big XII raid nearly wrecked the league. So, the new post 2023 configuration looks like the following:
The Revamped Post 2024 AAC looks like an East - West Split
|East Carolina Pirates||B||We will put the Pirates at a B for now|
|Memphis Tigers||B+||In this league configuration with former FCS teams to compete against Memphis might be one of the better teams|
|Navy Midshipmen||C||Maybe Navy picks it up. They may or may not replace the coach and the triple option. Still a B ceiling|
|South Florida Bulls||B-||Still a B- for this chart but we will see how 2022 and 2023 go they might be good. Ceiling is an A-|
|Florida Atlantic University Owls||C||C-USA FAU has a B- ceiling for now. We shall see in the new conference configuration|
|University of North Carolina-Charlotte 49ers||C-||C-USA transfer with a par to sub-par record and little FBS experience|
|Temple Owls||B||Temple has been good in the past and can be good again with a good coaching staff|
|Southern Methodist Mustangs||B||There is a surge out in Texas many of the programs are building momentum and finances|
|Tulane Green Wave||C||Maybe- We can leave it at that - need to see more over the next two years|
|Tulsa Golden Hurricane||B||They certainly might be the cream of this theoretical division|
|University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers||B+||C-USATeam looks like it is building momentum and could be in the top teams here|
|University of North Texas Mean Green||C+||C-USA Team sort of in the middle of middleness|
|Rice Owls||C||C-USA refugee - It is Rice - who knows?|
|The University of Texas-San Antonio Road Runners||A-||C-USA 2021 Champs in a shoot out with Western Kentucky A- for now.|
Cincinnati is supposed to leave the AAC by the summer of 2024, but there are negotiations going on to accelerate that process. UC, AAC working on settlement that allows UC to join Big 12 early (cincinnati.com) The potential of success there is fairly limited since the 2022 season is already booked and scheduled. One would presume that the other two teams leaving the conference will have various negotiating positions out there trying to accelerate their moves, as well. That means anywhere from a slow peal away to a final rush in the Summer of 2024 will be changing the grid. That’s messy, but the anticipated 2024 season end result is what we have listed, here.
The end result, though is a potential 2024 league that, while sporting two potential divisions, is also looking right on the bottom edge of the performance curve. The grid listed above is separated East and West, with borderline teams hedged into balanced divisions.
The AAC is growing mostly at the cost to the formerly top end mid-major, Conference USA. There is undoubtedly money brewing in this sort of move, but let’s just take a hard look at the net effect on what was arguably one of the better conferences in the mid-majors.
The Near Elimination of C-USA
C-USA Loses SIX to the AAC and three to the rapidly blooming Sunbelt Conference. Of the 14 teams in a two division relatively healthy conference the realignment leaves C-USA with exactly five “legacy” programs; Florida International Panthers, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, Texas El Paso Miners, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, and Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. As you can see from the 2022 chart, the reality is that the best most viable teams, with the exception of Western Kentucky, headed for what they considered greener pastures.
Conference USA for 2022 - The flood gates are open
|Charlotte 49ers (Going to AAC)||C||This is also an FCS level program that is just growing into FBS play|
|Florida International Panthers||C||Still not able to get a complete program built struggled with the basement of the conference|
|Florida Atlantic Owls (Going to AAC)||C||Same as Florida International|
|Marshall Thundering Herd (Going to Sun Belt for 2022)||B||Marshall was just behind WKU and now heading for the exits|
|Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders||B-||This team gave Virginia Tech (sputtering though it was) a mouth full to swallow in 2021 it won its bowl game|
|Old Dominion Monarchs (Going to Sun Belt for 2022)||C||Was third in the Division, went to a bowl and lost - It's also lost to the C-USA|
|Western Kentucky Hilltoppers||B+||Won the division in 2021 - up and coming program|
|Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (Going to AAC)||B||Came in second in the division and made an impression enough to change leagues to the AAC|
|Louisiana Tech Bulldogs||C||Normally pretty good - 2021 it was a conference basement dweller|
|North Texas Mean Green (Going to AAC)||C||Just building a program and not sticking around to do it|
|Rice Owls (Going to AAC)||C||Never very good and new to the FBS - Rice is taking it to the AAC streets|
|Southern Miss Golden Eagles (Going to Sun Belt for 2022)||C||Making for the Sun Belt exit soon.|
|Texas El Paso Miners||C||They are hanging with C-USA since few others are - growth is a possibility|
|Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners (Going to AAC)||B+||Won their division and conference - wrapped a 12-2 season and jumped ship|
C-USA had to figure out how to save itself without completely collapsing, so it made some moves. Liberty is a mid-major program stuck in the independent category. It hadn’t been picked up by any conference since its promotion to FBS play. This condition isn’t a problem for a Notre Dame or Army team when those programs have their own very independent fan bases and huge alumni clubs and or media contracts pulling in money. Liberty needed to find a conference home or risk being left out of any real chance at landing in an expanded playoff format.
Looking at C-USA’s Rather Bleak FCS Level Future
To make up for the losses, C-USA is reaching out to Liberty and New Mexico State (a new FBS team from 2021) from the independent programs, and then down into FCS for Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State. The end result is a single division conference with 9 total teams, and a great need to expand further.
C-USA as Presently Configured for Post Re-alignment
|Florida International Panthers||C||They will have a better chance at finishing out of the basement in this configuration|
|Jacksonville State Gamecocks (Added from FCS)||N/G||A promotion from FCS - there is no way to really grade them at the moment|
|Liberty Flames (Added from Independents)||B+||Liberty is well coached and financed - likely to be at the top of this conference|
|Louisiana Tech Bulldogs||C||Need to have a coach and program update to get out of the basement|
|Middle Tennessee State Raiders||B||Middle Tennessee looks to be building something|
|New Mexico State Aggies (Added from Independents)||C+||Same with the Aggies - they just stepped up so the conference move makes sense|
|Sam Houston State (Added from FCS)||N/G||A promotion from FCS - there is no way to really grade them at the moment|
|Texas El-Paso Miners||C+||They could be better and Texas has the money to make it so|
|Western Kentucky Hilltoppers||B+||The Hilltoppers look to be right up with Liberty as the cream of this reduced conference lineup|
Frankly, this conference looks mostly like a decent FCS level conference that will not attract major media attention, and certainly won’t be vying for the prestige bowl games. After this sort of gutting, the fact that the conference remnants are making a go of it is admirable. Most football people are probably in “write it off” mode; but there is no telling. The competition could be good enough to attract some attention, and maybe a few more teams will come into the fold. Army should be looking for a viable conference and a rebuilding C-USA might be an advantageous league in which to cut their conference teeth. There may be a few more FCS programs looking to round out the Group of 5 into a more complete league to present a completely separate playoff scenario where the NCAA divides into semi-pro and amateur leagues. All of these programs are excellent candidates for a classic NCAA amateur football league.
It’s difficult to say where things will go beyond 2024, but for now C-USA has really taken it on the chin. For the immediate future the conference will limp on, but the reality is there will have to be some sort of leveling action where each of the mid-major conferences rebalances into some form of two-division 14 or 16 team configuration, or they just won’t be viable for contention in any expanded playoff format. Yes, this means that some teams in the Power 5 might be pulled back into the Group of 5. It might also mean that separation of which we spoke back in the Twilight Series with the Knight Commission findings and recommendations.
It all remains to be seen. Tell us what you think.
Will Conference-USA survive or will the Group of 5 become the Group of 4?
This poll is closed
The AAC might be the best conference in the G5 (or is that G4?) C-USA is on the chopping block.
C-USA will survive but it’s going to be the bottom dweller of the mid-majors for a while.
Who does the league sue to get its money back?
It really does look like the G5 is going to be the G4 with bigger conferences, eventually.
So, the next article we’ll look at a survey of the Mid-American Conference (the sort of B1G, Jr.) and the Mountain West Conference. Neither is going through a big churn, either in or out, and neither makes much noise outside of their environs.