Conference realignment, SoCon style: it is definitely nitty-gritty time now

On Wednesday, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are expected to announce that they have each accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference. Both schools have been desperately trying to wangle an invite from an FBS league; it looks like it is finally going to happen.

I wrote about this possibility a few weeks ago. Now that it has come to pass, I want to revisit what it means for the Southern Conference and what schools are candidates to join the SoCon as replacements — and also what schools, if any, are candidates to leave the league.

Conference realignment analysis is complicated, to say the least. A move on one side of the country can cause repercussions on the other. No one really has a handle on the hopes and dreams of every single school out there. The difficulties in trying to see what leagues and schools will do can best be encapsulated by this quote from an AD at a Missouri Valley Conference school:

We’re just sitting here wondering if Creighton goes [to the Big East], which of the 26 schools in our footprint that make some sense should we be pursuing.

That’s right. To replace Creighton, there are more than two dozen reasonable candidates, and whichever one is chosen will set off a chain reaction all over the nation — but each different school may set off a different chain reaction. It makes long-range predictions more or less futile (as does the entire process of musical chairs in general).

Despite that, I’ll muddle through this post anyway…

With Appalachian State and Georgia Southern leaving, the SoCon will look like this:

The Citadel
Western Carolina

* no scholarship football program

First, let’s discuss the current league schools rumored to be candidates to leave for another conference. That would be all of them.

Seriously, every school in the league has been the focus of various rumors, some with solid sourcing, some just made up. The internet is a wild and crazy place.

The most realistic contender to jump may be Davidson, which has a good hoops program with no scholarship football. If Davidson were a person, however, he would be a very cautious accountant who happens to love basketball (and not much else). This is a school that isn’t changing leagues unless it knows it’s the right decision. It’s not going to jump into a lake like the College of Charleston did and find out the level of the water has dropped eighteen feet overnight.

Elon is the league wild card, as I’ve noted before. At this point I would be surprised if it decided to move to the CAA, but who knows. Chattanooga has (somewhat curiously) been mentioned as a potential Sun Belt candidate, which I think even most of its fan base finds puzzling.

That is what the SoCon has right now. What is going on in the rest of the land that may impact the league? A brief review follows.

Big East (newly minted version)

The new league formerly known as the Catholic 7 is adding three schools. Butler and Xavier are joining from the A-10, and Creighton is moving from the Missouri Valley. For at least one year, the number of league schools will stay at 10. It is widely believed that the new Big East will add two more schools in time for the 2014-15 season, and that both additions are likely to come from the A-10. One will probably be St. Louis, and the other will come from a group that includes Dayton, Richmond, and VCU, with the Flyers being a slight favorite.

The MVC will replace Creighton, but that won’t affect the SoCon. The A-10, however, has already moved forward, will undoubtedly continue to do so, and those decisions will have a trickle-down effect that will be watched by SoCon observers.

Atlantic 10 (which actually had 16 schools this past season)

The A-10 was already losing two schools, Charlotte (which is starting a football program and moving to CUSA) and Temple.

The Owls are moving to the “old” Big East for all sports, and to avoid confusion I’m going to call that conference the Metro, which is surely a better league name than the “America 12”.

With Xavier and Butler gone (Butler having been in the league for about an hour), the A-10 decided 12 schools weren’t enough and added George Mason on Monday. It is quite possible the A-10 will add another school in the near future. Davidson has been mentioned as a candidate for this spot, but there is a catch, as there are reports that Davidson would like a fellow southern school to go with it for travel reasons. The school most often named as pairing up with Davidson is the College of Charleston.

However, Davidson is not the leading contender to be the next A-10 pickup, according to Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports. That would be Siena. Another school reportedly in the mix is Iona.

My fearless (and meaningless) prognostication: Siena joins the A-10, and Davidson becomes a more serious candidate when the A-10 loses St. Louis and one of the Dayton/Richmond/VCU trio next year.


Tulsa is expected to join this league any week now, leaving CUSA. This would lead to Western Kentucky leaving the Sun Belt and taking Tulsa’s place. Massachusetts may eventually wind up in this conference (though that is far from certain), which would presumably open up another spot in the A-10 in hoops (UMass currently competes in the MAC in football).

Sun Belt

League commissioner Karl Benson wants a conference championship game in football, and he is apparently going to get it. Georgia Southern and Appalachian State will become football members 9 and 10, so the conference needs two more schools to stage a title matchup. According to Dennis Dodd at CBS Sports, New Mexico State and Idaho are going to be added as football-only members.

Idaho has to get permission from its State Board of Education to make the move, which is probably a formality. Not everyone thinks adding New Mexico State and Idaho to the Sun Belt (even for just football) is a good idea.

However, if WKU leaves as expected, the Sun Belt would actually need one more football-playing school to get to 12, and would have to look further into the FCS ranks to find it. From the SoCon’s perspective, the most interesting candidate for that spot (other than longshot Chattanooga) is James Madison of the CAA, which has been left behind in that league by all of its fellow Virginia schools except William & Mary. Losing JMU would be a very tough blow for the CAA. Liberty is also a Sun Belt hopeful, as are a couple of Southland Conference schools (Lamar and Sam Houston State) and Jacksonville State.


Before delving into the CAA situation, I wanted to mention the press release issued by its commissioner after George Mason decided to join the A-10:

As a result of the George Mason University Board’s decision to withdraw from CAA membership…and in accordance with conference bylaws:

-George Mason’s teams in seven spring sports…will become ineligible for CAA spring 2013 championships.

-George Mason will forfeit its projected 2013 conference distribution of approximately $330,000 and future distributions (through 2017 totaling an additional $1.32 million). George Mason will also pay a minimum liquidated damages fee of at least $1,000,000. Total forfeited funds will be no less than $2.65 million…

…We are disappointed by George Mason’s decision to withdraw from the CAA after 30 years as a charter member.  We wish them well as they strive to achieve the same level of competitive success in a new conference. The CAA’s Council of Presidents will continue to aggressively pursue institutions committed to providing the finest academic and athletic opportunities for our student-athletes.

To me, that comes across as incredibly petty, especially considering GMU was (as stated) a charter member of the conference. As was the case for other schools that recently left the CAA, the athletes were punished for their (obviously huge) part in the crime of leaving the league. Imagine being a senior baseball or softball player and finding out halfway through the season that you wouldn’t be competing for the league title.

Here is the current CAA lineup (at least, as of this second):

James Madison
William & Mary
College of Charleston*
Rhode Island#
Stony Brook#
New Hampshire#

* no scholarship football program
# football-only member

Eleven schools for football, but only four of them are full-time members. Nine schools for basketball.

This league is a mess. In my opinion, it’s even more of a mess than the SoCon. It resembles two or three conferences unwillingly jammed into one. In addition, I think at least half of the schools in the basketball version of the league would gladly jump to the A-10 at a moment’s notice, given the opportunity. Heck, some might even consider the SoCon.

Would UNCW be able to resist an offer from the SoCon? It has “reaffirmed [its] commitment” to the CAA, but some think it needs to consider all of its options. Is the College of Charleston feeling buyer’s remorse? Supposedly not, though one suspects that any CofC return to the SoCon could only happen if the SoCon leadership were allowed to throw sharp objects at CofC AD Joe Hull.

Then there is William & Mary, which is going to be really out in the cold if JMU leaves. It would be hard for William & Mary or UNCW, though, to give up the significant amount of money currently on the table for the remaining CAA members.

I’ve written a couple of times about the possibilities for SoCon additions. A few things have changed since the last time I posted about this subject. My thoughts as of right now on a few of the schools in question, plus some off-the-wall ideas:

– Mercer is probably a lock, with the only issue being that the school has not yet committed to scholarship football. As I’ve said before, though, Mercer’s new facilities are not those of a non-scholarship program, or at least not those of one planning to stay non-scholarship. At any rate, Mercer can fill the spot left by the College of Charleston for the immediate future, with a hoops program at least as good and a fine baseball team as well.

– VMI, from a historical perspective, should be in the Southern Conference. Instinctively, VMI should be in the SoCon. However, VMI has issues, and I am not as confident in its chances of rejoining the league as I would have been a couple of months ago. A perceived lack of institutional commitment to varsity athletics may doom the hopes of those hoping to see the Keydets back in the SoCon. I’m not counting VMI out, though.

– William & Mary is possibly more of a sleeper candidate than it was before, thanks to the CAA’s crumbling edifice. I’m still not quite buying the Tribe to the SoCon, but I could be persuaded to rent.

– Richmond would be a football-only pick, and while I’m not crazy about a football-only SoCon member, the idea of grabbing UR for football in order to further attract William & Mary to join in all sports may have merit.

– If the SoCon wanted to be really aggressive and try to fully dismantle the CAA before the CAA tried to destroy the SoCon, it might consider approaching Delaware as a football-only member.

– If James Madison doesn’t wind up in the Sun Belt (or the MAC), the SoCon ought to seriously consider approaching the folks in Harrisburg, too. They might be willing to listen.

– Kennesaw State is starting a football program, and just hired its first coach. The Owls’ first season on the gridiron will be 2015. There has been marginally more chatter about KSU to the SoCon in recent weeks, although I am still a touch dubious about that. If Kennesaw State did join the league, it would help the SoCon maintain its quota of triple option teams, as new coach Brian Bohannon has worked for Paul Johnson at both Navy and Georgia Tech over the past 17 years, coaching quarterbacks and B-backs.

– East Tennessee State is also likely to start (or rather, re-start) its football program in 2015. ETSU may have to make a decision about what league it wants to join, if it has options (the OVC possibly being one of them). It won’t be in any league without a new football facility, though. (Nobody is going to play football at the Mini-Dome.)

It’s possible that ETSU may wind up in the SoCon at the expense of VMI. I wouldn’t be shocked if neither got in, though.

– Coastal Carolina, if anything, is less likely to wind up in the SoCon than before — and it wasn’t going to get in then, either. If I were in the CCU administration, I would fax an application to the CAA every day. It’s probably their best shot at moving out of the Big South.

– Campbell has been suggested as a potential candidate. Like Mercer, it’s one of several southeastern schools (including Jacksonville and Stetson) that have started or are about to start non-scholarship football programs. I’m not really sure what Campbell could bring to the table that the SoCon would want, though. Jacksonville and Stetson would add new markets but are not in the league’s geographic footprint, which I suspect will be a major factor in determining what schools are added.

– Other schools mentioned here and there that I don’t think are serious candidates for the SoCon (but you never know): Presbyterian, Winthrop, Tennessee Tech, Eastern Kentucky, North Alabama, West Georgia, Gardner-Webb, High Point, South Carolina State, and USC Upstate.

USC Upstate was suggested on Twitter by Gene Sapakoff, a columnist for The Post and Courier, who was throwing out the idea of a proposed Atlantic Sun-SoCon merger. Uh, no.

SoCon commissioner John Iamarino has preached patience and a waiting game. I haven’t had a major problem with that. It was inevitable that Appalachian State and Georgia Southern would leave, but there wasn’t anything wrong in letting a few other things shake out nationally before making a move. The league had time.

It doesn’t really have time now. Once Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are officially out, the SoCon has to act, and with decisiveness. I hope the conference has been preparing to do just that. I realize that Iamarino may be hamstrung a bit by a disparate membership, but he has to put together a consensus. He has to add new members that will improve the league.

It’s nitty-gritty time.