From top to bottom, conference realignment is gripping college sports. Here's what's next.

·7 min read

When the Big 12 recently invited Cincinnati, UCF, BYU and Houston to reconfigure yet again after Texas and Oklahoma declared their intent to join the SEC, it brought an end to the latest round of conference realignment at the power conference level.

But the landscape of college football, and all of college sports, isn’t even close to settled. The Texas/Oklahoma move didn't just shake up the SEC’s peer leagues; the effect is being felt all the way through the Football Bowl Subdivision down to the lower levels of Division I.

Beyond an expected reorganization of schools in the so-called Group of Five conferences, there is a renewed urgency among smaller schools with big football ambitions to position themselves in the best possible way for whatever the next iteration of the NCAA looks like. With the NCAA announcing a constitutional convention to dramatically overhaul the organization’s governance structure — and, ultimately, hand the major football-playing schools more power — administrators and school presidents are concerned that the last ship for any potential upward mobility from FCS to FBS, or from Division II to Division I, may be about to set sail.

“A lot of people are nervous,” said one Division I athletics director. “If you want to make a move, you’re at the crossroads. You have to do it now.”

Boise State is considered by analysts the most valuable television property not currently in a Power Five league.
Boise State is considered by analysts the most valuable television property not currently in a Power Five league.

USA TODAY Sports spoke to 17 people across college sports who described the far-reaching impact of Texas and Oklahoma's SEC move and how their school or conference is positioned for the next round of realignment. All of them were granted anonymity in order to discuss a topic for which they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.

AAC vs. Mountain West

Nowhere is the uneasiness more evident than in the American Athletic Conference, which lost three of its most prominent schools to the Big 12 and will be down to eight football playing members plus Wichita State in basketball and other sports.

The focus for commissioner Mike Aresco has been to solidify the AAC’s status as the No. 6 conference. To do that, the preferred track would be kneecapping its most prominent rival in the Mountain West by adding Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State to form a league that would reach all corners of the country.

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The argument from the Mountain West is that stability and geography favors staying put rather than moving to the AAC, where schools like Memphis and South Florida will be hoping to get called up if the Big 12 has another round of expansion in the next few years.

But Aresco is aggressively making the case that the AAC would preserve its television contract with ESPN — worth roughly $7 million annually per school — by adding those four and particularly Boise State, which is considered by analysts the most valuable television property not currently in a Power Five league.

If Aresco is correct that the value of the AAC’s television contract won’t change, those Mountain West schools could roughly double their money by making the move.

Among the four, Air Force is viewed as the most eager to make the jump as it would put them in the same conference as Navy and give their recruiting efforts a stronger presence in the East. Colorado State is not necessarily tied to Air Force, but as in-state rivals, it would make sense for them to move in tandem.

If they make the decision to jump, Boise State and San Diego State would have to consider whether it would make sense to stay in a diminished Mountain West with schools such as UNLV, Nevada, San Jose State, Fresno State and Hawaii that have significant budget issues and questions about institutional commitment.

If the AAC can’t pull off its Western gambit, or only lures Air Force, the focus would likely turn to UAB and Charlotte from Conference USA as well as perhaps Army, which plays as an independent and has rejected multiple overtures to join a league in football.

And then more poaching

Though Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson cannot be counted out in keeping his members together — he’s been there since the league’s founding in 1998, has reinvented the league multiple times and staved off efforts to poach Boise State before — an AAC raid would force even more downstream movement likely focused on UT-San Antonio, North Texas and Rice, all of which are currently in Conference USA.

If Conference USA loses members, any replacements would most likely come from independents such as Liberty and New Mexico State or perhaps James Madison, a traditional FCS power that has expressed interest in moving up to the FBS.

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Though not directly tied to Oklahoma and Texas, the consolidation of power and the threat of some kind of football breakaway from the NCAA structure is roiling the FCS leagues. In January, the Western Athletic Conference reinstated football and added four Texas-based schools from the Southland Conference. On Tuesday, the Southland began its journey to reinvention by announcing that Texas A&M-Commerce would move up from Division II.

The Atlantic Sun Conference has also been aggressive about football-focused expansion, adding Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State and Austin Peay. Three of those schools were in the Ohio Valley Conference, which also lost non-football playing Belmont on Tuesday to the Missouri Valley Conference. Murray State is also a candidate to be poached from the OVC, which would leave the league with just seven members.

In the broader picture, realignment gravity is pulling schools with big football ambitions together while the rest are more interested in regional-based competition. There’s concern that some smaller leagues with hybrids of football and non-football members might end up separating.

“Some of these presidents and ADs and trustees have delusion of grandeur thinking, ‘We could be the next Appalachian State or Coastal Carolina,' ” said one administrator in a league that has lost multiple members recently. “Do I think it’s fool’s gold? Probably. But there’s going to be a lot more movement between now and the end of the calendar year.”

'There has to be a line'

Part of the reason that’s happening is the uncertainty of what the NCAA will look like coming out of the constitutional convention. Ultimately, the 57 schools in the SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12 and ACC plus Notre Dame hold all the cards in the next iteration of the NCAA. The only question is whether they form their own division or whether all 130 schools in FBS are broken out into a separate structure of self-governance.

For the other 227 (and growing) members of Division I, it will be a scramble to hang onto the financial coattails of the FBS either through football guarantee games or, for those that don’t play football, the NCAA basketball tournament.

Money generated by March Madness is crucial for funding small conferences, but there has long been a fear that the FBS schools would gain enough power to rewrite the rules to either limit or cut off their automatic access to the tournament. Any wholesale change to the democratic nature of the NCAA tournament would be unpopular, even perhaps among some power conference administrators.

But as Division I gets more members and the disparities grow bigger between the rich schools, the middle class and those at the bottom, the voices calling for change will get louder.

“One thing everybody agrees with is that Division I is too big,” one athletics director said. “At some point, there has to be a line.”

With realignment gripping college sports from top to bottom, the scramble to end up on the right side of that line is more intense than ever.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football realignment: Conferences jockey as more moves planned

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