Expansion Apocalypse: The CAA is burning

The 11-member CAA Football conference isn't out of the deep end just yet, as more realignment continues to shake top teams loose.

George Mason heading to the Atlantic 10 and the moves of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State to the Sun Belt shouldn't have anything to do with Villanova, but at the end of the day, they will both leave a lasting mark on the Main Line athletic department. The New Big East will provide a likely-stable home for up to 23 of Villanova's varsity athletic teams, but the 24th team is still in a precarious conference position.

The round of moves that sent George Mason to the Atlantic 10 this week will also likely push Western Kentucky (the second-winningest hoops program in the Commonwealth, mind you) into the welcoming arms of Conference USA. That move, shaking yet another school loose from the Sun Belt, will likely leave yet another mark on the CAA.

According to Sun Sentinel Columnist Dieter Kurtenbach and others, "James Madison has emerged as the top candidate to replace [WKU] in the Sun Belt."

Longtime CAA football power JMU was on a 22-team expansion shortlist constructed by SunBelt commissioner Karl Benson when he took the job. Now, it appears that the Dukies could be getting ready to pack their bags for the FBS conference. They are no-doubt emboldened in that decision by a CAA conference that has lost so much firepower in basketball over the last two years, it is now returned to its former status as a one-bid league with only rare hope of higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

The Sun Belt may not be dramatically better, but at least it provides a bigger stage for a JMU football program that has become the crown jewel of the university athletics department. The Dukies new 25,000-seat stadium and FBS-ready training facilities easily demonstrate a willingness to make the step up, and while in different circumstances, they might have been looking to move up to a bigger conference, the decay of the CAA could grease the wheels of a less-selective process.

That would leave the CAA at just 8 teams in all-sports (assuming no others defect) and just 10 in football. One of the FCS's most competitive leagues will lose yet another top program when the Dukies pull that trigger.

With 10 teams in the fold, the CAA Football conference may not scramble for membership, but the CAA's disjointed governance makes realignment complicated for the league. Essentially, the football members (even if football-only) get to vote on any new member's admission to the football conference. The schools that play basketball in the CAA decide separately about who will join the basketball league. That process may explain why Stony Brook was invited as a football-only move to the league for next season, rather than as a basketball-playing all-sports member.

Replacing JMU would be difficult. There aren't really any programs operating on that level within FCS football that are not considering a move forward to FBS at this point. Liberty and Jacksonville State are still looking for a lifeline, reportedly, while others in the CAA, SoCon and other leagues may begin to explore their options.

CAA schools like William & Mary may ultimately look around and see an unfamiliar league and prefer a home in the academically-stringent Patriot League, for example. Richmond could be tempted to follow.

While the Villanova administration has all-but-screamed to the world that FBS football was out of the running for the Wildcats when announcing their schism from the old Big East with the Catholic 7, little mind was paid to a football program that has been among the University's strongest teams in recent years. With so much energy committed to planning for the conference futures of 23 other varsity teams, the Main Line administration has made little announcement of what the conference-future holds for theit 24th team, which is now connected to a CAA conference that looks less and less like the Yankee Conference it joined in the 1980s.

All of this could ultimately drive the Wildcats toward the Patriot League, with it's 60-scholarship limit (three short of a full-allotment at the FCS level), a league that almost never places more than one of its teams into the NCAA's FCS playoff bracket. It is a conference that features the storied Lehigh-Lafayette rivalry, along with a number of occasionally-competitive Catholic school programs. Even with William & Mary and Richmond, it would likely be a big adjustment from the highly-competitive leagues that Villanova football has participated in since it's rebirth.

As the CAA continues to change, Villanova football will have to decide whether that conference is still the right place for them, or if a Patriot League with scholarships, or maybe forming a new eastern FCS-only conference with other CAA- and SoCon-leftovers could be a feasible solution.

If you listen to the communications coming out of Villanova's administration since December, you might not even know that the 'Cats have a football team that is preparing to make a deep playoff run next fall. Even though the school has gone silent on the sport, however, that doesn't mean that there aren't any serious conference issues to address going forward.

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