Expansion Apocalypse: CAA exhales as Sun Belt focus shifts

James Madison may not be on the move to the Sun Belt conference as soon as some early reports anticipated. The FBS league has a new primary target.

James Madison University has spent millions of dollars expanding and improving their football facilities across the board in the last decade. They have built new locker rooms, a first-class weight room, trainer and medical facilities, academic support, indoor and outdoor practice facilities and meeting rooms, all of which can rival schools at any level of college football. Most visibly, they have added around 10,000 seats to Bridgeforth Stadium, expanding and renovating it unto a world-class stadium with a capacity of just under 25,000 seats.

Even with their recent big-time investments in football, which is currently playing at the FCS level in the CAA conference, the Dukies are apparently taking a cautious approach to their football future.

After Western Kentucky University was grabbed by Conference USA, the Sun Belt Conference has been on the hunt for a 12th team, to allow them to host a conference championship game -- the SBC recently added Appalachian State and Georgia Southern from the SoCon, and independents New Mexico State and Idaho in football-only.

Those investments at James Madison helped push them quickly to the top of the SBC's wishlist, which also includes Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, according to ESPN.

A reporter at the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record, however, has reported that JMU won't be jumping at the opportunity to upgrade. They aren't desperately interested in the Sun Belt, and plan to finish their study and hold off on an upgrade decision until their report is produced in September (sound familiar?).

The Sun Belt, meanwhile, has apparently moved on to plan-B ($$). Liberty University, which has an endowment of just $54 million and an enrollment of less-than-20,000 on campus (but has over 60,000 online students enrolled), is now the top target of the conference. Liberty would likely be the first private school to move up from I-AA football since the division split in the 1970s.

Liberty athletic director Jeff Barber confirmed that his school has been in contact with the Sun Belt last night.

"It's just the continual changing of the landscape with Tulsa leaving Conference USA to go to the [soon to be renamed] Big East and Western Kentucky left the Sun Belt to go into Conference USA, so it opened up another spot," Barber told the News & Advance. "We're one of those being considered."

During last Spring's commencement address, Jerry Falwell Jr. told the amassed crowd that Liberty was "FBS ready" and would look to make the jump to the Bowl subdivision. The move is driven by the desire to become a national university and expand beyond their current regional reputation.

Sam Houston State could also be in the mix if Liberty falls through.

Conferences like the Sun Belt and MAC are a traditional starting point for schools looking to upgrade. So, if the SBC fills their opening, upgrade opportunities may not come around again unless further conference changes cause them to lose more teams.

JMU's upgrade possibilities may not be over, however, and while additional conference shifting at the top could create a few more openings in FBS leagues. In addition, the MAC conference is still holding steady at just 13 football members. The MAC has the option to eliminate UMass from their league after two seasons, however, and could choose not to add another team to even out their two divisions.

If they did add another school, JMU might be able to argue for inclusion, though that league's thought process isn't well known at this time. One report has claimed that the MAC could instead opt to add an existing FBS program, specifically Arkansas State.

The latest rumors put the CAA football conference in a holding pattern. A move by JMU to join an FBS conference could dramatically change the direction of the league, while a decision to pass -- or a missed opportunity with the Sun Belt -- would likely leave the league in a strong position as the top FCS conference.

Changes on the basketball side of the CAA may still be a concern, however, and instability of the CAA's basketball and other sports could eliminate or reduce the administrative advantage of the football conference being aligned under the CAA umbrella.

Could the football conference ultimately split from the all-sports CAA? It is currently a separate legal entity that shares administrative resources with the all-sports league, but had previously existed under the Atlantic-10 banner and prior to that as a football-only Yankee Conference (after the Yankee Conference opted to drop all other sports).

For Villanova, a healthy CAA is the best-possible scenario, and that means keeping JMU in the fold, but it would seem unlikely that the Dukies study on FBS football would recommend anything but an upgrade. The program has had great attendance figures and has already invested in much of the needed physical plant to make the move. If additional funding were needed to pay for additional scholarships, it is very likely that a modest increase in student fees (and/or funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia) could cover the difference.

At the moment, however, as it appears that the Sun Belt is looking to make Liberty the fifth FBS program in Virginia, the CAA football conference can exhale. Further upheaval of their ranks could be avoided with a long-time member, and strong program, intact.

. . . for now.

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