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Expansion Apocalypse: Will a conference disappear?

The lingering plot-line of conference realignment has been the constant threat that one or more conferences could shutter their windows and close shop as the big boys on the block eat up the best teams from lesser conferences in a race to expand. Conferences have closed up shop before, but it is always difficult to lose a player in a rapidly-consolidating marketplace. So far, the current round of expansion hasn't killed off any conference, but a few have been on the verge of becoming a casualty.

For a while, it looked as if the Big 12 would be the one to go, as Texas A&M defected to the SEC, group of three or four schools remaining in the conference flirted with the Pac-12 and Missouri begged to join A&M in the nation's premiere football conference. That could have left, Iowa State, Baylor, Kansas and Kansas State without a home and without much ability to rebuild the Big 12 conference. Texas and Oklahoma decided that they were better off without USC and the Pac-12 at the last minute and the conference survived.

Then it looked like the Big East would be the conference to disappear, with the ACC on edge, they took on Syracuse and Pittsburgh to increase their own numbers while the rest of the football schools in the conference scrambled to find better options. That lead to TCU backing out of their commitment and WVU agreeing to an abrupt move to the Big 12. The conference was able to add UCF, Houston, SMU, Memphis and Temple in all-sports and Boise State, San Diego State and Navy as football-only members to likely ensure survival.

The Big East's moves tore up the membership of the Mountain West and Conference USA, however, and for a time it looked as if the preferred solution was for those conferences to combine forces, wiping one of them from the map as an entity. It now appears, however, that their merger plan has been called off and the two conferences will survive as separate entities — at least in the short-term.

With that marriage called off, the new targets for conference destruction will be the Sun Belt and WAC (and it has not been lost on us that the MAC joins only the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC among conferences that haven't sweated their imminent demise recently). Conference USA will reportedly offer an invitation to the University of Texas at San Antonio, who were set to join the WAC with their upstart football program in 2013. UTSA set an NCAA record for attendance at a first-year program last season and that, combined with the San Antonio market, was a big enough draw for C-USA, it seems.

Conference-USA won't stop there, however, and there are plans on the way to take on Louisiana Tech from the WAC as well as North Texas (based in Dallas) and Florida International (Miami) from the Sun Belt as well. The additions would serve as replacements for SMU, Houston, UCF and Memphis — who will all join the Big East in 2013 — and allow CUSA to remain at 12 members.

The Sun Belt, who just agreed to add Georgia State in 2013, would go from 11 members down to 9 after the moves and would then need to add 3 more members to get to their stated goal of 12 teams.

The WAC would meanwhile be down to just Idaho, New Mexico State, Utah State, San Jose State and Texas State as football-playing members, which would not be enough to field a football conference. Making things worse, is that there are reports circulating that the Mountain West conference is also on the verge of adding Utah State and San Jose State from the WAC, which would leave that conference with just three football-playing members as well as Seattle, Denver, UT-Arlington and Boise State (who are slated to join in Olympic sports in 2013).

That would get the MWC back to 10 members and in compliance with all NCAA rules, but it would leave the WAC in a bind.

According to a gloating Big Sky commissioner, the WAC had reached out to six schools from his conference (Montana, Montana State, Cal Poly, UC Davis, Sacramento State and Portland State) and each of them has declined an invitation to move to the flailing FBS conference. that report came almost a year ago, however, and while those Big Sky members may reconsider their own FBS options, the WAC may be in too-dire of straits to accommodate.

The Sun Belt conference, likely surviving this next set of moves could offer a home to some of the WAC's left-over members. Texas State would certainly be an interesting option for the Sun Belt, located between San Antonio and Austin, the Bobcats would allow that conference to maintain its presence in one of the nation's best football markets. Interest in New Mexico State and Idaho is more difficult to gauge, and one or both could compete as an independent, reclassify their program to FCS, or if times got difficult without a conference affiliation, drop football altogether.

The Idaho Stateman reports that UT-Arlington would also consider backing out of the WAC as a non-football member if Texas State and UT-San Antonio both head to greener pastures.

For the Big East, the demise of the WAC could jeopardize Boise State's ability to maintain its athletics program. It is possible that the WAC could remain viable as a non-football conference, but rebuilding from just 3 schools could be a difficult task and a tough sell for the remaining members. If the WAC cannot transform into a basketball-first conference, then the Boise State Broncos will need to find a new home for their Olympic sports — they were turned down by the Big West and WCC prior, but may be able to present a more convincing case now. Failing those two, they would have to try to land in the Summit League or Big Sky.

According to the Statesman, however, backing out of their Big East football commitment is not a likely option. The Big East money and exposure is too much to give up for the sake of their non-revenue sports.

The MWC will apparently hold off on any move to 12 members until the Big East television contracts are renegotiated this fall on the odd-chance that a disappointing result could send Boise State and San Diego State back to the conference. The Big East will also potentially make additional moves that could affect the MWC as they seek another Western member, and if BYU does not become that member, the Big East will almost certainly be looking to add an MWC school (with the Air Force Academy leading the way). If the Big East moves to 16 members, they would likely require two more western schools.

Upgrades and A10

With Georgia State leaving the CAA to move up in football and join the Sun Belt and the Atlantic 10 reportedly trying to woo VCU and George Mason as well, Old Dominion has reportedly been checking out their options. David Teel in the Daily Press reported that ODU officials have reached out to Conference USA about potentially becoming a member. The fledgeling football program will enter its second season in FCS in the fall, but the university has been interested in an eventual move to FBS since voting the program into existence — the potential instability in the CAA may drive them to move sooner.

CUSA is reportedly still considering bringing current A-10 member Charlotte on-board to allow their new FCS football program to make a quick jump up to the Bowl Subdivision and add a larger television market to their line-up. ODU could potentially join with them to bring the tally to 14 members after they both complete a transition period.

It isn't clear if Old Dominion would depart for a new conference if VCU and George Mason were to remain in-place, but the possibility is clearly out there for the Virginia school. If they were to depart, the CAA would be down to just 8 football members and would be no-less geographically-challenged.

VCU may choose to stay put, however. It was also reported that Rams' AD, Norwood Teague, was set to recommend to his university president Michael Rao that the school remain in the CAA for at least one more season. That recommendation might not carry much weight with Teague moving on this summer to the University of Minnesota, and it might not stop the Rams from opting to move to the Atlantic 10 for the 2013-14 basketball season.

Even if VCU stays, George Mason may still go, especially if it seems that Butler will join as well.

"The CAA is obviously experiencing some change," Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro said, describing it as a "fairly typical" result of the "natural evolution of the I-AA football world."

The conference is not planning to sit still while these changes occur and plans are being formulated to deal with the football and basketball defections from the conference and to hopefully hold the CAA together as a viable conference.

"The CAA Commissioner is working proactively with the membership on a plan and we are focused on working with him on this strategy," Nicastro noted.

New BCS playoff may be good for Big East

The BCS is changing, eliminating the current model of "automatic qualifier" conferences and going from a plan for one-off bowl games to a 4-team playoff that would co-exist with the Bowl system. A number of plans were discussed recently in meetings, and the model that appears to have the most support is the "Anchor" model.

In this model, the current BCS bowls would remain in place with conferences arranging to send their champions to various bowl games. The top two teams based on the ranking system would play "host" in whatever BCS bowl their conference was affiliated with (or in the event that a team from a conference without a BCS bowl affiliation was ranked highly, presumably they would displace someone) to either the third or fourth team. The winners of those games would then meet in the BCS title game a week or two later, which would be held in different locations from the bowl games.

Even though automatic qualifiers are going away, officially, five of the six current AQ conferences maintain an affiliation with a BCS bowl game — the Pac-12 and Big Ten have the Rose Bowl, the ACC has the Orange, the Big 12 has the Fiesta Bowl and the SEC has the Sugar Bowl. The four current bowls, plus two additional bowl games and the national championship game would be packaged together to forge a larger new television contract that would pay each affiliated & participating conference an even bigger sum.

The two new bowls would almost certainly include the Cotton Bowl, which had been a part of the "Bowl Coalition," a predecessor of the current BCS. Other options for the new BCS bowl games aren't known, but the new additions would create an opportunity for the Big East to sign on for a BCS Bowl affiliation for the first time since 2005.

Automatic qualifiers are going away in college football, but affiliations are alive and well. The Big East can perhaps even leverage Notre Dame to secure an affiliation with one of the new BCS Bowl Games and maintain a seat at the table with the major powers.

Updated (Late): It now appears that Texas State and UT-Arlington will both join the Sun Belt conference instead of the WAC, according to a CBS report. The Sun Belt could also soon add Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Old Dominion as well, if Old Dominion and Charlotte do not join Conference USA.