I just can’t help myself. It’s Independence Day, and what better way to celebrate the day than with our favorite movie and speech.
Now, a few days ago a few football programs celebrated a slightly different kind of independence. As of three days ago, New Mexico State is becoming an FBS Independent, which is viewed as a downgrade by most but is still an opportunity.
Liberty, too, is achieving FBS Independent status, as they officially move up from the FCS ranks. Idaho is the third player in this FBS/FCS roulette, as they drop from an FBS conference (the Sun Belt) to an FCS conference (the Big Sky).
So how is everybody doing?
New Mexico State Aggies
The Aggies had a pretty darn good 2017/18 school year. The football program had its most successful season in almost 20 years and went to its first bowl game in almost 60 years. The men’s and women’s basketball programs, the baseball and softball teams, and even the volleyball team played well enough to reach the postseason.
Yes, sustaining success is difficult, but achieving it in the first place is the first hurdle. None of these programs is about to win a national championship next season, necessarily, but they all have signs that this past year’s success was not a one-off.
All sports except football will also get a boost this season as the WAC gets a little bit weaker. The conference is adding California Baptist, which is moving up from the National Christian College Athletics Association in Division II to Division I, which is liable to produce some growing pains for CBU and some easy wins for NMSU.
Granted that gets balanced out by – with basketball for instance – more wins but not more quality wins, but it’s still more wins.
The university also just hired a new president and chancellor, both of whom seem keen on watching athletics grow and flourish in a time where numerous coaches and the athletic director are at or nearing the end of their existing contracts. They are continuing their butt-busting in pursuit of balancing a budget.
I would argue that if they weren’t a football independent, things would really be looking up, but even then they’ve got a strong schedule and a great recent bowl experience that makes a repeat of last year’s success a good shot. Things could be a lot worse in many ways.
Idaho is having a bit of a struggle here. Their time in the Sun Belt – or any conference that wasn’t the Big Sky – was destined to have a bit of a shelf life because of their status as a severe geographic outlier in any conference that wasn’t the Pac-12, Mountain West, or Big Sky.
The Big Sky itself is in a bit of flux. North Dakota departed for the Summit League (with football eventually in the MVFC) right as the Vandals returned, leaving the conference at 13 football programs and 11 for all other sports. In basketball, teams get a boost from the odd membership finally allowing a full round-robin schedule, but football has some quirks that can’t get ironed out without another football program.
Most fans are excited to return to the football conference where the Vandals were most successful, but some are not; much ire has been directed at university president Chuck Staben and athletic director Rob Spear. That anger has cooled some now, especially since Staben is retiring in a year. Meanwhile Spear is on extended paid leave amidst a sexual assault investigation.
It’s a tricky situation for the Vandals as a lot of things are in motion at once. Their first season back in the FCS ranks could go well for a football team that is still stocked with FBS talent, but it will also be their last with their current president and likely is the last with their current AD as well. Too much change at once isn’t good, and with the ill-will that has been created in the fanbase with this move (justified or not) the recovery might take a good while.
Speaking of ill-will, ever heard of Liberty University?
They are known for a number of things, aside from being a football program that beat Baylor on the road last season. The university’s founder, Jerry Falwell, has a sordid history. Actually, that might be putting it mildly, since his controversies date all the way back to holding rallies against Martin Luther King.
He’s been dead over a decade now, but his university lives on and now has controversies of its own. The university is awash in revenue, largely because it has a student population that is more than 90% online and pays through the nose for their classes.
That revenue has allowed the Flames to build very nice facilities for their athletes, and also has allowed them to try and wriggle their way into the FBS. After offering both the Sun Belt and Conference USA more than ten times the standard entry fee and being rebuffed, they requested and received a waiver to move to FBS as an independent.
The school and their athletes are well-funded, whether it’s building a $3 million shooting range on campus or paying Old Dominion $1.38 million to come to town for the FBS home opener, and everyone’s morality is in question now.
- Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson says denying Liberty was about geography, not money or politics, but Liberty is closer to Appalachian State than Coastal Carolina is.
- Conference USA rebuffed a $24 million entry fee from the Flames, but half the teams in the conference have a game scheduled against them in the next four seasons.
- Liberty knows it’s got a dirty perception, otherwise, they wouldn’t be offering the cash that they’re offering
Liberty University is the Grand Canyon University of the east, with a religious twist; they’ve got more money than they know what to do with, and they also know that winning and money can solve a lot of other issues in college athletics.
Their presence in FBS football will be many things, but “uninteresting” will not be one of them.
The football landscape in the Group of Five has shifted some in 2018, and there is some intrigue to be had both with these three teams and in the field at large.