The Future of the New Mexico State Aggies and the Western Athletic Conference

Between the two of us, writing this article, we’re a New Mexico native and an underdog lover who have both become season ticket holders despite not ever being able to attend games, to give an idea of our support for NMSU and the WAC.

After hearing a recent interview with New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia, we wanted to revisit the discussions we’ve had about the team and the conference over the last few years since he confirmed a lot of what we’ve already felt.

The bulk of the interview discussed men’s basketball coach Chris Jans passing on the job at East Tennessee State to stay in Las Cruces, but they also touched on the “whispers” that have occurred regarding the WAC expanding and/or resuming their status as a  conference that sponsors football.

Listen to the whole thing if you like, but the WAC info starts around the 14:30 mark:

The Future of the Aggie Program

Moccia mentions a couple of things. The first is his consideration that the cost realities of college athletics that have been thrown even more into the light by the COVID-19 outbreak might make schools more travel-conscious and possibly more interested in regionalization.

Moccia and I discussed this several years ago and his point about “It seem[ing] great in a textbook” but needing someone to step up and champion the idea still holds true.

NM State does make sense within the Mountain West or Conference USA because of their geographical proximity to New Mexico and UTEP, but those would require varying degrees of relying on others’ actions to meet your goals, which is less than ideal.

New Mexico State has done other novel things like loading their future football schedule with Week Zero games, and they would benefit from continuing to pursue all avenues in order to make sure that their future is not too heavily intertwined with whether or not the Western Athletic Conference comes up with a successful path forward for its own.

The problem for the Aggies is that their unique geography leaves them few options that keep them at the FBS level, which is clearly their desire. The geographical realignment of the Sun Belt and C-USA we linked above is one of several we’ve talked about over the years that would benefit the Aggies.

Other more recent options include:

These are all well and good, but the first two are various iterations of larger cohorts of Group of Five schools agreeing to rearrange things and include the Aggies in that conversation. While logical, they’re not even necessarily happening yet, let alone at risk of becoming a reality.

The reimagined WAC already feels like a quaint relic only two years later, but it’s at least a scenario where NM State would be dealing from a position of relative leverage.

Moccia also references the scope and caliber of opponents in their upcoming football schedules as a bit of a buffer against their independence, which is relevant. The Aggies play at least three games against the Mountain West in each of the next five seasons. and are one shy of an eight-game MWC schedule in the 2021 season.

If one of your two most important sports is already in a “Notre Dame of the Mountain West” groove, maybe you should lean towards that rather than anything else.

What Makes the Most Sense for New Mexico State?

The Aggies’ football situation is alright in the coming years, but that doesn’t protect any of their other sports (especially MBB, WBB, baseball, and softball) from the downward spiral the WAC has been experiencing in recent years.

Any scenario that allows the Aggies to be in a conference with UTEP makes sense, as does one where they join the Mountain West or one where they join any western conference that isn’t FCS.

The first one isn’t happening unless the Aggies get an invite from CUSA after they get poached. The third one is really intriguing and could revive a football conference that a lot of folks miss, but is a plan with a lot of moving parts.

The middle option makes the most sense, especially if the Aggies join for everything but football. The Mountain West currently has Hawai’i as a football-only member and adding New Mexico State would balance out the conference’s numbers in all other sports while gaining a program that would be a strong fit in the revenue sport they’re bringing to the table.

New Mexico State men’s basketball’s RPI each of the last four years would rank in the top three of the MWC, and they’d be in the top five for the past seven seasons in a row. Both their ranking and their trajectory over that time frame is very similar to Nevada, except that the Aggies didn’t rank #306 in RPI five seasons ago.

The catch, of course, is that the logic I just laid out has been present for a number of years, and if it was enough to get them membership in the conference it might have happened by now.

Perhaps the recent wave of NMSU vs MWC football games on the schedule is a sign of a shifting tide. As things currently stand, the Aggies play seven games against six Mountain West teams on their 2021 football schedule, and by the end of the 2022 season, they will have played half the conference at least two times in five seasons.

The Future of the WAC as a Conference

The Aggies benefit most from departing the current WAC. Is there a way that the WAC could improve the situation and prevent New Mexico State from leaving?

The Western Athletic Conference needs to be focused on such a retention plan if they want to avoid drifting further into irrelevance, and they only have two possible avenues to reach such a status. Improve enough to become a two-bid basketball conference or return to sponsoring FBS football.

The first option is hard to achieve for obvious reasons. It would require multiple current member programs to start challenging consistently for the conference title, and/or a program like Dixie State or Tarleton to continue their upward trajectory.

This is nice in theory, but even if you could ensure it, in reality, it’s a long process that involves improving non-conference strengths of schedule and win percentages over the long-term.

The middle option of resuming football as an FCS conference is a complete non-starter. There is no scenario in which the WAC wants to sponsor football and have a member institution that plays their football elsewhere.

There is also no scenario in which NMSU is going to drop its football program from the FBS level down to the FCS just to remain in the WAC because that doesn’t benefit them in any way.

FBS Football for the WAC

To us, that suggests the way forward is for the WAC to pursue FBS football. Moccia stated that nothing is stopping the WAC as far as the NCAA is concerned other than meeting the membership/eligibility criteria.

The Western Athletic Conference has long had a tumultuous history, dating all the way back to its first exodus of members to the Mountain West and through a failed attempt to become a 16-team conference that nearly caused an implosion.

The conference’s status is made just as tenuous today by the overall membership and footprint – particularly the presence of Chicago State, who was already on the ropes even before the loss of their travel partner UMKC to the Summit League.

Right now the WAC has New Mexico State playing FBS football elsewhere, Dixie State and Tarleton State beginning FCS football this coming season, and that’s about it.

Even with the new additions, the WAC would need UTRGV and UVU to make their football dreams a reality and both Cal Baptist and Grand Canyon to spend some of their gobs of cash on the sport just to have enough programs to resume FBS football without poaching the FCS ranks. That’s a minimum four-year process that none of those schools have started yet.

If you want to speed things up by borrowing from the Big Sky or Southland, you could have an FBS football conference as early as the 2021 season, but you’ll have to either talk 5+ teams into joining the WAC for football only or become a conference with 12+ teams since Seattle U doesn’t care about football and Chicago State can’t afford it.

The addition of more western members would work in favor of a revitalized, football-playing WAC. Fully half of the programs in the Big Sky and the Southland are ones that check multiple boxes among strong athletics, strong academics, a healthy endowment, and FBS aspirations.

The travel would be manageable, as none of the potential programs would stretch the WAC’s geographic footprint nearly as much as the likes of Chicago State or UMKC in recent years.

Another interesting possibility could be bringing UTEP away from Conference USA and into the WAC. They are currently an outlier in Conference USA’s footprint, and joining the WAC would place them with a historical rival and other more regional foes. The competitive drop wouldn’t be much, either.

UTEP football has only five winning seasons since 1970, and they’ve won three games or fewer 29 times in that same span. The Miners men’s basketball program has been notably more successful but has only been to the NCAA Tournament once since they left the WAC and managed only five total postseason appearances in those 15 years.

In the perfect future Western Athletic Conference, all of the above would happen.

The WAC would lose Chicago State because they would wise up and stop chasing the Division I dragon, and wholeheartedly welcome back UTEP as a full member. They would also grab at least one full member each from the Big Sky and the Southland that would work to balance out a conference full of travel partners.

We worked through several iterations before deciding that the smartest move would be to start small and build; an eight-team football conference with 11 total members, with clear options of programs to bring aboard if further football expansion was desired in the future.

Seattle U and Cal Baptist leave for the more logical West Coast Conference, while a handful of teams come aboard from the Big Sky and Southland. The most logical and FBS-ready choices would be Southern Utah, Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, and Houston Baptist.

This leaves your new Western Athletic Conference as New Mexico State, UTEP, Utah Valley, Dixie State, SUU, GCU, UTRGV, Incarnate Word, Tarleton State, Abilene Christian, and Houston Baptist.

The geographic synergy is really strong. Three Utah schools, five Eastern Texas schools, an Arizona school, and two schools (NMSU and UTEP) that are so West Texas they’re almost Arizona.

Your eight-team football conference looks like this:

  • WAC West – Dixie State, Southern Utah, UTEP, New Mexico State
  • WAC East – Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word, Tarleton State, Houston Baptist

Going to eight football schools makes the WAC an eleven-team Olympic-sport setup. Scheduling would present challenges but they’d have the AAC to use as a model by then.

I would like to think that this type of plan is reasonable despite the moving parts. You bring along three Texas schools who have FBS football aspirations and balance out the Southland’s overall membership. Grabbing one member of the Big Sky gives Dixie State a logical travel partner and also evens out the Big Sky’s membership.

Can There Be a Happy Ending for Both?

Bringing football back to the WAC is likely better for the WAC than for NM State. An Aggie move to Conference USA is an improvement over the WAC but would require other realignment forces outside the Aggies’ scope of control.

New Mexico State’s most logical and realistic move is to join the Mountain West for everything but football with a hopeful eye to at least fully becoming “Notre Dame-West” with a partial schedule. It only relies on one moving part, a green light from the Mountain West.

Barring that, a realigned and football-sponsoring WAC would be a less ideal Plan B but still an upgrade over the current situation. That same scenario is the most logical and realistic for the WAC as a conference because their current membership leaves them needing an aggressive push towards stability more than ever and FBS football would help that cause.

It would also give them either a way to rebrand the conference around NMSU if the Aggies stayed put or, more importantly, a rebrand that would prevent oblivion of the Aggies leave.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s