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.
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.