In the first month of 2021, big conference realignment news has shifted the FCS football landscape as the WAC added five schools – four from the Southland and Southern Utah from the Big Sky – with intentions to start play in FCS football in 2021.
Seattle and Chicago State
Lost in the excitement of the new additions were the increased challenges Seattle and Chicago State will face. We have long seen the writing on the wall for Chicago State, but this appeared to be the death blow for their WAC membership. After the WAC broke the news, Chicago State promptly announced that their exit is slated for June 2022.
With Chicago State’s low athletic budget (one-third the next lowest WAC member) and complete absence of success, it’s hard to imagine any conferences would rush to add the Cougars. The Horizon League and Summit League both count Chicago State in their footprint but both conferences have an even amount of members, so adding the Cougars would be awkward and hardly worth the trouble. The MEAC is out there as a possibility, but that’s perhaps more of an arranged marriage than a good idea.
Seattle is the other WAC school that is likely less than pleased with the news. The closest WAC member to the Redhawks is Utah Valley University at 866 miles away. Exacerbating the geographical loneliness is the addition of Texas schools, which Seattle will semi-regularly play.
Luckily for the Redhawks, they are a much more functional university than Chicago State and not as far removed, so it’s not as much of a strain for them. They also would have less difficulty finding a new conference. The Big Sky and West Coast Conference come to mind. Both conferences are likely to stay at 10 members, but Seattle is within their footprints and adds some presence in the Seattle TV market.
The West Coast Conference might be an even more attractive option for Seattle as they will have travel partners in Gonzaga and Portland and will join a conference with one of the strongest basketball pedigrees of any mid-major conference, as well as their like-minded status as a Jesuit university.
Likely the biggest loser of this announcement is the Southland, which now only has eight members and six in football since the WAC news was accompanied by Central Arkansas announcing it would be leaving for the Atlantic Sun. Even worse, a subsequent fit of anger saw the conference elect for its outgoing members to leave by July of this year rather than next year, putting the Southland in an unnecessary rush for members.
They certainly have enough remaining members to field a functional auto-bid conference, but it’s a membership largely made of Louisiana schools that have been struggling to balance their ledgers for a while now. One place the Southland could look for members is the Lone Star Conference, which has six football-playing schools. Rising above them all is Texas A&M Commerce, which has made the playoffs five years in a row.
Adding the Lions will immediately boost the pedigree of a football conference now made of startups like Incarnate Word and Houston Baptist, and mainstays like Nicholls State and McNeese State whose athletics departments are feeling the pinch.
The Southland could also add Mississippi College or Delta State University in western Mississippi, though Mississippi College has had little football or basketball success of late. Delta State is an occasional fixture in both the D2 football and basketball tournaments.
Aside from WAC football’s return, the conference’s basketball strength grew significantly with the additions. The most notable new school is Stephen F. Austin, who beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and has won the Southland’s automatic bid in four of the last seven seasons. Additionally, the Lumberjacks have pulled upsets in the Big Dance with wins over five-seed VCU in 2014 and three-seed West Virginia in 2016.
Also adding depth among the new schools are Abilene Christian, who went to the NCAA Tournament in 2019, and Sam Houston State who won the Southland’s regular-season title the same season. The new schools add to a WAC with potential beyond perennial power New Mexico State. While New Mexico State is the flagship school of the league, other schools have proven to be quality programs.
Grand Canyon has made the WAC final in the last three years, while Cal Baptist won 20 games in their second year in the league. Even Utah Valley has shown flashes of quality play, winning 20+ games twice and reaching the CBI semifinals once in the last three seasons.
The overall growth in quality will pay dividends in March as it will likely land the WAC higher seeds and a better chance at earning wins and the money that goes with it. Below are the WAC’s NCAA Tournament seeds since 2014:
- 2014: NMSU: #13
- 2015: NMSU: #15
- 2016: CSU-Bakersfield: #15
- 2017: NMSU: #14
- 2018: NMSU: #12
- 2018: NMSU: #12
Barring a bad year by their champion, the WAC’s seeding will look significantly better in the long run. If NMSU has a strong year, it is not too far-fetched to see the WAC as a two-bid league. At the very least, a second WAC school could build a strong enough resume to earn an NIT shot.
We had previously written about the WAC adding members one-by-one as a matter for survival, with the hope of something bigger. This week we got that through one bold move, and the WAC seems to be set for the coming years. For all hoping for a return to normal in 2021, maybe the return of WAC football is a big first step.
Yes, the obvious big winners are WAC football fans. While we will not see the conference immediately at the FBS level, they have a great set of members to start. Sam Houston State is a perennial playoff team, while Stephen F. Austin and Southern Utah are occasional fixtures in the postseason.
At the FBS level, New Mexico State will play the waiting game. If and when the WAC does move up, they will have the most stability they have had in a long time. Of course, there are other logistical issues to solve, such as linear TV contracts and of course, bowl tie-ins. Yet, the WAC has the buffer time to work this out while they are in FCS.
In the end, the WAC’s move is a monumental one on the FCS landscape for now, sending the Southland reeling and some of its own members in a dilemma. In the long run, it could shake up the FBS landscape, but that seems years away at best. In the meantime, the WAC took the first step they needed.