Conference Realignment: The Southland Grows (Again), While The WAC Continues To Fade (Again)

Football season is a little more than a week away, which means the attraction of actual games is about to replace the conference realignment carousel on the college sports midway. But the merry-go-round is still taking on, and throwing off, passengers in August's final days.

On the growth side of the spectrum, the Southland Conference will have three new members effective July 1, 2013, though just one will be immediately eligible for conference titles and NCAA bids. On Monday, the conference announced that the University of the Incarnate Word Cardinals from the Division II Lone Star Conference would begin their four-year transition to Division I in 2013-14. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' conference rivals, Abilene Christian, a charter member of the Southland, also claimed to have an invite in hand, pending administrative approval. Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, New Orleans, a former Sun Belt member who decided to remain in Division I after flirting with dropping down to D2 or D3, is set to announce its own move to the conference on Thursday morning. These jumps, combined with Oral Roberts' shift to the Southland for this season and Houston Baptist's relocation for next, mean that the league will have 14 basketball members for 2013-14, though just 12 will be eligible for its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament until UIW and ACU complete their divisional transitions in 2017-18.

On the East Coast, the Colonial Athletic Association is still deliberating expansion, but at this late date, don't expect any new all-sport arrivals until 2013-14. How many schools end up moving is very much up in the air, but CAAHoops made a compelling case a few weeks back for adding just one to get to 10.

Turning our gaze westward, such a simple solution does not exist for the WAC, which has hemorrhaged members in the past couple of offseasons, looks to be getting out of the football business. That leaves Idaho and New Mexico State exploring their options for the 2013 season and beyond. The Vandals received state approval Friday to go independent in football and rejoin the Big Sky Conference in most other sports, with the hopes of eventually landing an (improbable) invite to the Mountain West. New Mexico State will also play football without a conference affiliation, while remaining in the WAC. However, that approach could be problematic, as the conference will be down to just three teams -- Denver, the Aggies, and Seattle -- as Boise State looks destined for the Big West.

Obviously, the answer to WAC survival is expansion. However, that course of action is made difficult by the dearth of Division I programs in the Intermountain and Pacific West. Still, grabbing Utah Valley and Texas Pan American from the Great West and Cal State Bakersfield, who will soon be the lone remaining D1 non-football independent, would get the conference up to six, which would allow it to keep its Division I championship automatic bids. That's thanks to a pair of revised NCAA bylaws (31.3.4.4.1 and 31.3.4.5) which became effective in the summer of 2011. Plus, all would not be lost if the conference can only get to five members, as it would have a two-year grace period to add one more (bylaws 31.3.4.4.3 and 31.3.4.5.1).

Yet a more creative, and more controversial, approach is apparently being discussed, namely a merger between the Big Sky and WAC. But this isn't any old consolidation, which is where the controversy enters. In short, the 11 Big Sky members and four WAC schools (including Idaho) would pick up one more team and form an umbrella group that would split into two eight-team leagues, with each owning an automatic NCAA bid. There's a significant problem with that idea, though. As the Mountain West and Conference USA learned while they explored a merger of their own, the umbrella league concept won't fly. Any merged league, no matter the circumstances or format, is only going to get one auto bid from the NCAA, particularly if it is run out of the same offices by the same administrators. Simply put, Indianapolis will treat the two eight-team Big Sky/WAC "leagues" as mere divisions of a single unit.

The only way around this would be for three or four of the Big Sky's all-sports members to shift the bulk of their sports over to the WAC, while remaining in the Big Sky as football-only affiliates. The two conferences would then be able to consummate whatever scheduling alliance they desire, which would be particularly attractive for filling November and December slates with only 14 conference games on each team's slate. As for the postseason, a pair of six or eight-team tournaments for a pair of bids is always preferable to a 12 or 16-team playoff for a single NCAA spot.

Of course, no one has bothered to discuss the WAC's other option for not only surviving as a standalone conference, but thriving as one --perhaps even as a sponsor of football: time machine research and development. Such an invention would allow conference leadership to either move back in time to prevent the ill-fated expansion to 16 that ultimately led to this membership crisis or to jump forward to the point where there are enough Division II upgrades in the Mountain and Pacific time zones to permit expansion. However, since I doubt the brain trust in Englewood is capable of breaking the space-time continuum without unleashing all sorts of disasters upon the world at large, they need to start working the phones with the few schools out there unhappy with their current conference situations ... or start working on their resumes.

I've updated the Conference Changes for 2013-14 page with this information.

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