Looking Again At Expansion

The recent decision of the Mid-American Conference to expel football only member UMass may have changed the dynamic of the Sun Belt's expansion discussions in 2014.

The changes mean it is time to update the information from our past look at expansion. Sun Belt Expansion Possibilities

Only four schools would appear likely ready to join in 2015. Other schools that may be considered for future dates will be covered. The Sun Belt may eventually choose to add additional full members and end the relationship with Idaho and New Mexico State or move NMSU back to full membership.

Schools Ready To Join in 2015

New Mexico State crops up in any Sun Belt conversation. What has changed since they were rejected last spring? With the addition of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, and Idaho football only, the Aggies weren't needed to get the league to 12 in basketball and other sports. Now they can take the league to 12 in basketball but they don't resolve the league's desire to get to 12 in football.

The geography is no better for NMSU today. They are still 635 miles from the nearest Sun Belt member and still 1000 miles or more from nine of the existing 11 full members. The shortest conference trip for NMSU is longer than the longest trip in the MAC. Just for perspective, compare NMSU's nine 1000 or more mile trips to the SEC where there are two trips of more than 1000 miles (Texas A&M to South Carolina 1037 miles and Missouri to Florida 1006 miles). West Virginia considered to be a very bad geographic fit for the Big XII is 1000 miles or more from only six of the nine league schools they travel to.

Adding to the improbability of NMSU, if they become the league's 12th member for sports other than football, if the league opts to use a travel partner set-up where you travel to pairs of schools and those schools take the same road swing at the same time, pairing NMSU in a divisional format would require splitting up the Georgia, Alabama, and Texas pairs and at least one of the Arkansas and Louisiana pairs making travel worse in most cases.

The expulsion of Massachusetts from the MAC may have changed the thinking of James Madison University. The Dukes were believed to be expecting an invitation to the MAC to be the 14th team to balance UMass. The MAC has rejected the idea of expanding at this time based on both public comments as well as off-the-record comments to the press. Conference USA expansion seems unlikely unless their next television contract warrants adding teams. More likely neither C-USA or the MAC will add teams unless they lose teams. JMU appears to be faced with a choice of remaining FCS or moving to the Sun Belt if they wish to be FBS.

Liberty is reportedly pulling out all the stops to court the Sun Belt, that includes claims that they are visiting various Sun Belt campuses to appeal directly to the presidents and chancellors and inviting them to travel to the campus. Liberty is in good shape for facilities and draws good crowds. The school has a channel available on satellite and some cable systems that is often cited as an advantage but the Sun Belt's contract with ESPN would require any broadcasts to be blacked out across much of the country. Their football has not reached post-season in its time in the NAIA, NCAA Division II nor FCS. Liberty's chances would seem to depend on what JMU chooses to do as well as whether the Sun Belt membership would consider Liberty's positives to outweigh negative perceptions of the school.

UMass has inquired about a football only association with the Sun Belt. The Minutemen entered the MAC as a football only to balance football only member Temple. The Owls left for the Big East / American Athletic leaving the MAC back at 13 for football. The MAC extended UMass an invitation to join for all-sports, when UMass rejected the invitation it triggered a clause in their agreement that resulted in UMass being expelled after the 2015 season. If UMass were to leave after the 2014 season they would have to pay the MAC $250,000 unless the league were to waive the fee or reduce it to hasten their departure. UMass is easier to reach than Idaho and would resolve the Sun Belt's need for a 12th member to host a championship game without resolving the travel issue of going to App State without a game that can easily be paired with that trip.

Schools Likely Not Ready Until After 2015

Missouri State remains a favorite for Arkansas State fans. Springfield is an easy trip for AState fans and the Bears would improve the conference in men's and women's basketball and be competitive in baseball. The school has a renovation project underway for the football stadium but we need to add an additional 5000 or so seats in addition to those planned for moving to be FBS to be a realistic option for Missouri State and they would need an aggressive program to raise football attendance.

Eastern Kentucky, strictly looking at geography, is the best choice to address the App State travel issue. They are about the same distance from Boone, North Carolina as JMU but much closer to the rest of the league than JMU. Their football stadium is large enough to make a run at FBS but hasn't had significant upgrades since 1969 and their 6,500 seat basketball arena has not had a substantial upgrade since opening in 1963. While EKU is competitive in FCS football they are no longer a power and attendance has fallen to less than 9,000. EKU would need time to get ready for FBS, but has expressed interest.

Lamar reportedly is interested in moving to FBS. Their stadium would need to be expanded to make FBS feasible. Since restarting football and entering the FCS level, Lamar has yet to have a winning season. Between men's and women's basketball and baseball, Lamar's best sport of late has been women's basketball which finished ranked 191 in RPI.

Sam Houston State has been mentioned by a number of observers but their facility situation is worse than Lamar's and despite being an FCS power they have struggled to draw crowds. It would seem unlikely SHSU is a serious contender.

Jacksonville State has expressed interest in moving to FBS and has attendance that would indicate a chance of success and their football stadium would be ready, though among the smallest in FBS, and has undergone a number of renovations and upgrades. Their arena is mostly wooden bleachers and would be considered well below Sun Belt standards while their baseball stadium would likely be considered to be more than adequate.