Expansion Could Impact the Sun Belt

Over the past year and a half, attempting to wade through the rumors, misinformation, and secrecy of conference realignment, expansion or whatever you want to call it has been akin to going to work for a clandestine service in search of the latest piece of super secret information -- in this case details that could shake the foundation of collegiate athletics.

Conferences and their members have treated these issues as if they were state nuclear secrets although its not clear why conference membership is shrouded in such a cloud of secrecy. I guess we now know why Washington calls those codes "the football."

During the past 18 to 20 months there have been a number of significant surprises including the Pac 10's attempts to acquire half of the Big 12 only to discover that everything is bigger in Texas. There's also the Big 10 presidents telling Jim Delaney to chill on further expansion after it was the Big 10 who really started it all. And then there is the Mountain West Conference which has but put the WAC out of business. Their decision to stay at 10 wasn't really a surprise, but at this point I don't think anyone will be surprised, likewise, if they turn around tomorrow and invite two teams despite their recent comments to the contrary.

Ensuring that these insane times carry on, the situation is now heating up again in Texas, where the disgruntled Texas A&M base could use some serenity now. They're not stupid in College Station, and the writing is on the wall in the Big 12. Not even Dan Beebe is going to be able to smooth over the Longhorn network to the Sooners and Aggies. Someone sold their soul in the Big 12 and the devil has already decided to collect. It will be interesting to see how much longer this arranged marriage is going to last.

That's not the only place smoke is emanating, and this one has the potential to impact the Sun Belt Conference. The Richter Scale is trembling again from Big East country as more speculation is swirling about the possibility that UCF is next in line to receive an invitation. So, we went dark again in search of more state (I mean conference) secrets about what's taking place. Here's what we know right now including some details BlueRaiderzone.com has been able to uncover.

1.) The Big East Presidents will meet in early March during the conference's basketball tournament.
2.) Membership issues are expected to be discussed during the meetings
3.) UCF appears to have fairly broad support among the schools playing FBS football (with the exception of South Florida).
4.) The basketball schools (i.e. institutions with FCS programs or no football) do not favor expansion but may not put up resistance if the league - in general - wants to move forward with an invitation.

Acquiring these details are extremely difficult and going any further would be nothing more than pure speculation. We saw that play out in the past week as numerous media outlets reported over a two day period that Utah State's invitation to the Mountain West Conference was imminent. With new media forcing the envelope of reporting partial facts and traditional media outlets having no choice but to follow suit, we're basically getting brought along the process as its playing out - raw as it may be - instead of getting the information once a final decision has been made.

For a fun example (hypothetical speaking of course), at 4:09 p.m the Mountain West Conference members are talking and there is broad support for inviting Utah State. During a donut break at 4:15, an individual privy to the negotiations texts a friend and says Utah State looks good for the invite and the next thing you know its all over every sports media outlet in the nation. That's followed by a big issue. There isn't enough support for a 12th team, and Presidents all agree 11 is not a good number, so the final decision is to stay at 10. But we no longer get the final piece of information. We're getting it as it happens, and its often wrong, so with that backdrop we'll stop here from further speculation.

Perhaps this is the very reason why we see gun-shy commissioners and university officials. Contact a Big East institution and they refer you to the conference office. When we contacted the Big East, Communication Director, Chuck Sullivan, told us its the policy of the conference to refrain from getting into the details of talking about individual institutions. We also contacted the Sun Belt Conference office. There, a similar refrain is heard...

"While we continue to follow conference expansion and realignment news, we are not releasing any public comment on the subject at this time," said Associate Commissioner, John McElwain.

Perhaps the NCAA needs a rule for conference expansion like the one the NFL has to gain permission to talk to another head coach. Much of the secrecy seems to be forged in attempting to not get one upped by another conference. Clearly that was the case between the shadowy deals that occurred (in secret of course) in the MWC/WAC fiasco. The lack of transparency - particularly given these are public institutions for the most part - is difficult to understand, especially since there are some officials willing to talk so long as they remain anonymous, but that usually leaves the information fragmented rather than consistent. Regardless, that's the environment for now and it isn't going to change anytime soon.

What we do want to look deeper into is what is the fallout if (and we do emphasize the if) an expansion in the Big East occurs because that is a legitimate question. Again, no one really knows at this point until something happens at which point it will be followed by a subsequent reaction. UCF could look good all the way up until the presidents actually sit down together in March and then ultimately decide expansion is not in their best interest or go in a different direction all together. There's a lot of weighing pros and cons in these discussions and the decisions are clearly not approached lightly by the presidents. With that said, it's possible any expansion by the Big East could have an impact on the Sun Belt. If either UCF, Houston or any other programs depart C-USA, a number of Sun Belt schools could be in the cross hairs to fill those spots along with Temple and Louisiana Tech.

Again, putting on our spy hat, we've learned that Louisiana Tech has been privately working C-USA officials very hard in recent months to get what could be a coveted spot in C-USA. We also know that C-USA officials and Middle Tennessee have had discussions to evaluate where each stands. Additionally, we reported last fall that Louisiana Tech and a Sun Belt reunion was possible but still far from being a done deal, because of the friction between both parties. For the most part, that still remains the case as only informal discussions have taken place to date with little movement on either side. North Texas, which has been stalked relentlessly by WAC Commissioner, Karl Benson, has been mentioned as well. What we don't know is where each of these institutions rank among the eyes of C-USA presidents, and that's not a piece of information we're going to know until C-USA is in a position to make additions and they hold the type of meetings the Big East is going to hold in March.

There are exceptions to that, however. ECU athletic director, Terry Holland, has made it clear he favors programs that would make the league more geographically friendly and has even gone on the record to state his desire to see Middle Tennessee in C-USA. Additionally, the anti-Middle campaign thought to be alive and well in Memphis is significantly overblown. Other institutions beyond Middle Tennessee offer differing degrees of value as well, particularly Temple which would put C-USA in large northeast market, and the upcoming spring and summer are going to continue to be filled with rumors pertaining to conference membership issues. With C-USA recent (and surprisingly impressive) TV deal with Fox and CBS College, TV markets are now becoming nearly as important piece of the equation for C-USA as they are a power six conference.

Interestingly, there has been no impact on the Sun Belt after a year and a half of teams shuffling conferences and predictions of grandiose changes. Much of that can be attributed to the significant improvements and achievements by the members of the league during its first 10 years. Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Arkansas State, and Louisiana all rejected an opportunity to become part of a 16-team WAC seven years ago. In fact, North Texas has spurned WAC overtures at least four times since then. Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky rejected informal offers from the Mid-American Conference around the same time frame. Who would have ever thought the fledgling Sun Belt would have become one of the most stable leagues to the point multiple teams reject offers from at least two conferences? That's an overlooked marker of just how far the conference has come, so kudos to the Sun Belt for developing a stable place for a disrespected and under appreciated group of institutions to call home.

The stability of the Sun Belt may actually be a sign that the only difference between Sun Belt schools and some of the other conferences is access to equivalent resources and opportunities some conferences are afforded that - in reality - may not be as deserving. It's hard to imagine a conference getting more accomplished with less opportunity than the Sun Belt. Rather than scorn the Belt perhaps the media and college football fans alike should tip their hats? Major changes may still be on the horizon impacting the Sun Belt, but for now, nothing is happening in the league. Stay tuned, because that could all change in a just a few short months.

Keep it tuned to BlueRaiderZone for more exclusive in-depth looks at the conference realignment puzzle.

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