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The End Is Nigh: Or Realignment Talk

After media days — er #CUSAKickoff2021 — I planned to follow up on the podcast 1 with some season preview type of stuff.

Then news broke (from the Houston Chronicle) that Texas and Oklahoma were going to join the SEC. What started as a rumor became reality, as this week the schools’ boards of regents voted to approve said move. There was some lawyerly details happening like the fact that both programs had to announce they were forgoing their Grant of Rights in 2025 and then after so doing, make a formal request to be considered for membership. The SEC could not vote on accepting that until they were “free agents” so to speak.

Well all of that happened this week.

The fallout of said movements has triggered weeping and gnashing of teeth. The other eight programs in the Big 12 (such a silly name) are trying to stay calm and power through this. The powers that run those schools and programs know that their bread was buttered by association with Texas/OU and that is why they were reportedly willing to give up a larger percentage of the television dollars to keep things as they are.

The Way Things Are Is Not How They Always Have Been

It is important to realize how we got to this moment. There are good books and other media that break down the entire history of college football conferences and the like — Texas was even in an original proto-SEC — but we will start at some relevant points to the fourteen or so teams in this league as it currently exists.

Southwest Conference and Big Eight

These two leagues had what is most of the current Big 12. The current “12” was for a long time the Big Eight plus four Texas schools. The Southwest Conference had Texas, TAMU, Houston, Rice, Baylor, SMU, TCU, and Texas Tech. Oh and Arkansas all the way up to 1991, when they left for the SEC and the “S-E-C” chant became popular as a way to mock/brag about the whole thing.

In the early 90s, conferences and programs started taking advantage of the fact that they could individually negotiate television rights. Previously, conferences were aligned regionally. Revenue was primarily ticket sales and keeping travel costs low and attendance high was the name of the game. After television became the primary driver of revenue, schools formed and realigned into conferences to take advantage of this. The Big XII was a made-for-TV league. Not only would then new league have some popular teams, it would allow the conference to host a league title game 2 , something the SEC had enjoyed for a bit — with its added revenue being juicy temptation.

When the Big 12 formed, Baylor had the benefit of the governor of Texas and various other political backers keeping them in with Texas. Rice, SMU, and Houston did not get to come along and joined up with the WAC/CUSA/AAC eventually.

Nebraska and Oklahoma were the biggest programs in the Big Eight, while Texas and TAMU were the biggest in the Big XII. As the people in charge at Nebraska tired of the brass at Texas dominating the league (in their eyes) they agitated to leave. Colorado, Missouri & TAMU, and Nebraska left for the Pac-12, SEC, and Big Ten respectively in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. TCU and West Virginia were added form the Mountain West and Big East in 2012 to fill out the league.

Long-time fans of TCU, Houston, and Rice might remember the days when playing Texas and Oklahoma meant a beatdown, but being affiliated with those programs brought some prestige. 3

What Will Happen to CUSA?

Former SBNation guy Matt Brown wrote in his newsletter ($) about some of his speculation around where the various CUSA teams go. We have previously written about the precarious position this league is in. He notes some of the same things and the same weirdnesses in the rumor floating around about smashing the Sun Belt and CUSA together.

Let us set the level here:

  • CUSA is a safety conference. A good portion of the current leadership/fan base/alumni and donor base feel that their program deserve better than this league. 4
  • UAB, North Texas, UTSA, Charlotte, and ODU have made recent investments and upgrades and want to move up to a more “prestigious” league.
  • The overall quality of play in CUSA football has bounced from “decent” to “awful” in the last half-decade or so. The leadership of the 2013 additions to the league were hoping for more revenue and prestige and were disappointed when the television deals were weak.
  • The fanbases of the 1995 members are not excited about the new additions as they are mostly start-ups and move-ups from FCS etc. There is little history, and the geography extends across over half of the United States.

So what does it all mean? This league is a bunch of little brother programs in their respective states. The fans like to complain about the poor quality of the “rest” of the league. Every so often the fanbase of whichever program is winning the most across the various sports complains that the rest of the league is “holding it back” or “not good enough for [this program]”.

Right now the Sun Belt is on a hot streak. Overall, CUSA started losing a little more head-to-head vs the Belt. The AAC, with its old CUSA holdovers, has a better television deal and Matt Brown notes that he heard the leadership wants to raid what is left of the Big 12. The rationale lies in the Big 12 still getting some auto-berths. A nice way to stop having to call yourself a Power-6 conference is to simply merge with a power-5 conference.

The question then is this: Are Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Kansas, Iowa State, and Kansas State really (football) power programs on their own?

Yes, Baylor just won a basketball championship and had a really good football program for a decade. Before that there was a lot of losing in the late 80s and early 90s. A lot of these program’s recent success can be attributed to their big bank accounts that have come from huge television contracts for the league, the BCS, and the CFP.

What would have happened if Baylor had to go play in CUSA and Rice got to be subsidized for a couple of decades before hitting on a couple of good coaches? What if TCU stayed and Texas Tech had to go to the Mountain West? Do they get Mike Leach and Chris Beard?

I can see the logic in UAB, Southern Miss looking to join up with the cultural fits in the Sun Belt along with maybe a bigger AAC hat includes a WVU and or an Oklahoma State.

I can see the logic in the Texas/Louisiana schools attempting to form up Texas Tech, Baylor, and a TCU. I can see them being rebuffed and joining up with Houston and SMU. For the corn belt schools: it looks like at least Kansas leadership is leaning toward the Big Ten.

Guesstimates

This is speculation time. I believe each insinuation’s power brokers will aim to get their school in the best they can get. That does not mean it will work.

UAB
Prediction: I think they likely end up in AAC/Big 12 mashup.
Why? Momentum and support.
Confounding factor: Alabama politics

FAU:
Prediction: Whatever is left of the Belt/CUSA
Why: I do not see a lot of power being welded in Boca Raton.
Confounding factor: Distance to non-Florida schools

FIU:
Prediction, Why, Confounding factor: Same as above.

Louisiana Tech:
Prediction: Thinks about returning to Independent status, ends up in Belt/CUSA leftover
Why: Independent streak has meant the institution has few friends among potential league mates.
Confounding factor: Some fame, maybe enough pull among some powerful people. Maybe.

Marshall:
Prediction: AAC/Big 12 Mashup
Why: Name, history with some of member schools, location.
Confounding factor: Might need help from WVU.

MTSU:
Prediction: Leftover conference
Why: Little power, money, prestige, hurt feelings over leaving the Belt the first time
Confounding factor: Proximity to many potential conference mates make it easy to imagine Middle joining near any combination of league.

CLT:
Prediction: Leftover conference
Why: Not enough pull politically
Confounding factor: Location, momentum
NT:
Prediction: Leftover conference
Why: TCU/SMU political pull outweighs NT, little political pull in the state.
Confounding factor: Recent investment and a Dallas-area location.

ODU:
Prediction: Leftover conference
Why: Little political power, weak football program
Confounding factor: Location, recent investment, potential

Rice:
Prediction: Leftover conference
Why: Cultural fit, facilities poor
Confounding factor: Powerful political support ($$$)

Southern Miss:
Prediction: AAC/Big 12 mash
Why: Cultural fit, historic ties, location
Confounding factor: investment, weak support

UTEP:
Prediction: Independent/Something out West
Why: Cultural fit, location
Confounding factor: History, location

UTSA:
Prediction: Leftover conference
Why: Weak comparative investment, support, little political power in the state
Confounding factor: location (city of San Antonio support), cultural

WKU:
Prediction: Gets a look at AAC/Big 12 mashup – – Leftover conference
Why: Good investment in hoops. I don’t know how powerful politically they are in the state
Confounding factor: Location close to nearly all possible configurations is ideal.

The fact remains that the fourteen teams in this league have little pull anywhere. Whatever investments have been made are not — on their face — overly impressive compared to the existing, and/or planned upgrades and improvements being made at schools that have gotten P5 money, or even recent AAC money.

The AAC institutions’ leadership do not see any CUSA programs as their peers. Neither do the Big 12’s program leadership. There will have to be some charity offers made, folks.


  1. Including the video podcast that can be found at the CUSA Report YouTube channel here. It is really just a video of me recording the podcast. The sound is a little wonky and I only managed a couple of actual production value things.

  2. The rule was that a conference had to had at least 12 members to hold a title game. The rule was relaxed in 2015 or so, allowing the league to hold its title game even though it only had 10 members.

  3. It is similar to a Vanderbilt in the SEC.

  4. Let me pause here to note that I dislike Matt Brown’s use — and anyone’s use — of the personification of the program. “UAB wants to do this” — who is UAB? The president? The BOR? The AD? A survey of the fourth floor of a given dorm?

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