Assessing G5 Conference Realignment

Note: Updated on November 12, 2021 after additional information was made public.

Conference realignment is just like playing with dominoes.  Once a couple tumble, it just seems to cascade across the landscape. 

Conference realignment 2021 began in July of this year when Oklahoma and Texas announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern conference (SEC).  It was a shock to the college football world and immediately fueled speculation about what the Big 12 would do to remain relevant in the Power 5 conference conversation. 

By September, we had our answer.  The Big 12 added Cincinnati, Central Florida (UCF), Houston, and Brigham Young (BYU) to their conference.    Being an independent FBS member, BYU’s move did not trigger any additional realignment fuel.  However, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) lost three of its most notable members in Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF.  Rumors immediately began to swirl as to what the AAC would do to mitigate its losses. 

In late September rumors of the AAC trying to raid the Mountain West (MWC) filled the airwaves.  However, on October 1, the four MWC targets (Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, and San Diego State) announced they would stay in the MWC.  This was a significant setback for the AAC, and they continued their search to fill the void in their membership.  October 21, the AAC announced they were adding six Conference USA (CUSA) teams to their conference.  Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), Charlotte, North Texas, Texas-San Antonio (UTSA), Florida Atlantic, and Rice announced they would be leaving CUSA to join the AAC.  This increases the number of AAC football members to 14 and will likely signal the return to divisional play for the AAC once the moves are complete. 

On October 25, the Sunbelt Conference announced they were adding CUSA founding member, Southern Mississippi to their conference.  Shortly thereafter, Marshall and Old Dominion confirmed they will also be leaving CUSA to join the Sunbelt.  The final addition for the Sunbelt came a few weeks later when FCS powerhouse James Madison announced they would be part of the new expanded conference.  Like the AAC, these additions increase the Sunbelt’s football membership to 14 teams.

These moves left Conference USA in a precarious situation with only five football-playing members remaining.  Louisiana Tech, Texas-El Paso, Western Kentucky, Florida International, and Middle Tennessee State.   The minimum for a conference is 8 members at the FBS level, so CUSA needed to move quickly to avoid collapsing.  However, even before the CUSA could begin recruiting new schools, rumors began to swirl that the American Conference (MAC) would add Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State. While these moves have not yet been officially confirmed, sources say the moves are “probable”.

The Week of November 1 brought about a new slew of announcements as Conference USA added Liberty, New Mexico State, and FCS programs Jacksonville State and Sam Houston to the league. On November 11, Middle Tennessee State announced it was staying in CUSA. Shortly thereafter, the MAC announced it would be staying at 12 teams.

Of course, the G5 Gurus are watching all the realignment activity with a significant degree of interest.  We believe the realignment wave is now complete, but we will continue to monitor for any additional changes. 

Winners:

The Sunbelt.  Unbelievable!  That is the only word we can use to describe what these moves would do for the Sunbelt.  The new Sunbelt East will consist of Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, James Madison, Marshall, and Old Dominion.  Between App State, Georgia Southern, JMU, and Marshall, there are 13 national FCS/I-AA national championships.  Coastal has a strong FCS history and is currently a Top 25 team.  This division represents one of, if not the strongest, divisions in the Group of Five. 

Not to be outdone, the Sunbelt West will consist of Arkansas State, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Southern Mississippi, Texas State, and Troy.  Louisiana is enjoyed a strong run under Billy Napier ending 2020 ranked in the top 20.  Southern Mississippi has a strong, deep tradition in football with 22 bowl games under its belt.  Likewise, Troy has a similar deep tradition and would form a natural rivalry with the Golden Eagles.  Arkansas State went to 9 consecutive bowl games before stumbling in 2020 and has long been a program known to be a launching pad for P5 coaches. 

Southern Miss and Marshall were among the top 3 teams in CUSA attendance in 2019 and enjoy strong fan bases.  ODU was 8th out of 14 teams in 2019 attendance despite finishing the year 1-11.  The Monarch fans have proven to turn out, even when times are tough. 

Mountain West Conference. Why is the Mountain West a winner with no changes? Because their membership valued regional rivalries and reduced travel over the sales pitch from the American Athletic. In doing so, the Mountain West retained a strong set of teams. Two Mountain West teams have been ranked in the Top 25 this season, with numerous others receiving votes. The Mountain West has the best non-conference record in the Group of Five and has a strong case for being the preeminent football conference in the Group of Five.

Losers:

Conference USA.  The biggest loser in the realignment is easily Conference USA.  After losing 9 member teams to rival conferences, CUSA was left with only only five football playing schools. The AAC focused on the big market schools from the CUSA.  The Sunbelt’s focus was on CUSA schools with strong football cultures, notably ignoring Louisiana Tech.  Louisiana Tech’s AD Tommy McClelland famously dissed the Sunbelt in 2020 and it seems the memory is still fresh at the Sunbelt’s HQ in New Orleans. 

Post realignment the CUSA membership includes Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, UTEP, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, Liberty, Sam Houston, Jacksonville State, and Florida International.  UTEP and New Mexico State are very familiar with one another and will now have their rivalry game take on new importance. Jacksonville State should develop into a rival for Florida International. Liberty is enjoying a fantastic run under Hugh Freeze and also has strong fan support. Sam Houston is the reigning FCS champion and has a strong football tradition.

However, while some of the new additions are good, they do not offset the 9 teams lost to the other conferences. The nine teams leaving the conference had won 6 of the previous 8 CUSA titles. CUSA will emerge from the realignment battling the MAC for fourth in the Group of Five.

American Athletic Conference.  The AAC adds a net three new members, so why do we consider them a loser in realignment?  It comes down to quality of the programs the AAC lost and the quality of the programs it is adding.  The three schools leaving have won or tied for 6 of the 8 AAC football championships.  All three have winning records all-time with a combined 57 bowl appearances.  In addition, the three departing school’s attendance was nearly 20% higher than that of the remaining AAC members. 

The six new members from CUSA have a combined winning percentage of .431 and none have an all-time winning record.  Rice has been playing football for 108 years and has been to 12 total bowls.  The next closest in terms of FBS tenure is North Texas with 57 years.  

Three of the new members have 17 years or less of FBS tenure.  In short, the AAC has significantly diluted the quality of football programs in their conference.

MAC.  While we believe the Mountain West won by staying with its current structure, we believe the MAC missed an opportunity to strengthen its conference with a geographic expansion that would have made budget and competitive sense. In the end, the 12 team MAC will battle with the now 9 team CUSA for fourth in the Group of Five.

Final Assessment

Assuming these moves are finalized, we believe the Mountain West and Sunbelt emerge as the top two conferences in the Group of Five.  The AAC would be third, followed by the MAC and CUSA. 

The tables below provide context on the current known moves. We will be adding additional information on the new CUSA teams in the coming days.

Teams Leaving the American (AAC) and Entering the Big12
TeamMarketFBS YrsWLTPctConf ChampDiv ChampBowlsBowl RecAvg Att
CincinnatiCincinnati, OH68379368120.50793178-933,124
UCFOrlando, FL2617813400.57166125-738,104
HoustonHouston, TX73442360150.5501152811-16-132,180
TOTALS 167999862270.53626145724-32-1103,408
Note: Only includes FBS Wins, losses, tiesAvg:34,469
Teams Leaving CUSA and Entering the AAC
TeamMarketFBS YrsWLTPctConf ChampDiv ChampBowlsBowl RecAvg Att
CharlotteCharlotte, NC5244900.3290010-112,948
UABBirmingham, AL2412015100.4432241-325,131
North TexasDenton/ NW Dallas57267350110.43491102-820,117
UT San AntonioSan Antonio, TX10486000.4440020-222,696
Florida AtlanticBoca Raton, FL/ Fort Lauderdale179511800.4463254-116,259
RiceHouston, TX108469628320.43082127-520,500
TOTALS 2211,0231,356430.431227      3414-20117,651
Note: Only includes FBS Wins, losses, tiesAvg:19,609
Teams Leaving CUSA and Entering the Sunbelt
TeamMarketFBS YrsWLTPctConf ChampDiv ChampBowlsBowl RecAvg Att
MarshallHuntington, WV4524327030.474691612-424,015
Southern MissHattiesburg, Miss5936830060.550532211-1125,003
Old DominionNorfolk, VA8324800.4000011-019,644
TOTALS 11264361890.51011123924-1568,662
Note: Only includes FBS Wins, losses, tiesAvg:22,887

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