FCS school James Madison could be the crown jewel in a potential expansion battle between C-USA and the Sun BeltGETTY IMAGES
The AAC announced that "six new programs will join the league, expanding it to 15 members overall with 14 football-playing partners," according to Shehan Jeyarajah of CBSSPORTS.com. Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA -- all current members of Conference USA -- "have formally been approved by the conference's nine remaining programs." Sources said that the hope is for the new programs to "all begin competing in the AAC at the start of the 2023 season" (CBSSPORTS.com, 10/21).
SUN BELT, C-USA PLAN TO RESPOND: CBSSPORTS.com's Jeyarajah cited sources as saying that the Sun Belt and Conference USA are "both exploring expansion possibilities" following the AAC's additions. The Sun Belt is "targeting Southern Miss, Marshall and Old Dominion from Conference USA along with FCS James Madison." Sources said that C-USA believes it can "add James Madison and FBS independent Liberty inside of the next two weeks if details can be worked out." Should C-USA succeed with those additions, it is "believed Marshall and Old Dominion would be apt to stay in a nine-team league with C-USA only losing Southern Miss." If the Sun Belt were "to poach the three schools from Conference USA," it would "leave the latter with just five member institutions, bringing it below the level to reach NCAA qualification for Division I championships." However, beating the Sun Belt for '16 FCS champion James Madison could "be the key piece that keeps Conference USA alive long term." The battle for power is "just the latest move in what has become a complicated series of realignments happening across the FBS landscape" (CBSSPORTS.com, 10/20).
THINGS MOVE FAST: THE ATHLETIC's Chris Vannini noted it was "only a few years ago that Sun Belt leaders pitched to C-USA a restructuring of the two leagues but got shut down." Now, most Sun Belt schools "feel they’re above C-USA." The Sun Belt has "three options: stay at 10 football members, add two or add four." Growing to 14 is "on the table," and staying within the footprint is "important, as much of the league currently buses its sports teams to many SBC competitions." Non-football members Texas-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock are "expected to be out sooner rather than later as the Sun Belt focuses on football." People in the Sun Belt were "largely surprised by the AAC’s decision to go big," and feel it is "a sign of desperation." There have "been whispers the MAC is looking at options." Vannini: "It always makes sense to observe the landscape, and if Conference USA blows up, perhaps the MAC could add some of the leftovers" (THEATHLETIC.com, 10/20).