When the Mississippi State Bulldogs finally dispatched the Southern Miss Golden Eagles forty-eight minutes after midnight on Tuesday morning, the Group of Five lost its last shot at advancing to the 2017 NCAA Baseball Super Regionals. Eliminated early were San Diego State (Mountain West), South Alabama (Sun Belt), UCF (American), Houston (American) and Ohio (MAC). Just like the 2017 NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Group of Five fizzled.
It’s not as if the Power Five dominated completely. Boutique conferences like The Southland, Big West, A10, and Missouri Valley enjoy super regional status while G5 conferences were once again relegated as token participants. Not even the addition of an incumbent national champion could elevate the G5. Coastal Carolina’s migration from the Big South to the Sun Belt saw the Chanticleers spending the post season in Conway. What gives?
Is the Group of Five too heavily focused on football?
Football skills pay the bills, and G5 athletic directors are wise to invest heavily in gridiron stocks. But what makes the G5 special is the well-roundedness of its athletic programs. (People often argue with me that the Group of Five distinction belongs only to football, but I see the Group of Five as conferences that – like the Power Five – participate at the highest level of all sports. Don’t @ me.) Yes, G5 conferences do compete at the highest level in football. But if the G5 is truly an alternative to the Power Five, then it must think beyond the gridiron.
Arkansas State is a program that epitomizes the current Group of Five business model. The Red Wolves have won the Sun Belt championship five of the last six seasons. But it has only one conference basketball title (1999) and one baseball title (1994). Yes, the Red Wolves excel in women’s volleyball (5 championships), women’s basketball, bowling and men & women’s track. But Arkansas State’s performance in the Big 3 sports is dramatically skewed to pigskin – just like the Group of Five.
Can the Group of Five ever be as well-rounded as the Power Five?
Well, yeah, sure, so long as football money continues to pour in. The foundation is already in place. There’s no reason that the American and MAC can’t be excellent basketball conferences. The Sun Belt, CUSA and portions of the Mountain West are geographically positioned to challenge any conference on the diamond. All it takes is fan support and institutional investment.
Coastal Carolina is a good example of how excelling in one of the other Big 3 sports can be achieved. Located in a mild climate that’s perfect for baseball, the Chanticleers recently put $10M into their baseball and softball facilities. A few seasons later, the Chant’s are national champs. And they didn’t even have to sacrifice football. The Chanticleers were a perennial FCS powerhouse.
Group of Five conference can compete on more than one stage. They just have to care.