The day after WAC announced their future triumphant return to the college football ranks, the Atlantic Sun announced their intentions to do the same, trying to ultimately reach the FBS-level. Just look at the tweets below:
— #ASUNBuilt (@ASUNSports) January 29, 2021
The college football offseason, if we can call it that due to the coming Spring FCS season, has hardly let up thus far. This news is exciting for the programs involved but might alarm some of the conferences in the Atlantic Sun’s footprint. Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, and Jacksonville State will be joining full members North Alabama and Kennesaw State to form the six-member league.
Conferences in Turmoil?
The big losers are the Ohio Valley Conference and the Big South. Each loses two schools, trimming the OVC to seven football members while the Big South will now have six. While the Big South only loses two football associate members, the OVC loses two all-sport members, reducing that number to ten.
Both schools can look to stay put with their current alignments after their ASun bound schools leave, but the question of stability is sure to linger. This is especially true for the Big South, who now has a small and spread-out football conference whose newest and arguably best member (North Carolina A&T) might be less interested in sticking around now. Luckily, there are plenty of schools that could bolster either conference’s numbers.
The Big South’s relative sprawl grants them a wide range of options. Particularly, they can look for travel partners for the league’s two football outliers, Monmouth and Robert Morris. Two schools that could help Robert Morris’ feasibility as a football member are Duquesne and Saint Francis, both Western Pennsylvania area schools that are outliers in the compact Northeast Conference.
While Saint Francis is a full-sports member, Duquesne is a football-only member and likely easier draw. If the two come as a package deal, that gives the conference eight football members. In this scenario, Saint Francis can join the Horizon League and give Robert Morris a travel partner. It’s not impossible that they pursue some sort of poach from a now-crumbling MEAC, whose six remaining members will no longer include Bethune-Cookman or Florida A&M.
For the Ohio Valley Conference, the options are fewer at the FCS level. All of the schools within their footprint are in solid situations, namely the Missouri Valley Conference. As a result, they may have to look to Division II for options.
One such option is the University of Indianapolis, a private institution with an enrollment of 4,000 undergraduates and a football program. The Greyhounds are well within the OVC footprint and would allow entry to the rich basketball recruiting ground of Indiana, though that puts all other sports at an awkward eleven members.
Consequently, the league may have to pursue a non-football member in their footprint. One that immediately comes to mind is Bellarmine, the newest member of the Atlantic Sun before this week’s expansion. While Bellarmine is not so much a geographical outlier as they have Lipscomb nearby, travel would be much more cost-effective in an OVC that wouldn’t involve travel to Alabama and Florida.
What’s Next For the Atlantic Sun?
The biggest winner obviously is the Atlantic Sun, as their ambitious expansion plan is finally coming to fruition. Their biggest ally is likely the WAC in terms of non-conference scheduling, and potentially a future bowl tie-in. The last conference to join the FBS ranks was the Sun Belt in 2001, but their situation was relatively different as their first seven members all had significant experience at the FBS level.
An interesting development to follow will be whether non-football member Liberty joins the ASun and leaves the rigors of independent life, especially since they could then join an FBS conference that wouldn’t cost $24 million.
Liberty knows first hand of the struggles of building an independent schedule, having to schedule in-season home-and-home series with NMSU in 2018 and 2019. In becoming the ASun’s seventh school, they get an automatic six games, allowing them enough room to schedule multiple Power Five schools and other marquee games.
The benefits are obvious for the ASun as they not only gain a school within the conference’s geographical footprint, but one with success at the FBS-level. Liberty almost immediately gives the conference the credibility it needs as the Flames have gone to two straight bowls and cracked the Top 25 this past season.
While the ASun’s additions may seem like small news, it could initiate a new conference realignment shuffle. It opens the door for schools to find better geographical fits and conferences to reduce their sprawl. While the road to becoming FBS is long and winding, the ASun has its sights set on the prize. How long it will take them and if they ever make it are the two big questions.