Here Are a List of Winning FCS Schools That C-USA Can Target
And then, there were three. According to Brett McMurphy, the Mid-American Conference will follow in the footsteps of the AAC and Sun Belt and expand to 14 members. Assuming this happens before the end of the week, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee will leave C-USA.
What was a 14-member league at the beginning of last month will suddenly be down to only three. However, C-USA has been rumored to be in talks with both NMSU and Liberty about leaving their independent status in football and joining their conference. UConn and/or UMass might also be in the mix, although their membership would be for football only. Here is what C-USA would look like if all three schools join in 2023.
UConn/Umass (Football Only)
Although the minimum number of schools to stay in Football Bowl Subdivision is eight, C-USA would be wise to have nine FBS schools for football. That means they would need to target three FCS programs to make the jump. In my opinion, regional interest in meaningless for this shot at expansion. In order for C-USA to be taken seriously in football, they should set their sites on the best programs in FCS on a year to year basis. Since the league is already spread out from El Paso to Miami, there is no reason to worry about travel convenience in the case of the three schools they need to recruit.
Sam Houston State is the defending FCS National Champion, and they currently are #1 in the latest rankings. Assuming the Bearkats are interested in moving up to FBS, they would make the most sense. However, SHSU would have to expand Bowers Stadium, which currently seats 14,000 for home football games. The current minimum FBS attendance requirement is an average of 15,000 people per home game, which needs to be met once over a rolling two-year period.
Another FCS powerhouse that would make tons of sense for C-USA to target is North Dakota State. Each season, the Bison are either the best team in FCS or somewhere in the top 5. They play their home games at the Fargo Dome, which currently seats 18,700 fans. However, North Dakota State might have no plans to leave the Missouri Valley Conference, since it also features in-state rivals North Dakota, South Dakota, and South Dakota State. To North Dakota State, Conference USA might be too risky to invest the millions of dollars it would need in order to bring the rest of their facilities up to Division 1 standards.
After Sam Houston State and North Dakota State, C-USA could potentially go in a variety of directions. Jackson State led FCS in attendance in 2019 (33,762 per game) and 2018 (24,770), and the Tigers are currently ranked 16th in the latest FCS Top 25 rankings. Due to COVID, the NCAA did not have attendance numbers for 2020 and figures for this season gave not been released. Montana ranked second in league attendance in 2019 and 2018 and the Grizzlies are 11th in the latest Top 25 poll. Other consistent FCS powers who also draw extremely well in attendance are Jacksonville State (upset Florida State this season), Florida A&M, and Southern University. According to the NCAA, here is a list of the top 20 FCS stadiums by capacity.
When the WAC announced this summer that it would be returning to football, Abilene Christian, Lamar University, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin all joined the conference from the Southland to play FCS in the WAC with hopes of transitioning to FBS in the future. Unlike the WAC, C-USA can offer any of them an instant jump to FBS status. Programs like Sam Houston might want the opportunity sooner rather than wait in the WAC for years until the same offer becomes available. Tarleton State is in their second year playing FCS, but they have committed millions of dollars to facility upgrades which could get the attention of C-USA. However, their football program is still in its infancy. McNeese State is also a program that could be in consideration, according to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports.
Something we have not yet discussed is the worst-case scenario. What if Liberty, UConn, and UMass all turn down C-USA and would rather stay independent in football because they do not trust the long term survival of the conference? Even if NMSU still wants to leave its Independent status, C-USA would need to find four to five FCS schools that are willing to make the jump in order to still qualify as an FBS league. That might be too much for them to ask for and it could ultimately lead to the disintegration of Conference USA. In this worst-case scenario, UTEP would end up independent in football and perhaps return to the WAC as they absorb both the Miners and LA Tech Bulldogs. The only bright light in this scenario is that the WAC does have plans to transition back to FBS within the next five to seven years. So, UTEP's stay as an Indy in football could be temporary, but only time will tell if C-USA will be able to use its final lifeline for survival.