FRISCO, Texas — One of the Football Championship Subdivision's top leagues is poised to lose four members, and perhaps a fifth, as several schools are disgruntled at what they view as a lack of commitment from other athletic programs in the conference.
Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, Lamar and Abilene Christian could announce they are moving to the Western Athletic Conference as early as Tuesday, Dec. 15. In addition, Southern Utah of the Big Sky Conference is also expected to announce it is moving to the WAC.
Meanwhile, the Southland's Central Arkansas is reportedly ready to move to the Atlantic Sun Conference for other sports besides football. The A-Sun does not offer football, but the Bears could end up playing in the Big South for that sport. (Jacksonville State of the Ohio Valley Conference, another well-known FCS school, is also said to be making the move to the A-Sun.)
The Southland's machinations were first reported by Matt Brown of the Extra Points website. He also reports that the WAC might be seeking to lure Weber State from the Big Sky, but that seems far-fetched. Weber is a longtime, foundational member of the Big Sky.
Sources have confirmed the possible moves with me, saying the four Texas schools wanting out of the Southland have to do with a "haves" and "have-nots" mentality. The Texas schools believe there are too many members in the Southland who are not committed enough financially to athletics, so they are looking for a different conference.
There is also discontent over revenue opportunities, including revenue (and exposure) from television.
Brown has reported that the rift specifically includes a schism between the four schools leaving and the Southland's Louisiana members (Southeastern Louisiana, McNeese State, Nicholls and Northwestern State), and remaining Texas schools (Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word) over things like facilities and staff upgrades.
The Southland regularly puts three teams in the FCS playoffs and until a drop-off the last couple of years Sam Houston State was considered one of the top five programs in the country. The Bearkats qualified for the FCS national title game in 2011 and 2012 (losing to North Dakota State both times) and made deep postseason runs in subsequent years.
Central Arkansas, sources tell me, has an eye on identifying with the southeast region rather than the southwest. The Bears' football program is one of the best in the Southland and has become a regular playoff qualifier.
If the four Texas schools and Central Arkansas leave the Southland, it would leave the league with six teams — the minimum to receive an automatic bid in the playoffs.
The addition of Sam Houston State, Lamar, Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin and Southern Utah would give the WAC 14 members, with seven that play football. The conference hasn't sponsored football since 2012, but multiple outlets say it's no secret the league hoped to add it again.
The WAC's football members would be an eclectic mix, including two schools — Dixie State of Utah and Tarleton State of Texas — that are still going through the Division I reclassification process. Those schools won't be eligible for postseason play until 2024, meaning the league wouldn't be eligible for an auto-bid because it would only have five postseason eligible members.
Brown speculated that the WAC might be able to secure an NCAA waiver for an auto-bid despite having only five postseason-eligible members.
There is, of course, more to these moves than just the football programs. Men's basketball and the potential money that comes with it is a major piece to the puzzle.
CURRENT SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE FOOTBALL MEMBERS
- Incarnate Word
- Abilene Christian
- Central Arkansas
- Sam Houston State
- Northwestern State
- Southeastern Louisiana
- Stephen F. Austin
- Houston Baptist
POTENTIAL WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE FOOTBALL MEMBERS