CONWAY, Ark. — Central Arkansas has big plans for its football program and other current Football Championship Subdivision schools will join them.
The Bears, who were North Dakota State's only game last fall and are on future Bison schedules, will leave the Southland Conference to form the new Atlantic Sun Conference in football for the 2021 season. NDSU is scheduled to play Central Arkansas at the Fargodome in 2023 and in Conway, Ark., in 2025.
Central Arkansas, and perhaps other schools in the A-Sun, hopes to make the jump to the higher Football Bowl Subdivision in the next few years.
The news, rumored for weeks, was confirmed by various news outlets Thursday, Jan. 14.
On the Up Tempo video podcast, Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague said six schools will make up the initial A-Sun league with the possibility of more joining.
He said Central Arkansas along with Kennesaw State and North Alabama of the Big South are three of the teams joining the A-Sun. Teague declined to name the other three schools, but it's believed Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky of the Ohio Valley Conference are two of them.
"It's all public schools, it's all big brands," Teague told Up Tempo. "We're all pretty strong football teams. We're pretty excited about it."
Teague also said Central Arkansas intends to move to FBS in "2-3 years," and that perhaps the entire league might do the same. If only some schools in the A-Sun want to move up, Teague said the Bears and other schools would play as FBS independents.
"We're hopeful we'll take the whole Atlantic Sun six to FBS and then Liberty would join us," Teague said. "A number of us could do it and go independent and we'd have each other to play, so it's not like we'd be without schedules and it would be cumbersome."
Liberty, in Lynchburg, Va., is currently and FBS independent but competes in the A-Sun for other sports.
The moves continue a shakeup of FCS conferences. On Thursday, five schools confirmed the long-suspected news that they were leaving the Southland to join the Western Athletic Conference as a newly re-formed football league. Sam Houston State, Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin and Lamar bolted the Southland for the WAC. Southern Utah of the Big Sky Conference did the same.
WAC officials have said they, too, will explore the possibility of moving football to the FBS.
"That's something Sam Houston wants to see happen. I know that's the case," Teague said. "I think the other schools hope to improve their basketball brand."
"It could be two years, it could be 10 years. We'll see," Teague said when asked about a WAC-to-FBS timeline.
The A-Sun will form for the fall 2021 season and, because it will have six schools, will get an automatic bid to the 24-team FCS playoffs. The WAC, too, will play a fall 2021 schedule after initially planning to not begin until 2022. Those plans changed when the Southland decided to expel the schools that are leaving by the end of the 2020-21 academic year.
Teague said the formation of two new FCS conferences will give the division two more auto-bids and reduce the number of at-large qualifiers by two. Currently there are 13 FCS conferences, including 10 who get playoff auto-bids (the Ivy League, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference decline the FCS postseason). With the addition of the WAC and A-Sun, there will be 12 auto-bids while at-large bids will reduced from 14 to 12.
Meanwhile, the Southland's football landscape has been devastated. Sam Houston State has long been an FCS power and Central Arkansas was the best team in the league the last few seasons. Now the Southland is left with six football teams: Nicholls, Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word, McNeese State, Northwestern State and Southeast Louisiana.
With six teams, the Southland will still get an auto-bid but it's league strength has been greatly reduced. Nicholls, which won a playoff game last year before losing at NDSU in the second round, is the strongest program in the league.
"The Southland Conference is enthusiastically engaged in a comprehensive process that strategically focuses on building more success. With a primary focus on our student-athletes and continuing to meet championship expectations, there has been an extraordinary show of unity among our campus leaders, and a recognition that change is good," Southland commissioner Tom Burnett said in a statement. "A reimagined Southland configuration with new regional partner universities is exciting, and our membership is confidently working toward an outstanding outcome."
Forum columnist Mike McFeely can be reached at email@example.com or (701) 451-5655.