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McFeely: Even with college athletics chaos, NDSU's path to higher level appears no easier

As the biggest schools change the landscape of college sports, Bison hope changes trickle down to help them

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A map of Mountain West Conference members. MWC graphic
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FARGO — When the chaos of conference realignment stops, when the big boys get everything lined up just how they want it, college athletics as we know them are dead. So let's get that out of the way to start.

There will probably be three super-conferences (the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten and probably a hybrid of scraps from the Pac-12, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference) dominated by athletic departments with budgets of $200 million to $300 million. It'll be a national entity run by television, much like the NFL. Players will, somehow, be compensated and able to collectively bargain.

Whether or not you like it is irrelevant. It's happening.

Whether the NCAA has anything to do with this new alliance of college superpowers is unlikely, if the NCAA survives at all. That doddering institution has been exposed as outdated, unresponsive and generally clueless. It serves no purpose, especially not to the Alabamas, Ohio States and USCs. Those mighty money-printing machines want nothing to do with the NCAA.

So the 50-60 schools in that wealthy country club (including some like Vanderbilt, Indiana and Northwestern being dragged along by the luck of history) will become their own entity, have their own football playoff to exclude the current Group of Five programs and keep the massive revenue from the playoff all to themselves.

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That will leave everybody else in what is now called the Football Bowl Subdivision, including some seemingly big-boy schools not admitted to the country club (think Wake Forest, Oregon State, Washington State, Syracuse) to fend for themselves. This will be the current Group of Five schools from the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference plus the Power Five leftovers. This will consist of 60-70 schools.

Without the possibility of being invited to the College Football Playoff, it seems logical the G5s could form their own postseason tournament — much like the ones held now by the NCAA for the Football Championship Subdivision. Maybe eight teams. Maybe 12. Maybe 16. The best of the AAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC and Conference USA vying for a national championship. It would be glorious.

Which brings us to the point of today's screed.

What about North Dakota State, the local school with aspirations of moving to a higher level? How does the chaos affect its chances of abandoning the ever-weakening Football Championship Subdivision and taking on a new challenge?

As WDAY-TV's Dom Izzo wrote earlier this week, nothing changes immediately. NDSU, and everybody in college athletics, has to wait to see what happens at the top and how those changes trickle down. Maybe there are changes in the G5 leagues that could open a door for NDSU, maybe there aren't. In a radio interview Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said his league, one that would be attractive to NDSU, could end up with leftovers from the Pac-12 and Big 12. He didn't mention them by name, but Oregon State and Washington State are obvious possibilities. They would trump NDSU, if the Bison are even on the MWC's radar.

And this will never change: NDSU needs an invitation to join a conference. Without that, all else is moot.

Some things to consider, though.

If a second level of college football emerges from the dust and institutes a playoff system to determine a national champion, NDSU has to kick into overdrive to find a spot. Advocate, campaign, beg, bribe. The Bison honchos to this point have been passive, unwilling to commit publicly even that they have a desire to move up. Makes sense. There's nothing about which to get excited. That has to end if a G5 playoff becomes reality.

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Can NDSU's new president, David Cook, lead that charge? Does he want to? Where does he stand on moving up a level? All questions that need to be asked (working on that) and answered. Major college athletic decisions, in the end, are made by presidents.

Given Fargo's geographic isolation and the desire to be a member of a top G5 league, the Mountain West emerged as the most obvious choice for NDSU's potential migration. Since it appears the MWC will have other expansion options, maybe NDSU has to look at other potential conferences.

Would the American Athletic Conference be a possibility? Commissioner Mike Aresco is bold, perhaps unafraid to advocate for NDSU to his presidents because of the Bison's brand. And the re-worked league will eventually have a bunch of schools in the Central time zone with the upcoming addition of Alabama-Birmingham, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio to a league that already features Tulsa, Tulane, Southern Methodist and Memphis. Joining the Mountain West would mean playing in three time zones.

It's far from perfect because the opponents in the AAC aren't as attractive as the MWC, but it might be the best possibility in a tough situation.

Remember, a G5 playoff fixes a lot of ills.

The thought has always been that any move to FBS would have to be football-only. To move NDSU's other sports out of the Summit League would be too expensive, the belief went. That thinking might be outdated. It's looking clearer that if NDSU hopes to move up a level, it might have to go in all sports. It seems unlikely a football-only move would be accepted by a conference. The price tag would be enormous, but the benefits — particularly in a move to the Mountain West — would also be large.

It's all just ... a lot.

When the conference realignment wheel began spinning a year ago with Texas and Oklahoma, it seemed NDSU's path to FBS might get easier. A conference would steal Boise State or San Diego State from the Mountain West, the league would need a team, perhaps it would look at the Bison and that would be that.

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Instead, as the chaos continues it's evident a potential NDSU move up the ladder isn't going to be any easier. It might be harder, if leagues like the Mountain West and American Athletic have options from the cratering Power Five conferences.

All NDSU can do for now is, like the rest of college athletics, sit and wait. And hope that it catches a break. Or two or three.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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