Southern Miss has been the odd man out when it comes to conference realignment, but there's a chance that could change in the not too distant future.
With the Big 12 possibly deciding to expand this summer, the American Athletic Conference is almost sure to feel the impact.
Dennis Dodd of CBSsports.com wrote a column this week that indicates Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby will nudge his conference toward expanding from 10 to 12 members by this summer. Oklahoma and West Virginia both want it to happen.
Cincinnati, UConn, Memphis, Houston and Central Florida are all AAC programs rumored to be receiving consideration as new Big 12 members.
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BYU, which is independent, and the Mountain West's Colorado State appear to be the schools from the western states most likely to draw consideration.
Of all the programs listed, BYU would be the biggest catch for the Big 12. The Mormon school has a national following, but there would be some hoops to jump through when it comes to scheduling (BYU won't play games on Sunday).
When you consider all the factors, BYU and Cincinnati are the two programs that make the most sense for the Big 12.
BYU would be a boost to the conference in the event that it creates a Big 12 Network and Cincinnati would provide a travel partner for West Virginia, which is 862 miles from the nearest Big 12 school (Iowa State).
Memphis and UCF would also be attractive additions due to their large markets and location in major recruiting hubs.
Where USM comes in
According to Dodd's report, the AAC would likely add a new member if the conference lost one program.
If the AAC lost a pair of programs to Big 12 expansion, the AAC would probably move forward with just 10 members.
If the AAC needs one spot to fill, that's where Southern Miss could come into the picture.
There's been social media chatter for a few weeks now that Southern Miss is the program that the AAC has its eye on, but there's been no solid report tying the Golden Eagles to the conference.
Matt Brown (@MattSBN) of SBNation.com tweeted, "Poked around a few other schools the AAC could be interested as Big 12 backfills, but Southern Miss is where I heard the most smoke."
Southern Miss athletic director Bill McGillis is making sure USM’s case for the AAC is heard. He made the trip to this weekend to attend the AAC Tournament in Orlando.
USM has long sought to join former Conference USA foes in the AAC with no luck due to the lack of a major market and a relatively small athletic budget, but the current landscape appears to be more favorable to the Golden Eagles.
There are not many attractive options for the AAC in the event that it has to expand.
The most likely options for the AAC would be Southern Miss, Texas-San Antonio, Old Dominion, FAU, FIU, Marshall, UMass or Charlotte.
Marshall has been the most successful football program over the last five years among the schools listed, but the odds may be stacked against it. Three of the AAC programs nearest to Marshall (Temple, UConn and football-only member Navy) have little in common with Marshall. While East Carolina may be fine with Marshall joining the conference, programs like UCF and South Florida would probably be cool to the idea. Marshall relies heavily on Florida talent to prop up its football program.
Programs like Houston, SMU, Tulsa and Tulane have little desire to start making trips again to Huntington, W.Va. The expense of a trip to Huntington has always been a budget eater.
UMass, which is independent in football, could receive support from UConn and Temple, but the football program at UMass has been a hot mess ever since it made the move to FBS in 2011.
Following UTSA's move to FBS in 2012, the C-USA program has been eyed as a possible addition the Mountain West and AAC. However, UTSA is still very much in a developmental phase in almost all sports. SMU and Houston may also be reluctant to give ground in Texas to a nascent program.
UTSA has a nice football venue in the Alamodome, but the rest of its facilities are no better than many Division II programs. There is potential for major growth at UTSA, but there is much work to be done.
FAU and FIU are both floundering when it comes to fan support and lost in the South Florida market.
FAU has a new football stadium, but other quality facilities are lacking on the Boca Raton campus.
FIU is in the large market of Miami, but that's the only trait that makes it a candidate. FIU's football and basketball facilities are among the worst in Division I and there is zero fan support.
In my view, Old Dominion is the program on the East Coast with the best potential as a candidate. The Norfolk, Va., school has Conference USA's largest athletic budget of $41 million and receives solid fan support in basketball and football.
ODU has a decent tradition in basketball, but it still needs an on-campus football stadium. The Monarchs consistently sell out 20,000-seat Foreman Field.
Charlotte competed in C-USA football for the first time in 2015 and it still has a very long way to go, but it does have a solid basketball tradition and a huge market.
USM went through a miserable stretch from 2012-14, but there's no denying that the school has one of the better football brands among the Group of 5 programs. The Golden Eagles, who have won five Conference USA titles, are back on track following a 9-5 season in 2015.
USM does not offer a large market like some of the other programs mentioned, but it has a dedicated fan base that stretches from Pensacola to New Orleans to Jackson. USM topped C-USA in attendance in 2015 with an average of 28,334, which would have put it in the middle of the AAC.
If the AAC wants to compete with the Mountain West for the top Group of 5 football conference, Southern Miss makes sense.
The addition of USM would increase the AAC's presence in the recruiting hotbed of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
USM has a quality on-campus football stadium that would fit in well in the AAC.
The combination of an antiquated basketball arena and the current woes of the men's basketball program don't help USM's cause, but it can point back to a five-year run of 20-win seasons from 2009-14 as evidence that it can compete. USM is also putting together a plan for a complete renovation of Reed Green Coliseum.
While TV markets have driven conference expansion in recent years, it may not play as large a role this time around. Other than Marshall and Old Dominion, attendance numbers show that many of the AAC candidates outside of USM simply don't have an engaged fan base.
Revenue distribution under the College Football Playoff rewards Group of 5 conferences that produce winners and USM gives the AAC another program that could occasionally compete for a major bowl bid.
Eagles needs support
As a charter member of Conference USA, Southern Miss has been a conference mate in the past with nine of the 12 current members of the AAC.
That doesn't mean that all nine of those programs want USM to join the AAC. If that was the case, USM would already be in the conference.
Tulane seems supportive of USM joining the AAC while Memphis is a question mark.
Memphis and USM have a long-standing rivalry in almost all sports, but it was a rivalry that put their differences on display. Southern Miss mostly beat Memphis on the football field while Memphis smacked around USM on the basketball court. Both schools have different priorities and Memphis carries a much larger athletic budget, $50.2 million compared to USM's $23.5 million. The two schools often cross paths on the recruiting trail.
On the surface, it appears as if East Carolina would be supportive of USM as a new AAC member.
Fortunately for USM, it does have an athletic director who has ties to other AAC programs. McGillis has worked in administration at both Houston and South Florida.
It's far from a sure thing that USM is destined for the AAC because the conditions would have to be perfect.
The AAC has to lose only one member and USM has to hope that a school like Tulane, East Carolina or Houston is willing to go to bat for the program.
At the very least, Southern Miss is in the discussion. That wasn't the case in the past.
Contact Patrick Magee at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter (@Patrick_Magee).