Bigger is not always better, but the next path for Conference USA may be to get as big as possible.
When I sat down to sketch out last week's column discussing the current struggles of C-USA and what its future might look like, I bounced around a few ideas about lineups for a newly expanded conference and what could happen if it fell part.
There were a few schools left out of the final version of my column and I received an email Thursday afternoon from an athletic director of one of the programs not included in my idea of a merger of Conference USA and the Sun Belt. It was a 24-team league that consisted of four different regions broken up geographically.
I responded to the athletic director's polite suggestion that I keep his school in mind, telling him that his program was included in my first lineup for an expanded Conference USA and that I actually liked it better than the 24-team conference that ended up in the column.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Sun Herald
The first version I put together included 28 teams and I think it does a better job of cutting down on travel distances for the schools included:
SOUTHWEST: Texas-San Antonio, Rice, North Texas, Texas State, UTEP, Sam Houston State, New Mexico State.
MID-SOUTH: Southern Miss, UAB, Louisiana Tech, WKU, Middle Tennessee, La.-Lafayette, Arkansas State.
SOUTHEAST: South Alabama, Troy, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Coastal Carolina.
NORTHEAST: Marshall, Old Dominion, Charlotte, Appalachian State, UMass, Eastern Kentucky, James Madison.
In this 28-team league, two schools that have battled geographic isolation in C-USA will have conference mates within a short driving distance. UTEP and New Mexico State are separated by about 40 miles. It's only a two-hour drive from Marshall to Eastern Kentucky. NMSU is without a conference home for its football program and EKU tried hard to get in the Sun Belt a year ago before being passed over for Coastal Carolina.
Each team would have an eight-game conference slate, including a six-game divisional schedule, one locked-in crossover contest (such as Southern Miss-South Alabama) and one conference contest that would rotate.
You could have East and West representatives in the title game with divisional champs decided on the basis of conference records and the College Football Playoff rankings serving as a tie-breaker. The inclusion of the CFP rankings as a tie-breaker would encourage teams to put together tough non-conference slates. (I'm looking at you, Marshall)
This isn't that that different from the 24-team conference I first suggested, but I believe this model is actually more workable. If you're going to go big, might as well go huge.
A 28-team conference could amount to what many would consider a second division within FBS, but it would face the same issues that the MAC, American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West face on the field.
The biggest problem for the 28-team conference would be that TV revenue shared among the member programs would be watered down badly. But again, if you're currently only getting $200,000 per school like C-USA or $100,000 like the Sun Belt, it doesn't matter that much. The schools included in this conference would benefit from a significant decrease in travel costs for all sports.
Sports like softball, baseball and volleyball could feature conference schedules that rely heavily on home-and-home series with the closest league mates. Other games could stay within the East and West divisions.
The one school that continues to be left out in the cold in this 28-team concept is Louisiana-Monroe, which has the smallest athletic budget in all of FBS at approximately $12.95 million. It's hard to see a long-term future in FBS for ULM even if it may fit squarely in the footprint of a 28-team league. The promotion of Sam Houston State, James Madison and Eastern Kentucky to FBS, three schools that already have larger athletic budgets than ULM, makes more sense for the conference. You also have to consider that Louisiana Tech and ULM already share the same market.
The best thing that could happen to ULM is that C-USA simply dissolves and it could be included in a more regional conference.
The 28 teams included in my hypothetical C-USA could also be divided into three separate nine-to-10 team conferences. This may be the best situation for all involved and each conference would have an opportunity to negotiate their own TV deals.
Conference USA will have a chance to negotiate a new TV contract in two years with plans of improving on its recent deal that nets each school $200,000, according to The Virginian-Pilot. If it doesn't receive a significant bump in revenue, it's likely time for members to dream up new options.
Whether it's a conference of 20-plus teams or three regional conferences, C-USA and Sun Belt officials should start thinking outside the box.
Contact Patrick Magee at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter at Patrick_Magee and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MageeonSports.