Monday marked the official demise of the Western Athletic Conference as a football conference, 26 days shy of the reinvented league’s 51st birthday. A conference that at one point or another counted 26 of the current FBS schools as member institutions, the WAC for a long time was the mid-major conference that bit back against the blue-blood programs of college football. From Wyoming in the 1960s and Arizona State in the 1970s to the BYU run of dominance that yielded a national championship in 1984 and a Heisman in 1990, the league was consistently a threat to the powerhouses of the sport.
Even after the WAC gave us a cautionary tale about wishing for superconferences, it managed to remain relevant right up until its final season. Until last season’s breakthrough by Northern Illinois, after all, every previous BCS Buster was either a former WAC member (Utah, TCU) or a current one (Boise State, Hawaii). And until San Jose State and Utah State knocked them off over the last two weekends of the 2012 regular season, Louisiana Tech looked like they would become the WAC’s third BCS Buster in its final season of football existence rather than missing out on a bowl game altogether.
But no number of sublime moments guarantee perpetual survival, either for a conference or its membership. Monday also marked the moment when schools shifted spots from loop to loop, relocating with monetary interests and publicity in mind more than any semblance of geographic or scholastic sanity.
As college football nears its 2013 season of purgatory, still trapped in the BCS era even as the conference landscape realigns itself to better prepare for a playoff future, the consolidation of leagues from coast to coast has irreversibly shifted collegiate sports onto a new path. This year, now that the WAC has dissolved into the ethereal world of non-revenue sports, just four leagues will fight to provide a BCS Buster. Like the WAC, the Big East has also returned to its basketball-focused roots; unlike the WAC, the American Athletic Conference rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the Big East split and will not only compete this season but compete as one of six BCS conferences.
After this year in limbo, the AAC will fall below the dividing line separating the mid-major leagues from the major. Come 2014 the newest brand in the sports-conference lexicon will be left to fight against the Mountain West, the Mid-American, the Sun Belt and Conference USA for a solitary guaranteed berth in the successor to the BCS format. While everyone is excited about the plus-one format, it is the affiliated bowl berths that will provide the most important path for the have-nots to access some of the riches that continue to be monopolized by the established names of college football.
Soon the BCS Buster will go the way of the dodo, with the highest-ranked team among the five non-AQ leagues earning an automatic berth into the party every year. Instead of wondering if a mid-major might break into the party, the question will shift to which team will receive the invitation in a given year.
But before we dive into the individual contenders to bust into the BCS this final season of the infernal system over the coming weeks, we first need to understand the hierarchy that has developed among Gordon Gee’s Little Sisters of the Poor. It is critical to remember that not every non-AQ conference is created equal, and winning one is likely to put that team ahead of another non-AQ with an identical record who wins another of the mid-major leagues. Looking at the membership of each of these five leagues once the brave new world of college football kicks off in 2014, which stands the best chance of becoming the preeminent conference among the Little Five of I-A?
1. Mountain West Conference
- Members (12): Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, San Diego State, San Jose State, UNLV, Utah State, Wyoming
The top two rankings would have flipped had the AAC managed to hold onto Boise State and San Diego State when they were still the Big East. Of course, the Big East might still be the Big “East” if they hadn’t reneged on their defections to come back into the Mountain West fold. By incorporating the best parts of the WAC as it slowly dissolved into obsolescence, the MWC was essentially WAC 2.0 — formed by the eight oldest WAC members in 1999 as a rebuke to the 16-team behemoth that the WAC had ballooned into through expansion. The league is solid enough, with Boise State the headliner for a conference that includes a group that springs surprises perennially and has now consolidated into the modern magic number of 12 members.
The X-factor will be whether the 2012 performances of San Jose State and Utah State in their final WAC seasons can carry on into a new conference, especially with both teams losing their head coaches to bigger programs in the offseason. Will the Spartans and Aggies manage to maintain at least a mid-table respectability as they move up to a league with more challengers of similar talent level?
2. American Athletic Conference
- Members (12): Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, Navy (2015), SMU, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa, UCF, USF
Cobbled together from the football-playing remnants of the Big East, a liberal dash of Conference USA schools hoping that the move would prove beneficial rather than lateral, and incomplete until Navy gives up its independence in 2015, the AAC’s is generously described as ragtag. Of the original football-playing Big East members, only Temple remains from that group as the mishmash conglomerate rebrands itself. Cincinnati and UConn should be the class of this league short-term, though how long each remains in the grouping is anybody’s guess. (One must assume nothing about stability, especially in mid-major leagues where a select few feel as though they were left behind.)
But while this league is deservedly pilloried for receiving an automatic BCS bid in 2013, it will have an equivalent number of decent schools to match up favorably with the MAC and the MWC in any given season. The league consolidates solid performers like the Bearcats and Huskies (each of whom has earned BCS berths in the past five years) with other big mid-major fish like Houston and East Carolina and Tulsa. Navy will add another interesting wrinkle into the mix when they enter the league in two years. And a faded powerhouse like SMU could and probably should roar back eventually, making that acquisition all the more valuable.