3. Mid-American Conference
- Members (13): Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Massachusetts, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo, Western Michigan
The Mid-American Conference is the most stable and longest-running of the five mid-majors slated to compete in I-A football in 2014, and it earned the first BCS berth in conference history last year when Northern Illinois went to the Orange Bowl. Other than a brief alliance with UCF, the five-year relationship with Temple and the subsequent entry of UMass, the MAC has a clearly defined (and consistent) divisional structure and has neither expanded wildly nor been poached by bigger leagues. This stability bodes well for the league, as does its WAC-like use of midweek exposure on ESPN to more effectively sell their teams to overlooked recruits and to fans who would otherwise find a dearth of live sports on the platform on those evenings.
The problem for the league, though, is twofold: first, the proximity to the Big Ten means that the league will always be sweeping up recruiting crumbs; and second, the diffusion of talent is such that the league champion usually emerges with at least one loss on their record. For NIU it worked last year, and in the future a one-loss MAC side should rank high enough in the polls to garner attention for that mid-major qualifying berth in the “College Football Playoff-affiliated bowl structure” or whatever it is they want to call this system.
4. Conference USA
- Members (14): Charlotte (2015), Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB, UTEP, UTSA, Western Kentucky
This is where expansion/realignment tactics come into play. Conference USA was cleanly picked over by the AAU as it looked to retrench after the Big East split, its best members moving on to supposedly-greener pastures. But it grabbed the best option possible from what former WAC teams the Mountain West turned away in Louisiana Tech, snagged more than half of the of the Sun Belt’s membership, and went after two I-AA teams that bring new TV markets to the table to try to replace those metro areas lost to big-league poaching over the years.
From a geographic standpoint its composition makes more sense, and should it seek out superconference status there will soon be multiple members to choose from in Georgia (the biggest southeastern state where they still lack a presence) should they go to the Sun Belt well once again. But is bigger better for Conference USA? Other than Southern Miss, the league has lost every one of its most consistent programs. With the defections of East Carolina, Houston, UCF, SMU and Tulsa, the league loses every one of the teams that has played in its championship game since 2005 aside from the Golden Eagles. And they are in a swoon of their own, having fallen to 0-12 in Ellis Johnson’s lone season as head coach following the end of the Larry Fedora era. If Southern Miss cannot bounce back, the conference will depend on teams like former WAC champion Louisiana Tech, former Sun Belt runner-up Western Kentucky and former I-AA heavyweight Old Dominion to carry the mantle.
5. Sun Belt Conference
- Members (11): Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Idaho, UL-Lafayette, UL-Monroe, New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy
Remember what I said about tactics? The Sun Belt went the opposite way, the poached rather than the poacher. Other than holding on to former champions Arkansas State and Troy and their two Louisiana schools, the Sun Belt enjoys a look toward the future as well as a blast from the past. In the great reapportionment of the former WAC schools, the Sun Belt begrudgingly gave refuge to Idaho and New Mexico State — two former full conference members — as football-only schools starting in 2014. They also nabbed two other WAC schools that were previously on their way, Texas State and UT-Arlington, giving the league the Lone Star representation that can make or break recruiting for a conference’s schools.
But the Sun Belt also went all-in on bringing up I-AA schools as well. Texas State (with the WAC) and South Alabama were newcomers to the top division in 2012; Georgia State moves up to FBS football this year; and Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will move up to the top level in 2014. Nearly half their membership will be three years or less removed from their I-AA days when this year of BCS purgatory is over. The last two are probably best positioned to take advantage of what looks on paper to be a weak conference.