Conference USA future in doubt with four teams expected to join Sun Belt next week


Concern has emerged that the future viability of Conference USA is “hanging on by a thread” as college football conference realignment continues to play out, sources have indicated to CBS Sports. At issue is an impending decision by Southern Miss, Marshall, James Madison and Old Dominion over whether to join the Sun Belt Conference. Sources tell CBS Sports that the four schools could be invited to join the Sun Belt as early as next week. 

Southern Miss, Marshall and ODU are current C-USA members. James Madison is an FCS power located in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and would be making the decision to move up to FBS by joining either C-USA or the Sun Belt. CBS Sports previously learned all four were in the process of choosing between the two conferences.

Should those three schools depart the conference, C-USA would be reduced from eight to five members, putting the league in dire straits; in college basketball, for example, a conference needs at least six members for its league champion to earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

C-USA lost six of its 14 members on Thursday when it was formally announced Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB were joining the American in 2023. 

The loss of C-USA would shrink the number of FBS conferences from 10 to nine and possibly impact ongoing talks regarding College Football Playoff expansion. As proposed, the top six ranked conference champions would receive an automatic berth in a hypothetical 12-team bracket, but that’s based on the 10 existing leagues.

The 26-year old C-USA would be the first FBS league to fold since the Big East in 2013, with the football remnants of the old Big East eventually serving as the foundation for the American Athletic Conference. Prior to that, the last FBS — then I-A — conference to go away was the Southwest Conference in 1995.

One source told CBS Sports the decisions could be made in the next three days. If so, C-USA faces the prospect of losing nine of its 14 members within in a week. At that point, the conference’s future would be decided by its worth to media rights-holders. If a collection of teams in the newly-formed C-USA don’t draw enough interest from networks, it could go away. The C-USA television deal with CBS expires after the 2022-23 academic year, and the conference also has separate deals with Stadium and ESPN (mostly streaming on ESPN+).

“To say that [C-USA] is not wounded would be to deny [reality],” a source close to the discussions said.

One aspect in C-USA’s favor is the $4 million exit fee. If nine schools left, that would add $36 million to help entice new members. C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod has been frantically trying to keep her existing members together while reaching out to candidates to replace those schools that left, multiple sources told CBS Sports. 

There has been contact between C-USA and McNeese State from the Southland Conference and Sam Houston of the WAC, sources told CBS Sports. Like James Madison, those are FCS schools that would require an NCAA-mandated multi-year transition process to FBS.

“She’s getting calls from every aspiring FCS program,” said a source from one of those schools.

The preference for C-USA is to add FBS members with schools such as independents New Mexico State, UConn and UMass also being mentioned. CBS Sports previously reported independent Liberty is in the mix for either C-USA or Sun Belt membership. Given the developments of this past week, it would likely prefer the Sun Belt at this time as the school assesses its options. That is … unless the schools mentioned decide to remain with/join C-USA.

In terms of competition and revenue, it’s basically a wash for any of the candidates in C-USA and Sun Belt, and the decision may come down to travel expenses. The 10-team Sun Belt could evolve as an East Coast league with the addition of more schools within that region. In inviting any members, C-USA still has to deal with the existence of far-flung UTEP, which is 900 miles from the nearest current member, Louisiana Tech.





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