By Jeff Nations
This constant realignment of college conferences just seems to be a never-ending cycle, doesn't it?
Just last week I wrote about George Mason's decision to bail on the Colonial Athletic Association for the greener pastures of the Atlantic 10 Conference, with all the promised riches of that body's television deal trumping any faint feelings of loyalty to the CAA that George Mason helped to build into one of the best mid-major conferences in the nation.
The ink wasn't even dry on that column when news I was expecting popped across the wire just a couple days later -- Western Kentucky, my old school, is heading to Conference USA in 2014. The Hilltoppers are leaving behind their old loyalties to the Sun Belt Conference, which long ago they'd used as a stepping stone from the Ohio Valley Conference. That move, abandoning long-held traditional rivalries against the likes of Eastern Kentucky and Murray State, was also all about money -- at the time, the Sun Belt Conference held the very first national television deal with then fledgling ESPN.
So this isn't any new development, not really, and I don't expect you care all that much about Western Kentucky. What you might care about is the Sun Belt Conference, which suddenly finds itself in need of at least one new member in order to hold its long-cherished conference championship game in football.
That's where James Madison comes in, conceivably. Reports are circulating that James Madison will be offered that newly-opened spot in the Sun Belt Conference in time for the 2014 football season. In-state rival Liberty is also named as a school potentially in line to get an invite, although right now the Sun Belt just needs one school to get back to 12 football-playing members among what would be at least a 14-school alignment.
The Sun Belt, like so many other conferences, is in a serious state of flux at present.
Already, four current members are about to jump ship to Conference USA -- Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and North Texas -- this summer. The Sun Belt initially had that covered, with last week's announcement that Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are joining as all-sports members, and Idaho and New Mexico State coming aboard as football-only members. Those additions all come aboard in 2014. Before that, though, the Sun Belt had already added three schools -- Georgia State, Texas-Arlington and Texas State -- in time for the 2013 football season.
Western Kentucky's move, though not unexpected, changes that dynamic. The Sun Belt needs to move quickly to fill the latest membership gap. That's a real opportunity for James Madison, should it indeed get an invitation and decide to accept.
There are real reasons for doing so, the possibility -- stress on possibility -- of an eventual financial windfall chief among them. JMU doesn't exactly fit the bill in terms of metropolitan area to suit the Sun Belt's normal desires when adding new members, but the Dukes' historic success in football at the FCS level seems give JMU an edge. Of course, James Madison would have to make the often-painful move up to the FBS level -- that's going to be a requirement to join the Sun Belt. Facility-wise, James Madison at least is in good shape for a potential move up.
Should JMU take the plunge, just what would the Sun Belt look like in 2014? As of right now, current members who will still be there include Arkansas-Little Rock (non-football member), Arkansas State, Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas-Arlington, (non-football member), Texas State and Troy. New additions Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho (football-only member) and New Mexico State (football-only member) will bring the number of the football-playing members to 11 -- or 12, should the Dukes sign on, which is the NCAA-mandated minimum required to hold a conference football championship game.
So the Sun Belt needs JMU, or Liberty, or ... somebody, and fast. Considering the ongoing poaching, of course, that number is always subject to change, hence the rumor that the Sun Belt is interested in both James Madison and Liberty as full-fledged members (or at the very least, football-only members).
Frankly, it's not exactly an appealing group as it stands, in terms of fan interest at least. There is little in the way of natural rivalries for the Dukes, unless Liberty counts. The A-10 could be a nice option as well, allowing JMU to rejoin its old in-state rivals Richmond and VCU in a rising basketball conference. The A-10 doesn't sponsor a football championship, though, meaning the Dukes would have to find a new home in that sport or stay in the CAA (like Richmond) as a football-only member. An invitation from the A-10 might even be the preferred route for JMU, but it hasn't come yet and seems no more likely today than last week, when George Mason got the call.
JMU could stand pat, of course, and stay right where it is as a strong force among FCS-level football schools and a bulwark for the CAA. That might be fine, but then it might not. The Sun Belt will fill its opening, and that could well be the last shot JMU has to move up for a while.
The FCS, meanwhile, continues to shrink amid all this conference shifting as more and more schools roll the dice in hopes of becoming the next Boise State. There is no guarantee the CAA will stabilize, either, in the face of this constant shuffle.
Joining the Sun Belt, should that opportunity truly arise, is a chance for JMU to dictate its own destiny. School officials need to seriously consider making a move because a better opportunity than this might be long in coming.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>