Good morning! Thanks for spending some of your day with Extra Points.
I’ve got a few interviews to transcribe on the likeness rights debate, and am excited to continue following that story.
But for today, let’s take this newsletter back to my blogging roots. Tiny conference realignment minutiae. You know what they say, folks. You gotta play the hits.
The Pioneer League looks to expand…with two very different schools
If you’ve been reading Extra Points for a while, you may remember the story of DIII’s, St.Thomas University, the school who got bounced out of their league for kicking too much ass (and also for being a much bigger school than everybody else, but lets still with the asskicking narrative). Life as an independent in DIII would be rough, but it looks like the Tommies have a new, better, home, assuming the NCAA signs off.
They’ve announced they intend to join the Summit League in D1. The Summit League doesn’t sponsor football, though, which means St.Thomas will need another league to park their excellent football team. And the most likely option? Probably the Pioneer League.
Via the Star Tribune:
The Summit League does not have Division I football, but Esten told the Star Tribune that the school is exploring the Division I Pioneer League for football, along with the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Teams from both of those conferences compete at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level, one notch below the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level that includes the Big Ten.
Jumping from DIII to FCS is going to be a tall order under the best of circumstances, but jumping into perhaps the best FCS football league from DIII is probably a bridge too far, no matter how geographically convenient it might be. For a school that isn’t currently offering athletic scholarships, the Pioneer League probably seems like the most sense, financially.
Trying to compete with North Dakota State right after playing DIII ball would be like Youngstown State moving up and then scheduling Ohio State every year, only maybe even harder.
In case you’re curious, the Pioneer League’s best team, San Diego, is ranked 175th in the Sagarin Rankings. For some perspective, that’s just below UConn, but ranked ahead of three other FBS schools right now. The worst team in the league, Valparaiso, is ranked dead stinkin’ last in Sagarin (256th). The SEC West, this is not…but what do you expect? There’s no athletic scholarships, and most of the schools are small, private colleges.
The Pioneer League currently has ten members, mostly concentrated in the midwest and south, with San Diego the major outlier. An 11th team, Presbyterian College, is slated to join in 2021, which is when St.Thomas would join a new league, assuming their NCAA waiver is approved.
Will that be approved? Well, who can say. NCAA bylaws currently state that no DIII team can jump directly to D1, and the full transition period from DIII -> DII -> DI can take over a decade. But it’s not like St.Thomas asked for all of this. They were booted from their league against their will, and DII does not currently sponsor hockey, an important sport on campus. Given they may very well have an enrollment of over 10,000 by 2021, and sit in a state with only one other D1 institution…you’d think giving them the green light would make sense? But what do I know?
The Tommies aren’t the only school that’s been linked to the Pioneer League recently though.
Augustana University is also looking to jump…but their details are murky
Tiny Augustana University, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, also announced they were looking to jump from DII to DI. But their exact timeline, (other than “we’d like to have a conference invite by December of 2020”), what league they’d like to join, etc, has not been announced. That’s a little unique, as typically, once a school goes public with wanting to reclassify, they want to talk and talk and talk about. The school’s reluctance to be as forthcoming is rubbing some boosters the wrong way.
An arrangement similar to St.Thomas, with all sports by football parked in the Summit League, and football in the Pioneer, would make the most sense. It isn’t clear if the Pioneer would be interested, or how they’d handle 13 teams (or if they’d try to convince a 14th to start a team). But there’s a bigger question here, to me. From the Argus Leader:
If Augustana receives an invitation to join the Summit League, it would become the conference's smallest school by a wide margin.
That’s a sensitive issue for administrators, mainly because their full-time undergraduate enrollment of 1,807 ranks beneath all three Sioux Falls public high schools, not to mention being well below the national average in Division I (9,895) and even Division II (2,514).
Augustana’s goal is to reach 3,000 students by 2030, a milestone they say will pursue “through multiple strategies, including more scholarships” and possibly “hybrid programs and online courses.”
Typically, schools only jump a classification level when they are trying to grow enrollment, so the idea that this would be part of institutional push for growth makes some sense. But 1,807 students is SMALL. It would be one of the smallest schools in Division 1, period, and would be way smaller than other schools in the Summit League. Even in the Pioneer League, which includes other tiny D1 schools like Presbyterian, Davidson and Butler, most schools will be more than twice Augustana’s size. And given demographic headwinds to growing enrollment in a place like South Dakota, how much bigger could the school even get?
Even at 3,000 students, which is probably an ambitious goal by 2030, Augustana would still be in the bottom 10% of D1 institutions in enrollment.
You don’t have to be a huge school to be successful in Division 1, but if you’re going to be smaller than some South Dakota High Schools, you better be prepared to ask yourselves some really tough questions about what you hope to get out of reclassification and how you intend to pay for it.
If I had to guess which potential Pioneer League program had a better shot at D1 success, I’d take St.Thomas, easily.
The Pioneer League isn’t the only FCS league that could change membership
LIU, Merrimack, and North Alabama are all in the process of formally reclassifying to D1, and Dixie State (which again…is in Utah?) and Tarleton State (Texas) will be joining in the future.
I don’t think there are very many FCS schools that are likely to jump to FBS in the near future, (especially since they’d need either conference invites or good lawyers), but I wouldn’t be shocked if other DII schools reclassified and tried to join FCS, especially out West, since so few western schools compete at the DII level right now. That might lead to either an entirely new league, or for somebody like the WAC to start sponsoring football again. No inside scoop. Just a thought.
Speaking of thoughts, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has some!
Air Force football seems fine from afar. The Falcons just rocked Fresno State to climb to 4-2 on the year. The backend of their schedule is tough, but with games remaining against Colorado State, Wyoming and New Mexico, a bowl bid certainly seems possible.
But Falcons coach Troy Calhoun apparently has some concerns, at least with the schedule. Here are some of his post-game remarks, captured by The Gazette:
We are in a league where, to be blunt, I don’t know if it’s the route maybe should go,” he said. “Yet for our guys, the way they played tonight and the preparation and just the focus all week long was pretty strong, which is a really strong indicator of the quality of the leadership that we have.”
Asked to clarify what he meant by the route they should go, he said, “I just don’t know if it’s really a match. I don’t know if it’s best. I don’t know if... Now, we are. And we’re lucky to be, just the quality of the schools of the other member institutions that are a part of it.”
So first, it’s worth pointing out that that Calhoun doesn’t really get a vote in the matter. Conference affiliation is determined by school presidents, with athletic directors having a voice. Coaches typically have little to no influence.
But still, coaches typically don’t say stuff like this! And while this reportedly isn’t totally out of the ordinary for Calhoun, the timing is still interesting.
Sure, travel for Air Force is tough. The Falcons are off to Hawaii next week, then return home for a difficult game against Utah State the following week. A regular season is going to require at least one trip East (to face either Army or Navy), flights to California, and all over the Mountain time zone.
But if your school is in Colorado, I’m not really sure how you could create a football schedule that didn’t require extensive travel, unless you decided to play five FCS teams a season or something. Any other FBS (or FCS) league, or operating as an independent, would almost certainly require travel across multiple time zones.
Maybe the schedule is just getting too hard? After all, Air Force hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016, and the middle of the conference certainly seems to have improved. (the dregs of the MWC have two wins over SEC opponents this season!) Air Force faces much tougher academic restrictions than the rest of the MWC, not to mention the size limitations that come with recruiting to an academy. If, as my colleague Steven Godfrey likes to say, there are only enough service academy recruits to field 1.5 good FBS football teams, a tough MWC slate plus solid Army and Navy squads could be too much to overcome.
It’s worth noting that the MWC doesn’t have a new TV deal yet. That should be wrapped up by the end of the year. It’s projected to be a nice little raise from before, but almost certainly won’t be life-changing money for anybody…I’d expect something along the lines of $3-4 million a school, tops (less than whatever the AAC is making), plus the continuation of unpopular late night, or non-Saturday football kickoffs.
It’s possible Air Force could make at least close to that on their own, while retaining more flexibility in kickoff times. Maybe it’s better to take a $750,000/year haircut on TV rights fees, if you can make up the money on ticket sales and increased donor participation.
I’m not saying I think Air Force is going to bail on the league. But it will be worth watching to see if every school’s interests are really represented in this next TV deal. After all, that was the final kick UConn needed to leave the American. If you’re already having doubts, and the new deal doesn’t serve your interests, maybe you leave. Maybe that’s Air Force. Maybe that’s a school that is struggling badly to sell tickets, like New Mexico. Maybe it’s nobody. Who knows?
Hey, one last note on the ol’ American.
No, the American probably won’t need to expand. BUT IT MIGHT
The American is having a great football season right now. There are plenty of solid programs in the league. But moving forward, the league will only have 11 teams, and no matter what the conference says at Media Days, there will probably continue to be speculation about how, when, or if, they might move to 12.
Right now, the league is hoping to get a waiver, so they can play eight conference games, remain at 11 teams, and still hold a conference title game.
But what if that waiver gets denied? Via the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco is optimistic that the league's waiver request to hold a football championship game once it goes to 11 teams next season will be approved by the NCAA later this fall.
If the waiver request is denied, however, Aresco told reporters before Saturday's game between Memphis and Temple that the AAC would have to consider expansion due to the importance of holding a football championship game moving forward.
Conference title games make good money, both from tickets, and as extra TV inventory. Not having one, especially after signing that big new TV deal, is a complete no-go for the AAC.
Their current plan makes sense to me. There’s probably a half dozen schools out there that have the potential of being able to provide value at a future date, but nobody, save BYU and maybe Army, is capable of providing that value right out of the gate. If you don’t need to expand right now, why commit to a rebuilding project, when you can wait a few years and see if anybody from the rest of the G5 separates themselves? It’s not like UAB, Old Dominion or Buffalo are going to join the SEC if you don’t make a move right now.
I’d be pretty shocked if the AAC doesn’t get that waiver. But I’d also be shocked if AAC membership remained exactly the same throughout the duration of this TV contract.
Will we get change sooner, or later? Like all the other great things about college football, apparently that will be decided by the lawyers.
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