WAC Resurgence Builds in the Big Sky’s Shadow

Photo via UTSA Athletics and Clip Art.

The college football landscape is a fluid bed of magma that constantly changes. Television contracts of major FBS conferences are up for renewal in the coming years and a potential realignment is on the not-so-distant horizon.

Closer to the home of the FCS is a potential revitalization of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) offering football again. While the WAC’s first attempt at football did not last forever, this could be a new era in the works at the FCS level.

The rumored pipe dream of a new WAC may soon become possible in the next few years. The Big Sky is the only FCS conference West of the Missouri Valley Conference and Southland Conference. From outside of Fargo to Seattle and Lubbock to San Diego there is only the Big Sky Conference and one Pioneer League outlier (San Diego) that are West of the Missouri Valley and Southland in the FCS.

In at least 1.7 million square miles there is only one conference in the West. The entire United States is a rough total of 3.8 million square miles in comparison. There are only 14 of the 127 FCS teams (11%) in the 1.7 of 3.8 million square miles (44%) in the country.

On October 8th, Matt Brown from Extra Points joined the Weber State Weekly podcast to share some news on WAC development. Southern Utah University currently resides in the Big Sky Conference, but trouble may be brewing for their future in Big Sky country. In a recent press conference, Southern Utah was quoted as not having paperwork for other conferences currently. Matt Brown suggested this spells out the Thunderbird’s intentions clearly since “if you are happy with your conference then you say that rather than mention paperwork”.

There is also speculation that four Southland teams have been invited to the WAC, despite the argument over which four teams those actually are. Matthew Dixon over at Sports Enthusiasts reported that those four teams are Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, and Stephen F. Austin. Dixon goes on to take an in-depth analysis that shows only Abilene Christian benefiting from the 150 fewer miles of travel. Dixon also warned that the outliers of Seattle University, California-Baptist, and Chicago State may need to be exiled for a feasible travel plan to become available for other sports.

Currently, the WAC holds two soon-to-be FCS football schools (Tarleton State and Dixie State) and one FBS independent football school (New Mexico State). If we take into account the plausible addition of Southern Utah the count comes up to four. If the WAC can find four more football members to join the conference in some capacity then there is serious merit to the WAC being well on its way back.

Division II schools such as Colorado Mesa have been approached within the last two years regarding interest in becoming WAC members, but only Tarleton State and Dixie State have bitten, so far. Who could be next on the WAC bandwagon? Here are some interesting scenarios to ponder.

Current Positions

WAC

Currently, the WAC is quite spread out for all of the available teams to field a realistic football team or create one just for the WAC. It would make zero sense for Seattle U. (7,199) and Chicago State (2,964) to even consider that much travel and creating a football program. Despite their larger size Cali-Baptist (11,045) and Grand Canyon University (20,000) do not seek to gain much from a football program as California has a plethora and both schools benefit well enough in student population from their religious classification.

The obvious contenders left within the WAC to pursue are Utah Valley University (41,728) and the University of Texas Rio-Grande Valley (29,113). Unfortunately, on Weber State Weekly the possibility of Utah Valley fielding a team was determined to be highly unlikely. As for UTRGV, I think similar to the California University system there can only be so many branches with a football team.

Ultimately, the WAC will need to recruit other teams to jump ship like Southern Utah or they will have to find Division II presidents and athletic directors who are willing to gamble a division jump during a pandemic.

WAC Currently. Original Photo.

Big Sky

The Big Sky does a good job of staying regional, as much as it can with such distance, but the miles add up among other complaints. The Big Sky has notably more travel than the majority of any other teams in the FCS. This can lead to extra fatigue, higher costs, and limiting practice or recovery time.

Another concern raised by coaches and fans alike is that with 13 teams in the conference it is impossible to play each team every year. With an eight-game conference schedule, it allows for a team to miss playing at least three teams if we assume one of the non-conference weeks has a Big Sky opponent. If those three teams are contenders and so is the team who avoids them, then there is a major disadvantage for said team to make the playoffs.

How do you fix the issue? Well, you could add one more team to the conference, split it in half into divisions, play for a real conference title, repeal the NCAA’s rule about having a title game and not going to playoffs, and accomplish this all within a sensible time frame. Or, politely suggest three teams find a new place to play football.

Big Sky currently. Original Photo.

Scenario 1: Big Sky Poaching

The easiest of the scenarios is either poaching Big Sky schools to play in an easier conference or to convince the Big Sky that it needs to “trim the fat”. While Division II schools are hungry for more spotlight to attract more students and help the school grow there are a lot of financial and technical requirements that could make that process drag on longer than wanted. Big Sky schools have already paid the move up fee, done the paperwork, and have the facilities (not you Portland State) necessary to make an easier transition.

Assuming the Big Sky blesses these schools from leaving who does it help, who would it hurt, and who is on the hot-seat to move/get booted? Let’s safely assume that the Montana’s, Eastern Washington, and Idaho are safe from the move.

Both the Montana schools and Eastern Washington are securely in Big Sky territory and have established rivalries that would be sacrilegious to break up. Also, these schools are extremely successful in Big Sky history so moving serves them no benefit.

Idaho is also off the list since they just returned to the Big Sky and seem to enjoy it for now. The familiar teams to play, the more competitive scouting ability, and added fan interaction would be a lot to throw away for a few potential WAC football titles.

Geographically, Idaho State is just within an ideal area to other opponents, but would the WAC help them? Initially, the move could be beneficial for success and travel that would be about the same or a little less. The problem is being in the middle of the Big Sky territory recruiting would get even harder to persuade teams to a lower conference surrounded by talented neighbors. Weber State fits the bill well for geography purposes, but a five-time Big Sky Champ (2017-2019 Co-Champs) is not leaving anytime soon.

Southern Utah may have shared the 2017 Championship with Weber State, but that random success does not erase their recent slump to the bottom of the Big Sky. Southern Utah is in an ideal area to steal recruits from WAC competition and to convince boosters they will have more success in a new conference. Despite the Thunderbird die-hard fans, the size of the stadium, success, and slump in recruiting point towards a need for change. Portland State is in a similar position success wise and lacks adequate facilities. Although recruiting has been top-notch recently the travel costs could be damaging to the potential success of an expensive move.

Northern Arizona poses a difficult situation as they have been a Big Sky member since 1970, but in that 50 year period they have only won two titles (1978 and shared 2003). To turn your back on that much history is a lot to ask of a school, but if there is any time to change this pandemic certainly poses the opportunity to downsize and save on travel.

A school in a similar situation is Northern Colorado as they have only two winning seasons at the Division I level since 2006. The never say die team has not found the salvation they have craved since their Division II glory days of back-to-back National Championships (1996 & 1997). The flashy comeback-kid hire of Ed McCaffrey could be the start of a new era in Bears history since Earnest Collins Jr. showed only two good seasons from the Bears. Maybe McCaffrey has the moxie and charisma to jump-start this team, but that remains to be proven.

That leaves the California schools (Sacramento State, Cal Poly, and UC Davis) to account for. An interesting idea is to give the WAC all of California since it adds a burden to travel for some of the current Big Sky schools. Plus, Cal Poly and UC Davis are only associate members as the rest of their sports are primarily done in the Big West Conference. It would not be difficult to simply travel only East and Southeast rather than all the way to the Montanas. The California schools could stick to that Southwestern Region and see decent weather during all seasons rather than the bitter extremes of the North during late Fall. Additionally, none of these teams have established themselves as perennial powerhouses and only have one championship apiece to flaunt. Sacramento State also does not show a great sense of urgency to defend its football title this spring season as football was canceled by the university, but not other sports such as basketball. And to tie a bow on why these three should be signed, sealed, and delivered to the WAC is they are designated as protected rivals with each other in the Big Sky. Why break up the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe and the Causeway Classic?

The Big Sky Options

The Big Sky WAC Candidates:
1. Southern Utah – Needs easier schedule, more wins, stability
2. Northern Colorado – Needs easier schedule, more wins, less travel
3. Northern Arizona – Needs less travel and more championships
4. & 5. UC Davis & Cal Poly – Unstable future in the Big Sky as only associate members and growing complaints of crowded schedules
6. Sacramento State – If Davis and Poly go what keeps Sacramento tied to the Big Sky?

An alternate scenario for the Big Sky to cut three and retain Sacramento State could be to steer Northern Colorado towards the Missouri Valley/ Summit League for their sports to rekindle old North Central Conference memories from Division II days. While this move would be as detrimental if not more to the Bears win column, the travel could be lessened by a small margin and offer the Bears a fresh start in football. Personally, I think that could spell doom to the other programs recruiting abilities and would set back their contender statuses immediately, despite the Summit League being an easier conference to win in other sports. There have been rumors in the past three to four seasons of the Missouri Valley attempting this move, but Northern Colorado has declined previously. The situation gets murkier as the UNC Baseball team was approached by and accepted an invitation to leave the WAC and join the Summit League to minimize travel costs and move to easier competition. Time will tell how much the Bears enjoy the Summit League in Baseball while the UNC Swim & Dive team remain in the WAC.

Scenario 2: Division II Call Ups

Division II schools have a long road to becoming Division I FCS, but if they have the money, ability to upgrade facilities and be competitive in the future they have a chance. What does it require financially to defect to the WAC pipe dream though? Patti Arnold of The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colorado reported, “A $1.7 million application fee to the NCAA, and another $125,000 annual membership fee to the WAC.” Additional to those fees Colorado Mesa would also owe $100,000 in exit fees to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. For reference, Northern Colorado put around three million dollars into stadium upgrades and renovation to be ready for the Big Sky in 2006. This is a small fraction of the costs that schools must consider before committing to the Division I leap.

Colorado State-Pueblo, Colorado School of Mines, Angelo State, and Texas A&M-Commerce are regionally relevant and placed in the top ten of the 2019 Super Four Region. Depending on the WAC’s interest in success, close proximity, and competitiveness these may be the best suited in those categories.

SchoolPopulationStadium CapacityTop 25 (2019)Best Finish
(Since 2010)
CSU-Pueblo4,9006,500132014 National Champion
Colorado School of Mines6,3254,000102nd Round Playoffs (x2)
Angelo State10,4175,670NA2nd Round Playoffs (2014)
Texas A&M Commerce12,30211,58272017 National Champion

When addressing whether to move up or not there are a lot of factors to consider. Overall, Texas A&M Commerce may be set up the best for a transition up despite not being the most successful of the four featured teams. TAMU-Commerce has been to the playoffs multiple times this decade, a 2017 National Championship, a solid student population, and a stadium larger than six of the Big Sky schools and five of the Southland schools. This resume makes them an interesting contender to move up if they agree it would benefit them.

CSU-Pueblo is the most successful of this foursome, but a small student population and stadium capacity might hold challenges in jumping up a division. CSU-Pueblo was named D2Football.com’s surprise team of the decade as they became a perennial playoff team, six-time RMAC Conference Champion, and 2014 National Champions. The Wolfpack may be the best equipped to move up to the FCS and be competitive, but stadium upgrades and an increased student population would be in their best interest.

Colorado School of Mines would likely not move up since they are an engineer specific school, a small school population, and a tiny stadium. Despite the small description the team has good playoff experience in the last few years and draws a standing room only crowd from the Miner faithful during playoff time. It may be a long-shot, but still, a possibility that moving up could be still somewhat competitive in the wins column.

Angelo State may not be the most successful of this group as they fluctuate in their record, but the decent school population size and good location in relation to current WAC members make it a possibility. If Angelo State moves up that could be above their pay grade in the wins column and stadium size. Regardless, the WAC may not be privileged to be picky choosers.

Backup Division II Options

Other Division II teams near the WAC that may not be the most successful, but have the other amenities necessary to consider a division jump.

SchoolsLocationPopulationStadium Capacity
West Texas A&MCanyon, Texas10,16920,000
University of Texas – Permian BasinOdessa, Texas7,62819,302
Colorado MesaGrand Junction, Colorado9,3737,000
Azusa PacificAzusa, California10,09510,000

When considering secondary Division II options for the WAC to consider I see these four universities in line for an invite. As for West Texas A&M and UT-Permian Basin, they present good regional locations in the center or upper part of Texas to pair with any potential Southland teams or the other Texas schools mentioned. The two Texas schools also offer enormous stadiums at the Division II level which would make them instantly competitive in terms of hosting fans. The facilities may need a few updates to become relevant at the FCS level, but the foundation is already built (literally). Another plus is both schools offer a decent size student population that could see growth with a divisional jump.

Colorado Mesa appears on the WAC radar as someone who never left. The WAC has wanted to recruit CMU to Division I for two years, but CMU originally declined due to the finances and “that no athlete could compete for a championship during that four year probation from moving up”. This soft answered no was also complimented by the CMU Board and President Foster saying that they would be open to it in the future when they could justify it. Certainly a pandemic complicates the budget, but that soft no seems like a residual “not yet”. CMU likely was not targeted for their football team, but rather for their impressive baseball stadium, Suplizio Field, that holds 10,000 fans. At that same time in December 2018 Dixie State and Metro State (Denver, CO) were offered membership as well.

Azusa Pacific would be a better-suited option if the Big Sky boots some or all of the California schools to the WAC, but if they retain California Baptist that could be enough to validate a California Division II call-up. They hold a strong student population, decent capacity for Citrus Stadium, and could offer the WAC more reason to stay in and recruit in Los Angeles and California in general. The Azusa Campus is only an hour and a half from California Baptist which makes this a great potential for rivalry and increased WAC presence in the Los Angeles area.

Best Division II Candidate List

Potential Divison II WAC Candidates Order:
1. Texas A&M Commerce
2. CSU-Pueblo
3. West Texas A&M
4. Azusa Pacific
5. Colorado Mesa
6. Angelo State
7. UT-Permian Basin
8. Colorado School of Mines

Scenario 3: Southland Rumor Mill

There have been multiple articles and rumors that the WAC is turning attention to the Southland to continue its FCS poaching tour. The Big Sky is easier to poach from since the distance between each school is fairly great in some areas. The Southland Conference does not have that issue as the farther East you travel the conferences close in proximity and density. The one problem present is 11 teams is a game above the nine-game conference schedule from everyone playing each other at least once.

As referenced above only Abilene Christian could potentially benefit from the lessened travel by about 150 miles total. What could help the Wildcats is an easier schedule and more chances for success. While ACU did well in the Lone Star Conference (Division II) they have only had two winning seasons since appearing on the Division I scene in 2013. That combined with a nice stadium at Anthony Field with a 12,000 seat capacity makes it a marketable companionship of ACU being an attractive football member.

Incarnate Word University is the other Southland team outside of the main cluster of teams, but the seating capacity (6,000), two winning seasons since 2014, and more travel in their future make it a struggle to argue for UIW to be an attractive partner other than their large athletic budget (18 million in 2017).

Other teams mentioned in the rumors were Lamar, Sam Houston State, and Stephen F. Austin. Although there could be potential to poach these schools Sam Houston State has no incentive to move since they are a top ten FCS school of the past decade in success. SHSU is still in the top half of the Southland Conference and will continue to stay there. Lamar has 45 years worth of membership over two stints and SFA has 33 straight years of membership in the Southland Conference. Not that change cannot be arranged, but that amount of history and relationships is a lot to overcome for the chance at a restart WAC. Lamar is the more attractive of the two options since their football stadium has a seating capacity of 16,000 and a basketball arena seating capacity of 10,080.

The Southland Options

Southland WAC Candidates:
1. Abilene Christian – Strong amenities, needs an easier schedule, travel less
2. Incarnate Word – Needs an easier schedule, more travel

Lamar and Sam Houston State are not considered since the Southland stands to benefit them overall and the WAC could be a downgrade overall.

Scenario 4: San Diego Come to Your Senses

How San Diego has lasted this long in the Pioneer League is a wonder in and of itself. San Diego has no business flying to Iowa for its closest conference opponent. The lunacy that is the Pioneer League travel is ridiculous for anyone outside of San Diego to consider viable. San Diego needs to ditch the symbolical conference titles of the Pioneer League and join a “Big Boy” conference. They had their time to decimate other teams who did not belong in the Midwestern and East Coast leagues. Now it is time to take things a step higher, upgrade that strength of schedule and join a better conference. Personally, any form of the proposed WAC is more sustainable and acceptable than the Pioneer League. The Big Sky would be a little too big of a steak for the Toreros to chew, but a new WAC could offer them a perfect chance to minimize travel and still maximize wins.

Scenario 5: Hail Mary of all FBS?!

Surely this cannot be a real suggestion, right?! Well, the WAC does still has a backdoor into the FBS as the conference still holds its FBS charter. The real question is it worth it to avoid the negative ESPN headlines for a season or two to reclaim their FBS status? I would say definitely not due to the undue financial burden it would put on nearly every school to upgrade their stadium to meet the 15,000 seat capacity, pay the move-up fee of 1.7 million dollars, and be able to do other needed upgrades to look and feel like an FBS team all during a pandemic that is forcing many teams to consider downsizing Divisions entirely.

The FBS Options…

Potential FBS ability:
1. New Mexico State – Only because they already are FBS and there is less money at the FCS level.
2. No other team in the listed scenarios should consider a move up until budgets can recover from COVID-19 setbacks.

While the WAC considering an all FBS football conference is bananas, it is not entirely out of the question for New Mexico State to drop down to FCS football. There would be a bit of costs to offset, but this may be in NMSU best interest to drop down since it is wildly expensive to be an independent FBS team and retain a decent schedule year-to-year. Instant contenders? Within the conference sure they could be a pre-season favorite without lifting a finger, but nationally the FCS Top 25 would handle NMSU better than NMSU would like to admit. This is something their board should consider without pride clouding their judgements.

The NEW WAC Result

Who knows what will become of the WAC’s intentions during this pandemic and how serious they are about a crusade to revitalize football to some degree. Despite all the uncertainty, here is my proposal of what the most likely and best-suited conference would be according to my research.

THE NEW WAC

  1. New Mexico State*
  2. Dixie State
  3. Tarleton State
  4. Southern Utah
  5. San Diego
  6. Cal Poly
  7. Northern Arizona
  8. Abilene Christian
  9. West Texas A&M / Azusa Pacific
  10. Colorado State-Pueblo
    * = Unlikely to happen until all the other pieces of the WAC restoration
    Runner Up Substitutes: UC Davis, Texas A&M Commerce, Angelo State, Colorado Mesa
Photo via Google Maps.

How this came to be the best culmination of the entirety of the research in a variety of California and Texas influences that fit best for the WAC combined with existing FCS programs that seek to gain something from the move. Once the WAC starts the football talks for real I think New Mexico State will be desperate enough for stability that they have the talk on whether or not to drop down to the FCS. It will be one of the hardest moves on this list, but surely the Aggies want to be competitive again and the FCS could offer them competitiveness. The problem is winning one bowl game in 2017 may give them hope of another and stay in the FBS Independent limbo regardless of their usually poor win/loss record. The Aggies have not won a conference championship since they were in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1978. Surely they could win one in the WAC, even if it were only the inaugural one.

Dixie State and Tarleton State are already WAC members and Southern Utah may be soon on their own way to such status. San Diego desperately needs a new living situation because surely the upkeep and travel costs of the Pioneer League are getting old despite the participation trophy conference titles.

Cal Poly and Northern Arizona face similar woes as Southern Utah, but lack the recently shared championship to comfort their droughts. Northern Arizona may produce some NFL caliber athletes, but it is time to realize that two titles in 50 years are unacceptable. Cal Poly snuck in 2012 and stole a piece of the Big Sky title with Montana State and Eastern Washington. Since then the Mustangs have moved on to some rough seasons and are now abandoning their offense for whatever Beau Baldwin creates. While Beau had great success at Eastern Washington his talents may be best used in another conference competing for a title away from Eastern.

Abilene Christian is not necessarily in a bad position, but they could stand to benefit from a new conference in the wins column, slightly better travel potentially, and a recruiting area separate from the Southland outright. An interesting caveat to this situation is that Abilene Christian lost 34-21 to Angelo State this past weekend. Angelo State also finished their four-game season by going 1-1 against West Texas A&M and a loss to SFA. Both Abilene Christian and Angelo State may be better suited for the WAC than originally thought.

West Texas A&M and Azusa Pacific are paired together in the sense that it is hard for Division II programs to jump up but maybe harder to convince New Mexico State to drop down a division. Azusa Pacific is close in proximity to Cal Poly and San Diego which makes them a no-brainer to invite to make the jump. West Texas A&M also pairs well with ACU and Tarleton State to make the Texas market worth it.

West Texas A&M also opens up the door to one of the most successful Division II teams in the region, the CSU-Pueblo Wolfpack. What CSU-Pueblo lacks in amenities they make up by being the surprise team of the decade at the Division II level. Additionally, while their stadium is on the modest side they do offer grassy family seating on the endzone to allow a maximum crowd of 10,000 Wolfpack faithful. Their stout playoff record and RMAC championships make CSU-Pueblo a great pick to be competitive quickly at the FCS level.

Reality Check – When does the WAC happen?

The WAC is something that most FCS fans are craving to see happen and who they will take under their wing. Unfortunately, we have to consider this could be a long term hopeful project. COVID will set some schools athletic directors, school boards, trustees, and etc into conservation mode as many schools lost enrollment this past fall. That lost enrollment means less student fees, tuition, room & board, meal plans, books, and more types of revenue lost on top of the lack of event revenue from the arts, speaking events, and athletics.

For perspective, an FCS school just switching conferences would likely be about a $250,000 dollar investment with conference exit fees and WAC entry fees. Then any additional costs to rebrand, reschedule any future contests, and other costs related to travel sources have to be considered. For a Divison II school factor in similar costs, but slightly less that is compounded with a 1.7 million dollar application fee to the NCAA to jump up a division.

When looking towards NMSU and whether it is likely for them to drop down it needs to be financially sound for them to do so. In good years at the FBS level the budget looks pretty good, but when they have rough travel costs not offset by a conference it can be grinding. Despite the hustle it requires to be an FBS independent, Idaho is the only one to drop down from the FBS and they have not won the conference since. While Idaho is not controlling the Big Sky that could be enough of a scare for NMSU to avoid dropping and stay in the hustle until someone is desperate enough to send them an invite.

While there has been a lot of rumors and some development (acquiring Dixie State and Tarleton State) the WAC is several years out from being a viable football conference. The foundation of this happening is still going to depend on schools’ willingness to dip into the budget, belief they can compete better in the WAC, and motivation, whether that comes from a good offer or a widespread realignment happening. Depending on how long COVID lasts I would keep the WAC on a three to five year back burner for schools to recover and become eager again.

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