FCS Conference Changes On The Way

The latest wave of realignment and change is moving across the FCS landscape.  Although the effects are minimal for 2017, the following three years have enough going on to make the average fan’s head spin - mine included!  So let’s took a look at what’s officially been announced and maybe do a little speculating for one major conference.
Liberty is transitioning to FBS football during the 2017 season.  This is the one move that most casual fans probably have a grasp on.  They will not be eligible for the Big South Conference Championship, its automatic playoff bid or even an at-large bid to the FCS Playoffs.  This move could have really left the Big South in a bind moving forward, as the NCAA requires at least six teams in a conference to receive automatic bid consideration.  So in 2018, with only five schools remaining, here comes Campbell to the rescue, who already has many of their other sports represented in the Big South.  It should be an interesting jump though as they leave the non-scholarship Pioneer League for their new home.  The Big South didn’t stop there though.  As Liberty leaves the FCS, North Alabama moves in from Division II for 2018.  They fully replace Liberty in 2019, when they become the Big South’s seventh team.
The next move is in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.  Savannah State has decided to reclassify their entire program, not just football, to Division II (or maybe lower). The 2017 season will be their last competing in the FCS and the MEAC.  The hope is the return to Division II will help restore some of the athletic success they had in the past.
The Pioneer League will still have eleven teams in 2017, but that falls to ten in 2018 with the aforementioned defection of Campbell to the Big South Conference.
The last move effects two of the major FCS conferences, the Big Sky and the Missouri Valley Football Conference.  Nothing changes for 2017.  In 2018, on the other hand, it brings a familiar face back to the Big Sky, as Idaho comes back from FBS after a 21-year hiatus.  It will be very interesting seeing them back on the field competing with neighbors Idaho State, Eastern Washington and the Montana schools, with the games counting towards a conference championship.  This will coincide with the semi-departure of North Dakota.  North Dakota is still scheduled to play against the Big Sky in 2018-19, but it’s unclear as to whether they will officially have an independent status.  If they are declared independent, they wouldn’t be eligible to receive the conference’s automatic playoff bid, but could still garner an at-large.  That point is really moot as automatic bids get no favoritism to at-larges as far as playoff seeding and/or consideration in concerned.  But when 2020 rolls around, North Dakota is officially gone and rejoining familiar faces of their own in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
UND has been stuck in the Big Sky Conference for the last half decade.  It's been more of a marriage of convenience than of love.  Sure, the Big Sky has given North Dakota a platform to thrive, especially in football, recently.  But being situated on the eastern edge of North Dakota (Grand Forks), those road trips to places in California, Oregon and Washington are very taxing on a school’s travel budget.  The move to the MVFC would reunite them with natural rivals from North and South Dakota, all of whom they shared the North Central Conference with back in their Division II days.
With this move taking effect in 2020, scheduling issues should be avoided.  What is next for the MVFC?  The thought they would stay at 11 teams seems unlikely, although not impossible.  The Southland Conference goes it with 11.  MVFC Commissioner, Patty Viverito, recently made the comment that the conference is happy with eleven teams, but the conference wouldn’t rule out adding a twelfth is the fit was right.
With three years before everything is set into place, let’s do some speculating.  Who are the best bets to be "on the radar" for the MVFC, if they decide to become a square dozen?  Here are some potentials:
  • Central Arkansas (Conway, AR).  Geographically this isn't a bad move for the MVFC, though it could be more for the Bears.  They wouldn't be too far removed from Missouri State or even Southern Illinois, but everywhere else would be as far, if not further.  Their proximity to ten conference destinations all falling in Texas or Louisiana would be much easier for their travel budget.  The jump into a conference like the MVFC would be a tough decision as well.  Right now, UCA is a big fish in a smaller pond within the Southland Conference.  In the MVFC, they would be just one of the other fish.  Overall though, this move would both strengthen the MVFC and hurt the Southland from the MVFC’s point of view.
  • Eastern Illinois (Charleston, IL).  Perfect match geographically.  But the Panthers bolted from the old Gateway Conference (predecessor to the MVFC) years ago for the Ohio Valley.  Some of those rumors included they were jumping to find themselves a better path to the playoffs.  That's neither here nor there, though they have had some pretty decent success in the OVC.  And that's despite the meteoric rise of Jacksonville State.  It seems unlikely the MVFC would ask them back and even less likely that Eastern Illinois would accept.
  • Eastern Kentucky (Richmond, KY).  Again, another very good match geographically, though a smidge out of the way.  The Colonels definitely have the pedigree to be the 12th member as a former I-AA/FCS National Champion.  Would be a coup if this move were to happen.  EKU is one of only two schools who have been part of the OVC since its inception in 1948 (Murray State being the other).  That alone would appear to be the strike against relocation.  One would think they'd at least listen, but it’s unlikely they'd make the jump.
  • Drake (Des Moines, IA).  Sitting right in the middle of MVFC territory, this is an option to consider.  Add the fact that Drake is also a member of the similarly named but unrelated MVC basketball conference, you have another plus.  The big strike here is that the Bulldogs belong to the Pioneer League in FCS, a non-scholarship league.  With an enrollment of just over 3,000, a bump to 63 scholarships for FCS football in three years doesn't loom plausible.  Drake has played some non-conference games against MVFC in recent years and those games have been mostly lopsided.  A move would hurt the morale of a decent non-scholarship school for many years to come before reaping the benefits of a jump.
  • Dayton (Dayton, OH).  Dayton, much like Eastern Kentucky, would be a nice bridge geographically between the current MVFC and Youngstown State which is the conference's great eastern outlier.  Though this would be an even better option as the city lies directly between Youngstown and Terre Haute (Indiana State).  The Flyers also belong to the non-scholarship Pioneer League, but is a larger private school.  The university has long been host to NCAA basketball tourney games and has served as host for the First Four games for several years.  A move by 2020 might be a stretch for them scholarship-wise, but this is an established winner in the Pioneer League already.  Combine the fact that current PFL members Jacksonville and Stetson may be swooned to join the Big South as part of a Big South/Atlantic Sun co-operative, a jump to the MVFC might seem very attractive.
Given these five candidates, it seems like Central Arkansas and Dayton would be the most logical.  Central Arkansas widens the geography of the MVFC, which may or may not be a consideration.  Weakening a neighboring and competing conference, especially for playoff bids, may seem attractive but could actually have an adverse effect by adding another top-level affiliate.  This could lead to even more conference cannibalizing than the MVFC already experiences.  And this is without North Dakota playing yet.
Dayton is probably the best choice of all those considered from the list above.  The geographic bridge would seem very appealing, especially to Youngstown State.  Given three years to get the scholarship situation figured out, Dayton could be, at least, marginally competitive right from the get go.  Add to the fact that other Pioneer schools like Jacksonville and Stetson could eventually be swooned to join the Big South as part of the Big South/Atlantic Sun co-operative, accepting a bid sooner, rather than later, might be wise.
Should we even think about the Big Sky asking the University of San Diego to be their 14th?
It never ends!