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Sun Belt cutting Idaho and New Mexico State after 2017; what’s next?

Idaho and New Mexico State will see their contracts to be football-only members of the Sun Belt Conference expire at the end of the 2017 college football season, since again putting the two leftovers from the imploded WAC conference during realignmageddon a few years ago back on the brink of uncharted waters for FBS programs. The Sun Belt Conference has made the decision not to renew the contracts of the two schools and will move forward without the programs latching on after 2017, despite recent efforts made by each university to convince the conference to keep them in the line-up.

“This was a strategic decision that was reached following a thorough and complete review of our options,” said Sun Belt Conference and Texas State University President Dr. Denise Trauth. “The Sun Belt’s Presidents and Chancellors strongly believe it is in the best interest of the conference to have a core membership of 10 football teams that are geographically located within the ‘footprint’ of the conference and that these 10 members also compete in all conference sports.  This decision, along with the full 12-team membership that goes into place for the 2016-17 season with the addition of Coastal Carolina University, will reduce travel demands and missed class time for all Sun Belt student-athletes – while also furthering the development of regional rivalries within the conference.”

By the time all of the upcoming changes occur, the Sun Belt will have a 10-team football conference with the departures of Idaho and New Mexico State and the addition of Coastal Carolina. Coastal Carolina will begin playing Sun Belt football in 2017. A recent vote by the NCAA granted the authority to hold a conference championship game with fewer than 12 football-playing members, which means the Sun Belt Conference could hold a conference championship game despite parting ways with Idaho and New Mexico State. The conference will discuss that possibility in the coming months.

Looking forward, what will the options be for Idaho and New Mexico State? Be warned, it is not a very optimistic outlook any way you slice it. The Mountain West Conference has no reason to expand, and expansion for the sake of expansion is never a good way to go. The Mountain West Conference previously informed both schools to move on to Plan B back when the WAC was left to ashes during previous realignment changes, and there is no reason the conference should feel any differently a few years later. If the Mountain West Conference is not interested, forget about the other options like the Pac-12 and Big 12. Idaho president Chuck Staben released a statement announcing the school will evaluate the options of playing as an independent or dropping down from FBS to FCS to play in the Big Sky Conference, which hosts Idaho’s non-football sports.

As I see it, here are the scenarios that must be considered by Idaho and/or New Mexico State:

Play as an Independent

Playing as a football independent is not easy to pull off, and it is not like we are talking about a program of the caliber of Notre Dame or BYU. Idaho and New Mexico State would be stuck trying to fill out a complete 12-game college football schedule at a time when scheduling game sis becoming increasingly more difficult to do with schools scheduling games farther and farther in advance and conferences expanding conference scheduling to nine games (and 10-game conference schedules may not be an unrealistic possibility in the future).

What also must be considered is Idaho is not likely to have the same pull to signing the kind of scheduling agreements BYU can with home-and-home deals. As great as the Kibbie Dome may be, power conference programs are not flocking to make the visit. The same can be said for New Mexico State. This makes operating as a football program difficult.

Dropping to FCS

It is unprecedented for a program from the FBS to drop down a level to compete at the FCS level, but it is one I have suggested be considered before. When UMass got word it was going to be removed from the MAC, the possibility of stepping back down to the FCS was the most ideal scenario I could come up with. I said this because UMass was not getting an invite from the ACC or Big Ten, and the American Athletic Conference has shown little interest in adding the Minutemen. Unless Conference USA reached out with an invite, which they have not as of yet, then the UMass program’s hopes and dreams of playing at the FBS level may end up being short-lived.

Idaho and New Mexico State could see a similar fate, if they choose to continue playing football. Travel expenses in the FCS figure to be considerably less demanding that attempting to stay afloat as a football independent at the FBS level. The good news for Idaho is the invite to the Big Sky is there waiting for the Vandals to accept. New Mexico State is in a different situation, as the WAC that crumbled in football is still the conference home for other sports. If New Mexico State is going to continue playing football and be a part of a conference, then it must find a new conference home for either just football or all sports. The FCS may be the most welcoming for that to occur.

Dropping to the FCS would force university leaders to swallow a bit of their pride, which can be difficult to do. A decision to drop down a level will likely come off as an admittance that the university has failed. That can be unfair. There are some negative conclusions that can be drawn from a school opting to move down a level, but in the end, if it is the best possible move for the program and university in the long run then the decision should be easy. Football is great, but at what cost to the university?

Drop Football

This is, of course, an absolute worst-case scenario and it is not one I am advocating for. But it is something that should at least be discussed. We have laid a handful of programs to rest over the past couple of decades, and I do not think we will see Idaho suffer a similar fate. New Mexico State is a program I would have some mild concerns about given the current conference alignment in the WAC in non-football sports, but let’s not rush to bury the program.

I hope those in charge at Idaho and New Mexico State do what is best for their program and university. It is no fun watching programs struggle, and this is an unfortunate circumstance that may even be out of their hands as a result of realignment changes in the search for money across the country. Maybe Idaho and New Mexico State are at fault for a number of the reasons their programs and universities are in this troubling situation, but now is the time to make the smart decisions to prevent any more damage.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.