Conference USA Expansion That Should Happen

Where should Conference USA look to rebuild their ranks as conference realignment isn't going anywhere and seems to continue to heat up?

Chaos. Pure chaos. No other word can properly describe the last few years of college football expansion as it feels more like a dynasty mode in NCAA 14 than real life at times.

Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC? USC and UCLA in the Big Ten? Somebody needs to turn the PS3 off.

The Wild Wild West of College Football Realignment

Before we get into the chaos, it’s important to understand that perhaps no conference has dealt with more chaos than Conference USA.

From teams getting poached by bigger conferences to in-conference fighting causing teams to leave just months before the season starts, the CUSA has had a lot going on lately. The conference will look quite different in 2023, and that’s something fans should likely get used to in the Conference USA.

How Did We Get Here

Conference USA has lost nine teams since this new round of realignment began roughly two years ago.

That’s a lot of upheaval for a conference that, at one point in time, was one of the premier Group of Five conferences in the country. The conference lost six schools to the American Athletic Conference after their own conference was raided by the Big 12.

UTSA, Charlotte, UAB, North Texas, and FAU joined the American this year, while Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss abruptly left to join the Sun Belt Conference just a couple of months prior to the season last year.

Add all that up, and that leaves you with just five remaining schools, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, and Florida International.

MORE: Conference USA Weekly Football Schedule, 2023

Combatting the departures, Conference USA officially announced the additions of four new teams set to compete during the 2023 season on July 1st: Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State, and Sam Houston State. That also includes Kennesaw State set to join in 2024.

Even with these additions, that leaves only 10 teams in the league. CUSA simply has to continue expanding and, ideally, get back up to at least a 14-team conference.

If they were to expand, here are some teams to keep in mind.

Not Happening, but Absolutely Should be a Top Target.

UConn Huskies

UConn should be the first, second, and third call that Conference USA officials make. The school has a lot of money, a good fan base, and a football team that is on the rise.

But the crown jewel here is obviously the basketball teams.

There have been rumors lately of UConn joining the Big 12 to further solidify that conference as a basketball powerhouse, so UConn most likely would not even take CUSA’s phone calls, but it should be explored nevertheless.

No Brainers, but Ultimately Won’t Happen

  • North Dakota State Bison
  • South Dakota State Jackrabbits
  • Montana Grizzlies
  • Montana State Bobcats

Four FCS powerhouses that have the talent, facilities, and fanbases to come in and immediately compete for the CUSA title year in and year out.

North Dakota State is always in contention for the FCS National Championship each year and has long been discussed as a team that should move up. South Dakota State just defeated North Dakota State for the 2022 National Championship and has been a consistent presence in the playoffs.

Montana and Montana State are both elite programs that compete for championships every year. These teams would bring in a whole new set of eyeballs and regionality to the conference. They would bring in two distinct, very strong rivalry games, integral and important to the sport.

Both of these rivalry games have been the host of College Gameday before as well as they traveled to South Dakota State in 2019 and Montana State just last year in 2022.

All four of these schools should be strongly considered, but ultimately it’s unlikely they won’t make the cut because they just don’t fit into CUSA’s footprint enough and would cost to much money in travel.

The Realistic Options

Central Arkansas Bears

The Bears have a long, proud history of success at the lower levels. They have won three national titles in their history and have had loads of playoff success in the past 20 years.

Settled in the small college town of Conway, Arkansas, UCA has a very strong fan and city support. The Bears also built brand new, state-of-the-art facilities in 2012 that give them some of the best facilities at the FCS level.

Central Arkansas has the facilities and talent level to move up and have immediate success at the FBS level.

Missouri State Bears

We promise not all of these schools will be named the Bears.

Missouri State has long played second fiddle in the state to the University of Missouri, but the school and the program are very successful in their own right. The program has had a lot of success both in the past and recently boasting 10 conference championships with their most recent one coming in 2020.

They are the second largest school by population in the state and consistently have one of the highest per-game fan attendance in the FCS. Missouri is a very underrated football state with a lot of very passionate fans. The state currently only has one FBS team, but Missouri State is definitely ready to make the move up.

McNeese State Cowboys

Located in Lake Charles, Louisiana, McNeese State was one of the most dominant teams in the FCS throughout the 90s and 2000s.

The Cowboys have a strong foundation of success and, much like Missouri State, find themselves in a state with very strong fandom. They have had some down years recently, but they are going into year two of a new coaching staff who hopes they can restore the Cowboys to their past glory.

They have the facilities, location, and history on their side and would be a prime candidate to move up. Not to mention, they have a rivalry with Central Arkansas and that’s always a draw in college sports.

Tarleton State Texans

Next up is a trio of Texas schools. Conference USA Headquarters is located in Dallas and the conference has historically had a very strong foothold in the state. With there currently being only two Texas schools in the Conference (UTEP and Sam Houston), the powers at be may look to add more schools in the region.

Tarleton State has been a fast riser in college football, having just made the jump from Division II to FCS in 2020. In 2021, they built brand new facilities that rival many Group of Five schools, and they have fielded competitive teams in their first few years in the FCS.

They are definitely a program that feels very much on the rise.

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

Stephen F. Austin has been at the FCS level for what feels like forever. They, historically, have been consistently middle of the pack, but for the past 10-15 years they’ve steadily improved and have won three conference championships and made the playoffs four times in that time frame. They are a program with a lot of potential and one that could really take off.

Incarnate Word Cardinals

Incarnate Word is another fast riser that has had a lot of success in the short time they have been in the FCS. Making the jump from D-II to FCS in 2013, the program has won three conference titles and made the playoffs three times, with two deep playoff runs in 2021 and 2022.

The most challenging aspect of a move up for Incarnate Word would be their lack of facilities. They would need to upgrade their stadium and facilities overall to keep their success going at the next level. Easier said than done, but they have been the most successful of the three Texas schools and have lots of potential to become a perennial powerhouse.

This fall will tell a lot about where the program is headed as they have to undergo yet another head-coaching change.

UT Chattanooga Mocs

The Mocs are a perfect target for Conference USA. They fit perfectly in the Conference’s footprint and they are a team that is primed for lots of success in the future.

The Mocs broke ground on a new $36-million dollar football facility back in March, they are in a good-sized media market with good proximity to Knoxville, Atlanta, and Nashville, and they have had good success on the field in recent years. They have a coaching staff with a proven track record of player development, having had a first-round draft pick in 2022.

Adding the Mocs would also create some fun rivalries between Kennesaw State, which is only about an hour away, and MTSU as an in-state rival. Chattanooga should be a very exciting option.

Elon Phoenix

Call me weird, but I love conferences that have at least one high academic school. CUSA lost that when Rice left for the American. Elon could be their replacement.

Like most high academic schools, Elon has a good amount of money at their disposal; they’ve just chosen to use it in other areas. Making a move up could prompt the organization to use more of the money on athletics.

The Phoenix have made the playoffs three out of the last five years, so the program has had success. With increased revenue from a move-up and more financial backing from the university, Elon could be a really fun addition to CUSA. They would also do wonders for the Conference’s Academic numbers.

Campbell Camels

The team name alone is enough to warrant a move up to FBS, but the Camels are a sleeping giant of a program. The program is relatively new, having restarted the football team back in 2008. While they haven’t had a ton of success in that time frame the last few years have been very exciting for the Camels.

They have been recruiting at an insane level for an FCS program, coming out ahead of many Group of Five schools in rankings. It seems like the program is really starting to build something special.

A move-up could be just what they need, giving them more money to help with facilities and to keep the Coaching staff in place.

Richmond Spiders

The Spiders were an elite program in the late 2000s and mid-2010s, winning a national championship in 2008. While they haven’t been quite as successful lately, they look to be back on track after having made the playoffs last season.

They have the facilities, money, and market to have instant success at the next level. Not to mention their basketball team is consistently great. There is also the opportunity for an in-state rivalry with Liberty.

William & Mary Tribe

Another school similar to Elon, but with more money and a better basketball program, the Tribe just came off a hugely impressive 10-1 season last year and won their first playoff game since 2015. Time will tell if they will be able to keep that success up, but they have everything a school needs for sustained success.

Much like Richmond, the basketball team would probably be the biggest draw here, but the football program has a lot of potential and is an exciting option. And again, who isn’t a sucker for a good, high-academic school.

Combine Conferences with the New United Athletic Conference

If you’re unaware, two FCS conferences, the Atlantic Sun and the WAC, joined forces in December of 2022 to form a “Super Conference” with the ultimate hope that, eventually, the entire conference will move up into the FBS together.

The teams in the new Conference are: Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky, North Alabama, Central Arkansas, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton State, Abilene Christian, Utah Tech, Southern Utah, and the brand new program Texas Rio Grande Valley coming in 2025. A number of teams previously mentioned here are located in this new conference.

Who knows when – or if – this conference will be allowed to move up into the FBS, but merging with the United Athletic Conference would be the smartest and easiest way for Conference USA to rebuild. All of these schools, with the exception of the two Utah schools, fit perfectly into CUSA’s geographical footprint and each school is ready to make the jump up to the FBS.

Merging with the UAC would give Conference USA a total of 20 teams. Some people may think 20 teams is too many but with the Big Ten and the SEC soon to be playing with 16 teams, and still looking to add more, why couldn’t Conference USA have success with 20 teams?

Imagining this scenario, here’s how the conference could align:

East – WKU, Liberty, MTSU, Kennesaw State, Jacksonville State, FIU, Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky, Central Arkansas

West – LA Tech, Sam Houston State, UTEP, New Mexico State, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton State, Abilene Christian, Utah Tech, Southern Utah

There’s a nice natural divide that gives you an ideal split of Eastern and Western teams with 10 teams per division.

There is no shortage of ways Conference USA can go about refilling its ranks; time will only tell. Until then, join the chaos, and watch as the conferences play their own real-life version of NCAA 14 on the grandest of stages.