As the 2021 college football season was winding down, the rumors swirled that it was all but official that the Mid-American Conference would be dipping its hand in the expansion game, adding current Conference USA foes Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky. These rumors generated a mixed bag of emotions in both the fan bases of the current MAC and the fan bases of the soon-to-be conference opponents. With Conference USA losing nine members to re-alignment, the loss of WKU and MTSU would undoubtedly be the death blow to the conference. However, this dream remained as such, as WKU and MTSU opted to stay put while the MAC stated that they were not looking to expand at the time.
The landscape of college football was forever changed in the summer of 2021 when Texas and Oklahoma decided to jump ship from the Big 12 and join the SEC. With G5 schools like UCF and Cincinnati joining the Big 12, and multiple G5 conferences allowing FCS schools to make the jump to FBS, it looked for a moment like the Great Conference Expansion had come to a halt.
Insert the Big Ten Conference.
The backyard neighbor to the MAC has decided to become the premier coast-to-coast conference with the shocking addition of UCLA and USC, who will join the conference in 2024. And they don’t look to be done. Rumored additions of Oregon, Washington, and even Notre Dame to the Big Ten, while grumblings of Clemson and Florida State to the SEC have begun, it has us thinking again about conference realignment for the mighty MAC.
Let’s look at the conference’s history in regards to expansion:
The MAC has stayed at a full 12-member conference since 2016, with the departure of UMass following the 2015-2016 football season. Before that, Temple left the MAC in 2012 for the Big East (which became a G5 conference in the AAC). Before Temple, the MAC played host to two FCS to FBS transitional teams: UCF (2004-2007), and a second stint by Marshall (1997-2005), the last year of 14 schools coming in 2004-2005, with Marshall and UCF in the East Division. Marshall was initially removed from the MAC in 1969 due to alleged recruiting violations, but that's a story for another time. Joining Marshall in 1997 was Northern Illinois, after a year of independence after making the jump from the Big Sky Conference in 1995. This would be NIU’s second stint (1975-1986) and they have been a flagship program since their return, appearing in nine MAC Championship football games. The last expansion of the conference came between 1971-1973, adding Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Ball State. Why is this important? The MAC is often credited with being one of the most stable conferences in FBS, with 13 full teams from 1997-2005, and 12 full teams since 2005. Not bad for a mid-major.
However, as the big boys of college football expand their footprint, it is now “expand and survive”. What does that look like? Many pundits are confident that realignment won’t stop at 16-18 for the SEC or Big Ten and that this is the beginning of “Super Conferences”. Our best guess is as good as any, but if the MAC is to survive then adding more teams THAT WOULD MAKE SENSE: financially, competitively, and academically. Geographically is nice, especially since the MAC is geographically located extremely close, however it's not necessary as the name of the game is to expand and survive. These are the five we would love to see:
Can’t say no twice, right?: Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee This was talked about 8 months ago, and frankly, it makes sense. MTSU and WKU are solid fits competitively, (MTSU is 13-10 against current MAC programs in football, while WKU is 17-24 against those same schools). Financially their annual endowments are in line with the MAC. MTSU would rank 12th above EMU and NIU at 108 Million, while WKU would sit 10th with BGSU at 175 Million. Academically, MTSU 86.48 would slot in at 6th between Ohio and WMU, while WKU would sit at 12th with a score of 81.77 above EMU and Akron (A full explanation of the school scores can be found HERE). Not to mention, the basketball profile of both would significantly elevate the MAC, and possibly help turn the conference into a multi-bid conference. And, there is just something about those directional school names and the MAC that just seems to work…
A no brainer, but a financial strain: North Dakota State and South Dakota State This one has been talked about FOREVER. While it's a geographical hike for two teams who only have to travel to Ohio once every other year, it's not that awful altogether in other aspects. NDSU has been known to knock off P5 and G5 opponents, including a mark of 6-0 against FBS teams since 2010, and SDSU has multiple FBS wins, including wins over two Big Ten and one Big 12 team in the last 12 years. Competitively it's a natural fit, and with their meteoric rise from DII in 2003 to nine-time FCS National Champion, it’s time for NDSU to make the jump and join the MAC. With SDSU, they are a consistent staple in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, so the move to an FBS conference is the next step. Financially, their endowments are higher than most of their potential MAC brethren, with NDSU sitting at 457 Million, and SDSU at 213 Million, good for 4th and 8th in the MAC respectively. Academically, these schools both elevate the MAC, dropping in immediately at five and six with school scores of 87.56 (NDSU) and 87.05 (SDSU). Of note, both schools would rank last in student population, which isn't inherently bad, but it is worth noting.
Athletically logical, but unlikely: Youngstown State and Indiana State I know, as if Ohio needs ANOTHER MAC school, this one makes the most sense. And we all know that Ball State would like a crack at the Victory Bell. Grabbing these two mainstays in FCS Missouri Valley Football Conference won’t have the same “wow” factor as NDSU/SDSU, but this one is about geography. Youngstown State is already an affiliate of the conference (Women’s LAX), and Indiana State is a short drive from Muncie, this is a logical step that wouldn’t incur much financial strain on either institution. Looking at its pedigree, Youngstown State has a greater football history than that Indiana State which is better known for its baseball success (4 NCAA Tournament appearances since 2012). The other metrics for their fit are a bit of a mixed bag, as YSU has an endowment of 275.9 Million which would rank 7th in the conference. ISU would sit dead last, with just 70 Million of endowment money, a good 8 Million behind EMU. Academically, this is where these two would come in the weakest in the conference. YSU would rank second to last in the MAC with a score of 80.37, just edging out Akron. Indiana State would be the bottom feeder of the conference with an anemic 75.34, well below Akron. It is worth noting that these schools would be dead last in the student population, similar to NDSU and SDSU.
The third time's a charm and this time, you can bring a friend: Marshall and Appalachian State Okay, before you say anything, hear me out. I know we have had a turbulent relationship with Marshall in the past. We don’t need to talk about the ’60s. We know that last season in the MAC wasn’t the best. But let's be honest, those were some legendary games we played together from 1997-2004. We are however going to ask a favor if you come back. Can you bring a friend, say… Appalachian State? It makes sense, honestly. App State is already an affiliate member of Field Hockey. But let's look at everything else. Competitively, both schools would feel right at home, even if it is a bit of a hike from ASU. Marshall is 123-160-8, and most of those losses came during the first stint with the MAC. Appalachian State, a relative newcomer to FBS is 4-2 against the MAC, including 2-0 against Toledo. Financially speaking? These schools would do fine in the MAC, Marshall sitting at 192 Million and ASU with 122 Million, good for 11th and 12th respectively. In regards to how they stack up academically, Appalachian State would come in at number two with an impressive 92.21 score. Marshall would be at the bottom of the conference, scoring 81.24, giving them the 13 spot in this fictional 14-team conference.
Wishlist adds. “Santa, are you there? I have been good this year” : Memphis and Louisville These two will never happen, but we can explore a “What If..?” right? Louisville doesn't add a bunch to the MAC for football (besides the whole market and exposure thing)… but that basketball addition? Yes, please. Memphis, same thing. That basketball profile is nothing to sneeze at, and their football is pretty good too. For kicks, we can dive into the other numbers. Competitively speaking, Louisville is only 29-18 against the MAC, and it looks like most of these games came before the 1980s, mostly the Frank Camp era at Louisville (1947-1968, outlasting Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, and Ara Parseghian at Miami). Not that it matters, but the records stand. Memphis sits at a peculiar 3-1 against just two MAC schools (2-1 vs BG, 1-0 vs Akron), so seeing them mix it up with some more MAC opponents sounds fun and could lead to the development of some fun rivalries. Financially, Louisville has an endowment of 960 Million and doesn’t take the top spot in the conference, as Buffalo edges them out by less than 13 Million. In this new version of the MAC, Memphis would come in ninth with an endowment of 223 Million. Looking at the academic ranking, Louisville beats out Western Michigan by .04 points for the fifth spot, boasting a score of 86.72. Memphis isn’t sitting too far behind and would drop into the seven-hole after Western Michigan, featuring a score of 86.28 keeping them in the top half of the “new” MAC. Maybe there is something here, but don’t tell those schools about it…YET.
So there you have it. If the Mid-American Conference doesn’t want to get left behind, now is the time to grab the bull by the horns and get proactive. I will be the first to admit that there is a whole slew of numbers, demographics, footprints, financial implications, and academic standards that I haven’t even begun to address, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to speculate. Realistically, if the MAC wants to expand, they should take a page out of the book of their backyard neighbors, get to 16 teams, and do it quickly. Some options seem ideal, some seem like a dream, and others seem like a natural progression, but no matter the situation, the landscape of college football is shifting, and it’s time to catch up or get left behind.
Mid-American Conference, you are on the clock, and the clock is ticking.