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Southland Conference Expansion…Time to Consider Some Options

Category: Editorial, Featured News, NCAA Division Upgrades, Southland Expansion & Realignment

The Southland Conference, an FCS football conference, has known for sometime that their membership numbers might be shrinking. For a decade, Texas St. has been public about their desire to upgrade to FBS football. UTSA, a school without football much of this decade has plans to go from having no football program to being FBS in 2014. Not to be left out, FCS football newcomer Lamar has long term eyes set on FBS. And with three other Texas schools preparing to upgrade, Sam Houston St. has flirted with the idea of an upgrade.

This all leaves the Southland in a tough spot: a conference of 9 football members and 3 non-football members that could one day be reduced to 6 football members and 2 non-football members.

The Southland members who could find themselves minus a few nearby schools include Central Arkansas, Nichols St., McNeese St., Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern St., SE Louisiana along with the two non-football members Texas-Arlington & Texas A&M-Corpus; Christ.

And with those membership numbers of 6/8, the Southland might need to look at some other options. But for the immediate future, it looks like the Southland will lose UTSA and Texas St. to the WAC by 2014, losing 2 members.

Unlike the MVFC, Summit, Big Sky or WCC, there are a limited number of options for the Southland. They would need more football schools to maintain stability, but there just aren’t too many in the region that would consider the Southland an upgrade.

There are a number of non-football options that the Southland might take a look at in the region. But football schools with be a higher priority. 

Should the Southland seek to expand in the future, some of the potential candidates could include:

Arkansas-Little Rock:
Location: Little Rock, AR
Current Conference: Sunbelt Conference
Status: non-football school

The Southland would prefer to have multiple options that were football sponsoring schools. But that might not be the case. UALR is a member of the Sunbelt, but has seen that conference make a strong push towards being an all-sports conference. Only Denver & UALR remain as non-football Sunbelt schools. And the day might come when the Sunbelt formally asks the non-football schools to find new homes.

UALR has already had exploratory discussions with the Summit League in the event they are formally asked to leave. But the Southland might be a better fit. Located just 20 minutes south of Southland member the University of Central Arkansas, UALR would make the ideal travel partner. That’s a solid convenience for schools traveling to UCA to know they can play UALR during the same road trip.

The question the UALR administration must consider is if the Sunbelt forced them out and Southland invited them, would they be better off in the much improved Summit League?

Oral Roberts
Location: Tulsa, OK
Current Conference: Summit League
Status: non-football school

Oral Roberts has found a string of success in the Summit. And while the Summit has improved much as a conference, Oral Roberts still remains a bit south from the current schools. With the recent departure of Centenary (LA) from the Summit, Oral Roberts remains as the southern-most school. 

Despite not sponsoring football, Oral Roberts would bring plenty to the Southland. While their sports presence might not be huge in Tulsa, it would give the Southland some access to that market while expanding the footprint from Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana into Oklahoma. Just a few years ago, Oral Roberts would be a 100% lock to accept an invitation. But with the improvements in the Summit, it might be less than a sure lock they’d make the move.

Houston Baptist
Location: Houston, TX
Current Conference: Great West
Status: non-football school

Houston Baptist is one of the sure bets to accept any proposed Southland invitation. They are currently in the Great West, which is essentially just a scheduling agreement by various schools in the country without a proper conference. The Great West does not hold an NCAA tournament bid, so any conference with a bid would be an upgrade.

The Southland is already focused much in Texas. But if they were to lose 2-4 schools from the state, they might be more open to adding Texas replacements. The irony is that while UALR and Oral Roberts might be more attractive candidates, had Houston Baptist or other current Division 1 school just had an FCS football school, they would top the list.

Texas-Pan American
Location: Edinburg, TX
Current Conference: Great West
Status: non-football member

Texas-Pan American along with the schools in Miami have the distinction of being the furthest south in the country. UTPA lies just a few miles from the Mexico border. But as a school in the state of Texas, they have that advantage if the Southland looked to replace 2-4 lost Texas schools. And like Houston Baptist, if the Southland needs a replacement, UTPA will accept in a matter of seconds.

Delta St.
Location: Cleveland, MS
Current Conference: Division II
Status: all-sports member

Delta St. is the first football school to make the list. While there are a number of other FCS schools that might consider a move to the Southland, Delta St. is the school that might jump at the chance to join. Their other option would be a potential OVC invite. Southland or OVC membership would all depend on the ability to pull off an u
pgrade from Division 2 to Division 1. The school would not add much in terms of market, but would push the Southland footprint east of Louisiana and into Mississippi. Delta St. is an attractive candidate primarily because their football program has enjoyed a high level of success at the Division 2 level.

Tarleton St.
Location: Stephenville, TX
Current Conference: Division 2
Status: all-sports member

Like Delta St., Tarleton St. has proven itself to be a suitable Division 2 school worth considering an upgrade to FCS. Tarleton St. could be an ideal replacement for lost Texas schools in the process.

North Alabama
Location: Florence, AL
Current Conference: Division 2, considering upgrade to Division 1
Status: all-sports member

North Alabama is worth noting as they have made progress in their quest to upgrade to Division 1. As a strong D2 program, the school would add some football strength to replace any departing members. North Alabama remains a strong option for the OVC, even if Jacksonville St. upgraded to FBS. In all likelihood, the Southland will never have a chance to invite UNA.

Abilene Christian University
Location: Abilene, TX
Current Conference: Division 2
Status: all-sports member

ACU is another potential D2 upgrade the Southland might eventually court. While the conference would prefer existing FBS schools, it’s clear that the options are limited. ACU would also replace some of the Texas presence that could be lost with FBS upgrades.

West Texas A&M;
Location: Canyon, TX
Current Conference: Division 2
Status: all-sports member

Like some of the other Division 2 schools, WTAMU would provide another Texas presence. But it also requires relying on a Division 2 school to upgrade, something that won’t happen overnight.

Texas A&M; – Kingsville
Location: Kingsville, TX
Current Conference: Division 2
Status: all-sports member

Same story as the other Division 2 options in Texas.

Midwestern St.
Location: Wichita Falls, TX
Current Conference: Division 2
Status: all-sports member

Same story as the other Division 2 options in Texas.

Jacksonville St.
Location: Jacksonville, AL
Current Conference: OVC
Status: all-sports member

Jacksonville St. is clearly the top qualified option for the Southland. The school has had football success to the extent that they too, like some existing Southland schools, have considered an upgrade to FBS. The question isn’t would the Southland accept Jacksonville St., it’s would Jacksonville St. even consider a move to the Southland. Jacksonville St. has the advantage of sitting in a geographic location where 3 strong football conferences meet: Alabama. They sit at the southern most section of the OVC footprint, in the same state as Samford of the Southern Conference. Jacksonville St. is only a few hundred miles from the Louisiana based Southland schools. At this time, all signs point to Jacksonville St. having little interest in the Southland.

The Affiliate Option:

If the Southland finds itself in a tough spot with few Division 2 schools to consider, they could always attempt to bring in FCS affiliate members for football and local schools for all other sports.

With the recent defections by UC Davis and Cal Poly to the Big Sky for football only, the Great West Football Conference is now down to 3 members: North Dakota, South Dakota and Southern Utah. Each of those schools has it’s eyes on other conferences though. SUU hopes to one day be an all-sports member of the Big Sky. North Dakota and South Dakota hope to join fellow Dakota schools NDSU and SDSU in the MVFC for football. Three Dakota schools are Summit League members for other sports, with North Dakota expected to eventually join.

If the Southland did lose 2-4 members, they could always replace them with their top candidates. Hypothetically, those candidates could be UALR and Oral Roberts. The conference could then invite UND,
USD and SUU as affiliate football members. they could always just bring in SUU to replace the departing Texas St. If any affiliate members leave in the future, so be it. The affiliate schools bring some extra schools into the fold, but as long as the Southland has at least 6 football members, their FCS playoff bid will remain.

There are a number of different scenarios that could play out still. For now, according to the Southland commissioner, it does appear that it’s a matter of “when” UTSA and Texas St. leave for the WAC as opposed to “if”. So rather that do nothing, we can assume the Southland office is preparing for their loses.

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  • Would Central Oklahoma be interested in upgrading from Division II? Their enrollment certainly is in line with a Division I school.

  • I am not sure how much longer they can sponsor football. They might want to start inviting more non-football members.


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