What are the options for the ASC to retain an automatic bid to the playoffs?

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American Southwest Conference commissioner Amy Carlton has seen a lot of movement among the members of the conference since she began her term as interim commissioner in June 2006. But her most difficult challenge lies ahead, with the ASC projected to have four members remaining that sponsor football when the 2026 season begins.

The most recent movement began when Belhaven withdrew its membership last year. Southwestern is leaving the ASC for the Southern Athletic Association for the upcoming season. At the same time, McMurry, Austin College, and Texas Lutheran are expected to depart for the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference in 2024. Add in Sul Ross State transitioning to NCAA Division II and the Lone Star Conference, and the conference is facing an uncertain future.

The four schools expected to be football members of the ASC in 2026 are Mary Hardin-Baylor, Hardin-Simmons, Howard Payne, and East Texas Baptist. These four institutions are affectionately called the “Baptist Four,” considering each school’s ties to the Baptist denomination.

Speculation on the future of the ASC is rampant across the NCAA Division III landscape, but what are the realistic options for a conference that could potentially lose its automatic bid to the D-III playoffs? This question was posed to industry experts and ASC coaches.

“There are a couple of things they could do,” one industry source said. “They could enter a scheduling agreement with the SAA or the SCAC where they play two or three games against each other every year.”

The problem with this scenario is that the conference would not have an automatic bid to the playoffs and would be grouped with pool B teams, where the teams playing in a conference without an automatic bid fight it out for one tournament bid. The remaining teams are then placed in pool C with every other team that hasn’t earned a bid to vie for one of the few at-large spots for the playoffs.

The ASC could make an alliance similar to the one the Lone Star Conference currently has with Great Northwest Athletic Conference schools. For this to happen, the ASC would need another conference to have its football members join the ASC as affiliate members for football only. This option would result in one automatic bid, with the remaining teams sent to pool C.

The key to this scenario is the ASC finding another conference in the country in a similar position. These mergers are typically born from each conference being in a position of weakness. Is there another conference that fits this situation?

“The Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has had a couple of schools drop football recently, so they went from eight down to six teams. They still have an automatic bid, but if someone else in that league decides to drop football, then they’re in a world of hurt over there.”

Another conference that could soon find itself searching for a football merger is the SAA. Rumors are swirling around the future of Birmingham Southern’s ability to keep its doors open. The school recently approached the Alabama legislature seeking $37.5 million in public funds to help keep its doors open. AL.com reports the outlook for BSC receiving the funds is doubtful.

“There are genuine concerns over whether Birmingham Southern will open its doors in the fall,” one industry source said. “That leads to the question of the viability of the Southern Athletic Association.”

One problem facing the ASC in a merger with any conference is the success of Mary Hardin-Baylor. The future of the Crusaders football program is a discussion for another day, but it’s no secret that many teams are leaving the ASC to avoid playing the Cru during the regular season each year.

“A merger with the SCAC schools would be tough,” one coach said. “They’ll be back to playing Mary Hardin-Baylor and Hardin-Simmons every year, and that’s what McMurry is trying to get away from with their move.”

“There’s a lot of upset people in this conference right now,” another coach said. “The two powerhouses, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Hardin-Simmons are upset and feel there isn’t enough being done to replace the teams leaving.”

That’s understandable, but are many options remaining for the ASC to add members? 

“There are a few things they can do,” one former D-III head coach said. “They can survive, but they’re going to have to pull some guys from the SAA or recruit a few of the NAIA schools who may not have the financial resources to continue to give athletic scholarships.”

There may be a few NAIA schools in Texas that would listen to a pitch from the ASC right now. But again, it will be a school struggling to pay for athletic scholarships to remain competitive, so it’s not likely to be a successful athletic program like Texas Wesleyan or SAGU.

“I could see Wayland Baptist or Texas College being open to moving to Division III,” one coach said. “I don’t think Texas Wesleyan or SAGU would be willing to give up the athletic scholarships. That leaves someone like Louisiana Christian, who left the ASC in 2021 but could return.”

“I think you have to put everything on the table,” another coach added. “There can be no bad options at this point.”

Ain’t that the truth! One current ASC head coach was able to provide some optimism with the conference facing tough decisions.

“We’ve always been a conference that has helped other conferences out, and I think there’s going to be some reciprocation,” one ASC coach said. “I think some schools will come in and help us remain together until we can get our conference built back up.”

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