Will other UAC teams follow Sam Houston's early exit to FBS?

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When the schools, affectionately known as the ‘Texas 4,’ decided to leave the Southland Conference and join the Western Athletic Conference for the 2021 season, the rumored plan was for the WAC to transition into the FBS in approximately 10 years.

However, Sam Houston threw a wrench into those plans when they accepted an invitation to transition to FBS and join Conference USA. Since the Bearkats decision to move to CUSA, multiple reports have surfaced of other schools in the now United Athletic Conference that could follow SHSU.

The 10 members of the football-only UAC announced an intention to move from FCS to FBS “at the earliest possible date,” according to a report by ESPN in December. But that announcement hasn’t slowed the rumors that other schools may jump to CUSA if extended an invitation before the UAC is ready to transition.

Tarleton has not been shy about expressing their desire to transition to FBS as soon as possible. The Texans expanded their stadium to a capacity of 24,000 last year and continue to upgrade current facilities with plans to build a new complex for the basketball team.  

Tarleton isn’t the only school mentioned as an institution that might be interested in departing for FBS early, with CUSA reportedly expressing interest in Stephen F. Austin and the Texans.

Sources close to Tarleton indicate that the school may still be a year or two away from being prepared to transition to FBS, and the chances of the Texans jumping to CUSA if invited is well above zero. It will take UTRGV some time to be ready for FBS competition, with the Vaqueros set to play its first football game in program history in 2025. 

But what about the other schools? Would SFA or Abilene Christian consider an early exit to FBS if a conference comes with an invitation? The answer is a firm no, and there are plenty of reasons why, according to sources I spoke to for this piece.

“They’re a lot further ahead with their athletic department than we are, so we had no desire to make that jump with them,” one coach said. “The plan was to go to the WAC together and move up as a league, and they chose to act on an opportunity that presented itself.”

How far ahead is Sam Houston from some of the other Texas schools in the UAC? Pretty far, according to one coach.

“We’re not in the same place as Sam Houston with facilities, pay, budget, and funding scholarships,” the coach said. “They have a $39 athletic fee, and ours is zero, so those are the things that play a factor in our plans.”

One coach acknowledged that they’re not close to being ready to compete with CUSA opponents and wondered whether the Bearkats are ready themselves from a facility and athletic department standpoint, a common question around Sam Houston’s campus, according to sources.

“People at Sam Houston know they aren’t ready yet,” the coach said. “I’ve heard people from there say that they’re more DII than they are DI right now.”

Every person contacted for this story said the Bearkats would be ready to compete on the field this year, especially after K.C. Keeler employed a unique strategy to redshirt many players last year.

However, one coach said that while Keeler has a team ready to compete against FBS foes, his roster isn’t as prepared.

“If we were to jump up to the FBS as an independent or choose to be a bottom feeder in the Sun Belt or Conference USA, I know I’m going to start polishing up my resume and prepare to get fired,” one coach said. “That’s what happens to coaches that make the transition at the bottom of the conference.”

While the UAC didn’t place an exact timeline on its plan to transition to FBS, most coaches feel the transition won’t happen within the next five years.

“There is just so much all of us need to do to be ready to move to FBS,” one coach said. “We might find out that Sam Houston wasn’t ready, and they were far more ready than the rest of us. It may not take 10 years, but I doubt we’re ready within the next five years.”

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