What are the options for the Texas teams in the WAC?

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Last Friday, another round of conference realignment occurred in the college sports world that may have slipped past mainstream headlines.

The results left the future of the Western Athletic Conference, which includes Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin, and Tarleton, in doubt. The day began with Missouri State announcing it accepted an invitation to join Conference USA, which was terrible news for the Texans' administration and fan base.

Despite recently completing its four-year transition from NCAA Division II, Tarleton has been vocal about its desire to transition from the FCS to the FBS. A possible C-USA invitation was seen as the golden ticket for this transition. However, the decision to invite the Bears not only dashed these hopes but also sent shockwaves throughout Stephenville.

And that was only the first shockwave for teams in the Western Athletic Conference. A few hours later, Grand Canyon and Seattle University announced that the two accepted invitations to join the West Coast Conference for the 2025-2026 academic year. GCU and Seattle became the third schools to announce a departure from the WAC since the middle of March, with UTRGV announcing its departure on March 25.

With rumors of SFA possibly returning to the Southland Conference as early as the end of May, according to Matt Brown on extrapointsmb.com, the WAC suddenly faces an uncertain future. Multiple sources indicated that SFA and the Southland Conference have yet to hold official meetings. Still, the ‘Jacks are likely headed back to the Southland, but that could also quickly change in today’s college football world.

A move back to the Southland will not please some donors, who have openly expressed displeasure at a move they view as not advancing the university forward. Other donors have voiced support, and it’s unlikely that new SFA President Dr. Neal Weaver and the board of regents would be interested in returning to the Southland without ensuring that a majority of donors are on board with the move.

Many pundits speculate that ACU would consider returning to the Southland if SFA returns to the league. However, sources indicate that hard feelings remain between some former members and the conference itself. Those issues didn’t occur under current Southland commissioner Chris Grant, but he is now responsible for healing those wounds. These wounds typically take time to recover when operating from a position of strength. The more dire the outlook for the WAC, the quicker ACU might be willing to accept a return to the Southland.

Tarleton's acceptance of an invite to the Southland Conference would indicate a change in direction for its administration. For years, it sought an invitation to the Southland, only to be denied. Tarleton would provide the Southland with another presence near Dallas and is a natural travel partner with Texas A&M-Commerce. Still, many wounds between the university and the Southland office would need to be repaired for a move to occur.

One concern mentioned by multiple fans revolves around the strength of the Southland Conference in basketball. When the WAC was formed, the goal was to become a league that consistently earned two bids to the NCAA Division I Men’s basketball tournament. The hope of being a two-bid league was dashed when Sam Houston and New Mexico State left to join C-USA, but that reality hasn’t sunk in for some.

Some observers consider the WAC the more prestigious basketball conference. Supporters of the Southland quickly mention that only the conference tournament champion will earn a spot in the tournament in both leagues. Fans appreciate the ability to understand conference standings without feeling like they need a degree in math. The WAC’s resume seeding system is complex for many devoted fans to understand and confusing to the average fan. 

What are the options for ACU and Tarleton if SFA returns to the Southland and WAC commissioner Brian Thornton can’t stabilize the conference? A move to FBS isn’t likely for either university without another shift in the current FBS Power Four and Group of Five programs. 

There remains a hierarchy within the Group of Five conferences. Any Power Four conference looking to expand would likely first look to the American Athletic and the Mountain West Conferences. Those conferences typically fill open spots by recruiting from Sun Belt or C-USA schools. The Sun Belt would recruit a C-USA school for any opening, while the C-USA has been willing to recruit from FCS. However, C-USA has 12 full-time members and doesn’t seem interested in expanding further right now. Meanwhile, the Mid-American Conference sits in the corner and hopes no one disturbs its apple cart. 

Another possibility for ACU and Tarleton is seeking an invitation to the Atlantic Sun Conference. Last year, ASUN and WAC football institutions combined to form the United Athletic Conference, and traveling to ASUN schools would seem better than constantly traveling to the Pacific time zone. 

Up to this point, I’ve assumed the WAC will fall apart, which is far from a likelihood at this moment. Commissioner Brian Thornton has proven doubters wrong before and will do everything possible to save the conference. Whether that means convincing a current FCS school to join or searching for NCAA Division II institutions willing to transition is yet to be determined.

Other options could exist. In April 2022, West Texas A&M President Dr. Walter Wendler wrote a blog post compellingly arguing for forming a Texas Athletic Conference. The post initially stirred some conversation that eventually faded, but sources indicate those talks have regained steam in light of recent developments. The extent of those talks is unknown at this time.

In any case, Texas non-FBS schools remain firmly attached to the conference realignment carousel, and there is no end in sight.

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