What’s next for the Southland and the WAC?

Photo courtesy UIW Athletics

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In case you missed the classic Friday news dump before a holiday weekend, reports of Stephen F. Austin’s impending return to the Southland Conference were confirmed minutes before many left work for Memorial Day. The move happened less than two weeks after yours truly penned a piece examining the options for the Texas teams in the Western Athletic Conference.

Many believed SFA’s departure from the WAC to the Southland was a formality. That belief strengthened when Grand Canyon and Seattle University announced their intention to join the West Coast Conference for the 2025-2026 academic year. 

SFA is now the fourth school to announce its departure from the WAC since UTRGV announced its intention to join the WAC for the 2024-2025 school year in late March. The WAC is currently slated to have seven full-time members on July 1, 2025, including Abilene Christian, Tarleton, Texas-Arlington, Utah Valley, California Baptist, Utah Tech, and Southern Utah. 

University administrations quickly follow the winds of change in today’s college football world. They are constantly searching to keep their school and athletics department in a viable conference, which means conversations are continually taking place to remain ahead of the curve.

While the conversations are a natural part of the process, the WAC's future depends on Commissioner Brian Thornton’s ability to stop the bleeding. Thornton’s initial focus must be to receive a commitment from the remaining seven member institutions. Sources have not indicated any such commitment from every school at this time. Any speculation from this writer on the options for the non-Texas schools in the WAC would be uninformed and misguided.

An alliance of the WAC football members and the Atlantic Sun Conference formed the United Athletic Conference. Currently, the UAC has eight members, which allows the conference to maintain its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The current alignment of the WAC and the UAC is sustainable. However, further defections would leave both conferences in danger of losing their automatic bid to the NCAA tournaments.

Another factor to consider is whether Southland Commissioner Chris Grant will continue to seek opportunities to expand beyond the conference’s current alignment of 12 full-time members. The SLC will have nine members sponsoring football in 2024. That number will increase to ten when UTRGV joins FCS in 2025. Below is the current map of the SLC for the 2024-2025 school year.

The Sickos Committee on X/Twitter posted a map of the current layout of Southland Conference institutions. It noted how the conference is “like the platonic ideal of a regional all-sports conference,” which has been Grant's stated goal since he became commissioner in April 2022. 

Grant has openly expressed his desire to make the Southland a “gas tank league,” where supporters of teams can travel to conference road games on one tank of gas. One issue with the recent realignment moves for many fans has been the loss of rivalries that have decades of history. Most of those rivalries developed due to conferences of teams in the same region. 

While some SFA supporters expressed their displeasure with what they view as a regression for their beloved school, others expressed their satisfaction knowing the ‘Jacks' rivalry with Northwestern State will continue. Some even discussed a way to bring back Chief Caddo, the 7-foot-6-inch trophy made of solid wood and weighing over 330 pounds, awarded to the winner of their annual football game while acknowledging the need for a different name.

Grant must remain mindful of his desire to ensure opposing fans can make a day trip to watch their team on the road if the SLC considers further expansion. Sources indicate the Southland Conference's ultimate ambition is to become a 14-member league split into two divisions. UTA is the least likely to join the Southland of the three Texas teams in the WAC. 

Sources indicate that ACU has an open invitation to join the Southland, but the university has yet to contact the SLC to begin conversations. Many pundits, including yours truly, believed Tarleton joining the Southland was a long shot. However, two weeks is a long time in today’s college landscape, and sources indicate that the Texans might be interested in moving to the SLC. Sources note the SLC is done making moves for the upcoming academic year.

Tarleton joining the Southland could be the catalyst for ACU to begin talks about a possible return to the conference, especially if the Utah schools leave the WAC. However, we must look at a Southland Conference with Tarleton and ACU to ensure the league maintains its regional appeal.

The addition of Tarleton would shore up the conference’s footing in the DFW market, and Texas A&M-Commerce would be a natural travel partner for the Texans. Adding ACU would force the SLC to split into two divisions, each consisting of seven teams, to remain a ‘gas tank’ league in men’s and women’s basketball. The SLC would be a 12-team football conference and likely split into two divisions with some crossover games to fill the schedule. 

Sources have indicated that Grant wants to create one division consisting of only teams from Texas. The commissioner doesn’t need to wait for expansion to make this happen. One division, possibly the East Division, could consist of the five Louisiana teams (Nicholls, Southeastern La., McNeese, Northwestern State, and New Orleans) and Lamar. The second division, potentially the West Division, would consist of UIW, Houston Christian, Texas A&M-Commerce, UTRGV, and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Understanding the scenario above might be difficult to implement for the 2024-2025 school year, but anything is possible in college athletics in 2024.

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