Normally, when we sit down to talk about how conference realignment could potentially impact BYU, we're talking about the Big 12 and major programs. That, of course, is still the realignment trend that would impact BYU the most, and when there's more information to discuss on that front, we'll certainly bring it to this table.
But there's another potential round of realignment, at the very bottom rungs of D1, that could potentially bubble up in a way that could impact BYU. We're talking about the WAC, which could very well completely disintegrate soon.
Wait, the WAC? Like, BYU's old conference? Who is even in that anyway?
The very same. College football history aficionados may have fond memories of the old Western Athletic Conference, which has a deep history of college football innovation, high flying offenses and fun games. The WAC eventually split to create the Mountain West (and giving birth to the NCAA Tournament's play-in games), but the last round of realignment completely crippled the football conference. Every team except Idaho and New Mexico State bolted for the MWC, or elsewhere.
The WAC shifted gears, adding a slew of new-to-D1 programs, independents and others without stable conference homes, dropped football and tried to rebuild.
Once all of the realignment dust settled, the WAC found itself with eight programs: Cal State-Bakersfield, Chicago State, Grand Canyon University, UMKC, New Mexico State, Seattle University, Texas-Rio Grande Valley and Utah Valley University.
Times have changed from BYU, Utah, Fresno State, etc. Now, the WAC is a collection of universities without a geographic, institutional or even athletic identity.
Why is the WAC at risk of falling apart?
There are two universities whose long-term membership in the WAC is especially tenuous.
One is Chicago State, already a bit of a geographic outlier from the rest of the conference. Chicago State, tucked away deep in Chicago's south side and without the financial resources of most D1 programs, is in the middle of a massive budget crisis that not only threatens their athletic department, but the very existence of the university itself.
I wrote about this in more detail for SBnation.com a few weeks ago, and while full-scale closure of the university may not be the most likely scenario, deep cuts into the athletic budget are certainly on the table. CSU isn't particularly competitive in most WAC sports, and further cuts would make that even more difficult.
What's the other school?
The other is New Mexico State, the top athletic program in the WAC. The Aggies still play FBS football, but after the Sun Belt terminated their membership, effective after the 2017 season, their future at the highest level of college football seems in doubt.
NMSU could remain in FBS as an independent and keep its Olympic sports in the WAC, but the financial and scheduling difficulties of life as an independent would make that very difficult to sustain long-term. This seems unlikely.
If the Big 12 expands by taking teams from the American, and the American then in turn adds teams from Conference USA, it is possible that CUSA could decide to add New Mexico State -- but if it did, it seems safe to assume this would be for all sports, meaning NMSU would leave the WAC.
The Aggies could also decide to drop to FCS, something fellow Sun Belt refugee Idaho is likely to do, which could mean that a conference like the Big Sky, for all sports, would be a likely fit.
NSMU is currently studying exactly what its next step should be. NMSU's president recently said the following in a release announcing the formation of a committee to study their next steps:
"The challenges of Athletic Conference alignment for both our Olympic sports as well as football has inspired the Chair of the Regents Deborah Hicks to form an "Athletic Review Committee" to advise myself and the Regents on options. As you know, we have two more seasons in the FBS Sun Belt Conference and then we are without a home. The Western Athletic Conference is struggling to maintain viability and is having some difficulty adding membership to ensure stability. Some of us have been in conversation with the Big Sky Conference regarding membership, and we have been approached by at least one other conference to consider membership for our Olympic sports.
So here's a university president saying the WAC is struggling to maintain viability and can't expand to give more security, and basically openly stating they're looking at other homes. That, plus Chicago State's situation, plus the context of the rest of these schools, is not a great sign.
The WAC is even losing affiliate members in other sports. North Dakota, who plays baseball in the WAC, just announced it is cutting its team.
So if those two programs leave, what happens to everybody else?
That's a great question. With six or seven teams, the WAC can still function (they don't lose their auto-bid unless membership drops below six). But the departure of either program would leave the WAC with programs in the west coast, mountain west, Texas and midwest. There would be no reason to assume future stability, and anybody that could actually leave would try. It is hard to imagine a six or seven team WAC being long for this world.
So what would happen to the other six? UMKC hasn't seen a ton of athletic success in major sports, but their geography could make them a good fit for the Summit League, which currently only has nine programs.
UT Rio Grande Valley might be able to grab a spot in the Atlantic Sun, an eight team league that has also struggled with losing members and could latch on to somebody outside of their immediate footprint in the name of stability. Cal State-Bakersfield would probably make sense in the Big West, a current nine team conference with multiple other California programs.
That leaves three teams: Grand Canyon, Seattle, and Utah Valley.
If the Big Sky added New Mexico State, it would be at 13 teams (non-football), so perhaps adding UVU to join Weber State and Southern Utah in the Beehive State and get to an even 14 would be possible. The Summit League could also make sense.
What happens to the other two schools though, is perhaps most interesting to BYU fans.
It isn't crazy the WCC would look at either Grand Canyon or Seattle
There aren't a ton of other programs that could potentially need a new home that fit the WCC institutional profile of being western, private universities. Not every potential WAC refugee is going to be able to squeeze into the Big Sky, after all.
Seattle, while not a great basketball program, could provide another potential geographic pair for Gonzaga or Portland. Seattle's other Olympic sports could potentially be competitive in the WCC as well (Seattle had a higher Director's Cup ranking last year than Santa Clara or Loyola, for example). It was also once a WCC member from 1971-1980.
Grand Canyon is the most interesting case. GCU sits in a big city (Phoenix), it has big money, a big arena, a big name coach (THUNDER DAN) and some big wins over big programs already. If you had to pick any program that is relatively new to D1, they might be the most likely to become a successful basketball program. If the WCC was looking for insurance in case BYU left for the Big 12 (or anywhere else), GCU makes some sense. They already have at least one coach supporting them.
Of course, GCU would also be tremendously controversial since it is currently for-profit, making them something of a pariah to some university presidents and conference commissioners. Even if it moves to a non-profit model, given the high percentage of its student body (and thus, funding) is from online students, the school is open to being hugely damaged by regulatory change.
If the federal government decided to, for example, withold FAFSA funding to a school whose online graduation rate was really low (not impossible), a school like GCU could become crippled. It's a big risk.
Would the addition of either of those programs be good for BYU?
In the short or medium term? No. BYU might be hurt the most right now by the middling computer profile of many WCC basketball programs. Playing so many guaranteed games against sub RPI-150 programs (including many on the road, where BYU might lose), has played a huge role in BYU basketball being in bubble territory the past few seasons, and dramatically shrinks the Cougars' margin of error.
By adding either GCU or Seattle, BYU will be tied to even more below-average basketball programs, lowering its computer profile even more. GCU, specifically, would be bad for BYU. It would take time for either program to build up their infrastructure enough to compete with St.Mary's, Gonzaga, BYU etc. and compete for postseason bids.
Adding WCC conference games either takes away nonconference schedule opportunities (where BYU could face stronger competition, or at least get a home game to earn revenue), or risks diluting WCC competition, where BYU could risk losing a game against Gonzaga or St. Mary's.
15 years from now, Seattle or GCU could lead to a more robust and strong WCC. But in the meantime, it would make it even harder for BYU to make the NCAA Tournament.
The WCC is good for BYU in many ways. It's a solid fit for many Olympic sports. It provides easier travel opportunities for BYU fans on the west coast to see them. It provides flexibility on Sunday play.
But if the WCC adds a WAC refugee program, it would dilute the schedule math enough that BYU should honestly look at another home for basketball if the Big 12 for all sports can't happen.
WCC expansion isn't imminent. But the downfall of the WAC could legitimately happen in the next two years. And if it does, keep a close eye on where everybody goes. It might just end up impacting BYU after all.