It seems like we just did this a few years back, but expansion rumor season is here again for college athletics.
And unlike last time where it was almost exclusively the big boys who were getting all the headlines, the Group of 5 is getting in on the act this time, as the American Athletic Conference and Sun Belt have pilfered Conference USA, leaving that league's future in doubt.
And similar to the last round of expansion, the MAC seems to be just sitting idly by, willing to let the chair shuffle around because at the end of the day, the same 12 schools that form the league will still be there.
And that's a problem in my eyes.
Yes, the MAC has stability. And most leagues would kill to have 12 schools that don't seem to be going anywhere, and have no real desire to, meaning the league won't suddenly be scrambling to add alphabet soup schools from southern Indiana or wherever they would have to turn to to keep the league afloat. That's a good thing, and a rarity in college sports these days.
But that stability and lack of movement is also a huge problem for the league. And I would argue that even with stability, the league has kind of grown stagnant and stale. In terms of exposure and interest, you'd have a hard time convincing me that the MAC isn't the least-talked about FBS conference there is at the moment. There's no real standout team this year, and the league's teams all take a back seat to their Big 10 counterparts all season long.
This isn't meant to be an insult to the current members of the MAC, who I adore and hope all stay in the league forever, but let's be honest about why the league has been as stable as it has been: It's because nobody wants these teams. Sure, there were some mild talks of Northern Illinois to the Big 12 a decade ago, and there were kind of some whispers about Buffalo possibly leaving to join a league out east, but other than that, the schools are not exactly hot candidates for other leagues.
It's 11 schools that are in pathetic TV markets, with only Buffalo possibly a draw for a league based on that criteria, and then teams that don't have huge or rich alumni bases, so they really wouldn't add a ton of prestige to any other league if they did somehow interest from other places.
Again, it's great for the MAC that they have 12 teams who seem to be staying put, but it's not because they are all getting along so well and don't want to upset the apple cart. It's literally because it's their only option to remain D1.
Which is why the MAC needs to take this opportunity as Conference USA crumbles and add new blood to the league, and they don't need to expand the league's footprint all that much to do it.
As the Sun Belt and AAC snag whatever teams they want, some interesting names are being left out in the cold that make a ton of sense to join the MAC, if they league is willing to step up to the plate: Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, and Marshall.
Marshall fits due to the obvious reason: They've been here before. West Virginia neighbors Ohio, and back in the day the Thundering Herd took part in some of the most memorable MAC Championship games in league history. Add in a national championship soccer program, and it almost makes too much sense to bring them back to the league, even if that decision may rest more in Marshall's hands than the MAC's.
Then there's MTSU and WKU. From a geography standpoint, WKU is the perfect fit for the MAC, just get on I-75 for pretty much any team that isn't Ball State or NIU, and you're there. And the Tops would be a great addition across the board, with a good football program, but perhaps more importantly for the MAC, a strong basketball program, something the league badly needs.
MTSU is just 90 minute down the road from WKU, so again, from a geography standpoint this works, in addition to all the teams that the Blue Raiders would be able to bring to the league. It almost makes too much sense to not swoop in and add both schools as soon as you can.
Not only does it expand the league's footprint, while not doing so outrageously, it adds new blood and interesting teams to the league. No offense to, let's just say Akron or Kent State, but as someone won went to a MAC West school, it's not exactly fun or exciting seeing those are the crossover games, and is especially true in sports outside of basketball and football, where the pool of league opponents is even smaller.
Sure, if you add those three you're at 15 teams and maybe need to find a 16th (hello UMass!), but possibly adding three quality athletic programs that fit the MAC both in terms of travel, town size, and competition level, seems like a fair trade if you end up having to add one outlier.
Again, the MAC is stable and its current 12 teams don't seem to be going anywhere. For the most part that's great. But it's boring, and a problem, and something that could be fixed if the league would take a little bit of the initiative, and go out and add new schools that are there for the taking.