A decade ago, the NCAA underwent major conference realignment that saw 39 conference changes among the 120 FBS programs from 2011-14, including some schools switching conferences twice in that span. That change saw the Big East stop sponsoring football, the WAC move from the FBS to FCS level, and the creation of the American Athletic Conference.
The MAC mostly stayed out of that conference shuffle, with the only changes being football-only member Temple leaving and UMass joining as a football-only member before leaving prior to the 2016 season. With realignment happening again, the MAC should join the fray.
Expansion, specifically adding the right programs, could help the MAC leverage more money from media contracts and benefit current MAC schools along with the schools it would be adding to the mix.
Current realignment and MAC targets
Oklahoma and Texas kicked off the latest round of realignment when they announced they were departing the Big 12 for the SEC in 2025. The Big 12 countered by adding BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, who will all join in either 2023 or ‘24, the latter three all coming from the American.
The American Conference then pivoted to snatch teams from the Conference-USA just as it did upon its formation, announcing this week that Charlotte, UTSA, Rice, FAU, UAB and North Texas will all join the AAC, though the date of entry for those teams has not been yet been determined.
These changes leave the CUSA, once arguably the best non-major conference, hanging by a thread. The conference has two options; dissolving and having its remaining teams choose between other conferences such as the Sun Belt and MAC, or adding more teams currently in the FCS looking to make a step up.
This gives the MAC an opportunity to add quality schools without reaching too far outside of its geographical footprint, including a chance to reunite with a former MAC program in a deal that benefits both sides.
The two schools closest to the MAC geographically in the Conference-USA that I would argue make sense to add are Western Kentucky and Marshall. Marshall was in the MAC twice previously, from 1954-69 and 1997-2005, while Western Kentucky has been in the FBS since 2009 and moved from the Sun Belt to the CUSA in 2014.
When Marshall left the MAC for the CUSA, it did so because it was dominating MAC football and looking for a better conference. The Thundering Herd won the MAC in five of its eight seasons, and its five MAC Championship game wins still stand as the record for the Conference it left over 15 years ago.
After a long time in the Ohio Valley Conference, Western Kentucky found a home in the Sun Belt for just over 30 years, adding its football program in for the last five before believing it could upgrade with a move to the Conference-USA. While a return to the Sun Belt is certainly a possibility, the MAC should at least reach out as the Hilltoppers are a growing program.
The biggest factor in a conference considering a school for membership is its football program, so let’s start there.
After a long run of success under Jack Harbaugh culminating in an FCS National Championship in 2002, Western Kentucky decided to move its football program to the FBS level. David Elson oversaw the transition, but an 0-12 record in the school’s first season of bowl eligibility had Elson out the door.
WKU alumn Willie Taggart took over and posted back-to-back 7-5 seasons, earning the school’s first-ever bowl game in 2012 before leaving for the job at South Florida. A one year reclamation season for Bobby Petrino before he went back to Louisville preceded an ultra-successful run from Jeff Brohm.
Brohm led the school to a 7-5 record in its first year as a CUSA member in 2014 and a Bahamas Bowl victory. The next season, the Hilltoppers would go 12-2, win the CUSA championship and another bowl game, and finish the year No. 24 in the AP Poll for its first-ever ranking. After a 10-3 campaign in 2016 and another CUSA title, Brohm left for Purdue.
WKU has been less successful since Brohm left outside of a 9-4 season and First Responders Bowl victory over Western Michigan in 2019, but the school can still boast seven seasons with a winning record and as many bowl trips in the past 10 years. The Hilltoppers would slot into the always-tightly contested MAC West nicely.
Marshall football struggled after leaving the MAC, making just one bowl game in its first six seasons in the CUSA. The Thundering Herd’s fortune changed with the signing of Doc Holliday ahead of the 2010 season.
Holliday’s success wasn’t immediate, as he posted an overall record of 17-20 over his first three seasons. In 2013, however, Marshall found another gear. The Thundering Herd went 9-3, lost the CUSA Championship game to Rice, and then won the Military Bowl over Maryland for the school’s first 10-win season since Bob Pruett won his final MAC title in 2002.
In 2014, Holliday and Marshall got as high as No. 18 in the AP Poll in an 11-0 start before falling to Western Kentucky in the season finale. Wins in the CUSA Championship game for a first conference title since 2002 and the Boca Raton Bowl over MAC Champion Northern Illinois gave Marshall 13 wins and a No. 23 ranking in the final AP Poll.
Marshall hasn’t won the CUSA since, but remained successful by going to a bowl game in all but one season from 2013-20. Marshall made a surprising decision to not renew the contract of the second-winningest football coach in school history this offseason, opting to hire the much younger Charles Huff, who had served as Alabama’s associate head coach and running backs coach the last two years.
Marshall would likely return to the MAC East as immediate contenders. I wouldn’t expect them to rattle off six consecutive trips to the MAC Championship game like they joined the conference, but they would likely slot into the top half of the conference.
Next we’ll look at facilities, because conferences are often worried about looking good at their member institutions’ homes.
Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium would easily become the largest football venue in the MAC with a capacity of 38,227. CMU’s Kelly-Shorts Stadium is currently the largest in the MAC, seating 30,255 to edge out in-state rivals EMU and WMU, both with 30,200-person stadiums. Edwards Stadium was built in 1991, making it newer than 10 current MAC football stadiums.
The Cam Henderson Center, Marshall’s basketball facility, opened in 1981 and has a capacity of 9,048. The original construction of “The Cam” saw several issues, and the arena wouldn’t be a crown jewel for the conference, but would fit in just fine with other basketball arenas in the MAC. It would have the fourth-highest capacity among MAC gyms.
Marshall opened the Chris Cline Athletic Complex in 2014, a building that features a full-size football field and track. The arena is usable not only for practice of several sports, but indoor track and field competition as well. Marshall also has a fine soccer stadium, Hoops Family Field, that opened in 2013 and seat’s 1,006 people and is currently fundraising to build a new baseball stadium.
Western Kentucky’s facilities are a bit smaller than those of Marshall. WKU has one of the smaller football stadiums among FBS schools, as Houchens Industries-LT Smith Stadium has a capacity of just 22,000. Originally built in 1968, the stadium received major renovations in 2008 and looks modern and in great shape.
The Hilltoppers play basketball and volleyball inside of EA Diddle Arena, a 7,523-seat stadium built in 1963. Diddle Arena was renovated in 2002 and received more upgrades in 2018 including new video boards and courtside seating. The 2002 update added an expansive weight room and a two-court practice area in the arena.
Baseball at WKU is played at Nick Denes field, which features indoor batting cages and a clubhouse with coaches offices and a training room built in 2010. Softball and women’s soccer had new fields in 2000, though the soccer stadium does not have a press box.
The only other sports likely to make a difference in an athletic conference consideration are men’s and women’s basketball.
Marshall men’s basketball has had consistent success under Dan D’Antoni, older brother of NBA head coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni took the head coaching job in 2014 and has led the Thundering Herd to six consecutive winning seasons and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2018.
Women’s basketball has had less success at Marshall, with just one tournament appearance coming in 1997. The program has had just one winning season in the last five years, a 17-15 regular season in 2018-19 that culminated in a trip to the CBI, where the Thundering Herd lost in the second round.
WKU men’s basketball has had great success in the Conference-USA, winning no fewer than 20 games in each of the last four years under Rick Stansbury. That success follows a great run in the Sun Belt at the start of the 2000s, when the team made seven NCAA tournament trips from 2001-13.
Women’s basketball took a downturn in 2020-21 for the Lady Toppers, going 7-16, but the program has decades of success to fall back on. From 2013-19, the Lady Toppers were in a postseason tournament each year including four conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths. Going further back, WKU went to six Sweet 16s from 1985-95 including Final Four trips in ‘85, ‘86 and ‘92.
Should the MAC offer a spot to Marshall and Western Kentucky?
Yes. Both of these schools have had enough success in football and basketball for them to be desirable targets for the MAC. Both schools have shown a willingness to spend money on athletics and upgrade athletic facilities when it makes sense to do so. With the Conference-USA hanging by a thread, the MAC has a unique opportunity to add valuable programs to its conference and bolster its future.