Take a bow, Mountain West. You did the hard part this week by clasping hands and sticking together amid a fog of fear, uncertainty and college football realignment tumult.
With Colorado State, Air Force, San Diego State and Boise State resisting overtures from a scrambling American Athletic Conference, they all opted against jumping off one rickety ship to board another. That makes each something of a unicorn among FBS athletic programs these days, whose administrators often struggle to resist even marginal increases in media distributions.
For that, the Grading the Week staff stands in applause.
Mountain West — A
But your work is not done yet, Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson.
While your conference remains intact, one can still see the hazy outline of more Ayn Randian objectivist chaos off in the distance. As sure as New Mexico will field an underwhelming football program, self-interest will once again take a wrecking ball to the regional rivalries and traditions that drew us to college athletics in the first place.
If the Mountain West and its member schools are to be a part of this brave new world, Thompson must now be proactive in securing its future. That is, unless he’s content with his conference continuing to serve as a weigh station for its top programs to bide their time until the next round of Power 5 offers. (Which, admittedly, is somewhat unavoidable given the Big 12’s consistently wandering eye.)
Translation: Thompson must aggressively seek expansion opportunities that strengthen the Mountain West.
The way we see it, there are two options: Either Thompson reaches out to the AAC to forge a partnership similar to the Pac-12/Big Ten/ACC alliance that can benefit both brands in future scheduling/media negotiations, or he goes looking for other programs that will make the Mountain West the clear No. 6 conference in FBS.
In regards to the latter, a handful of schools would make a whole lot of sense for the conference: SMU and Tulsa in the AAC, and UTSA, UTEP and/or Rice in Conference USA.
Not only would that open up fertile recruiting grounds in Texas and Oklahoma, it would expand the conference’s geographic footprint into another time zone, bringing with it more broadcast windows, viewership and national relevance.
If there’s anything this last week proved, it’s that the AAC’s position as a “Power 6” conference — however propped up it might’ve been by ESPN — was vastly overstated now that Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida are Big 12-bound.
The difference in distributions between the AAC and Mountain West is certain to either shrink or disappear altogether once those three schools leave and the AAC’s media partners demand a re-negotiation of their deals.
And with that comes a chance to swing the pendulum in the other direction.
Up until this week, Mr. Thompson’s greatest accomplishment was being in the room while leaders from the SEC, ACC and Notre Dame mapped out a potential College Football Playoff expansion to 12 teams that would open up access to Group of 5 schools.
Now, he’s the man who helped stave off the AAC poachers at the gates (or at least he can claim to be). If he plays his cards right, maybe he can be remembered for even more.
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