Could a move by WKU in conference realignment help EKU into the FBS?

From the moment The Athletic reported last Monday that the University of Massachusetts would become the 13th all-sports member of the Mid-American Conference, attention turned to the question of who would be the next school to get in on the “MAC-tion.”

Compelled by the belief that the MAC would want an even number of teams for game-scheduling purposes, eyes immediately turned toward Western Kentucky University.

In 2021, with Conference USA having been plundered of nine teams by rival leagues, WKU and its C-USA rival Middle Tennessee State University were pursued by the MAC. At the time, Western Kentucky was all-in on the idea of moving to the MAC, but those plans were foiled when MTSU reversed field and decided to stay in C-USA.

With the MAC wishing not to be an odd-numbered league, MTSU’s decision meant Western was forced to stay in C-USA as well.

Given that history, it’s hardly a surprise that, now that the MAC needs another team to get back to an even number, attention has again turned to WKU.

Last Monday, the Toledo Blade’s Kyle Rowland, citing sources, reported “there continues to be mutual interest between the MAC and Western Kentucky.”

However, writing Thursday in the Bowling Green Daily News and citing a “source close to (WKU) athletics administration,” Jeff Nations reported that “if an (MAC) invitation is extended, WKU will listen with interest, but it’s not nearly as anxious for a new home as it was less than a handful of years ago.”

That’s what I am hearing from Bowling Green, too. That WKU still respects much about the MAC, but the imperatives, financial and otherwise, that were driving Western’s interest in switching leagues three years ago are not as pressing now.

In 2021, C-USA seemed on the verge of disintegration. The league had lost Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA (University of Texas at San Antonio) to the American Athletic Conference and Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi to the Sun Belt.

A shell-shocked WKU found itself left behind with Florida International, Louisiana Tech, MTSU and UTEP in the C-USA remnant.

Against that backdrop, the remarkable stability of the MAC — which has not lost a full-time member since Marshall bolted for C-USA in 2005 — looked like a safe harbor to WKU.

Three years later, however, C-USA has stabilized. The league has added Liberty, Jacksonville State, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State. Kennesaw State (2024-25) and Delaware (2025-2026) are on the way.

Conference USA has entered into a vastly improved media rights deal that sees all its games carried on platforms (linear or streaming) owned by either ESPN or CBS.

The 2023 Conference USA football champion, Liberty, earned the Group of Five automatic bid into the New Year’s Six Bowl structure. In the Fiesta Bowl, the Flames were boat raced by Oregon, 45-6, but C-USA put a team in a major bowl.

With all that, the MAC — presently consisting of Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo and Western Michigan — would likely still offer WKU more long-term stability moving forward than there will ever be in Conference USA.

Were I a WKU decision-maker, however, what would give me pause in terms of joining the Midwest-based MAC is that Western has built a football program that has played in 11 bowl games in the past 13 season by vigorously recruiting the South.

On the Hilltoppers’ 2023 roster, there were more players from Florida (21) than Kentucky (18). There were also 17 players from Georgia, 11 from Tennessee, eight from Alabama and six from Texas.

Are future recruits from those warm-weather states going to be enthusiastic about signing on to play wintry road games in Dekalb, Illinois; Ypsilanti, Michigan; and Amherst, Massachusetts?

For Kentuckians, there is another interesting facet to a potential WKU move to the MAC. If it happened, might Conference USA move to replace the Hilltoppers by inviting WKU’s longtime intrastate rival, Eastern Kentucky?

“That’s probably not for me to speculate,” EKU athletics director Matt Roan said Friday afternoon. “For us, we are very happy where we are. But we’ll continue to monitor the landscape.”

Western Kentucky guard Dontaie Allen (11) drives around Eastern Kentucky’s Devontae Blanton (10) during WKU’s 66-60 win at EKU on Nov. 10, 2022. Could the next chain reaction from conference realignment engulf both Western and Eastern?
Western Kentucky guard Dontaie Allen (11) drives around Eastern Kentucky’s Devontae Blanton (10) during WKU’s 66-60 win at EKU on Nov. 10, 2022. Could the next chain reaction from conference realignment engulf both Western and Eastern?

Already, C-USA has added three teams — Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State and Liberty — from EKU’s current league, the ASUN. (Eastern plays FCS football in the United Athletic Conference, a combination of schools from the ASUN and the Western Athletic Conference.)

“I’d be negligent if I wasn’t keeping an eye on what’s going on around the country, both with CFP (College Football Playoff) discussions, what’s happening at the P-5 level, what’s happening just this week with realignment (with UMass to the MAC),” Roan said. “We’re always working to position ourselves to compete at the highest level possible with regional and aspirational peers.”

It would be quite the twist if a decision by WKU turns out to hold the key to EKU achieving its long-held goal of moving from the FCS to the FBS.

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