FCS Check Down: Episode 3: Southern Utah HC Delane Fitzgerald offers his thoughts on Thunderbird Football and the attraction of FCS to FBS transitions
In February 2021, ASUN Commissioner announced the addition of football to the conference and the addition of three new teams. Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, and Jacksonville State were heading for the Sun in 2021, with Kennesaw State and North Alabama joining in the 2022 season. The alliance between the ASUN and WAC, known as the ASUN-WAC Challenge (AQ7) will allow one team an automatic qualifying bid. I breakdown the three teams in the ASUN and provide insight to the big questions looming for the 2021 campaign and give a final grade assessment for each position.
Central Arkansas Bears
Eastern Kentucky Colonels
Jacksonville State Gamecocks
New ASUN-WAC Challenge for 2021
On February 23, 2021, the ASUN (Don’t call us Atlantic Sun) Conference and the Western Athletic Conference (Call us the WAC) announced they would be joining forces for the 2021 football season and then later divide to sponsor their football conferences. This will encompass a re-start for sponsoring football for the WAC, which left the football game in 2013. It will also introduce sponsoring football for the ASUN Conference, which has been one of the better non-football conferences in the nation, with schools like Liberty, North Florida, and Florida Gulf Coast University garnering national attention with successful basketball programs. With the announcement, the ASUN instantly looks like a potential powerhouse in FCS football with Central Arkansas, Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky, and future members Kennesaw State and North Alabama. The WAC didn’t know it at the time of the announcement, but they also look like an immediate force at the FCS level, as they will feature 2021 FCS National Champions, Sam Houston State Bearkats. The announcement served as the solution for two conferences to meet the automatic qualifying standard, joining together for the ASUN-WAC Challenge for the 2021 season. A conference alliance, known as the AQ7, will feature three schools (Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State) from the ASUN and four from the WAC (Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin). These seven schools will battle for a chance to compete in the FCS Playoffs for the Fall 2021 football season. So let’s examine how the AQ7 breaks down.
The AQ7 Conference
The ASUN Conference and WAC have agreed on a one-year football scheduling alliance for the 2021 fall football season. “The ASUN and WAC are proud to be building opportunities for our student-athletes to compete at the highest level,” stated ASUN Commissioner Ted Gumbart. “This partnership provides teams in both leagues a path to an automatic bid and elevates the ASUN and WAC to a new level of competition. We look forward to creating more innovative ways to promote ASUN Football as an NCAA FCS league in 2021 and beyond.” During the February 2021 announcement, it was confirmed the current ASUN members, Kennesaw State and North Alabama, will continue to participate in the Big South Conference for the 2021 season. Also, current WAC members Dixie State and Tarleton State will participate in the joint schedule but will not be eligible for the group’s automatic bid due to their status as NCAA Division I reclassifying institutions. Three other football programs associated with both conferences will remain unaffected by the new alliance, as WAC member New Mexico State and ASUN member Liberty will continue as an FBS Independent. ASUN member Stetson will continue to play in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.
The seven schools will be known AQ7, will play a single round-robin, with each institution having three home contests and three road contests. The team with the highest winning percentage among AQ7 games shall receive the automatic qualification to the FCS playoffs. In addition, a trophy will be presented to the conference that has the highest winning percentage against the other conference. This AQ7 Champion will represent the ASUN-WAC Challenge in the Playoffs. Additionally, an at-large bid is also a genuine possibility for this powerful conference.
The ASUN joining the mix of sponsoring football is a bit of a surprise in one way, but likely a necessary jump to preserve the future of the conference. The ASUN watched the last founding member leave the conference in 2013 when the Mercer Bears re-started their football program and joined the Southern Conference. It also saw East Tennessee State University, Jacksonville State, and Gardner-Webb leave from 2008-2011 to join football conferences. Then the ASUN had to watch the Big South Conference, who they have an alliance, get the spotlight as startup Kennesaw State became one of the most successful football programs in the nation. However, since 2018 when Liberty rejoined the conference in all sports, excluding football, the conference has been upswing. Adding North Alabama in 2018 was more proof Ted Gumbart and the ASUN were drawing attention from successful programs looking to make the jump from Division II into the D-I ranks. With the addition of Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, and Jacksonville State, the football community is turning to look at the ASUN and would like to know how they are doing what it is doing. Whatever it is, ASUN Commissioner Gumbart is doing it right. The 2022 ASUN Football Conference is looking like it will be a powerful conference, featuring nationally-ranked UCA, JAX State, and Kennesaw State. Don’t forget EKU, which has a storied program, is a team that has is moving in the right direction and just picked up a considerable transfer class, including a QB from Auburn, Cord Sandberg.
Additionally, UNA has a history of success at the D-II level. The Lions distinguished itself as the only team to win three consecutive football national championships in NCAA Division II. Still, more work has to be done to fill out the conference.
The ASUN Conference only has five football teams as of Summer 2021. They need six to receive an automatic bid. Could Stetson make the jump to scholarship football from the Pioneer League? Not likely. How about Jacksonville? The Dolphins are a full member of the ASUN but discontinued their football program in 2019. They are unlikely re-start it anytime soon. Therefore, the ASUN has to look elsewhere. It has generally welcomed teams from the southeast region, except Northern Kentucky and NJIT, who only stayed in the conference for three years and five years, respectively. But, with adding teams in Arkansas and Kentucky, the option of adding teams in the central time zone is much more likely. However, the schools that make the most sense are still in the southeast. Teams like former ASUN members ETSU, Mercer, Samford, Campbell, and Gardner-Webb seem to be targeted for the new-look ASUN. With the Southland Conference losing its big-name schools, their future is legitimately in question. That makes their remaining schools, Nicholls State, Incarnate Word, and McNeese State, potential targets. Due to the location of teams from the Southern Conference, they are potential targets for the ASUN.
Moreover, targets that may be unlikely but make sense are Chattanooga (SoCon), Elon (CAA), Austin Peay (OVC), Missouri State (The Valley), SE MO State (OVC), and Tennessee Tech (OVC). The ASUN could also look to schools like Valdosta State or West Georgia, both D-II schools that have rumored to want to jump to the D-I FCS level. Either way, the ASUN is poised to be a contender for many years to come in the FCS, and it starts in the Fall 2021.
Finally, don’t believe the rumors of the ASUN jumping into the FBS ranks in a couple of years. The teams they are associating with are happy at the FCS level. Blogs continually speculate that FCS teams will make the jump, and with the successes of Liberty and Coastal Carolina, it is tempting. Fans generally fan (no pun intended) the flames of these rumors, but the jump to FBS is no small task. Larger stadiums, additional scholarships, and a requirement to have at least 15K fans per game is a stretch for these schools. While Jacksonville State averaged more than 16,000 in 2019, other schools in the ASUN struggled to hit 5,000 fans in attendance. The average for FCS schools in 2019 was just over 7,000 in attendance. So, don’t buy the hype. The ASUN is positioning itself to be a contender at the FCS level for years to come.
It seems like only yesterday, the WAC was a power-five conference and sponsored FBS football with teams like The Air Force Academy, BYU, UNLV, San Diego State, TCU, Wyoming, and Utah. Then a mass exodus from the WAC to the Mountain West and Pac-12 left the WAC a fractured football conference and the decision in 2012 was made to no longer sponsor football. But, the WAC is Back with the expansion of the conference adding more FCS football schools and more to scheduled come. Abilene Christian, Lamar University, Sam Houston State, and Stephen F. Austin officially join the WAC in July 2021. Dixie State (In the process of changing the school’s name) and Tarleton State are still in the reclassification period for transitioning from D-II to D-I and will not be eligible for the post-season for another two football seasons. All of the teams in the WAC will play a WAC schedule starting in 2021 as well as compete against the three ASUN schools for the ASUN-WAC Challenge. Southern Utah is scheduled to join the WAC in 2022. Jeff Hurd has brought football back to the Western Athletic Conference, and Sam Houston rewarded him with being the reigning FCS Champion. That notoriety will make the conference a primary talking point for all FCS football fans. The timing could not have been more perfect, and the WAC is shaping up to be a great conference. Two additional teams are rumored to be added later, making the WAC a potential eight-team football conference. The more, the merrier, and there are rumors the WAC is looking at schools like Weber State and some California and Colorado football programs to gauge their interest in joining. Additionally, former WAC member Idaho could be a target for membership. Like the ASUN, rumors abound about the WAC having aspirations of jumping back in the FBS game. While there may be some validity to the talk, it appears the WAC is focusing on the FCS level, and the future is very bright with how the WAC has presented its re-entry into sponsoring football.