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Why not merge Conference USA and the Sun Belt like this?

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This setup looks more fun and easy to remember than what we have now.

Western Kentucky v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The most interesting conference realignment suggestion for now comes from Harry Minium of The Virginian-Pilot, echoing an earlier suggestion from Patrick McGhee of the Sun Herald.

The idea? It’s time for Conference USA and the Sun Belt to think about some sort of merger. A consolidation of two Group of 5 conferences could address two major problems.

McGhee proposed a sprawling, 28-team megaconference, bringing in C-USA, Sun Belt, and a few FCS programs, like James Madison and Sam Houston State. The WAC might have taught us that it can be logistically difficult to run a 16-team-plus conference, but erring on the side of practicality isn’t fun, and if non-power football should be anything, it should be fun.

So here’s a fun idea for what a Conference USA/Sun belt hybrid might look like:

North

  • Appalachian State
  • Liberty
  • Marshall
  • Middle Tennessee State
  • Old Dominion
  • Western Kentucky

South

  • Charlotte
  • Coastal Carolina
  • FAU
  • FIU
  • Georgia Southern
  • Georgia State

Texas and Friends

  • Arkansas State
  • New Mexico State
  • North Texas
  • Rice
  • Texas State
  • UTSA
  • UTEP

Central

  • Louisiana-Lafayette
  • Louisiana-Monroe
  • Louisiana Tech
  • South Alabama
  • Southern Miss
  • Troy
  • UAB

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about consolidating conferences recently. We poked around at what MOUNT USA might have looked like when the Mountain West and Conference USA talked about joining forces back in 2012. We mapped out the once-proposed Big 12/Big East merger. Fans of schools in other G5 conferences have floated various other merger proposals, like this AAC/C-USA one. And who could forget the SUNBEAST?

This setup would make it way easier to remember who is where.

If you aren’t a graduate of a Conference USA school, you probably can’t name every program in the league right now. That’s OK; league membership has changed quite a bit! But by hewing more to pure geography, you know what division everybody is in.

This also brings all of the non-P5/AAC Texas schools into one league, helping grow rivalries. It lets UAB build one with South Alabama. Georgia State and Georgia Southern can continue their fans’ hated blood-feud over who gets to go by GSU. Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe can continue their blood-feud over who gets to use “Louisiana” the most. We are pro-G5 football blood-feuds, basically.

Plus, we even found conference homes for New Mexico State and Liberty! UMass? Well, uh, you guys are on your own.

With four divisions, the conference could even set up a four-team playoff to determine a league champion, interesting inventory for a television package. Would you watch a four-team playoff with Western Kentucky, Georgia Southern, UTSA, and Southern Miss? I bet you would.

One way or another, changes are coming, due to TV.

The last Big Ten TV deal showed that — despite concerns about cord cutting from traditional cable companies — elite programs can still command major rights fees. But the crunch may be coming for smaller leagues, and nobody has faced that more than Conference USA. Per Minium, TV revenue from Conference USA plummeted from “$1.1 million per school in 2015-16 to $200,000 this year.”

There are a few reasons. There’s the trend of companies like ESPN bleeding subscribers, and thus facing a strong reason to be a bit more frugal. And C-USA’s membership has changed substantially, losing recognizable brands like Houston and Memphis and replacing them with start-ups, like Charlotte, or programs without much history, like Florida International.

A loss of a few hundred thousand dollars a year from TV hurts in a league where the average athletic department budget is around $30 million (compared to say, the Big 12, where it is north of $75 million). And the sprawling geography of Conference USA doesn’t help. Old Dominion has to travel to places like Miami, Denton, and San Antonio not just for football, but for non-revenue sports as well.

Plus, expansion and weird geography makes starting rivalries difficult.

For smaller or newer athletic programs, building engagement from fans and students is critical, and nothing helps that more than by establishing rivalries. But with regularly changing league membership, long road trips, and a lack of concrete geographic identities, that’s hard. It’s hard to build a rivalry between, say, Marshall and Florida International or Texas State and Appalachian State. And without building marketable rivalries, it will be hard for fledgeling programs in either conference to grow.

This entire exercise isn’t just idle speculation, either. In Minium’s report, Middle Tennessee State AD Chris Massaro said, “It’s inevitable that there’s going to be some kind of consolidation among the Group of Five. I don’t think we’re there yet, but eventually we will be.”

Maybe it will look something close to this. Maybe it will look completely different.

With the way economic trends are going, the status quo probably can’t be maintained forever.

But would that really be so bad?

I mean, the Texas Division trophy could just be a giant belt buckle. I’m here for that.