Saturday, March 30, 2013

If Aggie football gets off ground, NMSU athletics can find it's conference stability

While the New Mexico State Aggies did the essential — finding their football program a 2014 Sun Belt Conference home — they now face a new question: Is the Western Athletic Conference a viable one to keep their Olympic sports and, if not, what's the best route for their non-football programs to take?

For starters, the Aggies are in a tough spot geographically, and stuck in a mid-major league that five years ago was wonderful, and now isn't.

But there's hurdles to clear when searching for a new conference home: Getting schools from the Missouri Valley Conference to travel to Las Cruces for non-football sporting events — while it would be the optimal plan at this point for Aggie athletics — could be a tough sell.

Such a statement could also be made when talking Big West Conference membership.

The Mountain West or Conference USA? We've rehashed those issues before, with one being a longshot (Mountain West) and the other as a possible darkhorse, yet no offer as of yet (C-USA).
The Sun Belt seems logical, although league commissioner Karl Benson talks often of his league's geographic borders. The point is, SBC school presidents — particularly those on the east coast — have little interest in flying their volleyball and women's basketball teams to Las Cruces at the moment.

Benson spoke indirectly on that issue during his Wednesday conference call introducing the league's newest members. In short, he spoke of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, two full-sport additions into the Sun Belt's eastern division, far more than NMSU’s and Idaho's inclusion as football-only affiliates in the west. He discussed travel accommodations made for his eastern programs when traveling to such destinations in football, adding the league's geographic integrity wasn't compromised with the Aggies and Vandals as football-only members.

Perhaps Western Kentucky's expected move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA will change such sentiment. But in the here and now, Benson indicated the Aggies needed the Sun Belt more than the Sun Belt needed the Aggies. Don't count on that feeling shifting dramatically, at least in the immediate future.

All this means NMSU’s logical non-football home at this point could very well be the WAC by default. And while the league could be described as horrendous, it's also a conference that's maintained it's NCAA automatic qualifying bids in respective sporting fields. In other words, it’s a league that can serve a purpose, even if it’s for the short term.

Maybe it will get better in time, even if such a possibility seems a longshot.

Or maybe the Aggies can do what's best for them anyway: Pick up their level of play on the football field.

We've seen throughout conference realignment that as a football program goes, so goes its athletics department. And if the Aggies can compete for conference championships in the Sun Belt, it, ironically, can help find a stable home for their non-football sports as well.

Such progress would make the Aggies more marketable, and can help make friends in important places. It could make an all-sport transition into the Sun Belt, for example, easier simply because NMSU already has it's foot in the door.

Remember, the Aggies non-football sports aren’t bad — far from it, actually. But on the gridiron, the program still has to earn it’s respect.

The sooner that happens, the better. It will make NMSU a more attractive alternative as a whole.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

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