Wednesday at 6:30, SFA Volleyball will attempt to do something that no other Southland Conference school has done this year: Beat Houston Baptist, a member of the quite defunct Great West Conference, in volleyball.
To date, HBU has played (in order) Lamar, UTSA, Sam Houston, Texas State, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana, and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Seven SLC schools. They've won every time.
By now, it is no secret to fans of schools in the Southland Conference that Texas State, UTSA and UTA are headed for the WAC. One reason I failed to do a "conference preview" article or interview any of Texas State or UTA's players when they came through is that they will be gone next year. No disrespect.. I just figure I should concentrate efforts on schools SFA fans will actually see in conference play again in the future. Which brings us to HBU. Could this team be a candidate for SLC membership?
The SLC currently has 9 schools on the books for 2012-2013. One issue is whether the conference would be happy with 10 members or if it would seek to replace all three of the schools who have left and get back to 12. The idea of going to 10 seems more plausible in the short term. What I am going to do here is just discuss possibilities. I have no inside information, nor do I expect to ever have such information. There are articles out there in the "cloud" and websites that anyone can go to and check to read up on this stuff. Some of what is presented here is motivated from collegesportsinfo.com. Some people like that site, others think it is hogwash. As always, read and think for yourself on stuff like that. Some of the rest of what I write here is from various conversations I've had here and there and other articles I have read in the last year.
For the most part, when the Southland does look to expand/replace it has two choices: 1) Invite schools from similarly reputable conferences that are Division I, but are open to moving or 2) look to Division II schools looking to upgrade to Division I. Of course, a good chunk of this is driven by football. If the SLC could add a school that has a football presence, then in a lot of ways, this would be considered positive.
Let's take a look at possible conferences & teams that deserve a mention as possible additions to the SLC. There is clearly some opinion spinning in here, so do your own research to see if my suggestions are reasonable or not. I don't mean to imply that my list of schools here is exhaustive, but I think it is close.
First, one conference that has had its issues is the Great West. Many of this conferences' schools have recently left to join other conferences or in the process of leaving. The conference currently has only five schools competing in football and six in volleyball, but some of those schools are leaving. The six volleyball schools are geographically all over the map: HBU, North Dakota, Utah Valley, UT-Pan American, New Jersey Institute of Technology & Chicago State. Wow. Just Wow. What a mess.
A lot of people feel that any of those teams that got an invite from a larger, more stable conference would likely jump ship and join up with another group. Reading the "HBU Football Plan" just screams "Southland" and I know that UTPA has been a school discussed before when SLC expansion comes up. Clearly, of the teams in the Great West, the two from Texas are the two most logical fits. My thoughts are that if you want to invite one of the two and get to 10 schools, then HBU is your pick. Purely for the Houston presence and not to be geographically biasing... but, Edinburg, TX is just a long, long way from... well.... anywhere.
What about other DI schools from more stable conferences, but still might consider leaving? One school I have always wished could be sucked in is Louisiana Tech. Ain't gonna happen. They have always been really geographically challenged by being a member of the WAC, but teams don't tend to move to conferences that they would see as decreasing visibility. I doubt LaTech would consider a move to the Southland an upgrade when it is clear schools like UTSA, Texas State and UTA are doing the opposite. Hey, did you know that LaTech WAS in Southland at one point? They were members from 1971 until1987.
About a month ago, a report was put out via Twitter that Oral Roberts University, a member of the Summit League, was in contact with the Southland regarding a possible invitation. I have not been able to confirm or deny the validity of such a conversation, but the Summit League and the Sun Belt are two conferences similar enough to the Southland in terms of overall footprint that it makes sense to see what schools from these conferences could be targets. Other than Oral Roberts, a school of less than 3500 located in Tulsa, OK, the only other Summit League school that even looks intriguing to me is UMKC (Univ. of Missouri at Kansas City), if only for the presence of the league in a larger city. That's a long way from our current schools, though.
As far as the Sun Belt, a conference that former Southland member Louisiana-Monroe joined in 2005, the only school that does not have football is Arkansas-Little Rock (UALR). Here's the thing I like about UALR: They are about the same size as SFA and some other Southland schools. They have right at 13,000 students. It is obvious that they would be a perfect travel partner for UCA if they were in the Southland. The Sun Belt appears to be pretty stable as there tends to be less realignment talks out of that conference than others. But, despite this, the conference does house some familiar names. North Texas, ULM, UL-Lafayette, and Arkansas State are all former Southland Conference members. Of course, for some of those schools that was a LONG time ago. Troy also competed in the SLC as a football school for some years. They are our nearest "reasonable" geographic member conference, but it is not as though those schools are just itching to leave, and I don't know that the Southland would have anything better to offer them than what they currently have in the Sun Belt.
So, it looks to me that HBU, UTPA, Oral Roberts and UALR are the four Division I schools in neighboring conferences that either make some sense or have been rumored to be interested. The instability of the Great West points to HBU in my opinion. I wouldn't be surprised if they became a part of the SLC. That being said, I think Oral Roberts or UALR would be an overall better "get" for the conference.
Now, there are Division II schools out there that may look to make the leap to Division I. Some schools in the Southland locale that have at least been mentioned as thinking of making the upgrade athletically are: Tarelton State, West Texas A&M, North Alabama (that's a stretch to say they are in Southland area), Incarnate Word, Delta State (in Mississippi, same comment at UNA), Central Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University. Some of these schools belong to the DII Lone Star Conference and some others belong to the DII Gulf South Conference. Others belong to neither of those. While I am sure that some of these are great places, I think we'd all admit that losing Texas State and UTSA and replacing them with two of these schools would be a tough pill to swallow. It'd be best to invite schools that already have Division I athletics and are looking to upgrade or slide across conferences for geographical reasons.
So, in the end, I think we might should get used to seeing HBU in town. I think they are a reasonable fit for the Southland. They sure have feasted on SLC Volleyball this year. I'd prefer UALR among all mentioned here, I think. The size of the school appeals to me on several levels. Maybe we could bring them in with the promise that they'd eventually add football. HBU and Oral Roberts are really small campuses. Nicholls is the smallest school in the Southland and they are roughly twice as big in terms of enrollment as HBU and Oral Roberts.
There is one other thing to think about. What about the Southland Conference Volleyball Tournament with only nine or ten teams in the conference? What about the conference schedule? It seems to me that with nine teams, you might could just abort the "East/West" idea and go back to lumping everyone in one pot and play each other twice. That would create 16 conference games, just like we have now. Even if you had 10 teams, you might could do this and just play 18 conference games rather than 16. You know, I get the feeling that - at least in terms of volleyball - not many people like the "East/West" split standings thing.
Finally, in terms of the end-of-the-year tournament, I think it only makes sense to drop it to six teams, with the top two obtaining byes. Day One of the tournament could be Seed 3 vs. Seed 6 and Seed 4 vs. Seed 5. Then Seed 1 could play the winner of 4/5 and Seed 2 could play the winner of 3/6 on Day 2. The championship would still be on Day 3. It doesn't seem reasonable to have an eight team tournament with only 9 or 10 teams in the conference.