Some thoughts on Mountain West expansion and division models

Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson speaks at MWC football media day at Green Valley Ranch on July 22, 2008. - Tiffany Brown/Las Vegas Sun

Jeremy touched on this a couple of days ago, and I was planning on replying to a comment in the comments section of the post. When I got to the 10th paragraph, I figured it was probably a better idea to just turn it into a full post.

At this point, most of us know that adding a 12th team to the Mountain West is inevitable. Whether that is San Diego State (most likely) or another school is yet to be determined, but there certainly will be a 12th team and a conference championship game, at the least.

So the big question is how should a 12 (or 14 or 16) team Mountain West be divided into divisions. Should Craig Thompson and his fellow schools go with a geographical design, whether that be North/South or East/West? What about a zipper model like the ACC and Big Ten have done in recent years? Questions need to be answered about what divisional model should be implemented.

I'm going to go ahead and state my opinion from the start, I'm against the zipper model and all for an East/West geographical split. The zipper model is generally used to even out divisions when they are created based on competitiveness in football. Unfortunately time changes whether or not a team is competitive in football and, as a result, you end up with competitively lopsided divisions with no geographical sensibility.

A good example of this happening is the ACC. When the ACC was created, they went to a zipper model, with pretty much no geographical sensibility, in hopes of creating more competitive divisions and therefore creating more interest in the conference. A few years down the road and the divisions are lopsided without any geographical sensibility.

A newly formed zipper divisional format is in the Big Ten. For the most part, the Big Ten schools and their fans hate their zipper model divisions, as it tears away some of the closer rivalries. Wisconsin, for example, has three schools west of them (Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa) who are all in a different division than the Badgers. Ask any Wisconsin fan and they will tell you how much they hate the division setup. Time will tell whether the zipper model here has the same effect as it did with the ACC.

With football programs dropping in and out of relativity on a regular basis (with few exceptions) the division with the upper hand will regularly change, and the divisions very rarely will be considered even with each other in terms of football competitiveness, no matter who is in each one. So then why take away geography, which would mean less regional rivalries, less fans traveling to conference games, and more travel costs for the team?

At this point I was directly replying to this comment:

A zippered conference allows more flexibility to add members whether with expansions or to rebuild loses
A geographic division can be odd like Missouri being in the SEC East

The reasons you stated are good points, but are in different situations than that of the Mountain West. In the case of Missouri being added to the SEC East, that was mainly done because the SEC schools didn't want to send a western school to the east division and put Missouri in the west. This was because the divisions had been in place for quite a long time and rivalries would have been broken with the division change of a school such as Auburn.

In the case of the Mountain West possibly adding more members, I can almost guarantee you that any additions will take place within two years. With the way things are going with the Big East, the dust most likely will settle before the start of the 2014 football season, if not before the 2013 one. The additions of BYU/SMU/Houston/Tulsa/UTEP would happen either before the divisional setup is set in concrete or only after a year has passed. That means no getting use to rivalries and not wanting to break them up by having a school switch divisions. True geographical divisions could be kept in the MWC, even with other additions.

Example:

Let's say that additions are made after the 2013 football season. The divisions are setup like Jeremy had them put together above:

East or Mountain division:
Air Force
Wyoming
Colorado State
New Mexico
Boise State
Utah State

West or Pacific division:
UNLV
Nevada
San Jose State
San Diego State
Hawaii
Fresno State

Let's say BYU miraculously wants to ditch the independence experience and join the MWC. The most logical addition at that point would be UTEP, so as to not leave a Texas or Oklahoma school out on an island by themselves. To keep geographical sensiblity, we move Boise State into the western division (They are the furthest school west in the east division) putting seven schools in the west division and five in the east. Both BYU and UTEP easily fit geographically in the east division and so the divisions are set:

East or Mountain division:
Air Force
Wyoming
Colorado State
New Mexico
UTEP
Utah State
BYU

West or Pacific division:
UNLV
Nevada
San Jose State
San Diego State
Hawaii
Fresno State
Boise State

Now most likely this will not happen, as BYU is fully invested into independence and isn't going to just suddenly give up on it after a couple of years. So with BYU out of the expansion picture, the other candidates for addition are SMU, Houston, Tulsa, and UTEP. Let's say the Mountain West only wants to expand to 14, and join the Big Ten, SEC, and ACC as conferences with more than 12 schools.

UTEP is most likely out of the picture if they're only adding two, and not because they're a bad school, but because that would leave SMU, Houston, or Tulsa out on an island. So in this case the question is which tandem would be better? In my opinion, SMU and Houston would be a better combination than either of the schools and Tulsa due to the larger markets. Yes, Tulsa is definitely no small city, but it certainly isn't DFW or Houston.

Being able to add those markets before the television contract expires would certainly boost the value of the product, and consequently the amount of cash in the contract. Not to mention SMU and Houston bring some decent football that currently has a very bright outlook and okay basketball teams (On par with the likes of Boise State's basketball team currently).

With adding these schools we essentially do the same thing with changing around divisions. Move Boise State to the west division and add SMU and Houston to the east division, keeping geographical sensibility. Here are what the divisions would look like:

East or Mountain division:
Air Force
Wyoming
Colorado State
New Mexico
SMU
Utah State
Houston

West or Pacific division:
UNLV
Nevada
San Jose State
San Diego State
Hawaii
Fresno State
Boise State

*If you believe Tulsa would be a better fit than either of the Texas schools in this scenario, just replace that school with Tulsa in the divisional format, same principle.

Let's say Craig Thompson is feeling expansion crazy and wants to get to 16 schools. The first option would be to add BYU (not likely but must be mentioned). If that occurred, then it's the best three out of four schools remaining, and it most likely it would be SMU, Houston, and Tulsa. Those three schools all bring very large markets, good football programs, and decent basketball teams to the table. While UTEP isn't a bad candidate, the fact is that UTEP is simply beat out.

El Paso is big, but not as big as Tulsa, DFW, or Houston. Their football team, while not atrocious, is definitely a few beats behind the Tulsa, SMU, and Houston. Basketball is one of the places where it excels ahead of the other three schools, with an improving team under Tim Floyd and a rich tradition that includes a national championship. Unfortunately, expansion is football and television driven. Basketball is a nice plus, but it is a sidenote in the decision. If Tulsa, SMU, and Houston are added, as well as BYU, then the division changes are altered a little bit.

Instead of moving just Boise State, we now have to move two schools to the west division in order to get the correct divisional setup. Both BYU and Utah State are on the line where the divisions are split, meaning that only one of the two can go along with Boise State to the west division (Taking both BYU and Utah State while leaving Boise State in the east division would mean Boise State would be a geographical outlier in the east division). BYU is further south than Utah State, meaning that a BYU move to the west division would allow for a straight line to be drawn between the divisions, something that could not happen with Utah State.

Now in this case, we have divisions that look like so:

East or Mountain division:
Air Force
Wyoming
Colorado State
New Mexico
SMU
Utah State
Houston
Tulsa

West or Pacific division:
UNLV
Nevada
San Jose State
San Diego State
Hawaii
Fresno State
Boise State
BYU

As I stated earlier, BYU is not an option very likely to be available. So let's assume the same scenario of the Mountain West wanting to move to 16 schools, but BYU isn't an option. The only difference is that we add UTEP instead of BYU. Instead of moving BYU from the east division to the west division, we move Utah State and replace their spot with the Miners.

East or Mountain division:
Air Force
Wyoming
Colorado State
New Mexico
SMU
UTEP
Houston
Tulsa

West or Pacific division:
UNLV
Nevada
San Jose State
San Diego State
Hawaii
Fresno State
Boise State
Utah State

That's the idea for geographical divisions. Keep in mind that this will be achievable, even if the Mountain West add schools over next summer rather than the upcoming one, as schools will be able to simply move divisions.

Now when it comes to the actual expansion portion of the conference, I'm an advocate of a 14 team league. Whether that meaning adding BYU and UTEP as a package or SMU and Houston as a package (I've already stated the reasons above for why those are the best two school packages available) is unknown. The BYU-UTEP package would get first priority, but the Cougars aren't likely to rejoin the conference any time soon. Other than that, I like the idea of adding SMU and Houston.

As I earlier stated, both schools bring in good football, decent basketball, and huge TV markets. This would most likely increase the revenue of our television deal a good deal, which means that SMU and Houston wouldn't just be increasing the ways the revenue is split.

Expanding past that is a bad idea, as it almost becomes like two seperate conferences that just have a championship game. One, possibly two cross-over games per year with a 9 game schedule? That means that the schools out west won't be traveling to Texas very often and the schools out east won't be seeing the state of California often either. Either sit at 12 (Which I have no problem with. SDSU brings in enough revenue and gives the MWC a conference championship game) or add one of the two previously mentioned packages to get to 14 schools.

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