It's that time of year again. The heat of summer has sparked the rumors of continued conference expansion. With the dog days of summer fully upon us and the appetites for college football becoming nearly insatiable, fans and analysts have turned on their crystal balls to bridge the gap between now and the start of the season. Among the schools being evaluated as a possible candidate is Colorado State.
For Colorado State to be in this position is quite remarkable considering where the school's athletic programs were merely seven years ago. Rewind to 2008 and you will find a much different Colorado State. All-time great Sonny Lubick had just concluded his final season as head coach for the Rams with a disappointing 3-9 record.
Tim Miles struggled to lead a depleted basketball team to a seven win season with no wins against a conference opponent. The women's basketball team fared even worse matching the men's conference tally (of zero) with only five total victories on the season. Even Tom Hilbert's consistently elite Volleyball squad had struggles, losing to Utah in the conference tournament and failing to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tourney.
Not counted in the win column were Colorado State's aging facilities that were far inferior to many college programs. When you take a look at the athletic department as a whole in 2008, it is rather astounding to envision a program that would go on to win 91 games between those four sports seven years later.
Colorado State was left out of conference expansion the last time it came around, but the Rams made sure they would be in the conversation the next time it happened. People are beginning to bring up Colorado State in expansion talks, but how realistic is it the Rams will actually be named the newest member of a Power 5 conference? Let's look at some of the many factors that will determine the next expansion member and how CSU stacks up to other candidates.
Colorado State's Resume
Football: B (compared to other expansion candidates)
Certainly the biggest 'on-the-field' factor for any Big XII candidate is a school's football program. It is still easily the largest revenue generator for college athletic departments even with the advent of college hoops. The Rams had a breakout year in 2014 racking up the first 10 win season since 2002 with record breaking performances by Garrett Grayson and All-American Rashard Higgins. The Rams reached their second straight bowl game, but fell to Utah.
There are many questions around the program with Mike Bobo about to begin his first year as coach and the loss of Garrett Grayson to the NFL. Bobo will not only need to match predecessor Jim McElwain's accomplishments, but establish consistent double-digit win seasons if Colorado State wants to prove it is ready for Power 5 football.
Comparison: Even with the recent success, Colorado State still lags behind other candidates like Boise State, Cincinnati, and UCF. There is no doubt the Rams can compete in the Mountain West, but they need to prove they can beat the upper echelon of Power 5 teams.
Men's Basketball: B+
Larry Eustachy picked up where former coach Tim Miles left off and has the Rams playing their best basketball in history. The Rams won a game in the 2013 NCAA Tourney and looked to be a shoo-in for the 2015 Tourney before being surprisingly snubbed.
Eustachy has proven his squad can play against Power 5 opponents with victories against Colorado, Missouri, and Washington over the past several years. Colorado State has yet to rule the Mountain West, but would be competitive in a Power 5 conference schedule.
Comparison: Similar to football, Colorado State still trails consistent NCAA Tourney schools like Memphis and Cincinnati in basketball despite recent success. Both schools play in a similarly tough American Athletic Conference and have won Tourney games in the past several seasons. UCF has been exceptionally average over the years and would not provide much to the Big XII.
Women's Basketball: B-
Not to be outdone by the men, coach Ryun Williams has built a perennial conference champ in just a few short years on the job. By creating 'Little Scandinavia' in Fort Collins, Williams has attracted top European players and added the right transfer pieces to make a Mountain West contender. The Rams have won the past two regular season conference championships, but have fallen short in the conference tourney both seasons.
Colorado State being able to win in the Mountain West is one thing, but winning in a Power 5 conference is another. The Mountain West is not a strong women's basketball conference and the Rams have not sufficiently proven they can beat Power 5 talent.
Comparison: Colorado State has a far better record over the past several years compared to Memphis, Cincinnati, and UCF, but does not have to play in the same conference as national champion UCONN. Disparity between the Power 5 and Group of 5 is even more accentuated in Women's Basketball. Although the American Athletic Conference is home to UCONN and South Florida, the rest of the conference is fairly weak and the Mountain West is even weaker. None of the teams rumored for conference expansion will be competitive right away, but Colorado State does have one of the best young coaches in the sport.
Perhaps Colorado State's biggest chip up its sleeve is the Volleyball program under long-time coach Tom Hilbert. Hilbert is in his 18th season at CSU and has built a dynasty in the Rocky Mountains. The Rams have gone to 20 straight NCAA Tournaments which is the seventh longest streak in the nation. Fans fill Moby Arena to watch a team that is a virtual lock for the Top 25 every year and frequents the Top 10.
The addition of Hilbert's squad to any conference would be an immediate upgrade.
Comparison: UCF is the only candidate that comes close to Colorado State's success, ranking 35th in the NCAA's RPI. Memphis and Cincinnati are far behind in 93 and 159, respectively. Also worth noting is BYU who nearly won the 2014 NCAA Tournament after going on an amazing run as an unseeded team. Colorado State is the best option for expansion from a volleyball perspective.
The hottest topic in any Athletic Department is the state of the facilities. Colorado State is no different. The Rams have played in scenic Hughes Stadium for nearly 50 years, and the wear can be seen. Hughes Stadium is not only too small for a Power 5 venue, it has nowhere close to the amenities necessary to satisfy the needs of 21st century fans. But this will only be a problem for a couple more years.
If you live anywhere near Fort Collins, you can probably hear the uproar caused by Colorado State's in progress $220 million On-Campus Stadium. Announced several years ago, the school just began utility work on what will be Colorado State's shining gift to Power 5 conferences. The stadium, which is scheduled to be ready for Kickoff 2017, will feature state-of-the-art amenities making it a nice addition to any conference's travel list. With a capacity of 41,000, the stadium is a bit undersized for a Power 5 stadium, but can be easily upgraded if needed.
Moby Arena is a modest basketball venue. At just under 9,000 seats, it can hold a good sized crowd and shows well on TV. There are no luxury boxes, but there is talk of those being added in the near future. Moby is also home to Colorado State's brand-new Athletic Training facility which rivals that of some Power 5 schools and an above average quality weight room open to all sports.
Colorado State has an Indoor Practice Facility that includes indoor practice courts for volleyball and basketball and a 70 yard turf field for the football team. This facility lacks in comparison to other peers and will likely not be ugraded due to congested campus space.
Comparison: Even with the addition of a new football stadium, Colorado State still lags slightly behind other candidate's facilities. UCF's brand-new football stadium is the centerpiece of the school's 'Athletics Village' which features several new or recently renovated facilities. Similar to UCF, Cincinnati has a 'Varsity Village' anchored by a newly renovated stadium. Memphis shares the glistening FedEx Forum with the Memphis Grizzlies, but play in a 1965 relic for football. There is no doubt Colorado State's new stadium will be one of the premier football venues in the country, but its auxiliary facilities still lag behind other candidates.
TV Market: B
Achievements on the field only go so far if you do not have the TV's to watch. Denver provides the 18th largest TV market in the country which is only behind Houston in terms of possible Big XII schools. The Big XII has a significant number of alumni in Denver Metro which makes it a lucrative prospect for them. The University of Houston is in a bigger TV market but it can be argued Houston is already controlled by Big XII schools. The only problem some have cited is that Colorado State does not fully capture the Denver market.
Colorado State is a large public school with about 31,000 students currently enrolled. President Tony Frank has a goal to reach 35,000 in the coming years. Fort Collins is a city of 150,000, but is only 60 miles from Denver Metro which boasts a population of 2.7 million.
According to the Alumni Network website, there are CSU graduates across all 50 states with a heavy concentration in the western states. There are over 120,000 alumni in Colorado with many of those in Denver. Texas is the third largest home to alumni with nearly 7,000 alumni and three alumni centers in the state. Kansas and Oklahoma combine for another 2,500.
Big XII Alumni in Expansion States
Fort Collins, CO provides a good geographic fit for the Big XII, who used to have the University of Colorado as a member. Fort Collins is an easy trip for most members of the conference and Colorado is often a destination for many Texans' vacations. If the Big XII is willing to go to West Virginia to add a team, it certainly would not have a problem returning to Colorado.
Comparison: Memphis, Cincinnati, and UCF provide the Big XII with strong markets on the East Coast if the conference wants to continue moving eastward, and many argue it is needed to provide West Virginia with a travel partner. In the modern day of conference expansion, geography does not play as strong a role.
A factor often overlooked by speculators is a school's academic standing. This variable might be more scrutinized by the Pac 12 or Big 10, but it will still play a role in the next school invited to join the Big XII. Colorado State compares very favorably across several metrics when viewed next to expansion schools. Cincinnati's Medical Program helps top Colorado State significantly in endowment size with over a billion dollars. BYU also brings in a billion dollar endowment with fairly low research spending. Colorado State only trails BYU in school rankings and is well within the Big XII range finishing in front of West Virginia by 47 spots in the US News Ranking. If academics were the only factor, it would be hard to see Memphis or UCF getting invites to the conference.
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Colorado State finished the 2014-2015 season among the top 5 teams in the country in total wins between Football, Volleyball, and Men's/Women's Basketball. This kind of success across multiple sports means Colorado State can provide value outside of just football. Colorado State doesn't blow you away in any particular category, but its overall resume provides Big XII officials a reason to consider a return back to Colorado for a new conference member.