The Western Athletic Conference is in line for major expansion, but the primary impact of that news is a matter of perspective.
For the WAC, which will add five schools to its athletic roster, football gets top billing. A Thursday press release announcing the additions trumpeted the WAC’s intention to reinstate football even before naming the incoming members.
For the record, Southern Utah and Texas schools Stephen F. Austin, Lamar, Abilene Christian and Sam Houston State will become new WAC members effective July 1, 2022. Current member Chicago State announced Thursday it will leave the conference on that date.
For longtime WAC member New Mexico State, football amounted to only a footnote in Thursday’s announcement. The conference intends to compete in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), while the Aggies will continue to play as an independent in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the sport’s top college level.
NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia said his football program has games scheduled through 2025-26 and has no intention to give up rivalry games against New Mexico and UTEP or the revenue it can bring in with FBS guarantee games.
More significant to New Mexico State is the stability and overall competitive upgrades WAC expansion will bring.
“The WAC had a great run for a long time, but in recent years it’s been struggling in terms of membership,” Moccia said after attending Thursday’s announcement ceremony in Houston. “Since the last tectonic (conference) alignment shifts, the WAC has been kind of a league of schools who had nowhere else to go. Now it will be stable, a lot stronger and, with the four new Texas schools, more of a regional league.”
— Mario Moccia (@MarioMocciaNMSU) January 15, 2021
With 13 schools on its roster, the WAC intends to employ divisional play for all sports except football. New Mexico State is slotted to play in the West Division along with California Baptist, Dixie State, Grand Canyon, Seattle, Southern Utah and Utah Valley. The Southwest Division will include Tarleton State, UT Rio Grande Valley and the four incoming Texas schools.
There are likely to be cross-over games in some sports, but scheduling formats have not been finalized.
From a competitive standpoint, WAC expansion figures to make things tougher for NMSU, which has dominated the league in men’s basketball and volleyball and consistently fared well in most other sports.
“The conference will certainly be more challenging,” Moccia said, “which will force us to keep our eye on the ball and get better. Our men’s basketball team has had 28- and 30-win seasons and been a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. I think upgrading the conference will be a huge plus.”
In terms of football, Moccia hopes the WAC will be successful enough to consider a jump to the FBS level in a few years. The league has seven current or transitioning football-playing FCS members and, according to Thursday’s statement, anticipates adding an eighth in the near future.
NMSU considered playing FCS football when the WAC dropped the sport in 2012. While WAC expansion could open the door for the Aggies to place all their teams in a single league, Moccia said FCS football is not an option.
“Our school leadership spoke on that a few years ago,” Moccia said. “We’re not going that direction. But adding these new teams at least opens a pathway for the WAC to join the FBS. We’ll see what happens.”