Its official...After months of secret meetings the alliance has formed via a non binding agreement that will bring together the 8 football playing members of the Mountain West plus 8 football playing members of CUSA in one supposedly glorious union.
What's talked about the most by the athletic directors of the new conference (alliance) is how this new conference is spanning 5 different timezones (for those unsure that is Hawaii, Pacific, Mountain, Central, Eastern) to maximize TV availability. The selling point is TV yet the new conference does not have any firm numbers from the networks. According to Tulane president Scott Cowen, there have been no discussions about what the market value would be at this point of the new TV deal only that they have a hunch it will be of more value than what the conferences by themselves were making before. One CUSA and MWC AD after another has proclaimed the alliance will have a greater per university TV distribution than previously.
The question of how much or how little this next TV deal is worth to the alliance is of very little concern in the larger picture. To understand the larger picture of the alliance first we have to assess what is the ultimate objective of this alliance; in a world where everything goes right what are they trying to achieve?
The ultimate achievement by the alliance is if they can somehow lure schools that are scheduled to play football in the Big East by 2013 to the alliance (and in many cases back). Why would any Big East football school want to move back down to the alliance? Depending on circumstances they may be forced into doing so. If Notre Dame decides to go to ACC and take Rutgers and Uconn with them while the BIg XII adds Louisville and Cincinnati the remaining BE football members will find themselves stuck in a conference that has lost its TV appeal, hence the alternative of participating in the alliance suddenly looks attractive.
So the alliance needs a cataclysmic BE realignment event but what does it in place to be prepared for the new order instead of another poaching by the leftovers? One of the core reasons UCF, Memphis, Houston, SMU all agreed to join was to share in the extensive NCAA men's basketball revenues held by the Big East. Each Big East school receives approximately 2 million dollars per school just in basketball distribution alone from the NCAA basketball tournament. That is greater than the value of the existing MWC and CUSA TV deals combined, not to mention that the Big East is negotiating a TV deal worth in the neighborhood of 10 to 12 million per all sport member. Its clear that to have any hope of attracting UCF, SMU, Boise and whoever else is left out of the ACC or Big XII during the next round they MUST build up a sizable NCAA fund and hope the BE football schools coming back will boost alliance market value.
Is the alliance up to the challenge in men's basketball? Are they going to be able to put at least 5-6 schools into the NCAA tourney every year as an 18-20 team conference with some of those schools making deep runs? The best way to tell is by looking at past history. On the basketball side of the ledger 8 of the 15 basketball playing members are coming over from CUSA. CUSA has typically been a 1 bid conference since 2005 with a couple exceptions. That one bid was usually Memphis and head and shoulders above the opposition making nice runs in the NCAA tourney but going forward Memphis is gone.
Out of the 15 basketball schools of the alliance only 4 have an RPI above 40 the typical threshold to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
10. Southern Miss
29. New Mexico
33. Colorado State
173. Air Force
183. East Carolina
212. Fresno State
The alliance has 4 schools based on current RPI numbers that are NCAA worthy. On the surface this looks like a strong alliance basketball conference is possible but when you factor in an RPI drop for the MWC schools when mixed in with CUSA plus Southern Miss is having an unusually outstanding year this looks like it will be more of a 3 bid type of a conference rather than the 5 or 6 it would need to be to start building a war chest of NCAA tournament money. The TV deals proposed for the alliance are unlikely to have much in the way of positive impact on basketball recruiting. The alliance most likely will be playing its men's basketball on Fox or CBS College Sports in one of those obscure mid major packages that nobody tunes into. There is going to be negative recruiting against the alliance as well with recruits preferring a more compact conference where they won't have to loose so much class instruction time.
While the alliance is unlikely to be successful in men's basketball it has next to zero chance to succeed in football. One of the prime problems with the alliance is the schools that comprise the western division are helpless in football recruiting.
Over 95% of FBS level recruits are found in Texas and points east. In the west the PAC-12 earns its pick of the litter on the recruiting trail and then after that BYU, Boise, San Diego State all clean up. Its always been this way going back decades and that is part of the reason why you've always had 1 or 2 top 25 teams from the intermountain region; a couple of schools clean up the remaining quality recruits. Back in the 80's some of the names were different. BYU was still BYU but Fresno had the place of Boise in the pecking order. Enough talent had started to come out of Utah to support the Utah Utes as a regular competitive team in the 1990's so by the late 2000's you had BYU, Utah and Boise State all head and shoulders above the other non-PAC competition in their region. That pattern is still in place but the alliance doesn't include any of the traditional misfit toys of the west, giving the alliance a big stack of western deadwood that is almost impossible to overcome.
Here is how the football Sagarin ratings (based on 2011 numbers) look for the new conference:
24. Southern Miss
72. Air Force
84. Air Force
93. East Carolina
105. Fresno State
142. Colorado State
175. New Mexico
A traditional line for predicting bowl eligibility is a Sagarin rating of about 80, of which only 6 alliance programs qualified last year. That is a major issue if only 5 of 16 alliance schools (31.3%) are strong enough to finish with a bowl eligible record. Five of the schools (Colorado State, UAB, UNLV, Tulane, and New Mexico) were rated below 140 in the Sagarins. The MAC by contrast only had one (198. Akron) below the #140 threshold.
The plain fact that football in the alliance isn't very good could go back to affecting the number of bowl agreements signed by the new conference in the upcoming bowl certification cycle (2014-17). To be sure there is going to be some improvement in alliance football but there is no way that they'll ever be able to match the Big East or any AQ conference if the AQ exists in the future or if it does not.
While news about the merger sounds exciting and heavy anticipation looms over the next mega TV contract signed by an FBS conference, the reality is the alliance is going to be nothing than an overgrown version of CUSA. An overgrown version of CUSA complete with the continued mediocrity in men's basketball and football. Rather than lift men's basketball up the former CUSA schools will weigh it down. Instead of enhancing the football package with western timezones, most of the football schools on the MWC side will be duds.
Time will tell and performance does run in cycles but based on the level of the programs that comprise the alliance today it doesn't project well in the near term. The schools that have departed for the Big East are bound to grow stronger in their recruiting efforts and in some cases as the expense of alliance schools. For example many of the football players that are now attending Southern Miss or Tulane will be heading to Memphis and the Big East. Boise State situating itself in the Big East has almost made its status out west permanent and it will be extremely difficult for any western football school in the alliance to knock them off their mantle playing in a second tier conference.