The saddest arrangement in college football is over. After the 2012 death of the WAC and a year as independent teams, Idaho and New Mexico State have spent the past two years as football-only members of the Sun Belt Conference. On Tuesday, the Sun Belt told them they’d be kicked out after the 2017 season.
I’d like to take a moment to explore the intense sadness of college football’s two grandest pariahs. This is the second time in five years they’ve been kicked out into the street. Just when things can’t seem to get worse for Idaho and New Mexico State, their latest last chance at survival dries up on them.
Not many teams would’ve put up with the Sun Belt’s scenario. Idaho and NMSU begged for it.
New Mexico State is over 1,000 miles from Georgia Southern, its farthest conference opponent. Idaho is almost 2,000 miles from Arkansas State, its *closest* conference opponent. On the road, this meant insanely long plane trips several times a season. At home, this meant “rivals” that no fans cared about.
Maybe you would tolerate this setup to play in the SEC. Idaho and NMSU put up with it to play in the Sun Belt, which is either college football’s worst or second-worst conference, depending on who you ask.
After a new ruling came down allowing conferences to hold a title game with just 10 schools, the Sun Belt no longer needed Idaho and NMSU as 11th and 12th members. So they begged for their place in the conference. Idaho made a PowerPoint presentation that made us weep (New Mexico State’s was less depressing). But ultimately, no amount of pleading could save them.
The only thing sadder than college football’s saddest arrangement is figuring out what’s next.
Life is now bleak for Idaho and NMSU. They will have no conference TV deal, losing out on the million or so dollars they got each year from the Sun Belt’s TV deal. They’ll have the hardest scheduling job in college football, as they’ll need to find teams willing to play a non-conference game even in the midst of their league schedule. They’ll have relatively little to play for without a conference championship at stake and no tie-ins to bowl games.
Idaho is reportedly looking at joining the Big Sky conference, which is an FCS league. Although many teams have transitioned up from the FCS to the FBS, nobody has gone from the top level to the second tier since we started using those terms. If the Vandals do so, they’d have to cut scholarships already promised to players.
At least they have an FCS league vying for them; we’re not sure what the future holds for NMSU. College football’s only independents right now are teams that voluntarily choose to be independent with fan bases many times the size of NMSU’s. Nobody has gotten forced into it like the Aggies (except for UMass, who will be independent in 2016).
What If Idaho and Others End Up In FCS?
NMSU and Idaho are college football’s two biggest losers from the conference realignment era.
About a quarter of the teams in college football have shifted conferences since 2010, and it’s worked out well for most of them. Most teams were upwardly mobile as the most powerful conferences increased their membership. Teams from mid-tier conferences bumped up to top-tier leagues and teams from lower-tier conferences bumped up to mid-tier leagues, Sure, things didn’t work out great for some teams — like Cincinnati and UConn, left behind by the death of the old Big East — but everybody found a new place.
Idaho and NMSU were not allowed a place. They were left in the cold to die. Their old conference, the WAC, was perhaps the hardest hit by the waves of realignment. For years, their best teams were poached by larger, more powerful conferences. It once contained Boise State and TCU and SMU and Hawai’i and Air Force and San Diego State and Nevada, but NMSU and Idaho stuck it out until the bitter end. By 2012, it was just a seven-team shell of its former self.
Five of those seven teams found homes — maybe not their dream homes, but homes nonetheless. Meanwhile, the commissioner of the Mountain West publicly told Idaho and NMSU to “move onto plan B.”
We have to presume the AAC was Plan B. Maybe C-USA was Plan C.
Idaho and NMSU had to move onto Plan D: A year as independents, then the partial Sun Belt membership. Now they’re out on the street again.
Two of college football’s worst teams, in two different ways
Both Idaho and NMSU are both historically bad — in terms of win percentage vs. FBS teams, they are third-to-last and second-to-last respectively. Georgia State is worse, but they’ve only been an FBS team for three seasons.
For the Aggies, it’s always been bad. They haven’t been to a bowl game since 1960, the all-time longest such streak. The Aggies are responsible for three of the seven worst teams of all time in SRS rankings. Since their last winning season in 2002, they have six 10-loss seasons, including an 0-12 year.
But Idaho’s story is somehow sadder, a fall from grace. The Vandals were once members of the Pacific Coast Conference, the forerunners of the Pac-12. They chose to spend time as a I-AA team, and in college football’s second tier, they flourished. They won nine Big Sky championships! But since returning to the top level of football in 1996, it’s been horrendous. The team is 73-162 with eight 10-loss seasons.
The second horses in one-horse towns
Of the 28 states with multiple FBS teams, New Mexico and Idaho are the second-smallest and smallest, respectively. And in their tiny states, these two programs are clear second-class citizens.
New Mexico isn’t a spectacular program, with no conference championships since 1964. But the Lobos obliterate the Aggies in the in-state series, with a whopping 70-31-5 advantage. That isn’t a rivalry, it’s a beatdown. 247Sports ranked six players from New Mexico in the Class of 2016. Four went to New Mexico, none went to NMSU.
Idaho, on the other hand, has to deal with a powerhouse down the road. Idaho isn’t in the same league as Boise State, literally or metaphorically, as the Broncos have grown into a powerhouse while the Vandals have regressed into near-nothingness. Boise State attracts top players from across the nation. Idaho can’t even really attract the top players in Idaho.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1980’s, Idaho absolutely dominated Boise State, winning 12 consecutive games in the series. But since the two teams moved up to college football’s top tier in 1996, it’s been a completely one-way rivalry. Boise State quickly began reeling off double-digit win seasons and became famous for the wild win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos developed into a powerhouse capable of beating not just small league teams, but the big boys of college football.
Idaho didn’t stand a chance. The Broncos won the last 13 games between the two schools before the series ended in 2010. Most were blowouts, and Boise State claimed it needed more games against marquee opponents. Boise State’s president added insult to injury by calling Idaho fans “nasty, inebriated” boors when the series was discontinued.
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Idaho and New Mexico State are futility machines. They have a slim history of past success, and an even slimmer potential for future success.
Part of me feels bad that college football’s smallest leagues keep abandoning them. But I also completely understand why it keeps happening. And I’m not sure if there’s a road to happiness for college football’s saddest teams.