The writing on the wall is becoming more and more clear for Idaho about the future conference home of the football team.
We all know how odd the current situation is in the Sun Belt Conference, a conference set up for schools in the Deep South of the United States made up with the likes of South Alabama, Georgia Southern and Texas State. It isn’t even the first time Idaho has been left behind and forced into the non-fitting Sun Belt.
Once the Western Athletic Conference imploded, both Idaho and New Mexico State were left without an FBS conference to call home.
After a year of independence, both schools joined the Sun Belt as football-only members on a four-year contract. After two years, the other Sun Belt schools will vote to either extend the Vandals’ and Aggies’ membership, or to kick them out while letting them play one final year during the 2016-17 season.
Those initial two years are almost up, and the Sun Belt will vote this January.
A vote not extending the Vandals’ stay in the conference would be a disaster.
The Mountain West has a long list of schools to invite before Idaho like Tulsa, Texas-El Paso, North Texas, among others. The Vandals cannot survive as an independent and they can’t bank on the idea that a new western FBS conference will form soon. The same goes for NMSU, who even offed a $4.4 million travel subsidy to the other Sun Belt schools in return for a full-membership invite that was then rejected.
Idaho athletic director Rob Spear told the Idaho Statesman in March that “all indications” point to Idaho’s membership being extended, giving Vandal fans nothing to sweat about at the time. However, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson had a different tone while talking about Idaho during a teleconference after Coastal Carolina had just accepted its invitation to join the Sun Belt.
“When Idaho and New Mexico State were added to the Sun Belt that was one of the reasons they were added,” Benson said. “To get to 12 teams and do a conference championship game. Whether that policy remains is still unknown and won’t be known until January. That (policy) is expected to be eliminated … ”
What Benson is referring to is the NCAA potentially deregulating its 12-team requirement for a conference to host a football championship game. The biggest thing Benson has done since taking over the Sun Belt is trying to get a conference championship. That’s the only reason Idaho and NMSU were invited to the Sun Belt in the first place.
When the Vandals joined originally, there were 12 members until Western Kentucky bolted soon after. Coastal Carolina’s recent invitation puts the conference at 12 schools, but if this policy is overturned, there won’t be any need for two schools located far from the Sun Belt’s geographic location.
That wasn’t all he said though. Soon after, Benson told a Boise radio station that “this is a performance-based business and performance counts.”
There isn’t much question as to what fans should take from that. Basically, Benson told Idaho and NMSU to either put up or shut up. Win games, be competitive, and show drastic improvement now since the vote is only four months away. So far this year, Idaho is 1-2, barely beating a dismal FCS school in Wofford while New Mexico State is 0-3 with just as many problems.
Without a question, Idaho has more than failed the performance aspect of their membership so far in the Sun Belt.
Perhaps this is why Idaho coach Paul Petrino hasn’t looked very good in the public’s eye lately. The altercation with the reporter for being critical of the team is one thing, and from an outside perspective, Petrino seemed to do everything he could to make sure star receiver Dezmon Epps stays on the team despite a fourth off-the-field incident. Without Epps, Idaho could kiss the season goodbye immediately.
There isn’t many realistic opportunities for the Vandals to turn this season around as the only two opponents Idaho match on a talent level are Troy and New Mexico State, who the Vandals will face on the road. Unless the Vandals win the conference championship this year, there won’t be any reason for the Sun Belt to keep them if they don’t need 12 schools in order to have a championship game.
With Benson’s comments about performance and the expected NCAA rule change, Idaho’s days in the Sun Belt look numbered. Brace yourselves for another round of independence or a possible return to FCS coming to fruition Vandal fans.
Ben Evensen can be reached at email@example.com or on Twiter @BenE_VN