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Liberty accepts invitation, set to join Conference USA

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Liberty officially accepted an invitation to join Conference USA as a full member Friday, a move that will give the football program a long-awaited conference home in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The conference announced the additions of Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State as four new full members to a Group of Five league that has been decimated in this wave of conference realignment. Liberty will join the conference no later than July 1, 2023, as will the other three additions. 

Liberty and New Mexico State have both been FBS independent programs since 2018, with Liberty’s all-sports league being in the ASUN Conference and NMSU calling the Western Athletic Conference home for its other sports.

Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State are both FCS members and will go through a two-year transition to become FBS members. JSU is in its first season with the ASUN and SHSU is in its first season with the WAC.

Liberty is the jewel addition to C-USA remaining afloat as a viable G5 league. The Flames’ athletic budget of $47.7 million for the 2019-20 athletic season, according to the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis, is larger than those of the other three future members and the current members that have not announced a departure from C-USA.

The Flames also boast athletic facilities across their sprawling campus that have been described as “Power Five level.”

Liberty was active in conference realignment back in 2013 and 2014 when it sought a home in the Sun Belt Conference and C-USA, but both leagues turned down the Flames.

It wasn’t until February 2017 that Liberty finally began moving up to the FBS when the NCAA granted Liberty a waiver to transition to the top-tier subdivision as an independent without a conference invitation.

Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw stated he felt the Flames could compete as an independent for years to come like Notre Dame, BYU and Army have proven, while NMSU actively sought a home for its football program.

McCaw and senior associate athletics director Mickey Guridy were able to construct future football schedules with a mix of Power Five teams predominantly from the Atlantic Coast Conference and regional Group of Five programs. The Flames have full 12-game slates through 2026 and games on the schedule as far out as 2034.

However, that path was likely not going to be as sustainable with more Power Five and Group of Five leagues expanding to 14 to 16 teams in this latest wave of realignment.

C-USA actually began this athletic season with 14 members, but has since been reduced to five members prior to Friday’s additions.

Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, current members of the C-USA, have been linked to the Mid-American Conference, which would potentially expand that league from 12 to 14 teams.

The American Athletic Conference and Sun Belt took six and three teams, respectively, from C-USA in realignment, and both will have 14 full members.

Florida International, Louisiana Tech and Texas-El Paso, along with the four additions, give the league nine full members, pending the decisions by WKU and MTSU.

If WKU and MTSU leave C-USA, the league will need to find one more full-time member to comply with the FBS requirement of eight full-time members.

While the move for Liberty is driven by football, the majority of its sports will move to C-USA from the ASUN.

There are questions of which sports will need to find new homes or remain in their current spots. For instance, field hockey is not sponsored by C-USA, and Liberty’s eighth-ranked field hockey program will remain in the Big East.

Women’s swimming and diving is a C-USA sport, but Liberty is a member of the Eastern-based Coastal Collegiate Sports Association and could remain there.

Only Liberty and current C-USA member FIU offer men’s soccer, which could lead to Liberty keeping its team in the ASUN, or move to another league as an associate member.

Women’s lacrosse isn’t sponsored by C-USA and Liberty will need to find a new home for that program unless it remains in the ASUN as an associate member.

The only C-USA sponsored sports that Liberty does not offer are women’s golf and beach volleyball. The latter sport is beginning in the 2022 season.

Liberty’s major sports outside of football — men’s basketball and baseball — could benefit the most with the move to C-USA.

The men’s basketball team enters the 2021-22 season as the only ASUN Conference team in the top 125 of the KenPom advanced analytics rankings at 97th, and current C-USA members Louisiana Tech (88th) and Western Kentucky (90th) are in the top 100. New Mexico State, a powerhouse in the WAC, is 109th, and Jacksonville State is ranked second to Liberty in the ASUN at 135th.

In baseball, C-USA posted the sixth-highest RPI in 2021. Louisiana Tech has been a perennial power for years and hosted a regional this past season, while Liberty advanced to the Knoxville Regional final this past summer.

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