I know, I know — college football is far from our collective minds at the moment, what with Super Bowl Sunday this past week and March Madness fast approaching. But the best kind of drama is CFB drama, and the best kind of CFB drama is Group of 5 drama.
Conference realignment in the Big 12 and SEC this year has had a trickle-down effect on the Group of 5, and Conference USA was especially gutted by the round of realignment in late 2021. The conference was mostly able to recuperate from initial departures, but last week, three C-USA schools that were originally planning to depart after the 2022-23 school year announced their intention to leave for the Sun Belt this summer.
In statements from Old Dominion, Marshall, and Southern Mississippi, the schools indicated that they had discussed this early departure with conference representatives, who were not receptive to the idea. Earlier this week, C-USA released its in-conference football schedule for 2022 — and it includes those three schools, who have absolutely no intention of competing in the conference this coming fall.
C-USA has also announced that they plan to pursue legal action to ensure that the three schools remain in their conference for the 2022 football season, despite the schools’ public statements against remaining. There doesn’t appear to be any financial penalty in place that the schools would have to pay for leaving early aside from a standard exit fee, but there is a clause in the conference bylaws that requires schools to give a 14-month notice before leaving the conference. However, there is no actual consequence attached to this clause — it just says that they can’t do it.
The contractual clause means that, if it comes down to it — and it seems like it might — C-USA could take legal action against the schools. The Big East sued West Virginia in 2011 for a breach of contract when they attempted to leave for the Big 12, and the case ended up being settled for a sum of $20 million, which the Big 12 and West Virginia paid to the Big East. Big East football shuttered a year after the lawsuit was settled — not a great omen for C-USA, who may sense their demise quickly approaching as contracts are thrown to the curb and the AAC and Sun Belt take their pick (nine schools departed the conference this year alone).
The Sun Belt won’t be able to release their conference schedule until this matter is settled — if they include the three schools, they could be involved in a potential C-USA lawsuit, and if they don’t, they might need to make some major adjustments later in the year.
Sure, it’s not exactly on the level of Texas and OU leaving for the SEC out of nowhere, and few of these schools will ever end up making a national splash (although one departing member is the nationally beloved UTSA Roadrunners). But a college sports executive told Sports Illustrated that, depending on whether the courts enforce the contractual obligation, this incident “throws the entire system into chaos.” Although, we also hear that about every change in the sport every other week, so take that as you will.