BushWACked by departures, whither the remaining schools?

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Let’s face it: the Western Athletic Conference, as it’s currently constituted, is dead.  It has ceased to exist as a conference, both technically and in the realm of any reasonable thought.

The six teams left standing are a veritable Who’s Not collection of fringe mid-major football schools — at best — with little cachet left following the departures of Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada for the Mountain West, presumably after the 2010-2011 school year.

Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, Hawaii, San Jose State and Utah State?  There’s little doubt that these schools are fine, fine institutions of higher learning, but, when it comes to football, the Sun Belt now scoffs in their general direction.  And chuckles, with a giggle thrown in for good measure.

So, just where does the conference go from here?  Commissioner Karl Benson is expected to hold a press conference at some point Thursday, at which time it’s expected he’ll address the future of his league and any type of salvaging plan they’ve cobbled together in the past 24 hours.

Aside from the obvious of just outright abandoning the conference and allowing the remaining schools to fend for themselves — especially if BYU decides to remain in the Mountain West and not take their non-football sports to the WAC — the WAC will have to look at plucking schools that are currently members of other leagues.  The most obvious candidate for plundering would be Conference USA in general and their Western division specifically.

Houston would be the obvious prize out of that group, with SMU and their cash-flush rebuilding efforts not far behind.  The former would seem an unlikely candidate for departure right now, if for nothing more than there’s a possibility that either the Mountain West (most likely) or the Big 12 (kinda, maybe) could have their eyes on the Cougars in the not-too-distant future; the latter school would appear to be a good candidate, although they may not want to abandon their natural in-state conference rivals.

Beggars can’t be choosers — and right now the WAC is a panhandling fool — so they could be forced to focus their attention on two of the following four schools to get to the NCAA-mandated level of eight schools: Rice, Tulane, Tulsa and UTEP.  Would either of those four schools leave the relative stability of C-USA for the uncertainty that is the WAC?  Not to mention the additional travel expenditures that would come along with it?

If C-USA is out of the question, the attention may turn to the Sun Belt.  With Louisiana Tech already in the WAC fold, perhaps Louisiana-Lafayette and/or Louisiana-Monroe would be an option.  With the exception of getting to the minimum of eight schools to technically form a conference, do those to Louisiana programs add anything — besides travel expenses — of value to the conference?

Of course, there’s always the option of cannon-balling into the Div. 1-AA pool and see what comes ashore, which brings us full circle back to the original premise: the WAC is on life support and, barring what seems right now would be a more-than-minor miracle, will have the plug pulled.

Thus, if the WAC ceases to exist, what happens to the individual schools?  There are two seemingly no-brainers when it comes to the dissolving of the WAC and what happens to the current members.

One, Hawaii would be odds-on favorites to go the independent route.  It’s been discussed in the past and, if they suddenly found themselves conference-less, would be the likely path for the foreseeable future.  The other no-brainer would be Louisiana Tech to either Conference USA or the Sun Belt.  The former already has 12 schools, so the numbers would have to be worked around, while the latter would likely welcome LaTech with open arms and a couple/few cases of beers.

As suggested to me by one of the fine editors at NBC Sports.com/MSNBC.com, two of the remaining four schools could potentially drop down to Div. 1-AA.  Idaho and Utah State, at least geographically, would be a perfect fit for the Big Sky conference.  Dropping down a level would not be optimum, but they could be left with no other choice.

That leaves San Jose State and New Mexico State.  Godspeed, higher-learning institutions.  Godspeed. 

Of course, if the reports come to fruition and BYU does indeed strike out as a football independent and drops their non-football sports into the WAC, the conference may suddenly become attractive again and they could very well, with the BYU draw, pull in an additional two schools, thus staving off extinction.

So, BYU, the ball’s in your court.  You have the power to save or kill an entire conference.  No pressure at all.

Pat Narduzzi believes Pitt RB James Conner will play in 2016

In this photo taken Nov. 21, 2015, Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi, right, applauds a touchdown by his team next to James Conner in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Louisville in Pittsburgh. Conner spent the last three months weighing whether to return next fall or head to the NFL after a torn knee ligament ended his junior season before it really began. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP) MAGAZINES OUT; NO SALES; MONESSEN OUT; KITTANNING OUT; CONNELLSVILLE OUT; GREENSBURG OUT; TARENTUM OUT; NORTH HILLS NEWS RECORD OUT; BUTLER OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
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The college football world was stunned when Pittsburgh running back James Conner, who missed the bulk of the 2015 season due to a knee injury, announced he is battling cancer. Despite his ongoing bout with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his neck and chest, Conner is said to be in great physical shape and looks he could even be ready to play for the Panthers this fall once he beats cancer.

“I saw him yesterday in the hallway and he’s been working out with our kids to keep his sanity and he’s having fun doing it,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said recently to ESPN.com reporter James Shanker. “That’s the key is he’s having fun beating cancer and he’s got a great attitude and he looks good right now. He’s doing well and looks well. Doesn’t look like he lost weight. Looks like he could still play. He doesn’t look like he has cancer.”

Conner declared his intention to play football again when he announced his cancer to the world last December.

“I will play football again,” Conner said in early December. “I will be at Heinz Field again. I have the best coaches and teammates in the country. I thank God I chose Pitt because now I also have the best doctors in the country and together we will win. I know this city has my back.”

The former ACC Player of the Year is receiving financial support from Pitt to handle the costs of the treatments, which is allowed by the NCAA for special circumstances. This is certainly a special circumstance. Per NCAA rules, Conner and his family are required to have personal insurance but schools may pick up the tab for remaining costs not covered by the student’s insurance coverage. Pitt is able to lend its support because cancer is affecting Conner’s ability to play football.

The college football world will continue to root for Conner as he works his way back to the football field.

Cost of attendance not having negative recruiting impact on Group of Five (yet)

Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) runs for a first down against Temple during the second half of the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Houston. Houston won 24-13. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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The outlook on the impact cost of attendance has on non-power conference institutions may not be known for another year or so, but after one recruiting cycle since the power conferences were granted autonomy powers, cost of attendance stipends have not been seen to be a major difference in the game as one might have thought originally.

Underdog Dynasty took a look at the issue and how Group of Five schools have fared. The initial findings suggest Group of Five programs are not struggling nearly as much as once suspected when it comes to cost of attendance stipends, although it is something that not every program has jumped into providing just yet. And yes, the topic of stipends does pop up on the recruiting trail, which suggests the Group of Five programs that can provide a little extra money as part of a player’s enrollment do figure to have some sort of advantage. However, stipends do not appear to be a game changer on a massive enough scale.

From Underdog Dynasty;

Another fear from last season was that smaller athletic departments couldn’t afford it. Those may have been overblown as well. My Google search turned up news of South Dakota State phasing in COA stipends for all student-athletes, something North Dakota and North Dakota State already have done.

All three are FCS schools. If they can afford the stipends, albeit funding 63 football scholarships rather than 85, G5 schools should as well. Even the Sun Belt distributes more than $1 million per school in College Football Playoff payouts.

Houston, of the American Athletic Conference, just landed a recruiting class that would make a good number of power conference programs jealous, although the Cougars were the only Group of Five program to finish ranked in the top 50 in the final team rankings compiled by Rivals (BYU finished No. 48). Boise State, UCF and Temple fell in the upper half of the FBS mix as well.

Just as one year of the College Football Playoff system did not provide enough empirical evidence to suggest the Big 12 should expand to 12 just to get a conference championship game, one year of cost of attendance stipends is not nearly enough to suggest it has a devastating or minimal impact on the recruiting game in college football. This is just something that will have to be watched for a few more years in order to gather more evidence to evaluate.

Former Wolverine Brian Cole transferring to Kentucky

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2013, file photo, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops watches from the sideline during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. Stoops has recruited some high-level talent since coming to Lexington three years ago and the Wildcats have taken substantial steps forward. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File
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Maybe it’s the new uniforms. Maybe it’s an opportunity for a fresh start. Whatever the reason, former Michigan wide receiver and defensive back Brian Cole is heading to Kentucky.

Cole was a four-star recruit in Michigan’s Class of 2015. The second-ranked player from the state of Michigan was a significant addition to the Wolverines by then first-year Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, which helps make his decision to leave for another program now a bit interesting to note considering the momentum seemingly being generated in Ann Arbor. He was released from his scholarship in Michigan in January.

Due to NCAA transfer rules, Cole will be forced to sit out the 2016 season and will be eligible to return to the playing field again in 2017. The good news for Cole is he will still have three years of eligibility remaining.

Cole appeared in two games for the Wolverines in 2015, but he spent most of the season held back by injury issues. His addition to the Kentucky roster is a big win for head coach Mark Stoops, who has developed a little bit of a habit for adding some talented transfers to his program in Lexington.

Michigan and Notre Dame could be rekindling their football series

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 1994, file photo, Notre Dame's Derrick Mayes (1) pulls in a touchdown catch in front of Michigan's Chuck Winters (35) during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind. Mayes may have grabbed this spectacular catch for a score, but Michigan's Remy Hamilton kicked four field goals, including a 42-yarder with 2 seconds left, to give the Wolverines a 26-24  victory. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser, File)
AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser, File
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The bitter divorce between Michigan and Notre Dame on the football field could soon be forgiven. There are hints and clues the series could be heading to a revival.

Michigan athletics director Jim Hackett started lighting the fire for the rivalry series renewal discussion last week when he mentioned during a radio interview the two schools have opened communication on the subject.

“I will tell you this, the relationship is good, and it started with [Jim Harbaugh] and coach [Brian Kelly] working together on a desire to play together,” Hackett said. “But (there’s) nothing firm yet.”

In 2013, when the two schools were beginning to play what was to be their final game son the existing contract, Kelly downplayed the rivalry with Michigan by noting it has not been one of the best rivalries in Notre Dame’s history. In his defense, he is right. In fact, Notre Dame has a more storied history with Michigan State, not to mention USC or Navy.

“I really haven’t seen it as one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries,” Kelly said according to the Chicago Tribune. “I’ve seen it as just one of those great football games that Notre Dame has played.

“For me, I’ve been in Michigan a long time, I’ve always felt the Notre Dame-Michigan game was a big regional game. But in the Notre Dame history books, this game has (been) played, but obviously there have been some years where it hasn’t been played for a number of years.”

Kelly did later go on to say he was optimistic the series with Michigan would return in the future. Harbaugh was quick to follow up on the idea of playing Notre Dame again. Now we just sit and wait to see when that may become a possibility.

Scheduling for both Michigan and Notre Dame have become a bit more complex in more recent years than it used to be. Notre Dame is part of an ACC scheduling rotation that guarantees a certain number of power conference opponents from the ACC each season and the Irish continue rivalry game son an annual basis with USC, Stanford and Navy. Michigan is moving to a nine-game Big Ten schedule with the requirement to play at least one power conference opponent in its non-conference slate each season. The Wolverines already have that requirement met through the 2027 season but have shown a willingness to schedule two power conference opponents in a season, which is the case in 2020 and 2021 (games vs. Washington and Virginia Tech in alternating home-and-home deals).