The realignment never seems to stop and Wednesday was proof of this as Campbell announced their departure from the Big South for the CAA in 2023. The CAA now has a whopping 15 football-playing members and 14 for Olympic sports.
The big loser is obviously the now “not-so” Big South, which only has four football-playing members. If not for their alliance with the six-team Ohio Valley Conference, the Big South would be history. However, as Campbell’s defection proves, the OVC-Big South alliance is not a security blanket for the Big South.
A surprise conference that could benefit now is the MEAC. The MEAC has long been in an existential crisis, ever since losing NC A&T and Hampton to the Big South and Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman to the SWAC. It looked like the conference was on the verge of crumbling until Howard decided to stay in the MEAC after flirting with the CAA.
The MEAC has eight members, six of them football-playing schools. Six schools would be an alarming number for any other FCS conference due to playoff requirements, but since the MEAC sends their champions to the Celebration Bowl, this is not as big a concern. Yet, the conference could use some depth in Olympic sports.
The MEAC has multiple pathways to expansion from the Big South. One route is to add a pair of schools as football-only members. They could add either Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb or Bryant and Robert Morris as package deals. Gardner Webb and Charleston Southern would already have natural rivalries with North Carolina Central and South Carolina State. Both have a small presence in respectable markets with Boiling Springs an hour away from Charlotte and Charleston Southern residing of course in the Palmetto State’s largest city.
The other option for football-only schools is Bryant and Robert Morris. This would give the conference a more northeastern skew and help keep Howard, Morgan State, and Delaware State from bolting to the Northeast Conference or Patriot League. Bryant is quickly looking like Rhode Island’s best football program, while Robert Morris is close to Pittsburgh, giving the MEAC access to a new market and potential RSN partner in AT&T Sports Pittsburgh.
Of course, the one obstacle for new members is the Celebration Bowl, but the league could easily remedy this with a clause for Primarily White Institutions (PWIs) to opt-out of the Celebration Bowl and into the FCS Playoffs if they win the conference.
The other, bolder option is to add Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb as full members. This is riskier as it may alienate the non-football schools in the MEAC, both located in Maryland. There is not as much of a need to do this with the MEAC at eight Olympic sports members and Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb may not be pressured to make a move like this with the Big South thriving in Olympic sports with nine members.
While the CAA continued to add to its "FCS super conference", the real big winner may end up being the MEAC, which has a new lifeline. By adding schools as football-only members, the conference may not have to take that much of a leap of faith.