Conference realignment has once again risen to the forefront of conversations around the college athletic landscape in recent months. It began this summer when news broke of Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC. Then, just last week, invitations were sent to BYU, Cincinnati, Central Florida, and Houston to join the Big 12. The AAC and Sun Belt have recently stated they are being aggressive in searching for potential schools to join them as jockeying among the Group of Five conferences has begun.
In recent years, Liberty has positioned itself nicely to be included among the top candidates looking to join a conference. The program has grown considerably in recent years, especially in football and men’s basketball. Just a few years ago, Liberty couldn’t buy it’s way into a G5 conference. Now, Liberty could have multiple opportunities.
Under head coach Hugh Freeze, the Flames have appeared in and won two straight bowl games and are coming off a 10-win campaign in 2020 when Liberty finished the season ranked in the top 25. The Flames have won 14 out of its past 15 games dating back to the end of the 2019 season. During that time, Liberty has won two bowl games, defeated a top 25 and undefeated Coastal Carolina, and also has wins over ACC programs Syracuse and Virginia Tech. The only loss was by one point on a blocked field in the waning seconds on the road against NC State.
Under head coach Ritchie McKay, the men’s basketball team has won three straight ASUN Conference championships and qualified for the NCAA Tournament each of the past three seasons. The Flames also defeated Mississippi State in the first round of the Big Dance in 2019, the program’s first ever win in the NCAA Tournament.
“There are several FBS conferences that are competing to be the 6th or 7th best football conference behind the Power Five,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw told ASOR in an exclusive interview. “If that’s a conference’s goal, a good place to start would be pursuing a top 25-30 football program that adds value in basketball and has a commitment in facilities and resources to sustain success.”
Prior to losing Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston, the AAC had positioned itself as the next best conference behind the Power Five conferences, even claiming to be a part of the Power Six leagues. The AAC has earned a New Year’s Six bowl bid each of the past four years, including Memphis’ appearance in the Cotton Bowl in 2019. The Tigers, however, are the only remaining school left to have represented the league in those lucrative and prestigious bowl games now that Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are on the way to the Big 12.
Being an FBS Independent and member of the ASUN in other sports, Liberty has found a lot of success in recent years. The Flames have positioned itself as a highly successful FBS Independent that could bring a lot of value to other conferences as realignment is taking place. It’s current alignment is sustainable long term, McCaw says. Liberty won’t have to jump at their first opportunity, but the Flames could instead choose to be patient and wait for the best and most attractive fit in a conference.
“We feel like our current model is sustainable,” said McCaw. “We need to discern if there is an FBS conference opportunity where mutual interest exists that offers us a better opportunity than what we currently enjoy because being an FBS Independent and an ASUN member is serving Liberty well and it is sustainable for the long term.”
“I think there’s always going to be opportunities as an Independent,” McCaw continued. “I think Notre Dame is going to be a long-term Independent. You have many others, Army, Connecticut, and so forth. I don’t envision joining an FBS conference becoming a necessity.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t conferences out there that would make sense and be attractive to Liberty as an FBS member. While McCaw wouldn’t confirm or deny if he has had any specific conversations in recent weeks regarding Liberty possibly joining a conference, he did state that realignment has become a hot topic across the country.
“Conference realignment is a hot topic, not just among the media, but certainly within college athletics and among college athletic administrators,” he said. “There are a lot of conversations taking place. Part of my role is to have good information as to what’s going on out there and certainly trying to have a good pulse on the activity and the discussions that are taking place.”
It’s likely that McCaw has had conversations with the AAC, Sun Belt, and Conference USA in recent weeks to gauge their interest in Liberty. Of course, at this point, we don’t know how much interest there is from any of those conferences and if it is mutual.
Could we also see a new FBS conference emerge? One that would be regional and pull schools from several different current conferences while also including Liberty? Could such a conference even be in the works currently?
“A newly constructed Mid-Atlantic Conference would make a lot of sense for many schools in our region,” McCaw stated.
So many Group of Five teams in the region are currently thrown into various conferences where they are frequently having to travel long distances, like Texas, for all sports to compete. Schools like Liberty, Charlotte, Old Dominion, Appalachian State, Marshall, Coastal Carolina, James Madison, and others could band together to form a new FBS league.
Liberty is currently scheduled to host BYU in 2022 and play at UCF in 2024. With those two joining the Big 12 in the next couple of years, those games aren’t likely to be affected, McCaw stated, but future games with BYU, who was an Independent, are not likely to happen.
“We had conversations about future years (with BYU), but I would think with them joining the Big 12 those conversations will probably not go any further,” McCaw said.
With all the growth and success Liberty has experienced on the field of play as an athletic program, McCaw and his staff remain committed to continuing that growth. The Flames have continued to set records for Flames Club membership, season tickets for both football and men’s basketball, and attendance numbers continue to rise. It’s important for the Liberty fan base to show potential conferences that the Flames can compete at the top level not just on the field but also in terms of fan support.
“One of the things that institutions are evaluated on by respective conferences is season ticket holders, donors, fan support,” said McCaw. “We’ve certainly made gains in that area, but it’s something we need to continue to grow and fill up our stadiums, arenas. That makes a huge impression as Liberty is evaluated as a prospective conference member.
Until the next round of dominoes fall, Liberty will continue to do what it can to look its best. That all starts on the field and in winning games, an area the program has made considerable strides in just the past couple of years.
“Be encouraged,” is McCaw’s message to Liberty fans amid the ongoing realignment discussions. “Liberty’s athletic brand is the strongest it has ever been. It’s going to continue to rise regardless of conference structure. Our athletic program’s best days are ahead of us.”