The ASUN and the WAC, who formed new FCS football-playing conferences in January of 2021, are extending their alliance for the 2022 season and the foreseeable future. They will combine as one joint league with one auto-bid into the FCS playoffs.
The two conferences combined in the fall of 2021 in their first seasons to earn instant auto-bid status into the FCS playoffs, calling it the AQ7 (Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Eastern Kentucky, Central Arkansas, Jacksonville State, Abilene Christian, and Lamar). It was expected to be a one-year partnership before they split and had their own AQs in 2022. Due to realignment and losing members, the joint league is back in 2022 for one auto-bid.
Schedules are already set for 2022, so the WAC and ASUN are currently engaged in formalizing the process by which the AQ will be awarded. They plan to cross-schedule starting in 2023.
“Through this strategic and intentional alignment, the WAC and ASUN will be able to provide opportunities to play crossover games against similar institutions and build resumes that will position its programs for at-large selections for years to come,” a press release said.
This season, the ASUN has six total members and five playoff-eligible teams (Austin Peay, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Kennesaw State, North Alabama). Jacksonville State is a member but is heading to the FBS in 2023.
The WAC has eight total members in 2022, five of which are playoff eligible (Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word, Lamar, Southern Utah, Stephen F. Austin). Tarleton State and Utah Tech (Dixie State) are transitioning up from D2, and the WAC is working to get their postseason eligibility reclassification period sped up. Sam Houston is going to the FBS in 2023. The WAC also loses Lamar back to the Southland Conference in 2023 with speculation that UIW may do the same. If UIW stays, the WAC would be at six total members in 2023.
In 2022, the 10 playoff-eligible members vying for the auto-bid are … ASUN — Austin Peay, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Kennesaw State, and North Alabama; WAC — Abilene Christian, Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, Southern Utah, and UIW.
Membership count for 2023 is currently 11 total — ASUN members (5) Austin Peay, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Kennesaw State, and North Alabama; WAC members (6) Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word, Southern Utah, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton State, Utah Tech.
The minimum membership requirement to maintain AQ status is six, although the NCAA grants a two-year grace period if you lose members and drop below that threshold. The ASUN and WAC combining offers stability for their members.
“The ASUN and the WAC made history this past year with the creation of a new AQ through a collaborative partnership,” ASUN Commissioner Ted Gumbart said. “Extending it to ensure the AQ opportunity we created is available to all the partners that helped build it makes great sense, especially under the primary ASUN Beam: Students First. The WAC has outstanding football and we look forward to extending our ASUN-WAC partnership.”
“During this transformational time of the NCAA, the WAC applauds the creative and adaptive leadership our member institutions exhibit. This strategic partnership has established a guidestone for strength and stability in the ever-changing landscape of collegiate athletics” WAC Commissioner Brian Thornton said. “Our goal remains to become one of the premier FCS conferences in the country and partnering with the ASUN now and in the future allows us to continue to move towards that target at record speed.”
Playoff Auto-Bid Breakdown
The 24-team FCS playoff bracket featured 10 auto-bids from 10 conferences and 14 at-large bids from 2013-2019. It moved to 11 AQs and 13 at-larges in 2021 with the addition of the AQ7.
The expectation for this season was a 12 and 12 split as the ASUN and WAC separated as their own leagues. With the renewed partnership, the 2022 bracket is set for 11 AQs and 13 at-larges.
And (as of now in the ever-changing FCS landscape) starting in 2023, the bracket will be all the way back to 10 AQs and 14 at-larges with the Big South and OVC forming a football association for one auto-bid.
It should be noted that this looks to be fluid every year in terms of the AQ vs. at-large breakdown. The goal for the ASUN, WAC, Big South, and OVC is to have their own AQs down the road and to not always have to rely on partnerships to maintain auto-bid status. Strength in numbers in the short term is important as the realignment wheel continues to spin, but these two associations could technically split anytime between seasons.
How Does This Impact Playoff Expansion Talks?
The growing number of AQs resulted in conference commissioners from larger, multi-bid leagues pushing to expand the playoff bracket to 28 teams starting in 2023. Less at-large bids meant a worse chance for a fourth or fifth-place Big Sky, CAA, or MVFC team from getting in as an at-large bid when those teams are sometimes ranked higher than some conference champs.
Now that the number of AQs is back below 50 percent for the time being, it will slow down talks of expanding the bracket. But it won’t completely take the discussion off of the table, and there’s a chance an expansion happens down the road depending on how long these two associations between the ASUN-WAC and Big South-OVC last.
“Only speaking for myself, but I’m taking the wait-and-see approach as it gets closer to the season,” Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill told HERO Sports today. “From my standpoint, it’s hard to predict the movement for this fall and next fall. Once the dust settles then we can look at the various options.”
Approval to expand the playoffs is already a long process. FCS commissioners would need to be on board with any proposed changes. The changes would first go to the football oversight committee. It would then go into the championship structure and the championship oversight committee. And then ultimately it would go to the NCAA Council for final approval. With the number of AQs going down, albeit it being a fluid number year to year, coupled with the ongoing NCAA constitutional transformation that is creating uncertainty on how it impacts D1 football, the idea of expanding the FCS playoff bracket has at least slowed down for the time being.