UMass is in talks to become the 12th member of the Sun Belt Conference for football, per a report from CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler. According to Commissioner Karl Benson, the Minutemen have had discussions with the league and interest exists.
The Sun Belt Conference only has 11 teams and needs a 12th in order to fulfill the requirement for a conference championship game. UMass is on the verge of being ejected from the Mid American Conference after 2015 because they would not commit to the league for all sports. UMass is regularly in the A-10 for all other sports. The A-10 does not sponsor football but is associated with the CAA, which is where the Minutemen originally were. They left the CAA when they reclassified to the FBS, though they remain affiliated with the league in lacrosse (meaning UMass plays in the A-10 for everything sponsored, the CAA for lacrosse, and the MAC for football).
The SBC lost five schools between 2010 and 2013 - Florida International, North Texas, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee State, and Western Kentucky. It replenished its ranks by dipping into the ranks of both independents and the FCS, adding New Mexico State and its lucrative Aggievision contract along with Idaho, Georgia State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Texas State, and Texas-Arlington. But they still fell one short of the minimum 12 required for two divisions and a conference championship game.
Now look, I understand that I've given UMass a TON of grief since the move to FBS. I understand that I've denigrated them on many levels, mocked them, and created a war of words of sorts. I understand the point of view from plenty of people who all said, "Why do you care about UMass? You're wasting your words."
Here's my take on the whole thing - in my own weird way, I was kind of hoping UMass would be successful. I always envisioned UMass making the jump at some point, but I envisioned it going differently. I felt a legitimate rivalry between Boston College and UMass would invigorate college football a little bit in this area, especially since UConn and BC don't play in football and the next closest geographical rival is Syracuse (which isn't close enough to make a day trip for a football game). And yes, we all have a vested interest, no matter how small or large, in what happens when we're talking about the same sport at the same macro level in the same place where our team resides.
Playing off the whole WMass-vs-EMass feeling, it would've united the whole state for a football rivalry that had some potential if done properly. Instead, BC stands alone as the only real power program in the northeast (Syracuse is in Canada, right?). As much as I dislike UMass on a personal level, it would've been great for the region to have a second team. Instead, it's BC and nobody else, which fosters the feelings elsewhere that college football up here is more of an anomaly than a viable sporting option.
In the grand scheme of things, though, every move UMass has made at and to stay at the FBS level has been an abject failure. They've made misstep after misstep, whether it be with their handling of the move up, their marketing strategy in Boston (which didn't work), or their idea to come into a clear Boston College market with less than a full deck in their hand. If they'd built the program properly, we'd see two FBS programs with clear strengths going head-to-head. Instead, there's nothing. And that's kind of a bummer in its own way.
If UMass goes to the Sun Belt Conference, it's nothing more than a step into irrelevance for a formerly proud program. The Minutemen turned their back on rivalries with New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island, which while in FCS had strong community roots. They skipped out on a program with FCS roots without properly thinking. And now there's a chance they're saddling one of the best coaches they've ever had, a coach I would've liked to see at Boston College before Steve Addazio took the reigns and proved himself to the fans - Mark Whipple - with the worst conference in college football. If they go to the SBC, UMass would actually take a step backward, not forward. It would be a step down from the MAC, which wasn't that great of a step anyways.
Then again, it might be their only step at all, which speaks volumes about the state of the program. I love Whipple, and I want him to do well. But I fear there are major factors against him that will prevent his ability to build a legitimate mid-major contender.
But hey, if nothing else, they'll look great on Aggievision.