The 2021-22 academic year started on July 1 and with it were a slew of schools changing conferences. Some conferences were particularly hit hard with losses such as the Southland (5 schools left) and the MEAC (4 teams left). The Ohio Valley Conference had a comparatively better realignment turnover with only two schools – Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville Statejoining a new conference.

The departures of Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State left the OVC with 10 full members and 7 football-playing members. The OVC will also completely scrap the divisional system it had implemented when the full complement of 12 teams starting was available for its various sports. Below is a table showing a list of full member schools and whether they all sponsor basketball and football. The basketball column refers to both men’s and women’s basketball.

SchoolBasketball Sponsored?Football Sponsored?Notes
Austin PeayYesYes
BelmontYesNo
Eastern IllinoisYesYes
Morehead StateYesYes*Football is a member of the Pioneer Football League
Murray StateYesYes
Southeast Missouri StateYesYes
SIU EdwardsvilleYesNo
Tennessee MartinYesYes
Tennessee StateYesYes
Tennessee TechYesYes


While losing two full members is never a good thing, the situation for the OVC is not dire. They still have a healthy membership in most sports and the seven in football is one eligible member above the minimum of six needed to retain automatic qualifier status for the FCS Playoffs. Nevertheless, it will not hurt to consider adding schools to maintain that buffer for AQ status in football but also improve other sports that are below the minimum level for AQ status.

The Issues

We alluded to one of the major challenges in the preceding paragraph: the OVC needs to strike a balance between finding an 8th football member but a school that can also raise the overall profile of the league in other sports such as basketball.

Well look at that, the answer to every conference’s realignment riddle. One has to wonder why conferences struggle so much to understand this concept.

In all seriousness, this is not an easy feat. You have to identify a set number of schools that you think would fit those criteria while also making sure they align with the academic values of the conference. Furthermore, the conference then has to sell whichever schools or schools it selects to the current membership and hope they see the same vision. That’s not always an easy task with the inevitable politicking that goes on behind the scenes. Finally, conferences also have to ensure the current membership is not looking elsewhere for a new home, which can set off a whole unintended set of realignment dominoes forcing more changes by the conference.

You’re probably wondering, “Great but what does this have to with the OVC?” Let’s start with a disclaimer: This is not based on any report or rumor. We are simply speculating here as we typically do.

There has to be a worry for the remaining membership any time they see a school leave. For the OVC, they saw a founding member in EKU and a football power in JSU leave for greener pastures. Who else might be thinking of bolting?

Basketball

Let’s start with the state of affairs in basketball. Men’s basketball has been dominated by two schoolsBelmont and Murray State. Since Belmont joined the OVC in the 2012-13 season, either Belmont or Murray State have won the NCAA Tournament bid 5 of the 9 tournaments while both teams have been mainstays atop the regular season standings over that time. On the women’s side, Belmont has the 4th most OVC titles in conference history with five despite having been in the OVC for only 9 seasons.

The OVC has reaped the benefits from these two programs. In 2019, the OVC received two bids to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three decades with both Belmont and Murray State making the field of 64. The OVC hasn’t performed well since 2013 with a 2-9 record in the NCAA Tournament with both wins coming in the 2019 edition. However, a two-bid basketball league is nothing to scoff at for a mid-major conference.

While the basketball side is a strength for the OVC to sell, this is also a potential trouble spot as they have to retain Belmont and Murray State as its marquee members for any potential future schools that wish to join. That gives both schools a certain degree of leverage as both teams consistently win in basketball while Murray State has a football team to consider as well. Belmont might be looking elsewhere to raise its profile in basketball and Murray State is part of the buffer from dropping to six schools (or fewer). It’s not hard to imagine these schools potentially looking elsewhere if they don’t like how the OVC leadership handles any future realignment changes.

Football

OVC football has been historically dominated by Eastern Kentucky with 21 titles dating back to 1954 with a vast majority of those coming in the 1980s and 1990s. They won or shared three OVC titles between 2007 and 2011. Jacksonville State has also been a mainstay atop the OVC pyramid more recently with seven outright or shared titles in the last 10 seasons.

With both of those teams now leaving for the ASUN, the most recent winners are Southeast Missouri State and Austin Peay, both of whom shared the OVC title in the 2019 season. Prior to that? It was Eastern Illinois in 2013 who were a very good team from 2001 through 2013 with all seven of their OVC titles occurring in that time frame.

This is another area where the OVC has to be careful. They have lost two of its most prominent football members, which will make selling football to a new school that much more difficult. The OVC leadership also needs to be cognizant to not completely alienate its burgeoning basketball schools by focusing squarely on the next member(s) through a football lens otherwise they risk seeing the basketball portion take a hit through additional departures. In turn, that would further hurt the OVC’s ability to sell a complete package to potential new members.

Potential Targets

A Google search of potential new OVC members yields a vast array of school names and scenarios. We’ll take a look at some of the schools in alphabetical order below with pros, cons, and the likelihood of such a move occurring.

Chattanooga

The Mocs are currently a member of the Southern Conference and the name has been thrown around given its proximity to the current OVC membership based in Tennessee. That’s the main argument for why Chattanooga is mentioned as an OVC target as well as offering football, basketball, tennis, and beach volleyball. The downside to this is they would leave a conference that consistently receives multiple bids to the FCS Playoffs. In addition, they might be better off trying to get more out of the SoCon or try to have a bigger hand in any future SoCon expansion plans than to bolt for a new conference.

We don’t see this particular scenario happening. Maybe the folks at Chattanooga are unhappy; however, going to the OVC doesn’t seem like the ideal move that would curtail the unhappiness for long.

Northern Kentucky

Northern Kentucky is a relatively recent new member at the Division I level. They started in the ASUN with the 2011-12 season before moving to the Horizon League starting with the 2015-16 season. They have also been mentioned as a possible future member due to the proximity similar to what was referenced with Chattanooga.

It’s important to note that NKU does not sponsor football, a point we’ve mentioned on this website before. We’ll keep the status quo and assume that NKU is not going to start a football team. That means they’ll have to rely on its basketball program, which has done well on the men’s side since becoming a full member of Division I in 2016. They’ve played in the NCAA Tournament twice with losses against Kentucky in 2017 and Texas Tech in 2019. The Norse also won the 2020 Horizon League Championship and would have been in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years. Unfortunately, the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic. NKU was also selected to the NIT in 2018 in which they lost to Louisville.

What makes NKU an intriguing possibility is whether the OVC is willing to accept a non-football playing member. This could work if the OVC was able to get both a football and non-football play member as this would get them to 8 in football and up to 12 in other sports. For example, adding Western Illinois (football) and Northern Kentucky (non-football) would be one possible scenario. (No, we aren’t suggesting this will happen).

Why won’t this happen? For starters, Northern Kentucky seems content since they joined the Horizon League. They’ve had success in basketball and the geographical situation is pretty ideal for them given that a majority of members are in or relatively close to a major metropolitan area. There’s also the fact that NKU doesn’t offer football, which is likely the biggest mark against this happening.

While OVC basketball would get a bump up with Northern Kentucky in the mix, would it be enough for the conference to consistently get a second bid? Would NKU give up what has been a very good start at D1 for the chance to finish 2nd or 3rd to Belmont / Murray State and miss out on the NCAA Tournament if it remains a mostly 1 bid league? Those are serious questions that would have to be asked and evaluated for this potential move to work from the basketball side.

One final point specific to Northern Kentucky is whether the OVC is willing to take them as a member. When NKU decided to move up to D1 at the beginning of the 2010s, they were hoping the OVC would invite them. The OVC did not and the rest is history. Would the current membership sing a different tune this time around?

Western Illinois

The Leathernecks are an often mentioned name when it comes to possible future OVC schools. Why might this work? WIU has not been very good in sports as part of the MVFC in football and Summit League in other sports. A move to the OVC – even only for football – would probably make them more competitive while also helping bolster the numbers of the OVC.

Why wouldn’t this move work out? Well, moving from the MVFC to the OVC would certainly be a step-down even if you aren’t competitive. It’s difficult to know the difference between exposure for a school at the bottom of the best FCS football conference versus being near the top of a one or two-bid FCS league. There’s no guarantee moving from the MVFC to OVC would make Western Illinois a top team overnight. Is it worth it for the WIU administration to take the risk?

Would the current OVC members accept this football-only arrangement? Do the leadership and the members want an odd number (11) of full members? Would they accept a football-only membership from WIU? Would WIU want that set up with the other sports being in the Summit League?

All things considered, this isn’t the most implausible scenario. There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument but how serious would WIU be about moving from the MVFC / Summit League to the OVC? It’s high enough that we aren’t ruling this possibility out.

Youngstown State

Youngstown State used to be a former OVC member way back in the 1980s (1981 – 1988) prior to becoming an FCS Independent (then I-AA). The OVC years weren’t memorable as the Penguins only made the playoffs once during that time. Football is now in the Missouri Valley Football Conference while the remaining sports are in the Horizon League.

Why might this work? Well, YSU could move all sports over to the OVC and get away from the likes of North Dakota State for an easier path to the FCS Playoffs. At least that’s the idea on paper as the Penguins have made just three FCS playoff appearances since 2000. Then there’s the geographic factor, which would be slightly better in the OVC than the MVFC + Horizon League setup right now.

Why might this be a stretch? It feels like a lateral move for YSU overall and that’s not always necessarily a bad thing. Sure, the path to the FCS Playoffs might be easier without NDSU but they would still have to beat them and potentially other MVFC foes to win another FCS title. We certainly know that Youngstown State can be a top FCS program with the right leadership based on what it accomplished in the 1990s.

For the OVC, they would be taking on a program with a rich history of FCS football as well as adding a tennis member to boost the much-needed AQ numbers in that sport. However, Youngstown State does not boast a strong men’s or women’s basketball program, which hurts the overall profile. Overall, this doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Other Solutions

There are potential solutions if the OVC suffers any additional departures in the next few years without adding in new schools. For example, if football becomes a concern they could potentially join forces with the ASUN or Southland to form an agreement to combine football programs akin to what we will see with the ASUN and WAC in 2021.

While that is also not ideal long-term, it would provide an AQ path to the FCS Playoffs for the conferences with fewer than 6 eligible members. Whether the OVC and ASUN schools would want to have such an agreement in the event it ever came to that is a whole different story.

This type of scheduling agreement could also extend to other sports such as soccer, tennis, beach volleyball, or any Olympic sports that don’t reach the minimum threshold for AQ status.

Summary

As we outlined above, the OVC realignment situation is nuanced. They have to retain the current membership while at the same time selling the current and prospective new schools that the potential new schools are in the best interests of all parties. For the OVC, they have to do that while balancing between adding a football school and maintaining good basketball-performing schools like Belmont and Murray State. The last thing the OVC wants to do is to alienate the strongest part of its brand leading to further defections and making the worst of a bad situation.

There are a few options listed above that are better fits than others though none of the options is a slam dunk. That leads us to a final scenario, which we didn’t mention. For the OVC, right at this moment, there is no need to rush finding an 11th full member and an 8th football member. The football AQ status isn’t flashing red and there has not been any indication the remaining membership is ready to bolt unless you believe some of the opinion pieces out there.

Conference realignment is always churning, which could change which way the dominoes fall and render everything above moot. The OVC already has a good start with two big steps: they’ve maintained the current membership (for the time being) and are performing due diligence on potential future members that will make the current membership more willing to stay onboard.

Then again, the possibility exists that the OVC makes every effort to keep its current membership happy but some of those schools will decide to leave anyway. Such is the gamble in the never-ending roulette wheel of college realignment.

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Conference

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