North Carolina A&T announced on Friday that they'll be leaving the MEAC, of whom they are a charter member, for the Big South, effective July 1, 2021. The Aggies, have earned at least a share of five of the last six MEAC football titles, a run that included four Celebration Bowl victories. The men's and women's basketball teams have won the conference as recently as 2013 and 2016, respectively. A&T is the second MEAC school to depart for the Big South since 2018, when Hampton University made the move.
A&T's departure from the MEAC wasn't entirely surprising - most recent rumors had spoken of a potential move to FBS - but upon the rumored announcement yesterday, a move to the Big South seemed lateral at best. In NCAA men's basketball tournament parlance, both teams are one bid leagues that have sent their champions to Dayton for the First Four. In football, the Big South sends its champion to the NCAA Division I playoffs, while the MEAC champion plays in the Celebration Bowl for the HBCU championship. It's possible money is a primary motivator - and to be clear, in matters of realignment, it almost always is - but barring that, my immediate thoughts went to what they'd be gaining versus what they'd be giving up.
For the next 18 months, A&T resides in the MEAC, one of two Division I conferences comprised entirely of HBCUs. The MEAC is the junior of the two, having emerged in 1970 primarily from former CIAA members, and became a Division I conference in 1978. The member schools' shared identity has led to conference solidarity even amidst rivalry - Against the SWAC, the other such conference, at least. Dating back to the CIAA, A&T has shared a conference with Howard for nearly a century, and has had stretches with other conference rivals, whether continuous or interrupted, since the 1920s. The move feels like the sort of cultural disconnect I felt when the Terps went to the Big Ten, in which another conference charter member set off on a new path. For the record, that pairing still makes little sense to me, and at least a present, I feel the same way about A&T's move.
A&T cited travel cost savings among its reasons for the move. The MEAC is the most extensive of any FCS conference east of the Rockies, stretching nearly 1,000 miles from FAMU in the south to Delaware State in the north. In contrast, no team will play more than a state away in the Big South, where all members are in the Carolinas and Virginia - save for football-only outliers Monmouth in New Jersey, Kennesaw State in Georgia, and North Alabama. The Aggies will once again share a conference with Hampton, and may find a new conference rival in fellow Triad school High Point or UNC systemmmate UNC Asheville. Still, it's hard at this juncture to see the Aggie faithful getting as excited about games against Gardner-Webb and Campbell as they did about games against Norfolk State and FAMU - especially at halftime. The Aggies will have a chance to return to the NCAA Division I football playoffs, which they last visited in 2016 as an at-large as MEAC runner up. In this, the Big South has been a two bid league each of the past two years, finding its success in the form of football-only members Monmouth and Kennesaw State. The Aggies may also see the Big South as a more effective launchpad to FBS, as it was for Coastal Carolina a few years ago.
The Big South made out great on the deal. In A&T, they get a competitive program with a loyal fanbase that fits neatly into the conference footprint. The conference will drop to just seven football playing members in 2020 as Presbyterian's programs opts for the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League. Returning to eight will give league members seven conference games, and four out of conference slots to fill; A&T has expressly stated a desire to keep playing chief rival NC Central, and they will likely maintain relationships with other former conferencemates and HBCUs.
What will become of the MEAC? The conference will fall to eight football members following A&T's departure, down from 11 just two years ago with the losses of Hampton, A&T, and Savannah State, who returned to the Division II SIAC. What's more, with the Aggie, it's not just that they lost, but the program that they lost - a perennial conference champion and Celebration Bowl champion, and the nation's largest HBCU. The league office has stated a willingness to expand, but options in such are limited either to a rising Division II program, or adding a non-HBCU to the league, as the CIAA and SIAC have done. The MEAC has stated that "member institutions are united to remain a viable and sustainable Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) conference," but realignment has shown that that's always true - clear up until it isn't. The MEAC has weathered departures before, but if member institutions get antsy, the conference could go the way of the Big East. In addition to the Big South, the MEAC shares parts of its footprint with the SoCon and CAA, both also FCS conferences that offer football. Programs could also consider returning to Division II, as Savannah State did recently and Winston Salem State did a decade ago. And should FAMU get jumpy, they could entertain membership in the SWAC - they share a state border and reasonable travel with Alabama State and Alabama A&M, and even the longest stretch to Prairie View is shorter than its current conference trips to Norfolk, DC, and Dover. There's no reason for the MEAC to panic yet but hopefully they're keeping a close eye at conference headquarters because once realignment comes knocking, there's no telling where it will end.