The race to seven: Two conferences chasing AQs

The next piece in the East Region conference shuffle could be Ithaca leaving the Empire 8 for the Liberty League.
Ithaca athletics photo

By Pat Coleman

Ever since the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference dropped its offseason bombshell that it would add football in 2017, there’s been a slow-motion race in the East Region.

The NEWMAC was bringing some of its schools back home, as well as adding ones which currently participate in other conferences. And that left holes in a couple of conferences, to the point where both the Liberty League and the New England Football Conference would have just five members left and would lose their automatic bids in 2019.

There aren’t a lot of football teams in the East Region that aren’t in conferences already, so finding school to fill the gaps has been a slow, and sometimes quiet process. Since the initial announcement last April, the NEFC has been taken over by the Commonwealth Coast Conference, as the CCC eventually decided to add football to its slate of sports as well. This took almost six months, and gained them one program – University of New England, which is starting football in 2018.

Meanwhile, the NEWMAC picked up an eighth school, one that the CCC was hoping to snag. Catholic University wasn’t even believed to be in the market for a new conference, but will join the NEWMAC when it first sponsors football in 2017.

The Liberty League has been even quieter in this race, having made no public statement about the future of football that we can see. However, Ithaca has expressed continued interest in the Liberty League despite not being invited to join when Rochester Institute of Technology and Bard joined the LL in 2011. Now Ithaca presents something the LL needs – a football team.

Even admitting Ithaca won’t be the answer for the Liberty League, just as UNE adding football doesn’t solve the CCC’s quest to retain the NEFC automatic bid. Those moves will leave the conferences with six teams apiece, one short of an automatic bid.

Where will the seventh come from?

Existing football programs

There aren’t many independents in Division III football at all, and only one in the general footprint of either of these conferences. While Alfred State is certainly a free agent who is available, the school doesn’t generally fit the profile of a Liberty League member and is a better fit for the Empire 8, assuming the school reaches full Division III membership.

Perhaps it’s possible another school might leave their current conference to join the LL or CCC. Anything aside from talking about Ithaca would be unfounded speculation, but there is still time for a team to join in plenty of time to maintain either conference’s automatic bid.

Another possibility is St. Anselm, which in August declared its intention to enter the exploratory phase of applying to Division III. Based in Manchester, N.H., the school is more within the CCC footprint but views itself as a contemporary of the NEWMAC and might be a better fit as an institution in the LL. However, the school sponsors hockey, which makes it a better fit for the CCC. Regardless, St. Anselm isn't eligible for the playoffs until 2020 at the earliest, if it does decide to go through with applying to D-III.

New football programs

The Liberty League has five member schools which don’t sponsor football: Bard, Clarkson, RIT, Skidmore and Vassar. RIT has the largest enrollment of the group, but Clarkson, Skidmore and Vassar also have more than 2,000 full-time undergraduates. Hamilton, formerly a member of the LL in most sports, left the conference after 2010-11 to join its football program in the NESCAC.

There are no New England independents who sponsor football. Eastern Nazarene, Gordon, Roger Williams and Wentworth are all members of the Commonwealth Coast Conference. Of that group, Gordon has been mentioned as a possible candidate to start the sport.

Why look for a seventh program?

However, here’s a more intriguing thought: With two six-team conferences in the mix, why bother finding the seventh team? The two conferences could instead align with each other. With 12 teams, they could follow a model similar to the New England Football Conference’s from 1999-2012, where the two “division” champions would meet for a championship game to determine the automatic bid. The Midwest Conference currently does this.

We’re headed for an automatic bid crisis in Division III football. There are 25 this year, but the American Southwest Conference will regain its automatic bid in the next few years. The NEWMAC would be eligible for an automatic bid in 2019, and if the LL and CCC each manage to retain separate automatic bids, that would leave 28 automatic bids and just four at-large.

Whether the CCC and LL align with each other, or whether someone leaves the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference to join one of these leagues and triggers an alliance involving the ECFC, any opportunity to conserve automatic bids would be to the benefit of Division III football.

Contributing: Dave McHugh, D3sports.com

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