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Which Conference Will UCF Men’s Soccer Call Home?

The Big 12 doesn’t sponsor Men’s Soccer, so where will the Knights land when the realignment music stops?

UCF Knights Men’s Soccer Gino Vivi
Gino Vivi
Photo: Noah Goldberg

It’s been two months since the UCF Knights’ athletic program announced it was joining the Big 12. Negotiations are ongoing for official entry into that league. But whether that happens in 2023, 2024, or tomorrow, there is one loose end that keeps the Knights involved in the conference realignment chaos: Men’s Soccer.

UCF is the only one of the four newest Big 12 schools that has men’s soccer, and the Big 12 does not sponsor the sport. So, Athletic Director Terry Mohajir and University President Alexander Cartwright will have to find a new home for Scott Calabrese’s team.

However, there’s been plenty more conference realignment drama since September. The Sun Belt has announced it is reviving Men’s Soccer as a sponsored sport, and with Conference USA imploding in slow motion, there could be some attractive programs looking for new homes in addition to UCF.

So let’s break down the pros and cons of the different possible destinations for the program:


Option 1: Remain in The American

Future AAC Men’s Soccer Teams

Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Tulsa 10 Current Member
Charlotte 27 C-USA
SMU 38 Current Member
UCF 60 Current Member
South Florida 87 Current Member
Memphis 98 Current Member
FAU 107 C-USA
Temple 144 Current Member
UAB 166 C-USA
RPI as of October 31, 2021

Average RPI: 82

Pros

Familiarity. If the Knights remain in The American, then Men’s Soccer will be the only sport where the War on I-4 will survive as a conference rivalry. In addition, UCF and SMU have developed quite the bitter conference rivalry over the years that would also continue on. There’s also the potential for another in-state rival in FAU.

Strength of League. The American has been a Top 6 league since 2015 with being being a top 4 strongest conference twice during that span. UCF has benefited from that national seed twice in part to the strength of the league. That should not change if anything it get stronger with addition of Charlotte which has been strong men soccer program to go along with establish programs like SMU, Tulsa.

Cons

Contempt. Despite Terry Mohajir’s hopes for the team to remain in The American, there is no guarantee that the conference will accept UCF as a Men’s Soccer-only member. With the additions of Charlotte, FAU, and UAB, the team doesn’t have to add another school in order to keep sponsoring the sport. So, if The American has no reason to keep UCF around in Men’s Soccer, then it can very easily say “no.”


Option 2: Join the Sun Belt Conference

The Sun Belt currently does not sponsor Men’s Soccer. However, with recent realignment news, Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill has said on the record that the sport is coming back to the league:

So, what would that look like?

Future SBC Men’s Soccer Teams

Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Marshall 8 C-USA
Georgia State 47 MAC
James Madison 54 CAA
UCF 60 AAC
Coastal Carolina 65 C-USA
Georgia Southern 113 MAC
Old Dominion 154 C-USA
RPI as of October 31, 2021 UCF highlighted for reference

Average RPI: 72

Pros

Competitiveness. This new Sun Belt Men’s Soccer league would be just as competitive as The American. Besides Georgia Southern, every team listed has made the NCAA Tournament at least once in the past five years. Among them, Marshall won the national championship this past spring and are currently ranked No. 2 this season. Coastal Carolina has also become a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament over the last decade, missing the dance only once since 2010.

Geography. With these schools located in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, UCF would no longer have to play a road match west of the Mississippi River. Considering the Knights have had conference matches in Philadelphia, travel isn’t much of an issue, but every little bit helps in terms of budget.

Cons

Lack of brands. Despite these teams’ competitiveness in recent years, none of them are true brand programs on the level that UCF has become. While obviously they are all highly competitive in men’s soccer, success can be fleeting, especially if Marshall or Coastal undergo a coaching change. That could bode wel for UCF, opening up the top of the league, but then, would the Sun Belt be a multi-bid league in the eyes of the NCAA Committee come tournament time?


Option 3: Re-join Conference USA

Future C-USA Men’s Soccer Teams

Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Kentucky 15 Current member
West Virginia 17 Joining for Men's Soccer in '22
FIU 24 Current member
South Carolina 119 Current member
UCF 60 AAC
RPI as of October 31, 2021 UCF highlighted for reference

Average RPI: 47

Pros

Quality Programs. Despite the mass exodus, three of the four remaining members of C-USA’s Men’s Soccer league are at least on the up-and-up: Kentucky is currently ranked No. 5, Florida International is No. 17, and West Virginia is receiving votes. Plus, there’s the added advantage of Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia being power conference programs, with WVU being a fellow Big 12 member.

Cons

Instability. Unfortunately, C-USA may not exist by the time realignment goes into effect. The conference is trying to draw over independent Liberty (RPI #170), along with New Mexico State (who doesn’t have Men’s Soccer), and UConn (for football only - they’re staying in the Big East for Men’s Soccer). Even if it does manage to survive, the three associate members could easily look elsewhere if they do not think the conference will be viable going forward.


Option 4: Join the Atlantic Sun Conference

Atlantic Sun Men’s Soccer Teams

Team RPI
Team RPI
Central Arkansas 50
UCF 60
Lipscomb 90
Stetson 92
North Florida 110
Florida Gulf Coast 141
Bellarmine 145
Jacksonville 165
Liberty 170
NOTE: Liberty is reportedly in negotiations to join C-USA. UCF highlighted for reference

Average RPI: 114

Pros

Easy travel. The Knights can go from having just one in-state conference rival with USF to four with FGCU, Jacksonville, North Florida, and Stetson. That cuts down on travel costs.

It’s better than no conference at all. Which, yeah, I guess.

Cons

A step down in competitiveness: The A-Sun has not been a multi-bid league since the 90s. Clearly, as their average RPI shows, this is not a nationally competitive league.


Option 5(?): Why Don’t We Take All These Teams and Make A New Conference?

Let’s have a little fun and engage in some reckless speculation, shall we?

Say Conference USA decides to fold and Kentucky, South Carolina, FIU and West Virginia are suddenly looking for a new home as well as UCF. Those five would make very handsome additions to a growing college soccer conference like, say, the Sun Belt.

So what if the remaining C-USA teams merged with the SBC to create a men’s soccer superconference?

Here’s how that would look:

Potential Merged C-USA/SBC Men’s Soccer Conference

Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Marshall 8 C-USA
Kentucky 15 C-USA
West Virginia 17 MAC
FIU 24 C-USA
Georgia State 47 MAC
James Madison 54 CAA
UCF 60 AAC
Coastal Carolina 65 C-USA
Georgia Southern 113 MAC
South Carolina 119 C-USA
Old Dominion 154 C-USA
RPI as of October 31, 2021 UCF highlighted for reference

Average RPI: 61

Pros

Quality competition. You’d be making a Men’s Soccer superconference. You’re looking at 4-5 bids from either of these leagues alone, including at least four shoo-ins.

Rivalries. Marshall vs. West Virginia. Coastal Carolina vs. South Carolina. Georgia State vs. Georgia Southern. Old Dominion vs. James Madison. UCF vs. FIU. In terms of in-state rivalries, there’s high quality here, Kentucky notwithstanding. This would also make double-road game weekends

Cons

Lots of teams. Unevenness isn’t that big of a deal (UCF would make each of the above leagues uneven), but with Kentucky being the odd team out, that may or may not cause some trouble. Either they or WVU may be the wildcard here.

Now let’s make a C-USA/AAC Megaconference and see how that looks:

Potential Merged C-USA/AAC Men’s Soccer Conference

Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Teams Current RPI Former Conference
Tulsa 10 AAC
Kentucky 15 C-USA
West Virginia 17 MAC
FIU 24 C-USA
Charlotte 27 C-USA
SMU 38 AAC
UCF 60 AAC
South Florida 87 AAC
Memphis 98 AAC
FAU 107 C-USA
South Carolina 119 C-USA
Temple 144 AAC
UAB 166 C-USA
RPI as of games played through October 31 UCF highlighted for reference

Average RPI: 70

Pros

Big markets and big schools. Look at that lineup. You’ve got brand schools (Kentucky, South Carolina, West Virginia), and when you don’t you have big market schools. This is the kind of league that could not only compete for a national title (six top-40 RPI teams right now), but could also grab some TV viewership among local alumni.

Cons

Too many teams. Only one Division I conference, the Atlantic 10, currently has as many teams — 13 — as this league would have, and those teams are all in a relatively concise geographical area along the east coast.


What’s Next?

UCF is not done finalizing the terms of its entry into the Big 12. As A.D. Terry Mohajir said at the Big 12 presser, UCF’s Men’s Soccer plans are on the backburner until that all gets sorted out.

One key program to watch for is West Virginia, who may very well get caught in limbo, having announced they were joining a conference in C-USA that might not be there in 2022. This story is still moving quick, so there’s a lot to still sort out.

However, once it does, you can bet some really interesting things are going to happen. It may go right up until July 1 of the year UCF joins the Big 12 and leaves The American (be that 2023 or 2024), but when they do, you can bet there will be lots of competitive options on the table.