There’s a clock in UT Rio Grande Valley football coach Travis Bush’s office that is counting down to his fledgling program’s debut with the 2025 season.
About 25 months out from that date, you may say it will be as interesting to see how far advanced UTRGV’s conference is by then as much as the Vaqueros’ start-up program’s development.
UTRGV will give the United Athletic Conference a 10th team in 2025. But while the Vaqueros are preparing to come aboard as a Division I FCS program, other football programs from the ASUN and Western Athletic Conference, which are in a third-year partnership, have harbored a long-term goal of rising to the FBS level.
A huge increase in costs looms in the future with such a move, so the UAC has had to press the brake, but executive director Oliver Luck said he welcomes his conference schools’ commitment to their programs.
“It’s fairly simple,” Luck said on Friday at the conference’s media day in Arlington, Texas, “FCS is where we are, and FCS is 100 percent our focus. And what we want to do is perform at the highest level regardless of what conference, what league, what division we’re in.”
The UAC has been one of the more interesting stories of the FCS offseason. The partnership began with the 2021 season, but with 2020 national champion Sam Houston and Jacksonville State off to the FBS this year and Kennesaw State also gone to make the same move next year, the member programs rebranded as the UAC – a football-only conference, much like the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Pioneer Football League in the FCS.
The NCAA later denied the UAC’s waiver request to be recognized as a single-sport FCS conference this year, due to a moratorium on such activity, and it’s since been extended to Jan. 1, 2025. Undaunted, the UAC still moved forward with the new name and the plan to continue to pursue official NCAA status. Like the new Big South-OVC Football Association, the UAC will retain an automatic playoff bid for its conference champion even without the formal NCAA status.
“We think our structure makes a lot of sense, particularly in this time of change,” Luck said. “We all know what happens with realignment: It’s sort of the top level – Power-Five – and how that trickles down to a lot of the FCS schools. We believe that we’re on the right track; we’ll continue to work with our friends at the NCAA to get formal acknowledgement.”
The NCAA Division I Council is reportedly considering a proposal of a $5 million transition fee from the FCS to the FBS and requiring scholarships throughout an athletic department to total a minimum $6 million. That kind of budgeting could hamper many would-be transitions.
But wherever the UAC is headed, what’s already better about it than the ASUN-WAC is the nine programs will play each other more often this season to determine a truer champion. Due to schedules previously in place before the 2021 and ‘22 seasons, crossover matchups have been sparse. In fact, there were only two within the entire league last year.
In this year’s six-game conference schedule, ASUN programs Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky, Central Arkansas and North Alabama will play each other as well as three opponents from the five-team WAC contingent of Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin, Southern Utah, Utah Tech and Tarleton. The WAC teams will play each other as well as two of the four ASUN teams.
The ASUN teams figure to carry more weight. Eastern Kentucky earned last year’s ASUN-WAC auto bid and returns Parker McKinney, who leads active FCS players in passing yards (9,718) and touchdown passes (74). Quarterback Mike DiLiello fuels Austin Peay, while Central Arkansas boasts running backs ShunDerrick Powell (a North Alabama transfer) and Darius Hale as well as 2022 Buck Buchanan Award third-place finisher David Walker at defensive end.
Among the WAC contingent, Stephen F. Austin, a 2021 playoff qualifier, figures to take a step backward after losing a number of key players from last season, but Abilene Christian hopes to build off a 7-4 campaign behind running back Jermiah Dobbins.
Bush and his UTRGV program could soak in the UAC experience at media day, where a red, white and blue branding logo was introduced by the new conference.
Bush, a Texas State graduate, helped start UTSA’s program from scratch as an assistant coach in the early 2010s. He and his Vaqueros staff will have their first signing class this winter, then open with a practice season next fall before the inaugural schedule in 2025.
His school’s nickname – Vaqueros, which reflects horse-mounted livestock herders who were rich in the Rio Grande region – may stump a lot of people, but there will be a lot of getting to know UTRGV football.
With the UAC’s future as well.
“Oliver Luck said it best: Starting things is fun,” Bush said. “I think this time around, (I am) really embracing the process and enjoying the struggles and the challenges we have starting out.”