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Could the coronavirus lead to a conference merger?

We all know the pandemic will create permanent changes in the world, in ways that are both knowable and unknowable at this point in time. But, here in college sports, leaders have had no trouble identifying fat that can easily be trimmed. For instance, some have noticed that it might not totally be necessary for football teams to stay in hotels the night before home games.

Or, on a grander scale: how much sense does it make to be in a conference that stretches from Texas to Virginia?

“I think what it’s time for is for sports leaders to come together and recognize that it doesn’t make good economic sense to put teams on airplanes and fly over schools that you can drive to to compete against,” Louisiana-Lafayette AD Bryan Maggard told the Acadiana Advocate. “That’s the ultimate change that needs to happen in my opinion.

“We’re putting teams on airplanes instead of busing them somewhere, I just think that’s … we’re at the point where if this pandemic hasn’t opened our eyes to the necessity of that, I’m not sure anything will.”

Here's Arkansas State AD Terry Mohajir:

And Conference USA commissioner Judy McLeod, speaking to Sports Illustrated:

"Another possibility: if things get crazy, do we need to play other schools that are close to us from other conferences, others within our footprint?. Some of that maybe we should have been doing a long time ago, be a lot smarter."

To be sure, this is primarily a question asked in the direction toward Olympic sports.

That, in this age of budget cuts and furloughs, maybe the North Texas soccer team can build a schedule that doesn't call for trips to Middle Tennessee, Charlotte and/or Marshall. Football is somewhat shielded from these questions, given A) that teams travel only four times over the course of their conference schedule and B) Saturday games means players miss only one day of classes, at most.

Still, there's no denying that, if you could re-draw all FBS conferences from scratch, there's no way UTEP and Marshall would wind up in the same conference, or Texas State and App State, or Tulane and Temple.

It's not as if these schools have shared histories dating back to the 19th century. Moses did not descend from Mount Sinai with Conference USA's divisional alignments etched onto two stone tablets. These leagues -- especially at the Group of 5 level -- are marriages of convenience, born out of necessity after waves of realignment higher up on the food chain. The American Athletic Conference didn't even exist until 2013.

So, what if Conference USA and the Sun Belt combined their forces into something that made geographic sense? What if UTEP didn't have to make that Oct. 24 trip to Charlotte?

Imagine no longer. The two conferences have 24 teams between them, which easily split into six four-team divisions that just so happen to eliminate thousands of miles of unnecessary travel.

USA Belt
Appalachian State
Middle Tennessee
Old Dominion
Western Kentucky

Coastal Carolina
Florida Atlantic
Florida International
Georgia Southern
Georgia State
South Alabama

Sun Conference
Louisiana Tech
Southern Miss

Arkansas State
North Texas
Texas State

To be sure, there are still some long trips here. El Paso to Troy is 1,317 miles; Boca Raton, Fla., to Huntington, W.V., is just over 1,000. There's just no getting around that when you've got conferences that stretch all the way to far west Texas and the deepest parts of South Florida. But this does eliminate the super-long trips like UTEP to Marshall (1,635 miles) and Texas State to App State (1,224).

More importantly, combining the Sun Belt and C-USA eliminates redundancies. No longer do Charlotte, Old Dominion, Marshall, Middle Tennessee and WKU skipping the entire states of Georgia and South Carolina to play FIU and FAU in division games when App State is right there. No longer can Texas State and UTSA essentially share airplanes on their way to play Charlotte and App State when they could just as easily leave the airplane and play each other.

Moving forward, it's difficult to imagine ADs putting any non-revenue teams on airplanes for regular season competition unless absolutely necessary. Does that lead to a realignment in football? Eh, that's hard to say.

But should it? That's another conversation altogether.