We've reached the point of the latest round of realignment where the aftershocks of Texas and Oklahoma's impending move to the SEC are now being felt a level below FBS.
This latest round has proven to be a repeat of all the other rounds: the, uh, stuff runs downhill. The SEC poached the Red River rivals, so the Big 12 grabbed Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the American (plus BYU), and now the American is set to nab Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA from Conference USA.
This is the point where Conference USA would ordinarily pluck the four most attractive options from the Sun Belt, the Sun Belt would compel some Big South or SoCon schools to move up to FBS, and round and round we'd go.
Except now the Sun Belt appears to be ready to go on the offensive.
There are many moving pieces darting all across this chessboard, but James Madison is the only school to appear on both C-USA and the Sun Belt's wish lists. The same James Madison that is not currently in FBS.
To be sure, JMU has the profile of an FBS school. With 21,000 undergrads, the Harrisonburg, Va., based school plays in a 25,000-seat stadium and its $10.6 million in football revenue (2018-19) was the highest in FCS. Its $50+ million budget would be among the tops in the Sun Belt or C-USA right now. The Dukes were a target of realignment way back in 2013. JMU said no then, but in doing so they eased the door shut, they didn't slam it.
Conference USA's current roster, less the six defectors, is eight schools with about as much in common as Billy Napier and Billie Eilish, stretching from Huntington, W. Va., to Miami, to El Paso.
If the Sun Belt manages to sway Southern Miss, Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison away from Conference USA, C-USA would be left with five schools: Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Florida International, Louisiana Tech and UTEP.
Meanwhile, the Mountain West is not expanding.
It's not clear where C-USA would go from there. Liberty, UMass and New Mexico State would likely say yes, but then what? You've made your far flung conference even more far flung without making it all that much more attractive to a TV network.
No good options remain if and when your conference roster drops to five schools, so C-USA's first course of action is crystal clear: don't drop to five schools. If it is to survive in anything resembling a healthy state, Conference USA may just have to get to James Madison before the Sun Belt does.