This is the third year in a row for this particular feature, and so much has changed from when I wrote the last one 14 months ago that it's worth yet another look. Quick background: Conference realignment may have been quite the shock to the rest of the landscape, but it's been a fact of life in lacrosse for a very long time now. It's not a very stable system.
The instability continues from year to year, so much so that a lot of my assumptions from just 14 months ago no longer hold true. Such as:
-- Wagner will leave the NEC, a conference in danger of losing its autobid.
-- The ECAC will actually continue to exist.
-- Big Ten lacrosse is still some distance down the road.
-- The Big East will disappear, to be replaced with some as-yet unknown entity.
Actually, I think the Wagner thing fell apart a couple months before I wrote and I just missed it. Whether that was more Wagner's doing or the MAAC's depends on what you read, but in any case, the NEC found itself in pretty good shape, about which more in a bit. The ECAC, on the other hand, got dismembered, in no small part because Big Ten lacrosse wasn't so far away after all, and the Catholic 7 kept the Big East name.
Quite a few moves got announced since then, and some even took effect this year. The moves:
St. Joseph's: CAA --> NEC **
Penn State: CAA --> B1G
Air Force: ECAC --> ???
Bellarmine: ECAC --> SoCon
Denver: ECAC --> BE **
Hobart: ECAC --> NEC **
Fairfield: ECAC --> CAA
Michigan: ECAC --> B1G
Ohio State: ECAC --> B1G
Johns Hopkins: Ind. --> B1G
**already happened this year
Essentially it's like this: Wagner stayed in the NEC, which added St. Joe's from the CAA and Hobart from the ECAC to get to seven teams and keep its autobid. The Big East, having lost Syracuse and Notre Dame and facing the loss of Rutgers, saved its autobid by adding Denver - not strictly a Catholic school (but then, neither is Butler) but a small private school all the same and a good fit, culturally speaking. The rest of the ECAC wandered off to pretty natural landing spots - the Big Ten will be a lacrosse conference next year, Hobart's a perfectly good fit in the NEC as is Bellarmine in the Southern**, Fairfield is a good geographical and on-field quality fit in the CAA. The only ECAC school left to find a place is Air Force; word had it last summer they were working on membership in the A-Sun/SoCon as well, but there hasn't been any announcement. It might be tough to convince a bunch of small, low-budget startup schools to fly out to Colorado on the regular. They did, however, play nearly every team in that conference this year.
**it's the Atlantic Sun this year but they made some arrangement or other with the Southern Conference and it'll be the SoCon going forward.
That bout of realignment really about took care of most of the issues I figured would be next in the hopper to solve, which basically were: what's up with the Big Ten, Big East, and Hopkins, and can the NEC hang on to its bid? The answers to most were to sacrifice the ECAC.
This means that realignment is probably slowing down a bit for the time being, now that the holding-pen conference is no more and most schools are in a geographically logical place - or else, in the conference that they exist in for real. And on top of that, the tournament expansion I'd been predicting also came to pass. I think they will stick with 18 for the near, foreseeable future, but I also don't think it'll take very much further expansion for the NCAA to pull the trigger on two more teams to make it a 20-team affair.
Any further shifting of the landscape, then, depends almost exclusively on where the next expansions take place. There are two teams that will begin play in 2015: UMass-Lowell and NJIT. The former has a spot in the America East waiting for it. NJIT rolls independently in most sports with associate conference membership for just a few sports such as men's volleyball and women's tennis. No conference affiliation for lacrosse has been announced for them and I don't expect one; if they do, just go ahead and assume the NEC or A-East. These two won't make a mess of things.
Something else might, though. Here are the possible avenues for expansion:
-- ACC. Anyone with a brain could see the benefits of the autobid for the ACC this year; it went to the one team least likely to snare an at-large pick and should give the conference the full complement of six teams in the tournament. The question is whether people in the conference office see it too. If so, and if there is someone with both a keen interest in lacrosse and enough political capital, the conference may push one of its current members to pick up the sport. Boston College and NC State are usually mentioned as possibilities because of their previous engagements with the sport at varsity level and because of their proximity to other extant programs. Keep your ear to the ground long enough and you might hear Virginia Tech and Louisville whispered as well. VT would make some sense, as they have a new AD who has already turned over a new leaf for the school by making an actual commitment to having a basketball team.
The ACC does have a two-year grace period before the autobid expires, so it'll be there in 2015 and 2016; that said, if you were talking about getting a team running from the ground up, you'd really have to start this summer in order to be in place by 2017 when the bid is otherwise gone.
-- Northeast. Obviously the foundation of the sport. Four schools in the past couple years obviously thought the region could support more programs. Such expansion could affect the NEC, A-East, or MAAC. Chances are, unless we were talking about Boston College, further northeast expansion would follow the same pattern as it has recently: smaller schools whose football program is at best FCS-level, if it exists at all.
-- Southeast. The same football thing holds true here. Most big-time programs in this region won't be interested in something that would be viewed as taking resources away from football or baseball. It's likely nobody would start a program unless they were assured a place in the SoCon; it would take four or five more teams in the region before it could support two conferences. However, I do have a suspicion, which is based on nothing more than a gut feeling, that the area is not done adding lacrosse teams.
-- Midwest. I don't think this is as much a possibility as most of these options, but the notion of a team at, say, Michigan State, Northwestern, or Minnesota is not a completely out-there idea. In general, though, I see the area as less likely to sprout a team than most of these ideas. The question of which conference to join, if it's not a Big Ten team, would be an interesting one.
-- Texas. An interesting and possibly fanciful proposition, but there are folks who think it's only a matter of time before there's a D-I team in the state. SMU was said to be looking at the possibility a couple years ago. Texas - the Longhorns, that is - is a financial dreadnought and if they ever want a team, they'll have one. Ironically, UT would probably face more interesting challenges than SMU. SMU could probably score an invite to start life off in the SoCon. UT likely would not; I have my doubts that a conference of small-budget private schools want to compete with a flagship behemoth with more enrollment than all of them combined and a GDP the size of a Pacific island nation. UT might have to compete as an independent until it can bully some more regional teams into starting a team themselves.
-- West. Another possible matter-of-time school is USC. The LA area, while not exactly a geyser of lacrosse talent, is at least a small park fountain. And USC also has the budget. My gut says they won't do it unless they can convince five other Pac-12 teams (or at least some other California teams if not a full complement of Pac-12 ones) to take the leap all at once. Life as a West Coast independent would be fraught with unique challenges that make a team not really worth it until you've got some buddies. Some Pac-12 teams - I'd say UCLA, Colorado, Stanford - would take a little less convincing than others (WSU, OSU.)
Interestingly, most of the top MCLA teams - the club setup that spawned the Michigan varsity team - are out west. BYU, Colorado State, Chapman, Arizona State, etc. 13 of the top 20 teams in LaxPower's calculation are in the Rockies or points west. A couple by themselves wouldn't mean much, but that many is proof there's a reasonable batch of talent out that way that could, in the not-distant future, become a foundation for a crop of varsity teams.
I'm gonna go ahead and cop out, and call it a coin flip whether or not any new schools announce a new team between, say, now and the new year. Four new teams starting play in one year is kind of extraordinary, when you think about it. There may be some momentum, but it's also the case that there's nothing out there but speculation right now. Boston U. is an example of a school where things were kind of getting out there before any official announcement. On the flip side you have NJIT, which was never mentioned until the day the school did it themselves.
If there are no new teams announced between now and next spring, then you'll probably find that the realignment thing stabilizes, too. Not to rule out surprises, because they always seem to crop up, but the only unresolved issue with existing teams is Air Force, and that's likely getting close. Otherwise, teams and conferences seem happy where they are. It may not be necessary to write this post next year.