Less than a month after expanding, the Atlantic Sun Conference took its next steps toward becoming a football league Tuesday morning.
The ASUN announced in a virtual news conference from Atlanta that it is partnering with the Western Athletic Conference for the 2021 football season to create the ASUN-WAC Challenge, a combined league that will qualify for an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
The University of Central Arkansas, which is departing the Southland Conference after this academic year, will link up with fellow ASUN additions Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State as they combine with new WAC members Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin -- all of whom will also be leaving the Southland -- to form the alliance.
Each of those schools will play a six-game, round-robin schedule with three home and three road matchups. UCA also will visit WAC member Tarleton State, which is still transitioning to Division I so that game will not count toward the conference standings.
"The ASUN and WAC are proud to be building opportunities for our student-athletes to compete at the highest level," ASUN Commissioner Ted Gumbart said in a statement. "This partnership provides teams in both leagues a path to an automatic bid and elevates the ASUN and WAC to a new level of competition. We look forward to creating more innovative ways to promote ASUN Football as an NCAA FCS league in 2021 and beyond."
Gumbart's expectation is that the ASUN will add to its five football-playing schools come fall 2022 in order for the conference to qualify for its own automatic bid that season. Current ASUN programs Kennesaw State and North Alabama will remain as Big South associate members for the 2021 football season before joining up with Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State.
The ASUN also counts Liberty (FBS independent) and Stetson (FCS non-scholarship Pioneer League) among its membership, but Gumbart noted the conference won't compel either program to join its newly-formed football league.
UCA Athletic Director Brad Teague said last month that moving from the Southland to the ASUN will allow the Bears to expand their footprint while also securing their future as conferences keep realigning in the near future.
"Athletics is a gateway. It's the front porch of our institution -- it's the way that we welcome the community to our institutions," UCA President Houston Davis said. "Knowing that we've got partners like this, we feel very confident about the hand we've been dealt."
That growth could occur both within and outside the ASUN. The conference is working with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta Sports Council to create the United Atlanta Classic, a multi-game series that could begin as early as this fall but no later than the 2022 season.
The ASUN is also in discussions with the Big South to create an annual series between the two leagues that would add one nonconference game to the final regular-season week, starting in 2022. Although those plans have yet to be finalized, the expectation is that matchups would be determined during the season.
All of these developments are ones that excite UCA Coach Nathan Brown, who believes his Bears can be "trailblazers" in this new venture for both the school and conference.
"When you look at the history of the programs [in this league], the competition is going to be extremely high," he said. "And when you look at the number of playoff appearances, past championships, conference championships, the opportunity to play in a league like [the ASUN] was a no-brainer for us.
"This is a trailblazing moment for us at the University of Central Arkansas. ... The way we spin it to our student-athletes is, 'You've got an opportunity to blaze that trail and to set that point of history for our conference.' "
2021 Central Arkansas football schedule
= denotes ASUN-WAC Challenge contest
Sept. 4: at Arkansas State
Sept. 11: at Missouri State
Sept. 18: vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Sept. 25: vs. Sam Houston State
Oct. 2: at Abilene Christian
Oct. 16: vs. Eastern Kentucky
Oct. 23: vs. Lamar
Oct. 30: vs. Jacksonville State
Nov. 6: OPEN
Nov. 13: vs. Stephen F. Austin
Nov. 20: at Tarleton State