Conference USA options thinning as three more teams reportedly leaving for Sun Belt

College Sports

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – The mass migration away from Conference USA could be getting worse, as Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss are reportedly heading to the Sun Belt Conference, along with FCS powerhouse James Madison.

Multiple outlets are reporting the incoming invitations for the universities expected to join the Sun Belt, including College AD and CBS Sports, with the expectation that an official announcement could come as soon as early next week. According Yahoo! Sports, Southern Miss received an invitation to join the Sun Belt on Friday.

The move would leave Conference USA with just five remaining members – UTEP, FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky – after six programs officially left for the American Athletic Conference on Thursday.

UTEP athletic director Jim Senter told KTSM on Friday evening that UTEP is committed to Conference USA, no matter what universities are in the league. His comments cleared up speculation that UTEP might become an FBS Independent in football if C-USA were to implode. According to Senter, UTEP does not see being an FBS Independent as a viable option. At this point, that mean C-USA is basically its best option.

The exodus to the AAC and the Sun Belt means one thing for sure for C-USA: the league is on life support and will need to move very quickly to rebuild the league, if the trio of schools do indeed leave for the Sun Belt. Every indication this week has been that Conference USA hopes to forge on, but even that is dependent upon no other universities bouncing for greener pastures.

Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod released a statement on Friday evening, the league’s first public comments regarding all realignment chatter.

“We have a strong core of members to build around and are continuing to work to strengthen our league as we move forward. There are several institutions interested in joining Conference USA, both across FBS and FCS, some of whom we’ve already met with in person,” the statement read.

“Every step we take will be deliberate, strategically sound, and intentional,” MacLeod continued. “We will take the necessary time to add future members that will be the best fit from an athletic and academic standpoint and allow prospective institutions time to complete their process. We continue to believe in the regional concept and will look to incorporate that into our structure and scheduling. There are certainly many questions out there, but a great deal is happening behind the scenes. When appropriate, we will release more information, though out of respect for those involved, we will continue to operate outside of the public space.”

The league will be due an exit fee of $3 million from every university that leaves C-USA, according to Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports. In the event that nine programs move on, that would be a total of $27 million the league could use to rebuild itself.

There are multiple options still available to do so, but the moves on the chess board are getting fewer and farther in between for C-USA. The NCAA requires a conference to have at least six teams to be an FBS league, according to a report from Brett McMurphy on Thursday.

Option one for C-USA, according to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, is to add multiple FBS Independents to the fold for football. That would include New Mexico State for all sports and UConn and UMass for football only.

KTSM sources have indicated that while New Mexico State would have interest in joining C-USA, the league had not reached out to NMSU as of Friday afternoon. However, that tenor changed on Friday evening, as Yahoo! Sports reported that there had, indeed, been contact from C-USA to NMSU, as well as fellow WAC members Sam Houston State and Tarleton State.

In addition, the Action Network’s Brett McMurphy reported on Friday that Liberty was no longer seeking an invitation to be in C-USA, after a lot of noise that the Flames were interested. The three teams moving to the Sun Belt appears to be a main reason why.

Additionally, it is highly unlikely that UMass and UConn would leave the Atlantic 10 and Big East, respectively, for C-USA in sports other than football. A possibility, then, for Conference USA, could be adding NMSU for all sports, in addition to Arkansas-Little Rock and UT-Arlington for all sports other than football.

UALR and UTA are currently in the Sun Belt and do not have football programs. They have been rumored to be getting booted from the league as the Sun Belt adds JMU, Marshall, ODU and Southern Miss.

If they do indeed get kicked out of the Sun Belt and Conference USA can make that scenario come true, the league would have a nine-school league for football, as well as for all other sports.

CBS Sports also reported on Friday that FCS programs McNeese State and Sam Houston State have had contact with Conference USA about joining the league. However, as FCS programs, those two universities would require a two-year transition to FBS football, as would James Madison if it does indeed join the Sun Belt.

Tarleton State, also a team mentioned as a possibility for C-USA, would need four years to transition fully to FBS, as the Texans are currently transitioning from the NCAA D-II level to D-I.

Any league that Conference USA will be able to salvage at this point would be geographically challenging. UTEP and FIU (located in Miami), playing in a league with New Mexico State, and UMass (Amherst, Mass.), as well as Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky would no doubt be strange and difficult travel-wise. However, it would be necessary for the survival of the league.

“We have to try to put the best product we can out there to help UTEP’s national brand,” said UTEP head football coach Dana Dimel in an interview with KTSM on Friday. “That’s what we have to do. I’m not a part of that and have no control over that. They’re (UTEP AD Jim Senter and president Heather Wilson) working side by side on this and they’re ahead of the game on this. They’re working the best angles for UTEP on this and we’re going to be fine.”

With Senter clearing up speculation regarding a possible move to becoming an FBS Independent and in the WAC for all other sports, as of now C-USA appears to be UTEP’s best option.

While UTEP has long-expressed an interest in joining the Mountain West Conference, the league has not reciprocated that interest and league officials said earlier this week that the Mountain West is happy staying put with the 12 teams it currently has.

“We are monitoring it just like everyone else is. It’s a very, very fluid situation, and we’ll see what transpires,” Senter said in an interview with KTSM on Wednesday. “Regardless of what league we’re in — right now we’re in Conference USA — regardless of what league we’re in, we need to compete for and win championships at a high level in all of our sports, but predominately in football and men’s basketball because that drives the economic engine of our athletic department.”

UTEP athletics has experienced an uprising in 2021 and a continuation of that could help the Miners through the realignment process.

“All we can do is be where our feet are, and right now our feet are in Conference USA,” said Golding. “We are proud to be in Conference USA, and our job is to get this program back to competing in Conference USA. That’s all we can handle. We can handle the reality of where we are today, and that’s the reality.”

The football team is 6-1, 3-0 in C-USA, its best start since 2005. Men’s basketball just made a big splash with the hiring of Joe Golding; women’s basketball and volleyball proven to be two of the top programs in the league the last two seasons.

“I think we are raising some eyebrows,” said UTEP football offensive coordinator Dave Warner. “Regardless of what people think about UTEP right now, we are starting to get a little bit of notice. Hopefully that can continue these next few weeks, and certainly that would help in a conference realignment situation.”

As for New Mexico State, the Aggies know all-too-well the perils of being an FBS Independent for football. Since getting kicked out of the Sun Belt themselves after the 2017 season, NMSU has won just seven games as an Independent program and is 1-6 in 2021.

NMSU Director of Athletics Mario Moccia has long-said that the university’s top priority from an athletics standpoint is returning to an FBS football conference. Make no mistake, the Aggies will do whatever they can to be a part of any conversation regarding Conference USA expansion this time around.

Men’s basketball is no doubt a huge selling point for NMSU as well. The Aggies are picked to win a reloaded WAC in 2021-22 and that could be a nice chip on the bargaining table for NMSU.

There have been plenty of twists and turns throughout this week of realignment in NCAA athletics; expect even more over the weekend and into next week.

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