Report: 6 teams on cusp of leaving Conference USA for American Athletic Conference

UTEP

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – On Monday afternoon, UTEP was riding high, with a potential Conference USA-champion football program on its hands. By Monday evening, C-USA as a whole was set to undergo a potential evolution and the Miners could be left scrambling.

According to a report from Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports, six Conference USA programs will be moving on to the American Athletic Conference, the latest domino to fall in conference realignment in college athletics. Thamel says Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA will all be submitting applications to join the American Athletic Conference this week, potentially as soon as Tuesday.

The expectation, per Thamel, is that the half-dozen applications will be accepted, turning the AAC into a 14-team league for both football and basketball. Barring a collapse of the agreement, it would result in a complete reshaping of Conference USA.

KTSM reached out to Director of Athletics Jim Senter regarding the potential realignment, but Senter declined to comment, saying only that he wouldn’t talk about speculation regarding realignment.

According to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, a timeline for the six teams joining the AAC is not yet known and basically hinges upon when Oklahoma and Texas officially join up with the SEC.

The mass C-USA exodus to the AAC is part of a much bigger shift in the plate tectonics of collegiate athletics since the summer. On July 30, Oklahoma and Texas accepted invitations to join the SEC, leaving the Big 12 Conference high and dry.

The Big 12 didn’t wait long to fill their shoes, though; on Sept. 10, the league added FBS Independent BYU and a trio of AAC schools: Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston.

At that point it was the American Athletic’s turn to make additions to its league and they did so, reaching out to four Mountain West Conference programs – Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State and San Diego State – to fill the void left by the Big 12 trio.

However, on Oct. 1, all four Mountain West schools declined the invitation, leading to Monday, when the new surfaced of the half-dozen C-USA teams joining the AAC.

The potential move puts UTEP and the other remaining seven C-USA programs – Marshall, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, FIU, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss – in a precarious place. Senter chose not to comment on Monday, but if the move comes through it will be up to him and other athletic directors in C-USA to help add new teams to the league.

In Thamel’s report, he states that the exit fee for each university leaving Conference USA is around $3 million. That would leave the league with around $18 million to attract potential new teams to the conference.

Adding new teams – perhaps four schools, to get to a more stable 12-team league, or even a brand new six universities, to return to the 14 teams C-USA currently has – appears to be option number one for Conference USA.

Based on Thamel’s report, the league appears to have every inclination to rebuild. While it is unclear what universities the conference might go after in a potential realignment, if the league is able to add programs like Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina or Louisiana from the Sun Belt Conference, or perhaps FBS Independents like Liberty or New Mexico State, that has to be the league’s first move.

If they are not able to do so, perhaps a two-conference merger could come into play. Combining the 10-team Sun Belt with the new eight-team Conference USA to make an 18-team super conference would have benefits, as well as drawbacks. But, the most important thing it would do, would be to ensure that all 18 teams were within a conference and not wandering in the proverbial college football desert.

However, there is a potential worst-case scenario for UTEP, where Conference USA can’t add anyone and implodes, leaving its remaining members to fend for themselves. If that happens, the Mountain West has reportedly said within the last month that it wants nothing to do with adding the Miners, per a report from Brett McMurphy of The Action Network.

If the Mountain West isn’t interested in UTEP, other leagues – the Sun Belt, for instance -might not be, either. In 2017, the Sun Belt effectively booted New Mexico State football from the league because they didn’t fit the conference’s geographical footprint. UTEP, obviously, occupies a similar geographic region as the Aggies, so it could be a hard sell to the Sun Belt to bring the Miners in, if C-USA crumbles.

In that doomsday scenario, UTEP would likely be left in a similar position as NMSU: testing the waters of being an FBS Independent. The Aggies are in the WAC for all sports other than football, but it is on the gridiron where things have been exceedingly difficult for them.

Since leaving the Sun Belt after the 2017 season, the Aggies have managed just seven total wins in four seasons and had to skip the 2020 fall season altogether because they did not have a conference to fall back on during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the WAC expanding to add Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin in 2021 and Southern Utah in 2022, the league has strengthened across all sports and WAC football has returned, but only at the FCS level for the time being. New Mexico State has no interest in dropping to FCS, so the Aggies are in a holding pattern as an FBS Independent until the WAC makes a return to FBS football. That is something that the conference would like to do within 5-10 years, sources have told KTSM.

UTEP could find itself in a similar situation as New Mexico State, if conference realignment passes them by. It’s also entirely possible that more dominoes fall, freeing up as-of-yet unknown spots for both UTEP and NMSU to jump into.

With the college football continents continuing to move at a swift rate, it is paramount that the Miners not get left behind.

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