EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — This has escalated quickly.
Less than 24 hours after Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, North Texas, Rice and UTSA applied for membership to the American Athletic Conference (AAC) — which is expected to be accepted by the end of the week according to the Associated Press — three more Conference USA (C-USA) schools find themselves on the Sun Belt Conference’s radar. According to Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel, the Sun Belt is considering expansion by adding up to four schools including Southern Miss, Marshall, ODU and James Madison.
With so much uncertainty and speculation swirling, it leaves a school like UTEP in an impossible position if their conference was to fold altogether. The good news is that — according to Thamel — C-USA is now on the offensive and looking to add James Madison and Liberty. New Mexico State could also make sense as a travel partner for UTEP, but it remains to be seen if the Aggies — currently an FBS Independent in football and a member of the WAC — will get an invite.
In an exclusive interview with KTSM, UTEP director of athletics Jim Senter says a formal announcement by the league and its universities should be expected by the end of the week.
“We are monitoring it just like everyone else is. It’s a very, very fluid situation, and we’ll see what transpires,” said Senter. “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.”
The raid on C-USA is part of a much bigger shift in the plate tectonics of collegiate athletics since this past 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 schools for the AAC: Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston. The AAC whiffed on an attempt to add three schools from the Mountain West Conference (MWC), and settled for their pick of the litter within C-USA.
MWC commissioner Craig Thompson told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal on Wednesday that their conference will, “stand pat.” College football insider Brett McMurphy previously reported the MWC has no interest in extending an invite to UTEP.
For now, we wait to see what the Sun Belt decides to do. As it currently stands, LA Tech is the closest school in proximity to El Paso, some 900 miles away. Geographically, conference realignment has left UTEP in no-man’s-land. But if Conference USA is unable to rebuild, or, decides to rebrand itself with a footprint in the East, the Miners will likely find themselves on the outside looking in.