What is Next for C-USA and UTEP After AAC Rumored Expansion
The hammer dropped on Conference USA yesterday afternoon when Yahoo's Pete Thamel reported that the American Athletic Conference was about to receive applications from six C-USA members.
This morning, Thamel tweeted that the process is under way.
If reports are correct, the earliest date that the AAC would be able to expand is the fall of 2023. In addition, the financial penalty for each school to leave C-USA will be $3 million each. That would give the league a total of $18 million from all six departures. Originally, the AAC wanted to take members from the Mountain West in order to replace Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston (all three going to the Big 12), but San Diego State, Boise State, Air Force, and Colorado State each elected to stay put rather than move. The AAC then hand-picked their replacement schools from C-USA and chose to grow to 14 rather than stay at 11.
Once North Texas, Rice, UTSA, UAB, Charlotte, and Florida Atlantic officially leave C-USA, the conference will be left with eight schools:
- Louisiana Tech
- Southern Miss
- Middle Tennessee
- Western Kentucky
- Florida International
- Old Dominion
UTEP's closest university is LA Tech and Ruston is 889 miles away from El Paso. Here is the rest of the breakdown:
- Hattiesburg, MS: 1,125 miles
- Murfreesborough, TN: 1,325 miles
- Bowling Green, KY: 1,360 miles
- Huntington, WV: 1,635 miles
- Miami, FL: 1,931 miles
- Norfolk, VA: 1,982 miles
As you can tell, UTEP does not fit into the new C-USA from a travel standpoint. However, only Miami and Norfolk have large enough airports that C-USA teams fly into. The rest fly into neighboring cities and then bus into each college town. At least El Paso has an airport large enough to accommodate every team in the league.
What happens next is the million-dollar question. If you judge by the Tweets from Jeff O'Malley, the interim Athletic Director of Marshall, he makes no mention whatsoever of a commitment to C-USA.
Marshall has been rumored to be a target of the Sun Belt, should they look to expand. As of now, the Sun Belt has given no indication that they want to grow.
Old Dominion also issued a statement from school president Brian Hemphill that continues the school's pledge to stay in their conference.
If you pay close attention to the last paragraph in Hemphill's statement, he references other institutions that are close in proximity to ODU. Liberty is currently an independent in football and they are located in Lynchburg, Virginia which is only 189 miles away from Norfolk. Liberty would be an extremely attractive replacement given their success in football. James Madison University has also been mentioned as a possible C-USA replacement target and they are located in Harrisonburg, Virginia, 221 miles from Norfolk.
One name that has not been mentioned yet as a possible C-USA replacement is New Mexico State. The Aggies are currently independent in football and affiliated with the Western Athletic Conference for all other sports. Although NMSU would be a terrific travel partner for UTEP, the school does little to help the rest of the conference in terms of regional benefits. It would, however, help C-USA's college basketball profile, since the Aggies have been the best program in the WAC for more than a decade.
UTEP President Dr. Heather Wilson and Director of Athletics Jim Senter have not issued a statement on the events of the last 24 hours. According to Brett McMurphy's story this morning, UTEP did approach the Mountain West about potential expansion, but the feeling was not mutual. McMurphy added that UTSA, North Texas, and Rice also reached out to the MWC, but only Rice and North Texas had engaged in further discussion with the league. Now that all three Texas schools are leaving for the AAC, the Miners are suddenly left on an island with no regional rivals.
If you ask any Miners fan or UTEP official, they will not shy away from the Mountain West. It features many of their former WAC rivals and schools that are more convenient since they are located in the mountain and pacific time zones. However, unless Boise State and San Diego State suddenly change their minds and move to another conference, the MWC will most likely stay put. The Sun Belt has never shown any interest in UTEP, and that is not expected to change after this latest round of reshuffling. The WAC could also be in play, but they do not plan to play FBS any time soon. In fact, the conference announced they would transition back to football in FCS, with plans to eventually go to FBS. However, the WAC does not appear to be ready to expedite a move to FBS for its members. As long as C-USA does not fall apart, UTEP has a place for now.
Although travel costs will be a challenge, the athletic department should be able to afford the long trips if the Miners football team can continue to win. Last week, UTEP became bowl eligible for the first time since 2014 and in the process, the city has been buzzing about the football program's turnaround this season. As more fans start to come back to the Sun Bowl to support the Miners, the athletic department will see a rise in revenue. That will help UTEP thrive in any conference, regardless of travel distance from their other league members. It is ironic that as the Miners have finally appeared to be on their way in football, the conference they have been part of since 2005 will lose all of its current in-state rivals.