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

National News

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 moves to the Sun Belt, including College AD and CBS Sports, with the expectation that an official announcement could come as soon as early next week.

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.

It 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.

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 $36 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 a quartet of FBS Independents to the fold for football. That would include Liberty and 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. CollegeAD has also reported that C-USA has reached out to Liberty to become a part of the conference.

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 Liberty and 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.

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, Liberty (Lynchburg, Va.) 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.

If the league is not able to stay together, its remaining member institutions would be left to forge on however they can. For UTEP, that would likely mean becoming an FBS Independent in football for an unspecified amount of time, while joining the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) for all other sports.

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,” said UTEP Director of Athletics Jim Senter 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.”

The WAC has been rebuilt for 2021-22, adding four Texas schools (Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin) and will add Southern Utah in 2022-23. For sports other than football, it would appear to be a viable option for UTEP.

However, while the WAC has returned football to the docket in 2021, it is only at the FCS level. UTEP would be in a similar place as NMSU currently is with the WAC: waiting for the league to transition back to FBS.

That’s something the WAC has indicated it would like to do, however, there is no timeline for that to get done. Therefore, it behooves UTEP to fight hard for Conference USA to stay together, perhaps even advocating for NMSU to join them.

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 should 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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