Future for UTEP, Conference USA Hangs in the Balance as the Dominos Fall in the 2021 Version Of Conference Realignment

On Jul 30, 2021 Texas and Oklahoma Officially accepted an invitation to join the SEC. Who would believe that the ripple effects of that move would be felt in El Paso only 2 and a half months later?

On Tuesday UTSA, Rice, UAB, North Texas, Florida Atlantic, & Charlotte officially applied to join the American Athletic Conference (AAC) who lost Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF to the Big 12  only about a month ago. If you are keeping track at home the SEC will be a 16 Team Conference, The AAC will be a 14 Team Conference (For Now) and Conference USA finds itself clinging to life with 8 schools left (As of Tuesday).

When the Big 12 was dealt a devastating blow of losing Texas and Oklahoma the remaining 8 Schools met and determined there was strength in numbers and it was in their best interest to stay together.  Tuesday’s Conference USA EarthQuake leaves major doubt as to the future of the Conference. Following the Universities left in Conference USA through their official media outlets, Big 12 style unity seems less likely.

What are UTEPs options or best/worst case scenarios as the dominos continue to tumble? Keep in mind that the scenarios below have a lot of moving parts and without any inner knowledge of the conversations likely involving Conference leadership, University Presidents and Athletic Directors nation-wide this is purely based on speculation and educated guesses.

  1. Conference USA adds 2 schools: This is the hardest of all the scenarios out there right now due to the fact that Conference USA has absolutely no leverage with the group of 5 being down to 8 members hanging on by a thread. Each of the remaining members UTEP included is evaluating their own best case scenarios, with that said if you are a school in another group of 5 conferences are you really going to leave your conference for what is a highly unstable situation that is a lateral move at best? Let say they are able to add some of the remaining Independants, BYU is already Big 12 Bound, Notre Dame is Notre Dame end of discussion if they decided to join a conference they would have their pick, Army doesn’t seem to be interested in joining a Conference, the only scenario for Army would be for if all of the Service Academies looked to join the same Conference which would likely be the AAC given geography and Navy already being in the Conference. That leaves NMSU, UMASS, Liberty, & UCONN. NMSU would join if offered in a heartbeat after being dumped by the Sun Belt years ago. Liberty is a religious school and is firing on all cylinders in Football and Men’s Basketball and is located in Virginia. Geographically they fit with the Teams in CUSA’s Eastern Division but in all likelihood the Sunbelt looks more attractive at this point and has space to add 2 schools without having to go to a strange “pod” scheduling system. UCONN & UMASS are hot messes in Football and are likely to want to put basketball first and stay with their Conference affiliations (UCONN-Big East, UMASS-Atlantic) in hoops as opposed to jumping to the 1-bid CUSA. 
  2. Boise State is added to the Big 12 along with Memphis once Texas and OU are gone making the Big 12 a 14 team league: In this scenario. The Mountain West and American end up with another vacancy further down the road and UTEP depending on how they are doing in Football and Men’s Basketball could be more attractive to either one of these Conferences before these teams exit. The drawback is Jim Sentar is not likely to wait on this to play out. Memphis’ major problem is their home stadium Liberty Bowl is owned by the City and is a dump making the Tigers less attractive to the Big 12, they have the financial baking to make changes to the stadium or build a new stadium from transportation juggernauts FedEx and DHL but also have an outgoing president who is not willing to make any major decisions to tie the incoming president down. If this scenario does play out however UTEP might not be the immediate choice of either but could open up spots in the MAC or Sunbelt. 
  3.  The Sunbelt Expands to 12-14 teams: The Sunbelt prides itself on being the SEC lite, they have surpassed CUSA in both Men’s Basketball and Football in recent years a have had schools like Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, and Appalachian State Ranked in recent years where CUSA has struggled to have its top football program ranked until this year (UTSA). The Sunbelt is a 10 team league in football with 2 5-team divisions and a 12 team league in basketball with 2-6 team divisions. The Sunbelt would likely limit expansion to 2 teams to avoid going over 14 in basketball. UTEP Fits into the Western Division and is a Texas school in a larger market and an attractive addition to the Sunbelt but not necessarily choice Number 1. Looking at the other Conference USA schools they all have strengths and weaknesses, Louisiana Tech suffers from being the Sunbelt already having a 2-team presence in the state of Louisiana. Old Dominion is in Virginia, however if a Virginia school was selected it would likely be Marshall or Liberty based on Football success. Marshall is ahead of ODU in the pecking order but would likely be neck and neck with Liberty and the expanding conference is unlikely to take two schools from the same state. Southern Mississippi fits like a glove geographically but is rebuilding in both Football and in Men’s Basketball and does not have facilities akin to UTEP. Middle Tennessee has a better market than Hattiesburg Mississippi in the state of Tennessee but that is about all it has.  Florida International probably has the most attractive TV market out of everyone else in CUSA but is also lagging behind in campus amenities. Western Kentucky is the wildcard, a great geographical fit but a bad market. This may be UTEP’s best bet. 
  4. UTEP Goes independent in Football and joins the WAC, WCC, or similar basketball conference in hoops: Here it is, the doomsday scenario, the one Miner fan’s do not want to hear. UTEP joins New Mexico State and is left without a Conference affiliation in Football. This is the hardest of the hardest pills to swallow for Miner fans but could be a reality in the foreseeable future. The WCC is more attractive than the WAC in Basketball with Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, Pepperdine, & Loyola Marymount in basketball and will have to fill BYU’s vacancy. Football would be a nightmare, you have to look no further than our rival to the west and their football schedule which is a combination of getting major  money game beatings, teams that are not willing to return a home and home game, and no Conference Title to play for. With the large number of bowls available these days Independants that are bowl eligible do get to go to Bowl games but it is hard to find a rhythm like UTEP is enjoying right now and grow your team to compete in the same Conference Year After Year. 

My Prediction: UTEP will apply and be accepted into the Sunbelt Conference in all sports. Jim Senter will be at a podium putting his spin on how excited the University is to join a thriving league and this will last until the next time the Jenga pieces are pulled out. UTEP AD Jim Senter must move quickly and decisively to avoid independence. It is an ever changing world of College athletics with Conference Realignment and NIL that UTEP is playing catch up for and with this latest blow UTEP Fans put their faith in Jim Senter to get our Miners the best possible outcome for.

Chris Gomez Reporting