Nine Is Just Fine for Conference USA
It has been a rollercoaster ride for Conference USA over the last few weeks. The 14-school league was down to just five after six members decided to leave C-USA for the American Athletic Conference and three more to the Sun Belt. Despite the rumors that two more would leave for the Mid-American Conference, Middle Tennessee ultimately chose to stay in C-USA and Western Kentucky was not able to go by themselves to the MAC. Here is what the conference will look like beginning in the summer of 2023:
For UTEP, this latest round of reshuffling was especially tough since rumors surfaced that they were rebuffed by the MWC and Sun Belt when they inquired about joining both leagues. However, staying in C-USA could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Miners. Despite losing UTSA, North Texas, and Rice to the AAC, UTEP will gain longtime rival NMSU for the first time since 1961, along with fellow Texas school Sam Houston. Although Miners fans might be disappointed with the new league's membership, I see this as a great opportunity for UTEP to capitalize.
The first thing that is obvious is C-USA will go from 14 total schools to 9. That eliminates 5 programs to compete against for league championships. For football, it means that every team will still be able to play an eight game conference schedule each season. Sam Houston currently has the best football program in FCS, Jacksonville State has also been one of the Top 20 FCS programs in the country, and Liberty is very strong in football as an independent. If UTEP can compete each year for a trip to a bowl game, they also might be able to be make enough progress to start contending for C-USA titles.
Basketball will be a little different, since schools will play 16 league games rather than 18. For years, the NCAA has viewed C-USA as a one bid league for men's and women's basketball. It will be much more favorable to compete against eight other teams for the automatic bid rather than 13. Also, if six of the nine basketball programs are ranked in the Top 150 NET ratings for example, that means C-USA as a whole will be much stronger once conference games start which could give the league multiple bids into the tournament.
Miners fans have already seen the volleyball program make huge strides this season as head coach Ben Wallis finished as the second seed in the West Division and finish with their best record since 2005. UTEP also completed a season sweep of longtime I-10 rival NMSU for the first time in 20 years. Track and field and cross country continue to deliver conference champions and NCAA appearances each season.
If football and basketball can start winning consistently in the new C-USA, UTEP can put themselves in a position of strength the next time conference reshuffling takes place. Although the Mountain West decided against expansion, only time will tell if the Big 12 or Pac 12 eventually comes calling for Boise State and San Diego State. Air Force and Colorado State were also rumored to the AAC before they ultimately decided to stay put. If the MWC loses any schools, the Miners could be in the mix if football and basketball are successful and attendance continues to increase.
In the meantime, things are looking up for Miners fans. The football team appears to be headed to their best season in 15 years and new men's basketball head coach Joe Golding has re-energized the program. C-USA will look a lot different in almost 18 months and that is not a bad thing.