When the rumors first started flying, I touched on this topic but didn't want to dive in too deep considering the plethora, yes I said plethora, of conference expansion/realignment rumors that consumed our summer (most of which were never fully realized).
But now, with word that BYU has officially decided to leave the Mountain West Conference to go independent in football, it's necessary that we assess what this could mean to UTEP and to Conference USA.
Before I go into scenarios, it's appropriate to identify the Winners & Losers resulting from BYU's move. Who benefits from this? Who doesn't?
1. BYU. The Cougars get the best of both worlds here. First off, they can now negotiate for a TV deal on their own and use their BYU Network (a religious channel) as a fall back to assure all of their games are televised. They're not going to be on NBC every week, they aren't nearly a Notre Dame, but the deal will probably be better than being on the MWC Network with all 34 of its viewers. Remember, as an independent, BYU doesn't have to share their TV or bowl money with other conference members anymore.
The Cougars get 4 WAC games a year, probably 4 easy wins, to provide some schedule stability. Also, the WAC has a deal with ESPN, so BYU will probably draw several games on that network- a benefit they never had as a member of the MWC. In basketball, the Cougars biggest competition is now Utah State and New Mexico State. Expect BYU to own that auto-bid for the foreseeable future.
2. Conference USA: The good old C-USA is in a prime position to establish itself as the premier non-AQ conference in the nation. The MWC still has TCU. And, they might still get Boise St., but the rest of that league is absolutely nothing to write a book about. With several C-USA football programs on the rise (UCF, SMU, Houston, etc.) and Memphis a national power in basketball, the league is on solid footing. Don't forget that the C-USA already had a better TV deal than the MWC. That isn't changing anytime soon.
3. The WAC: Am I crazy? No. The WAC just got significantly better in every sport not named football and now has a name program, BYU, on their TV slate. If Boise decides to stay in the WAC, the league will still have its BCS cash cow and may be able to poach what's left of the MWC. You'd think it would be the other way around, right? Not exactly. You see when Boise initially decided to leave, the remaining WAC schools all signed an agreement that forces a mandatory $5 million buy out for any league school wishing to bail out. Fresno State and Nevada aren't going anywhere.
1. The MWC: Is the MWC on its death bed? I hate to go that far, but there's no denying that the league that just a few months ago seemed like a lock for an Automatic BCS bid may now be on the verge of total collapse. Losing Utah hurt, but losing BYU with them decimates their most viable television market and takes away two charter schools that made the league relevant in its early years. Remember when the MWC thought they had Kansas and K-State coming on board? Now, the league is going to have to grovel for Boise to stay a member.
2. TCU: The grass isn't always greener, is it? The Horned Frogs burned the C-USA to run over to the MWC. Now, the credibility of the MWC is shot. And, they are playing against teams they have no rivalries in games that won't help them get BCS points. TCU is stuck playing on Versus and the MWC network against Wyoming and UNLV. The Frogs need all the national exposure they can get if they want to continue to chase their dream of a BCS National Title berth. With their league now depleted, it's going to be almost impossible for them to do that. Meanwhile, programs TCU left behind, SMU and Houston, will be featured on ESPN multiple times this season and their programs are starting to win games. TCU could have stayed in the C-USA and solidified its position as the dominant non-AQ school in the state of Texas. Not anymore.
Unknown Winner/Loser Status
1. Boise State: What do the Bronco's do now? For them, really, all this won't matter too much. What's left of the MWC is still a lot better of a league than the WAC is currently. If they do go back, nobody would blame them and they can continue to play one middle tier BCS team a year, beat them, run the table in a weak WAC, and cash BCS checks every January. You can't blame them for leaving. If the MWC had stayed intact with Utah, BYU, and TCU, Boise would have had a legitimate chance to play for a MNC if they could run the table. Now, that pursuit is more difficult, but with their increasing clout, is still possible.
The Scenarios Game:
So, what happens to the C-USA now?
Commissioner Britton Banowsky has never shown himself to be a gunslinger. Content that his league has survived, he very well might stand pat with the existing C-USA. What he does have to remember is that UCF and Memphis would bolt this conference at the first possible chance. A move now that makes the C-USA better in football and more appealing to ESPN might go a long way towards keeping the conference together.
2. The C-USA Looks Long & Hard at some of the MWC Castoffs
Will the C-USA consider expanding to a 14 or 16 team "Mega Conference." That whole idea seemed silly just a few months ago. But, as we learned from the Pac 10 and Big 10, a 16 team conference can be viable.
Here's what a 14 School C-USA Could Look Like:
Here's what a 16 Team League could look like:
Think about those two options. The West Division would be highly competitive with an improved Texas presence and expansion that wouldn't cause travel to be ridiculous. UTEP/UNM and Air Force/Colorado State are natural travel partners as are TCU/SMU and Houston/Rice. The East doesn't change really at all.
Schedule wise, it would work exactly like we all thought the Big 12/Pac 10 thing would. Each team plays 6 or 7 division games and 1-2 against the other league.
Is this likely? It all depends on whether or not Britton Banowsky is a big picture guy. Either of these proposed leagues could absorb the loss of 1-2 teams a lot better than the current C-USA can.
3. The UTEP Point of View
As Joe Schad of ESPN noted, the MWC sees UTEP and Houston as potential replacements for BYU and Utah..
Would you want to go to the MWC with no BYU and Utah? We know if we left, that the C-USA would replace us with TCU and maybe New Mexico in about 12 seconds anyway, right? Why go join a league that has no stability and no TV deal? The rivalry with NMSU aside, I don't know right now that I would want UTEP to be in the MWC in its current condition. The C-USA, right now, is a better conference. If UTEP had guarantees that Boise State, TCU and New Mexico were staying in the MWC, and if Houston came along, the MWC might be attractive. But as it stands now, I don't see anyone guaranteeing they are going to stay in the MWC. I think the first instinct will be to run for higher ground.
So, again, the most likely situation is that the C-USA will stay as it is. The MWC will keep Boise St. and TCU and try to build around them. With Boise, the MWC has 8 teams, so they won't be rushed into expansion but might sit back and be patient (as they were when they added TCU). But, if Britton Banowsky wants to make history, there's no denying that right now, at this moment, he has a chance to change the landscape of the C-USA for years to come.