Conference realignment is in full swing as the PAC-12 looks to recover from the loss of UCLA and USC with the possible additions of SMU and San Diego State. If the Mountain West loses San Diego State, they will be down to 10 full members and 11 football members with Hawaii as a football-only member.
Few options exist for the Mountain West, but an underrated option resides in Conference USA. UTEP may be rooting the most for San Diego State to join the PAC-12 outside of San Diego. UTEP’s current conference situation is unstable with the constant shifting of the college landscape. Additionally, it is not ideal geographically as five of the other eight Conference USA members are around 1400 miles from El Paso. After New Mexico State, the next closest conference mate to the Miners is Sam Houston State, which is 725 miles away.
By joining Mountain West, UTEP is in a much better travel position and has natural rivals, as UTEP was in the WAC with 10 of the 11 members of the Mountain West, including five members from before the WAC’s 1996 expansion. The only problematic trip is the trip to Hawaii, but the drawbacks are reduced due to Hawaii’s football-only membership. A trip to Hawaii for the football team is a small cost compared to constant trips by non-revenue sports to Atlanta, Miami, and Lynchburg.
Additionally, the Mountain West is frequently a multi-bid conference in basketball, which increases revenue for the Miners. Conference USA is a solid basketball conference but is a lot less likely to send multiple teams to the tournament and an at-large bid hinges a lot on New Mexico State or Western Kentucky winning a couple of games in a traditionally strong non-conference schedule and losing in the C-USA tournament.
From a TV standpoint, the Mountain West is a much more lucrative option as the conference pays members $270 million through the 2025-26 academic year, and that excludes Hawaii and Boise State. This totals out to $4 million per year. In comparison, Conference USA will only pay schools $800,000 per year. More importantly, the deal is more beneficial to the football players’ academics as they avoid the cross-country midweek games.
UTEP's case is strengthened by the fact the only other viable options are New Mexico State and Big Sky powerhouses such as Montana and Montana State. While Montana and Montana State could compete in the Mountain West immediately, neither school has really expressed any urgency about leaving the FCS.
UTEP’s market size is one thing that works against the Miners from joining the Mountain West as El Paso is only the 91st-ranked TV market in the United States. However, conference realignment is not all about markets as the results of Conference USA’s 2013 expansion show.
Additionally, UTEP has a combined six NCAA tournament titles between the men’s and women’s teams and one football conference championship since 2000. The Miners must be more competitive to add viability to their case for the Mountain West.
A possible UTEP-Mountain West marriage is a must for UTEP, but it remains to be seen whether the Mountain West deems it worth it to move the Mountain West’s footprint into the borderlands. The Mountain West is a huge step up for the Miners on all fronts, but it is a lifeline the athletic department desperately needs.