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Conference realignment isn’t over. What does that mean for Utah State and the Mountain West?

The AAC and Mountain West are the latest conferences wrapped up in realignment rumors

Utah State running back John Gentry carries the ball during an NCAA college football game against Washington State.
Utah State running back John Gentry carries the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Pullman, Wash.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

Since June 2, 2013, Utah State has been a member of the Mountain West Conference.

The move from the Western Athletic Conference to the MWC has been nothing but a positive for the Aggies, in almost every sport.

Utah State has won conference championships in men’s basketball, men’s cross-country and men’s tennis, and seen programs like football, gymnastics, women’s soccer and others steadily improve and contend for conference titles.

Put simply, the Mountain West has proven to be a great home for the Aggies.

According to recent reporting, though, the MWC might not exist in its present form for much longer.

In the wake of the Big 12 inviting American Athletic Conference members Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, as well as independent BYU, to join — starting in 2023 and continuing into 2024 — the AAC is reportedly going on the offensive in an attempt to preserve its status as one of the best Group of Five conferences.

The latest reports on AAC and MWC realignment

Per a report by CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd last Thursday, the AAC has focused on recruiting a a group of mainly MWC schools — Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State and UAB — to replace the departing Bearcats, Cougars and Knights.

Of those schools, only UAB isn’t a member of the MWC (the Blazers are in Conference USA).

According to CBS Sports sources, the AAC hopes to add four new members to bring conference membership to 12 (the conference currently has 11 teams).

UAB’s appeal lies with its location — Birmingham, Alabama — and the AAC is “selling Boise State based on the potential to be the league’s most powerful program, one that could chase a playoff spot each year based on the structure of the proposed 12-team playoff.”

Per a Friday report by the San Diego Union Tribune’s Mark Zeigler, both Boise State and San Diego State are fairly content to stay in the MWC for the time being, with future Big 12 expansion in mind.

Previous reporting suggests that the Big 12 might expand again, depending on negotiations regarding new television deals.

Per Zeigler, Air Force and Colorado State are at least considering a move out of the MWC.

Why join the AAC?

The appeal of AAC membership lies in its current television contract with ESPN, which currently pays an estimated $6 million per school per year, Zeigler writes. The Mountain West’s contract with CBS and Fox is worth about half that, and there is a clause in the AAC deal that reportedly allows ESPN to renegotiate with any change in conference membership.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco told Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger that “the DNA in this league isn’t going to change. Our remaining schools have competed extremely well with the schools leaving. The schools leaving have had success, but they’re not dynasties. We’ll add schools and we’ll replenish and reconstitute.

“They said we couldn’t officially be a Power Six at the time, but now what’s happening? Those teams are supporting the Big 12. It’s interesting irony. This demonstrates our success without question.”

The MWC responds

In response to Aresco and reports about MWC teams being approached by the AAC, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson told the San Diego Union Tribune “maybe it’s a personality flaw, people saying you’ve got to be like (Aresco). But who listens to AAC rhetoric? Who’s bought into the Power Six? I don’t think their full membership even has. Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida haven’t. … We deal in hard facts, black and white, and trying to improve our programs. You can call yourself anything, you can claim anything.

“I keep saying it like a broken record: If the 12 Mountain West institutions stay together, we’re the sixth-best conference. Circle the wagons, stay together, while simultaneously looking to see if there are institutions out there that make us even stronger.”

What does it all mean for the Aggies?

If the MWC does lose teams, geographically speaking the conferences that would make most sense to look at for new members would be Conference USA (the conference has four schools in Texas, including UTSA, UTEP, Rice and North Texas) or the Big Sky at the FCS level, with independent New Mexico State another option.

If no new members are added, the Mountain West at eight teams would lose some of its standing in the Group of Five, where it is arguably 1A or 1B, alongside AAC (though the rising Sun Belt has thrown that power dynamic into flux in recent seasons).

The MWC has been great for Utah State. The question now is how long that will remain the case.