Update: 12/14 2:29 PM: Now that the MWC's meetings have concluded, the conference has issued a press release stating that they are not interested in expanding at this time. From the release:
Finally, the BOD engaged in a broad conversation regarding the membership composition of the Mountain West. Noting the stability and collegiality of the current 12-member configuration, it was agreed no modifications were necessary at the present time. The Conference will continue to monitor the membership landscape of intercollegiate athletics going forward.
Most college football conferences have secured media rights deals that extend into the next decade, which should help keep conference membership relatively stable for the next few years. However, it seems that it might not stop one conference from trying to add a few new members. Dennis Dodd of CBS is reporting that the Mountain West Conference will discuss adding Rice and UTEP as possible expansion candidates during their annual meetings this weekend.
A spokesman for the Mountain West Conference could not immediately confirm the report, but told SB Nation in November that the conference was not actively looking to expand in the near future.
Why Rice and UTEP? From the CBS report:
There is a faction of league presidents that favor Rice because of its overall academic reputation, sources said. In 2014, the football program finished 26th nationally in the Learfield Sports Directors Cup standings, which measures academic achievement of sports programs. The nationally-ranked baseball program finished 17th last season.
UTEP's communication with the Mountain West goes back at least three years. A possible membership change has more to do with geography. The school's nearest CUSA opponent is Texas-San Antonio, 534 miles away.
UTEP and Rice were former members of the WAC and share an athletic history with many current MWC institutions. Rice's membership in the prestigious American Association of Universities would certainly be an academic coup for the Mountain West Conference. The Owl football team has made bowl games in three of the last four seasons and brings a nationally competitive baseball program, while UTEP made the 2014 New Mexico Bowl.
One potential roadblock might be Rice's geography. If UTEP does not also join, the Owls would be over 800 miles away from the closest current MWC member, New Mexico.
A larger potential impediment to MWC expansion would be the financials, as Dodd reports that each school would need to bring "approximately $3.5 million in annual equity to the league." Conference USA's TV deal expires at the end of this season, which could also complicate the decision-making process for current C-USA member institutions.
Mountain West expansion could potentially set off a chain of other conference moves in the Group of Five, as C-USA would likely seek to backfill any membership losses in order to continue to hold a conference championship game. In case either Conference USA or the Sun Belt need to look towards FCS, they may find multiple programs interested in making the jump, including Eastern Kentucky, which is spending millions of dollars on facility improvements in the hopes of earning an FBS conference invitation.
BYU, a former Mountain West member turned independent, is occasionally mentioned as possible MWC expansion candidate, but Dodd reports that current MWC support for the Cougars is "fractioned." There is also little evidence to suggest that BYU, who currently has its own ESPN TV contract, would be interested in returning. If the MWC needed other candidates, Idaho and New Mexico State could also be in the market for a new FBS home, as their agreement with the Sun Belt will be reevaluated "after the 2015 football season."