Analysis: Will USU be next to join the Mountain West?

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Hawaii officially became a member of the Mountain West Conference in football on Friday.

Is Utah State far behind?

As the Warriors were officially accepting their invitation in Honolulu — an invitation first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune last week — there were indications that Utah State might yet get to the MWC after initially turning down an invitation from the conference in August.

The Tribune learned last week that the Aggies and Texas-El Paso could emerge as candidates to join the Mountain West should the league decide to expand to 12 schools and create a football championship game. The MWC now sits at 10 football-playing members, with Boise State joining next year and Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii following in 2012.

Though chatter about the Aggies' Mountain West prospects filled up the message boards following Hawaii's announcement, a source close to the situation said Friday that nothing was imminent.

Mountain West leadership is expected to reconvene after the new year and determine whether to continue to expand to 12 schools or remain at 10, the source said.

Meanwhile, the USU football program is in the middle of an important recruiting period, just a few days before the junior college signing period begins.

Utah State coach Gary Andersen is aware of the questions about the Aggies' future — will they stay in the Western Athletic Conference. Will they make a move? And he knows his recruits want some certainty about just which conference they will be playing in down the road.

But Andersen says he is staying rooted firmly in the present when talking to recruits.

"We're selling the program for what it is," he said. "We know that we have a lot of advantages, wherever we are."

Maybe so. But the Aggies also are in a precarious situation.

The WAC has been raided by the Mountain West to the extent that it is now a barely viable football conference. In short order, the MWC has swooped in to take Boise, Nevada, Fresno and Hawaii — the Warriors will move their other sports to the Big West Conference — leaving the WAC with a group of holdovers that includes USU, San Jose State, New Mexico State, Idaho and Louisiana Tech.

The WAC has since added Texas State and Texas-San Antonio for all sports and Denver as a nonfootball member. But even reconstituted, the conference will be a far cry from the league that has earned three BCS bowl appearances in the past five years.

Utah State is coming off of consecutive 4-8 football seasons in Andersen's first two years as coach. But USU should be significantly improved next year with the return of a number of starters who were lost for the season due to injury.

And despite treading water in the standings, the Aggies did show improvement this season. Utah State defeated BYU, played Oklahoma tough and won some recruiting battles along the way.

Adding USU would keep the Mountain West at least partly in the Ogden-Salt Lake City-Provo television market. It would also give the MWC another top-flight men's basketball program.

But it all hinges on whether the Mountain West decides that further expansion is worthwhile.

"The Mountain West has to decide how much money can be created with a championship game," said the source."There has to be a reason to expand further, and money is going to be a central issue." Twitter: @tonyaggieville