Utah State on solid ground as Mountain West talks shift to format, divisions

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It's hard to imagine likely scenarios that play out better for Utah State.

Last spring, the Mountain West Conference's search for stability led them to Logan, giving the Aggies a coveted invite. Less than a year later, Boise State and San Diego State, the programs that gave cause for the MWC to bring in new schools, are staying in the conference, giving the MWC a lot more value and a lot of firepower.

If it weren't for a few fortunate turns, the Aggies could've been left out in the cold in a football-less WAC like Idaho and New Mexico State. Instead, Utah State is finding itself in a very comfortable home next year.

"We couldn't feel better than we do today," athletic director Scott Barnes said on Wednesday, when the announcement on San Diego State came down. "We've really done well to retain two schools that have a lot of value. We always felt the Mountain West would ultimately attract valuable members, it just happened sooner than a lot of us anticipated."

The conversation in the Mountain West, to this point, has been about retention. Now, after commissioner Craig Thompson assured reporters Wednesday that the Mountain West would play with 12 football members next year, the discussion shifts gears to what that format will look like.

It's clear the MWC wants to hammer out divisions and a championship game next year. It's another asset to television and will help drive fan enthusiasm.

"I don't know there is any compelling reason not to have one," Thompson said. "You look at what some other conferences have done. ... I would fully suspect our intention is to have a championship game."

Utah State is one of the supporters. Barnes will say as much when the conference's athletic directors meet possibly as soon as next week to hammer out the format.

"There's certainly a bit of financial implications," Barnes said of a title game. "But beyond that, it's also a bigger state. It's another opportunity for our student athletes and fans to have that heightened exposure."

As for divisions, Barnes said he thinks an East-West dividing line would be "easy to distinguish," adding that one of the reasons Utah State chose to accept the MWC invite was geographic rivalries against like institutions.

An East-West boundary would appear to put the Aggies in a division with Boise State, Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force and New Mexico. The other theoretical division would be Hawaii, San Jose State, San Diego State, Fresno State, Nevada and UNLV. Thompson said the conference would consider a variety of options.

Scheduling will have some issues in the first year of the new MWC. In football, the conference probably wouldn't require more than eight in-conference games, but a few schools might have to play certain teams on the road for the third time in a row. That also might happen in other sports such as basketball, where playing 20 conference games is probably too many. Thompson said he was hopeful "the computers would spit out" fair schedules.

The other playing field where Utah State will have to catch up is money. Even though the Aggies have dramatically improved their budget situation over the years, the school still has to keep expanding its war chest to compete consistently with programs that are working with more resources. Stacked up against almost every school, Utah State will come up millions short.

But Barnes said the situation, which has seen a world of improvement under his leadership, is improving.

"We love the momentum we have entering the Mountain West, and we want to sustain that excellence," he said. "The budget gap we're facing is a lot narrower than it was when we came into the WAC. But there's still much work to do."

— Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon