- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Mountain West Conference and Conference USA have agreed to form a merged 22-team football league, hoping the move will help solidify both conferences and improve their chances at obtaining a Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying bid.
The league will have a two-division alignment and will play a championship game, Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said during a conference call announcing the move on Friday.
The two leagues would maintain their independent structures in all other sports under the arrangement, which could begin as early as 2012.
The timing of the announcement comes amid reports that the Big East has extended invitations to Mountain West members Boise State and Air Force and C-USA members Central Florida, Houston and SMU along with football independent Navy.
Banowsky and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said Boise State, Air Force and UCF voted on the alliance, and that all three schools endorsed the move.
Boise State, Air Force and Cental Florida have informed their respective commissioners about discussions with the Big East. Banowsky said SMU and Houston have not informed him of any discussions with the Big East.
"(Banowsky) has good communication with our schools," said a C-USA spokesperson. "If SMU or Houston were in serious discussions with another conference, we would have been advised of it by them or the other conference, and that hasn't happened."
Banowsky said the conference is prepared for the potential loss of members.
"I hope UCF will be with us for a long time, but as I've said, if a school feels they're in a better situation somewhere else, that's OK," Banowsky said. "It's not something anyone takes personally. We find a way to handle it in a professional way. We pat them on the back and wish them well."
Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades said the school had no comment on the reports.
"We are aware of the growing speculation regarding conference realignment and do not feel it would be appropriate to comment on the possible intentions of another league," Rhoades said. "We are flattered to be mentioned as an athletics program of national importance and we are grateful for our strong traditions and the dedication of our fans, alumni, staff and student-athletes."
Will the new alliance be enough to keep Boise State and Air Force from leaving for the Big East?
"I don't want to label it in those terms," Thompson said. "It's a viable option and it creates stability, and that's what they're looking for.
Thompson said he spoke three times on Thursday and Friday with Air Force Academy Superintendent Gen. Mike Gould.
"I can't answer what Air Force will do. We are going to put an attractive option on the table for the United States Air Force Academy," Thompson said.
The idea of stabilizing the two conferences was a key point of emphasis during Friday's announcement.
With the rapidly-changing landscape in college football and the possibility each league could lose members, an alliance would give the two leagues stability they would not have standing alone. There even has been talk of adding two new members, for 24 teams.
"I don't want to put our members in a position that today we're at 10, next year we might be at nine, two years from now at eight and continually having to add additional member institutions because it's not as easy as exchanging one for one," Thompson said.
The two commissioners began discussing a merger in August of 2010 after the first wave of conference realignments, but those discussions were tabled a short time later.
They were revisited again a few months ago after the second wave of realignments hit.
"I'm just trying to create greater stability for our membership so we're not talking about membership issues," Thompson said. "The status quo of a 10-team football league with Hawaii as a football-only member was not acceptable, and we're looking for a new dynamic."
While both commissioners talked about how attractive a 22-member league spanning 16 states and five time zones will be to their television partners, neither could answer one of the biggest questions of all: Will this alliance get them that coveted automatic bid into the BCS?
"Who knows what's going to happen," Banowsky said. "Some people think you should play in the (BCS Championship) game if you deserve it. Our conferences together will stand up as one conference, we will speak with a strong voice and we will expect our champion to be recognized."
But what if Boise State, one of two schools in the proposed alliance that has played in a BCS game, leaves and costs the new formation it's strongest asset in its argument for BCS inclusion?
"Certainly everyone's (BCS) numbers are going to be juxtaposed and repositioned," Thompson said. "Everyone in the last year and a half has added or lost members. ... I don't know who's going to be in what league. Right now, today Friday afternoon, the intention is we start with 22."
Moving forward, the two conferences will sit down to work out scheduling arrangements and a divisional structure without losing any traditional rivalries. Banowsky said there is the hope of getting a championship game established for 2012, but ideally that would begin in 2013.
He also added, "The long-term goal is to figure out a way to have divisional champions and a tiered playoff format."
The football-only association would not affect the MWC and C-USA's status within the NCAA structure. But the leagues also will work on scheduling agreements for their other sports, including men's basketball.
No doubt this alliance is a unique partnership in college football, one Thompson hopes will last well into the future.
"I'm just trying to find a comfort zone where everybody, 'Says I'm really happy to be a part of this association,'" Thompson said.
Andrea Adelson is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz was used in this report.
The Mountain West Conference and Conference USA have agreed to form an association for football, hoping the move will help solidify both leagues and increase their chances at obtaining a BCS automatic qualifying bid.