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Big 12 inches closer to expansion; AAC, C-USA brace for impact

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD 
 Southern Miss receiver Casey Martin catches a Nick Mullens pass over Old Dominion's Sean Carter, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Southern Miss receiver Casey Martin catches a Nick Mullens pass over Old Dominion's Sean Carter, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. SUN HERALD

The Big 12 took one step closer this week to adding two schools and again becoming a 12-team conference, inspiring more anxiety for the American Athletic Conference and Conference USA.

Big 12 officials were presented data from a study that showed that the conference can increase its chances of reaching the College Football Playoff if it expands to 12 teams and creates a conference title game, according to CBSsports.com.

It's not a certainty that the Big 12 expands this year, but commissioner Bob Bowlsby and several members of the conference are trying to push the league in that direction.

If the Big 12 expands, the two most likely candidates appear to be BYU, an independent program, and Cincinnati of the AAC. Memphis, Central Florida, South Florida, UConn and Houston are other AAC schools considered to be among the field of potential additions.

In the event that the AAC loses one school to the Big 12, it would be forced to replace that member. If the AAC loses two teams, it may sit still at 10 members.

The debate on which program the AAC may pursue is wide open, but there aren't many ideal options to join the conference after it relied heavily on C-USA to restock its membership in the past.

However, there are a pair of independent schools that have been mentioned as potential AAC candidates - UMass and Army.

UMass should get a look due to its location in a good market on the East Coast and a strong basketball program, but the football program only has eight wins total since moving to FBS in 2012. Football still plays an outside role in conference expansion and the UMass program has been a failure to this point.

Ralph Russo, who covers college football for the Associated Press, said this week that he believes the addition of Army would be the "ideal situation."

While Army would bring added prestige and make the Army-Navy rivalry an in-house production for the AAC, you only have to look at Army's experience in C-USA from 1998-2005 to realize how difficult of a leap that would be. Army was 17-74 during that stretch and couldn't hang with C-USA mates like Southern Miss, Cincinnati, Memphis, Tulane and UAB. It's hard to see the Black Knights doing much better this time around and Army may simply decline an invitation if presented one.

Eyes on C-USA

Again, the AAC could return to its  old Conference USA recruiting grounds for a new member.

With the loss of a school like Cincinnati or Memphis, the addition of Southern Miss would be a quick fix for football in the AAC. USM, which is coming off a 9-5 season, has the most dedicated fan base in C-USA and leads the conference all-time with five football league titles.

The lack of a large market hinders USM, but the next round of conference expansion may not have as much to do with the market grab that dominated realignment from 2010-14. As more people drop their cable TV subscriptions, it's more important to have an engaged fan base rather than a school that's still trying to build a following.

USM's basketball program is in a bad spot thanks to the NCAA investigation of Donnie Tyndall's time at the school from 2012-14. USM also badly needs a basketball facility upgrade, but there's reason to believe that an AAC invite would spur investment in basketball.

Old Dominion, Florida Atlantic and Texas-San Antonio may be USM's best competition for AAC inclusion in C-USA.

ODU leads that group of three thanks to its top 50 TV market in the Norfolk, Va., area and strong fan support. The Monarchs have a solid basketball program and a nice arena, but it lacks a quality football stadium. Plans to build a new stadium continue to drag on and the team plays in an antiquated 20,000-seat facility. The school recently shot down a private proposal for a modest 25,000-seat stadium.

ODU has a lot of things going for it, but the sluggish approach to investing in football is not a good look. The Monarchs also have ground to make up in order to compete in the AAC after moving up to FBS in 2014.

The money game

In accordance with a new Virginia state law, ODU is going through a phase where it is gradually weaning itself off a heavy reliance on student fees. ODU funded 73 percent of its athletic budget with student fees in 2012-13, according to the The Virginian-Pilot. That number is gradually being cut to 55 percent to meet the state's edict as ODU increasingly relies more on private funding and ticket revenue.

Student subsidies make up only 36.7 percent of USM's athletic budget of $24.5 million, according to a USA Today database. ODU has the largest athletic budget in C-USA at $42.7 million, giving the Monarchs an advantage over USM.

As for the other two C-USA schools mentioned in relation to the AAC, FAU lacks badly in fan support and UTSA lags way behind in facilities for sports other than football.

School officials at places like Memphis, Cincinnati and Southern Miss are doing their best to put themselves in a good position if the Big 12 does move. USM athletic director Bill McGillis was at the AAC basketball tournament in Orlando in March while the Cincinnati Enquirer and Memphis Commercial-Appeal have reported on campaigns by their local schools to market themselves to the Big 12.

All involved are waiting to see if the Big 12 moves forward with expansion. Without that, all parties will simply stay put.

Contact Patrick Magee at pmagee@sunherald.com and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Magee and on Facebook at Facebook.com/mageeonsports.

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