With UConn reportedly set to re-join the Big East, plenty of schools will be preparing to make their case on why they should become the 12th member of the American Athletic Conference.
Multiple reports indicate that the AAC will not be willing to continue to serve as the home of UConn football with the rest of the school’s sports set to join the Big East, which no longer sponsors football.
Even with the loss of UConn, the league will be in a position of strength as it considers its next move. The conference recently agreed to a new TV deal with ESPN worth a total of $1 billion over the next 12 years, according to Sports Business Journal. Also, the AAC has proven to be the strongest of the Group of 5 conferences in football with UCF and Houston emerging as powers.
The problem for AAC officials is that there is no obvious candidate to take UConn’s place with some of the more attractive potential candidates like BYU and Air Force located well off the conference’s current map.
If the AAC’s leaders decide to bring in a new member, it will try to attract a program that adds value to the conference. This means they will look for a program that offers a big market and/or a large following, is in good financial standing and is currently making significant investment in facilities.
There is also the strong potential that the AAC will simply choose to stay put with 11 members. When you consider that an 11-team conference means that each of the schools will receive a nice bump in TV money, it may be the most likely outcome after UConn’s departure.
Considering the options
Before listing potential candidates to replace UConn, it’s worth taking a glance at the last two additions to the conference. Navy gave up independence to join as a football-only member in 2015 and Wichita State, which doesn’t play football, left the Missouri Valley Conference to join the AAC in 2017.
Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports wisely pointed out over the weekend that the best move may be to add another football-only member like Navy and bring in a strong basketball school that doesn’t play football.
With that in mind, let’s look at the candidates that could make a move to the AAC and the upside and downside to their candidacies:
Pros: This would be the easiest move with Army already operating as a football independent. It would make the prestigious Army-Navy contest a conference game and West Point is a good fit to the conference map. Like Navy, Army features a national following.
Cons: Army is a combined 29-10 over the last three years, but it’s hard to see the Black Knights keeping up that type of performance in the AAC. West Point was a member of Conference USA from 1998-2004 and that proved to be a failure against many of the same programs it would face in the AAC. During that six-year run, Army won just 13 games.
Pros: While it’s well off the AAC map in Colorado Springs, Air Force could work well as a football-only member and they’d make a fairly lateral move from the Mountain West to the AAC. The Falcons have already shown that they can compete at a high level in football in the MWC.
Cons: It’s a 10-hour drive to Tulsa and an 11-hour trip to Dallas from Colorado Springs. Unlike Army and Navy, Air Force is a full member of MWC in basketball and baseball. Air Force would have to find a new conference for its other sports, but the Falcons have already had a hard time competing in everything other than football.
Pros: The addition of BYU would bring the most in terms of quality to the conference, and it’s already a football independent.
Cons: Provo, Utah, is way off the AAC map and the Cougars seem to enjoy their independence. BYU already has its own deal with ESPN and it may not receive much of a financial benefit by joining the AAC.
Pros: Seven years ago, Boise State almost became a member of the Big East, which soon fractured and left the football members to form the AAC. The Broncos are still playing football at a high level and offer a brand name.
Cons: This may not work for the same reasons it failed in 2012. It’s difficult to see Boise State dropping its other sports out of the MWC and it would be just be an odd fit.
I’ve also seen Georgia State and Buffalo thrown around, but I don’t see much value in either program at this point. They offer large markets and some potential, but struggle badly in terms of fan support.
The current AAC lineup is comprised of nine former Conference USA members, but the last three former C-USA schools to join the AAC haven’t exactly thrived — Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina. The three football programs each only have one winning season since joining the AAC.
No conference suffered more through realignment than C-USA, but its 14-school lineup has stabilized and recent TV deals with CBS Sports Network and the NFL Network have brought some reason for optimism.
That said, any of the current C-USA members would set their hair on fire and walk across broken glass for an invitation to the AAC.
Pros: I wrote a piece two years ago that labeled Old Dominion as the “Top Dog” in Conference USA due to a large market (Norfolk, Va.), solid fan support and facility investments. A new football stadium is under construction. ODU, which features a good basketball program, could be a decent all-sports member in AAC.
Cons: The AAC would be taking a chance on an ODU football program that has yet to consistently compete at a high level in C-USA. ODU probably wouldn’t have much problem finding a conference for its other sports, but there may not be much value for the AAC in adding the Monarchs as a football-only member.
Pros: UAB football is on the rise with a new stadium in the works, and it has a proud basketball program that would be a decent fit in the AAC. Birmingham ranks No. 40 in TV market size, three spots ahead of Norfolk.
Cons: You can’t ignore the fact that UAB shut down its football program in late 2014, only to decide to revive it a few months later. While a new football stadium will be a boost, the history of UAB athletics is a chaotic one and there are nine former conference mates in the AAC who are well aware of that. UAB doesn’t make much sense as a football-only member.
Pros: Charlotte fits perfectly into the AAC map with a large market.
Cons: Charlotte basketball has been surprisingly bad in C-USA and the football program has a long way to go before it can consistently compete in C-USA or in the AAC. While Charlotte does have long-term potential, it’s difficult to see this happening anytime soon.
Pros: Southern Miss has a long track record of competing with (and beating) current AAC members in football. USM has a 122-62-2 all-time record against the current AAC field. USM has a devoted and passionate fan base that should respond well to taking on old C-USA rivals like East Carolina, Tulane and Memphis. USM could theoretically work as a football-only member if the Sun Belt took on the school’s other sports.
Cons: USM does not have a significant market and doesn’t receive much in the way of student fees to bolster its athletic budget like many of the other programs in C-USA and the AAC. The odds have been stacked against the Golden Eagles in the current state of college athletics.
Pros: No C-USA school is doing a better job of investing in facilities than UNT, which has also earned some buzz as a future member of the Mountain West Conference. The football program is ascendant and it’s not inconceivable that UNT could work as a football-only member.
Cons: The AAC already features SMU in the Dallas-Fort Worth market and there’s not much love between the two programs. Even with a beautiful football stadium and a winning team, attendance continues to lag for UNT football. The Mountain West Conference may be a better possibility down the road.
Pros: The addition of the Huntington, West Virginia, school would fit in the AAC map and the Thundering Herd also have strong fan support. The football program would fit in nicely, much like Southern Miss.
Cons: Marshall doesn’t offer a large market and the Florida schools may object to a program that relies heavily on the Florida market for recruiting purposes.
UConn football’s future
While there will be plenty of discussion in the coming weeks and months as to how the AAC may handle UConn’s departure, there’s also the problem of trying to figure out what the Huskies will do with their football program.
The Mid-American Conference and Conference USA have both been mentioned as potential destinations, but C-USA has remained dedicated to featuring schools that compete in all sports. Also, it’s hard to see C-USA adding a 15th football program.
The MAC sits at 12 schools and may have more flexibility to add UConn. It also makes more sense geographically.
However, independence may be UConn’s best bet for the short term.
After a glance at the AAC’s options, the most likely scenario is that we’ll see an 11-team conference going forward after the Huskies’ departure prior to the 2020-21 season.