It is now the offseason for the FBS, which means it’s time for everyone’s favorite offseason discussion topic: Conference realignment!
The American Athletic Conference is an exciting league. It doesn’t have a single regional base, stretching from Pennsylvania to Texas. It’s a mix of private and public schools, ranging from the academically elite to the academically average.
So how did such a motley crew develop in the first place? Let me put it into a brief, too oversimplified history lesson that will help explain the issue at hand, a bit better.
- The Big East went boom.
- The basketball schools said they wanted no football and bought the Big East name.
- Football schools said no way, raided the C-USA for members, and started their own Big East with football and…..football.
There was some more team thievery back and forth between the AAC and a few other conferences, but you get the gist.
But that’s the past, and we’re looking towards the future here. With realignment threatening to poach some of the best and brightest of the conference (and room for expansion after UConn’s departure), the AAC has a few different paths forward.
The AAC’s Football Option:
It’s no secret that the American is striving to take up the Big East’s mantle as college football’s sixth power conference. A team from the AAC has been the Group of Five’s representative in the New Year’s Six in all but two years since the slot’s inception during the 2014 season (UCF’s two, along with one each for Memphis, Houston, and Cincinnati). Adding a football-only member (or two, depending on who gets poached in the next round of realignment) would allow the American to cast a wider geographic net since schools won’t have to worry about flying their women’s’ field hockey and men’s’ fencing teams three thousand miles.
Potentially adding one or more of these teams could give the conference the “Power 6” status it has been so desperately craving. And let’s face it, football has been the driving force behind the American’s existence. Don’t get me wrong, there are some other connections, but the AAC is a football conference at heart, and it would make sense for that to play into any expansion moves the conference decides to make over the next few years.
For the most part, these football-focused candidates are pretty obvious:
Boise State: The Broncos are arguably the most successful non-power conference team in the past 15 years, and they’re the only non-AAC team not named Western Michigan to make a New Year’s Six bowl since the playoff system was created. They’ve been the cream of the non-power crop ever since they pulled off an individual historical-monument-named play, and the football benefits of adding them to the American are apparent. Boise has already discussed joining the AAC in football, but they would need to find a home for their other sports. If the Broncos can find a place for those teams, then I like the chances of this move happening in the next few years.
BYU: It’s BY-freaking-U. Love them or hate them, they’ve got a football pedigree (even if their recent success has been sporadic) and a passionate fanbase, something that the AAC would love to see in any new members. But aside from the controversy BYU would bring to the table, the Cougars themselves might be content to wait for an opening from an established power conference such as the Big 12. BYU has proven they can survive independently, so why settle for something they don’t need or want? This one could go either way, and it might depend on what happens between now and when the dominoes start to fall.
App State: Ever since a certain sunny Saturday in September 2007, App State has named itself on the national scene as a football powerhouse. The formerly FCS dynasty has continued their run of gridiron glory after joining the FBS in 2014, winning six straight bowl games and several Sun Belt titles.
The American may be a step up from the Sun Belt, but App State’s success against power conference foes has proven they’re not just a big fish in a small pond: In the past five seasons, the Mountaineers have defeated North Carolina and South Carolina and have forced a couple of top ten teams (2018 Penn State and 2016 Tennessee) into overtime. There are some cons to adding App State as a full member (see below), but if the AAC is looking for football-only members, it’s hard to find a more consistently successful program than the Mountaineers.
Army: The question here is less if the AAC wants the Army as much as it is if Army wants the AAC. The Black Knights are in the middle of a football renaissance, and with arch-rival Navy recently joining the conference, they may not be so keen on being admitted themselves, especially given their disastrous stint in the C-USA that’s still present in the minds of many fans. As it stands, the Black Knights have bowl tie-ins that rival the American’s, and I don’t see them taking the AAC up on their offer.
The AAC’s Urban Option.
But football isn’t the only thing tying the AAC together. The conference is in a unique position within Division I athletics: A majority of its member institutions are located in major American cities, something no other conference can boast. So why not lean fully into that niche, and scoop up some more urban universities?
The obvious reward is television markets, but in an era of streaming and cord-cutting, one can argue against prioritizing cable benefits searching for new schools. Even still, market size might be enough to tip the scale in favor of urban candidates. But additional bonuses involve recruiting:
Say you’re a three-star recruit out of Small Town, USA. Your college choices are a middling Power Five team located in your standard, small-ish college town or an AAC school situated in the big city with all the things Small Town, USA never had.
Suppose you ignore the fact that I just turned a complex, difficult college decision that involves many different factors into the plot of a mediocre coming of age movie. In that case, you’ll see the advantage the American gains by having so many members in major cities.
So who might the conference target if they decide to take this urban approach?
Georgia State: Urban location? Atlanta fits the profile like a glove (a well-fitting one too, not one of those “it’s suddenly really cold and the only gloves I have are two sizes too big” gloves). While the Panthers have not set the world of college football on fire, they have consistently made bowl game appearances in the past several years.
But Georgia State’s mild gridiron success is impressive for a different reason: Before 2010, the Panthers had no football team. In the past 11 years, Georgia State has gone from rallying around basketball to having their own exclusive football stadium. Quite an expensive turnaround, and one that proves that the school places a priority on sports. That’s something the Panthers would have to do to stay competitive in a new conference.
So the AAC would be adding a big-city school with mild athletic success who has very recently proven they value sports, especially the same ones the American prioritizes. It’ll be hard not to take a long look at a particular school in Atlanta when the chaos comes around.
San Diego State: The Aztecs add a decent football program and an excellent basketball program. But most importantly, they bring sunny San Diego, California. It’s home to Ron Burgundy, nearly a million-and-a-half people, and just as many amenities for a college student to enjoy.
Suppose you ignore the logistics of SDSU’s relative isolation from the rest of the AAC (which is, admittedly, a rather big thing to miss). In that case, you’re left with arguably the best blend of location and total athletic success. A tempting target if you can get over the travel hurdle.
San Jose State: For realignment purposes, the Trojans are basically San Diego State with less long-term athletic prestige in a slightly smaller city. They’re not as attractive of an addition as a team like the Aztecs, but SJSU would be a great compliment to any other western schools. This would be especially so if they can prove that this year’s sudden football success was not a fluke, in which case the Trojans’ football prowess would be something for the AAC to consider.
There are a few other schools out of the Mountain West that the AAC could attempt to add, such as UNLV or Fresno State. Personally, I don’t see those non-Boise western additions happening (as full members, at least). But the possibility of stretching the American’s urban profile to San Diego, San Jose, or elsewhere in the warm West Coast sun is tantalizing enough to consider.
The AAC’s Southern Option
On the opposite end of the spectrum, adding a southern school or two would give the American a geographic center. And it’s no secret that the south loves their football. Combine both of those factors with the fact that several of these candidates fit aforementioned categories, and the AAC has got some attractive options.
Georgia State: You just read the benefits of adding the Panthers, but just keep in mind that all of that is within a very conveniently southernly-located package.
App State: Adding them as a football-only school gives the AAC an obvious boost, but as a full member the Mountaineers basketball program and other sports might be a liability, and Boone, North Carolina isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis. On the other hand, East Carolina provides an immediate potential for a conference rivalry and App State does have a strong fanbase. It’s worth considering at the very least.
UAB: Their epic feat of football necromancy launched the Blazers into the hearts of sports fans everywhere, but the 2020 C-USA champions have kept the flame burning brightly even after their stint in the spotlight began to fade. Since their football program returned from the grave in 2017, UAB has earned four bowl invites (including this year’s canceled Gasparilla Bowl) and won two C-USA titles.
In terms of urban profile, Birmingham is no San Diego, but it isn’t Small Town, USA either. Blazer basketball may not be a regular tournament fixture, but they’re an above-average squad. Meaning they’d be less of a liability on that front than certain other potential candidates. And a school in Alabama would be smack-dab in the middle of the AAC’s footprint.
Much like several other schools, adding UAB is worth taking a glance at but is by no means signed and sealed.
The AAC’s Mix Of Options (and a Final Prediction):
Let’s be honest. The obvious move would be to add schools that fit multiple criteria rather than throwing the conference into a single niche.
That’s why I’m predicting additions of at least one of either App State, Georgia State, or UAB. I’d also like to call my shot and say that the AAC adds one (at minimum) new football-only member in the next cycle. It may be one of the schools I mentioned, it may not, but the American needs to hold onto its football prestige (especially if certain current members get poached), if not better it.
Of course, a lot can change in a few years and I’m by no means an omniscient oracle. Whenever the moves start to be made, look back and see if this prediction aged like fine wine or like the milk that you left in the fridge for far too long.
It might be the milk.
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