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NIL is Here, but Which AAC Teams Are Best Suited to Benefit?

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At the last possible second, the NCAA has turned July into the month when every player gets access to NIL rights, but which AAC team is set to benefit the most?

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Houston Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

NIL is here, and it’s a lot more than just getting a new video game for fans. Instead, it’s a new world of player rights, endorsements, and control of their own images. Now, there are plenty of questions with this to be discussed and debated. However, one thing is clear that this will impact recruiting and some schools will both handle it and benefit from it better than others.

Here is a prediction for which AAC schools do the best in the era of NIL:

1. UCF

No one in the AAC is going to benefit from the new NIL rules than UCF. There are a few core reasons for this. For one, like many teams in the AAC, UCF is based in a city. This means that there is a set area where they get to be the hometown team and have a strong alumni base. That city also doesn’t hold any NFL team or Power Five opponent to share attention with. That's before you consider the size of UCF, which means that their alumni base is massive.

All of this points to UCF players having a ton of opportunities to promote themselves locally, as well as a lot of calls for them to do so. Several UCF players have already gotten in on the action too. Several players, like Samuel Jackson and Kalia Davis, are already working with companies like Dreamfield (which was actually founded by former AAC greats McKenzie Milton and D’Eriq King). Meanwhile, Dillon Gabriel announced his new Dillon Gabriel brand, similar to Tom Brady’s TB12.

Movement around NIL at UCF has come quickly, and there is no reason to expect the momentum to slow down anytime soon.

2. Houston

Houston has a lot of the same benefits as UCF in regards to NIL. They’re based in a big city, have a large and passionate fanbase, and there is plenty of money to go around. The one knock is that they don’t own the city of Houston the way that UCF does Orlando. The Cougars do have to share the city with the NFL’s Texans and C-USA’s Rice.

Still, this should make recruiting a lot easier for Dana Holgorsen. Now, he can pitch to local recruits that they can stay home, play for a tradition rich program, enjoy great facilities, and make some money while they’re at it.

One early Cougar on the NIL train is Chandler Smith, who announced merch and a website.

3. Memphis

In recent years, the Tigers have worked hard to make themselves the program in the city of Memphis. That’s going to pay off now for their athletes, as Memphis is deep in SEC country and could be easily overlooked for the likes of Ole Miss, Tennessee, and the rest of the P5 schools in that region.

As it stands now, though, the Tigers have a brand. They know who they are, and they’re exciting. This should help their skills players get deals within the city of Memphis and keep them on everyone’s radar going forward.

Yoke Gaming, a platform that allows fans to play video games with players and has been very active early in NIL, signed Quindell Johnson, just the first player on Memphis to announce such a deal.

4. Cincinnati

If there is one major knock on Cincinnati, it’s that Ohio State is the sole power in the state of Ohio, with some exceptions like Notre Dame. The Bearcats do have their own major city, but that’s shared with an NFL team. These things make it trickier to consider them a high-value NIL program, but every program is high value when they win like the Bearcats, so it’s kind of a moot point.

That’s just it for Cincinnati, though. Keep winning and there is a lot of value here. If not, they could easily be forgotten in B1G 10 country. The Bearcats had previously announced their “Impact” initiative, which is to help athletes build their personal and NIL brands.

5. SMU

The Mustangs are one of those teams who are in a good position now for NIL deals, but things could get shaky depending partially on what they do and the teams around them. They share Dallas-Ft. Worth with rival TCU, and more importantly the Cowboys. So, it’s a bit easy to become an afterthought if things break against SMU.

Still, SMU has done a lot of great work positioning themselves as the team of Dallas, trying to make sure they’re known as Dallas’ college team, ahead of various in-state rivals. Stylistically, they’re also going to put up massive numbers, and we all know the kind of money their donors have to spend when they feel like it.

For SMU, Jimmy Phillips became one of the first to sign a NIL deal. He signed with Fangage, which is an online autograph service.

6. ECU

The Pirates are a difficult team to place in the AAC, because they don’t have a major city to call their own the way that most AAC teams do. They’re also in a state that is chock full of other college football teams, including four teams in the ACC alone. That, mixed with their lack of recent success, could make it difficult for Pirates to excel in the immediate future as far as NIL is concerned.

However, ECU does have a fantastic fanbase, and a stadium that holds more than some of those ACC teams in their state. So, there is room for growth in this department at ECU. Improving on the field will make it even easier to harness this fanbase.

Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers has announced a new clothing line with the start of new NIL rules, while ECU has promoted NIL as a benefit through their social media pages.

7. Tulane

In terms of recruiting, Tulane is fairly unique among its AAC peers. This is a school with an excellent academic reputation, one that it likes to uphold. The Green Wave are also in the city of New Orleans, but they’re still the third team in town, behind LSU and the New Orleans Saints. Those things are all going to have some impact on Tulane’s ability to be successful in the new NIL era.

That isn’t to say that Tulane is without hope, of course. Being in New Orleans, there is plenty of opportunities to become a favorite team of the city. New Orleans, as a city, also has an incredibly strong identity. That’s only a good thing for local athletes. They’re also popular across the conference with fans of other teams, making them likable across a larger portion of the country than many teams, even if that’s as a secondary team.

So far, Tulane has announced that they’re offering educational programs and help for student athletes when it comes to their brand. They’ve also had

8. USF

When you’re a bad college team in a city with a great NFL team, and you don’t even have your own stadium on campus, then it’s going to be difficult to make a lot from NIL deals. USF won’t be alone in this regard. Boston College will have trouble competing with the Patriots, while SMU needs to convince people in Dallas to put the Cowboys aside. It’s possible to do, but very difficult with a bad team that doesn’t have a distinct identity right now.

Of course, there is some potential here. Tampa is still a major city, and there are a lot of local kids who have the potential to make it to USF, improve the program, and get some strong NIL deals that might not be as available in the current circumstances. Still, until Tom Brady retires, the Bulls are the second show in town. Besides that, it doesn’t help that they’re trailing their rivals in UCF right now in terms of production.

Le’Vontae Camiel, a defensive end for the Bulls, has already joined the popular Yoke gaming.

9. Tulsa

Unfortunately for Tulsa, they are a relatively small school in a state where they are third fiddle. This small enrollment isn’t a bad thing academically, but it does mean that they have a smaller alumni base. This, in turn, limits the size of their fanbase. In particular, this is a challenge because Oklahoma State is a top-25 team, while Oklahoma is a top-5 team almost every season. They’re just too easy to forget about.

Now, if Tulsa can string together a few more strong seasons, while building an identity as a program, then their earning potential is going to be through the roof. Still, as long as they’re an afterthought compared to the Sooners and Cowboys, it’s going to be tough to make NIL a big deal at Tulsa.

10. Temple

At the bottom of the conference sits Temple, which is why they’re towards the bottom in terms of NIL potential. In their own state, Temple is forgotten behind several other college teams and the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. All of this devalues Temple players.

As is the case anywhere, winning games and success can change that reality. Unfortunately, that’s a difficult cycle to break from, and no one should expect much from Temple in this regard. Still, down the line, being based in a city could be helpful.

Temple’s acting athletic director, Fran Dunphy, released a brief statement announcing that Temple would be excited to help athletes with NIL, in particular helping them to navigate the law around it.

11. Navy

Who is to say what type of impact NIL would have at Navy, it’s such a unique institution among the AAC that judging it against the others is incredibly difficult. We won’t have to guess, though, as Navy players won’t be taking advantage of NIL. A spokesperson for the Naval Academy said, “NIL does not apply to the service academies such as the Naval Academy due to military rules on endorsements.”