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AAC commissioner Mike Aresco talks conference realignment, playoff expansion

The commissioner took the podium at AAC media day to address recent rumors regarding conference realignment.

SPORTS-FBC-BIANCHI-COLUMN-HC Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The most eventful offseason in college football history will have its ripple effects felt in the American Athletic Conference. An offseason which revolutionized the sport with the passage of NIL legislation also featured a discussion about the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 teams, and now, conference realignment.

In the past week, Oklahoma and Texas shook up the college football landscape by announcing departure from the Big 12 in favor of joining the SEC in 2025. The exodus of the Sooners and Longhorns is set to contract the Big 12 to eight teams. As a result, rumors circled last week that the AAC conspired with ESPN in order to pursue “3-5” Big 12 members to add to the conference, per CBS Sports.

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco denied the rumors of conspiring with ESPN in regards to expansion at the conference’s media day Wednesday morning.

“I want to emphasize, we are not looking at realignment and we are not out there attempting to take teams,” Aresco said. “While ESPN is a valued partner, I have to take a moment to address some accusations that have been made, directly or indirectly, against our conference. Our conference has never strategically aligned or plotted with ESPN to influence conference structures. We wouldn’t do that, ESPN wouldn’t do that and would never do it.”

Aresco, who witnessed instability and mass realignment during the collapse of the Big East in 2012, believes the current 11-team structure is a stable position for the AAC. However, he stated that AAC expansion is not off the table if the right program comes along.

“We discussed with our membership what our strategic vision is and why it would be wise of them to stay in this conference. It’s stable and I think instability is a real concern here,” Aresco said. “But with respect to realignment, the way we look at it — if there are schools interested in us that would enhance our brand and be a good cultural and competitive fit, then why wouldn’t we consider them?”

With potential leverage in expansion and structural changes to the postseason, the figurative stock of the AAC is rising at the moment. After zero playoff appearances for the conference in seven years — despite boasting three undefeated teams entering bowl season over that span — the conference may finally receive its first taste of the College Football Playoff in the near future.

The College Football Playoff management committee consisting of Aresco, the nine other conference commissioners, and the Notre Dame athletic director, has proposed a 12-team format to the annual showcase. In this format, the six highest-ranked conference champions would earn an automatic invite. The AAC champion would have qualified under this proposed format in each of the past four seasons.

“We are pleased with the CFP expansion recommendation,” Aresco said. “We’re especially excited about the meritocratic approach of the working group. It’s all FBS now under this plan. And we’re gonna work to dissolve the ‘Group of Five’ label. We want to consign this label to the historical dust where we think it belongs.”

After sending five conference champions to New Year’s Six bowls in the past six seasons, the AAC would benefit from playoff expansion more than any other FBS conference. Fittingly, Aresco is a major proponent of playoff expansion, but he hopes the realigned SEC and the resulting ripple effects do not serve as a hindrance to the 12-team format.

“If the CFP plan is a good one, and I believe it is, the current expansion speculation should not derail or delay the process,” Aresco said. “There was broad support for the CFP plan and it should move forward. It creates greater opportunities for a wide range of teams, including our teams who deserved a shot in prior seasons and obviously didn’t have one.”