Once upon a time, there was hope and optimism for the AAC in conference realignment. The Big 12 had been blindsided by the SEC taking Texas and Oklahoma, which left every other school to consider its own future. Rumors swirled that, to keep up with the SEC, the Big 10 and PAC-12 would try to act like vultures and take what they wanted next. Hypothetically, that would leave the Big 12 so weak that it wouldn’t have the influence to poach teams from the Group of Five, and the AAC could snag teams like TCU and West Virginia.
That, rather obviously now, isn’t what happened. Bob Bowlsby, rightly, took a ton of blame for not realizing that the SEC was after his two biggest brands. He also deserves credit for aligning the conference as a whole following the coup, so that they wouldn’t get picked apart. That included declaring that the AAC and ESPN were colluding against the Big 12 for media purposes. Importantly, he also turned around and landed four new schools for the Big 12, to stabilize the conference. Three of them came from the AAC; Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF. The other was Independent BYU.
From there, the G5 went through its own realignment. The AAC had to find answers but struggled to find schools to join them, as they were seen as the conference in trouble by then. In particular, Mountain West schools that briefly seemed to have mutual interest with the AAC fell through. It became a matter of fact that the only conference they could realistically take from was C-USA, which everyone wanted out of and barely survived this round of realignment. Along the way, there were always rumors that the Big 12 wasn’t going to be done expanding. After all, they wanted to do everything in their power to make sure they were still a Power Five conference. AAC teams, like SMU, Memphis, and USF, have all been making moves to prepare for expansion, like expanding facilities.
Recently, those rumors have reignited. They were mostly sparked by comments recently made by Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy. He said, “We could be at 14 very easily, five years from now, from what I’m hearing...I think there’s strength in numbers. When you watch this thing, the Big 12 always had some issues, because people would say, there are only 10 (members).” Now, the Big 12 is likely to have an awkward year or two as its membership transitions, but Gundy is referring to long-term expansion to fourteen teams. He also said that once the dust has settled, then the Big 12 conference will reassess the situation.
If, when that time comes, they do decide to expand again, it could potentially spell very bad news for the AAC. They would likely look towards the AAC first for expansion, again. Those schools, SMU, Memphis, USF, even Tulane would all fall under immediate consideration for various reasons. Those reasons include things like media market size, the quality of facilities, on-field success, fundraising, and the health of the athletics department as a whole. In the right circumstances, it would also help to give teams a geographic partner. For instance, USF will likely benefit from UCF already being in the Big 12, to make their rivalry a conference game again and give the Knights a travel partner.
AAC schools have known this was a possibility long before Mike Gundy spoke about the possibility of expanding again. SMU recently received a $50 million donation and has plans to build more than $100 million in new athletics facilities. USF has broken ground on an indoor practice facility and seems to be getting serious about an on-campus stadium for the first time, recommending a location for the project.
These moves would make them more appealing to the Big 12. It’s an arms race to the top of the AAC because presidents and athletic departments realize that the number of spots in the P5 are quickly running out. The divide within the P5 is growing rapidly too. If you’re not at least on the coattails of the P5, then you’re not going to be able to compete at the highest level due to simple financial realities. To get to the Big 12, it’s not just an arms race between AAC teams, though. They’re competing with everyone in the G5. That means schools that already have made massive investments in their athletics, like Colorado State, San Diego State, and Boise State. That’s before you consider the fast-rising Sun Belt.
If this is what happens, then the AAC is going to be thrown into flux again. They will need to try and dip into the other G5 conference to replace members again, like a consistent domino effect. Even the teams that stay will be unhappy, and professional bridges will end up being burnt. The AAC, very easily, could be knocked off its perch as the best G5 conference.
None of these changes are happening overnight. They are happening, though. When they do, the AAC needs to be prepared.