To kick off the American Athletic Conference’s 2022 media day on Thursday, commissioner Mike Aresco took to the podium to deliver a 29-minute state of the conference address and answer a series of follow-up questions.
It’s a turbulent time for the AAC and college football as a whole given the uncertainty of the sport’s landscape due to unforeseen realignment moves. Oklahoma and Texas kicked off a new phase of conference restructuring when electing to depart the Big 12 for the SEC last summer and the trickle-down effects have been felt by nearly all 10 conferences.
The AAC has been one of the most prominent players in this developing era of realignment. On July 1, 2023, the AAC will lose three of its most accomplished members in Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF — the top three teams in the 2022 preseason media poll revealed Thursday. Houston and UCF hold designation as the only programs in the conference to capture an elusive New Year’s Six bowl win, while Cincinnati became the first-ever AAC team to qualify for the College Football Playoff last December.
Also on July 1, the three departing members will be replenished by a cast of six C-USA teams, primarily in major markets — Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Rice, North Texas, UAB, and UTSA. Aresco recognizes the accomplishments of the future Big 12 members but also believes the AAC can maintain its status in the revamped version of the league.
“I’m very confident but I also understand that this is a very fraught time,” Aresco said. “There’s no question that we face a significant challenge and after this year, we lose three teams that have made a huge contribution to us, but we are bringing in some schools that have already distinguished themselves.”
Aresco uttered in his state of the conference address that Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF will now be taken more seriously as College Football Playoff contenders simply by “signing a piece of paper.” With the convergence of many of the nation’s richest programs into two conferences, Aresco believes the new-look AAC is not wildly different than the developing versions of the Big 12, Pac-12, and ACC — especially when factoring in the distribution of talent via rise of the transfer portal.
“We are much-more like some of the other so-called ‘P5’ conferences now that you’ve seen this consolidation,” Aresco said. “Now I think we can take advantage of high school recruiting in a greater way because I think you’re going to see more and more emphasis on the transfer portal, where we’ve done very well because we’re in the right places. We’re in Texas, we’re in Alabama, we’re in Florida, we’re in Pennsylvania, we’re in other places that are football hotbeds.”
In a sink-or-swim world of college football realignment, Aresco understands that expanding geographic reach and collecting the country’s major markets are musts. For instance, while USC and UCLA only combine for one Pac-12 title since the conference expanded in 2011, the appeal of the Los Angeles market made those schools a captivating addition for the once-Midwest oriented Big Ten.
Despite doing what’s best for the league’s survival in a money-driven landscape, Aresco reminisces on a time when conferences shared a common region and culture, rather than athletic departments vying for membership for the sole purpose of maximizing revenue.
“I do lament the fact that we’re losing the geographical conferences that once created a certain mix in the country that was fun and regions challenged each other,” Aresco said. “These things happen and we move more toward consolidation. We know why. We know that the forces that are pummeling college sports require that you make a bigger financial commitment and that’s concerning.”
With the SEC and Big Ten expanding outside their geographic footprints and becoming the first FBS conferences to exceed 14 teams, there is a growing fear that a small number of super conferences could take over the highest level of college football. Aresco warns that this consolidation — which could eventually label many programs as second-class citizens — will have negative effects for the majority of the 131 FBS teams and fanbases going forward.
“We know that there’s gonna be this consolidation. We know the media’s gonna focus on maybe a couple conferences,” Aresco said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a fair system with the CFP where everyone has a shot, like we had a shot recently. We have to keep scholarship limits in a reasonable place. There’s no level playing field and there never has been. But we have to do everything we can to keep things competitive and if we do that, then every nook and cranny of the country will care. You don’t want just a few fanbases caring and the rest not caring. People love college football, but you’re gonna lose something valuable if three-quarters of college football isn’t as relevant as it was.”