The recent news of UConn deciding to leave the American Athletic Conference sent shock waves around the Group of 5. G5 programs unhappy with their current conference alignment (i.e. all of them), saw this moment as their big break. Finally, it is time for UMass to break out of independence limbo. Marshall fans are taking a victory lap, as surely the AAC would snatch up the most stable football program in the conference’s geographic footprint.
Unfortunately, this recent micro-wave of realignment may serve as just another reminder that college football is not a meritocracy. Winners and losers are so often determined by factors that have nothing to do with wins and losses or fan support. As much as programs like Appalachian State and Southern Miss deserve an upward trajectory for conference alignment, money and politics always come into play.
At this point in time, the money and politics point towards the AAC standing pat with 11 football teams.
Having clearly established itself as the premier G5 conference in the FBS, AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco has zero incentive to extend a membership offer to any program that wouldn’t be a grand slam. The conference has secured a strong TV contract, has a logical geographical posture, and is rapidly growing its brand. Losing UConn won’t hurt the conference in those areas, so rapidly snatching up a program to stop the bleeding isn’t necessary.
In fact, the only area where the AAC truly needs to help itself is on the football field. Ditching the Huskies automatically increases each team’s strength of schedule, making it just a bit easier for teams like UCF and Houston to compete for an elusive spot in the College Football Playoffs.
If the AAC were to replace UConn with a new program, it would have to be a team that finishes within the top 40 teams in the country each year, both now and for the foreseeable future. With no need to add additional media markets or established brands, a top 40 football program would be the only type of addition that adds the necessary value to improve the conference’s standing enough to justify the current conference members giving up a slice of the TV payout pie.
The potential members that fit that list are few and far between. Boise State and BYU would fit the bill, but Boise is sitting pretty with their sweet heart deal with the Mountain West Conference, and previous negotiations between the AAC and BYU broke down after they failed to reach a financial agreement. While the AAC is certainly a much stronger conference today than three years ago, I don’t think the needle has moved far enough to change the outcome of those discussions.
Army is also an intriguing option, but the total package they bring to the conference may not make up for their geographical distance like Boise and BYU are able to. Adding another option team to the conference slate could also frustrate coaches for game planning and injury risk reasons.
After those three teams, there’s a pretty big drop off. Appalachian State could work, but they don’t have as long of an established winning history at the FBS level as other options do. Their Olympic sports are woeful, travel to Boone could be difficult, and ECU may contest the elevation of a recruiting rival. There’s some clear risk and roadblocks here despite the Mountaineers’ impressive record over the past few years.
Programs like Louisiana Tech, Marshall, and Southern Miss wouldn’t necessarily be bad additions, but will they really elevate the conference’s play on the field enough to justify current members giving up valuable revenue?
Meanwhile, programs like Charlotte, Georgia State, Old Dominion, and James Madison are too risky of projects to take on when the AAC is already in a good spot. You may ask, well what if one of these growing programs does develop into the next G5 powerhouse? If so then the AAC will be right there waiting for them. There’s practically zero risk of any G5 program outside of the AAC getting scooped up by a Power 5 conference, so why should the AAC overextend itself when it doesn’t need to? Where else would those programs go other than the AAC?
In all likelihood, the AAC will stand pat over the next few years to weigh their options. This will spark perhaps the most vicious G5 arms race we have ever seen, and that’s exactly what the AAC should want. Dangling an open conference spot in front of athletic directors’ faces will separate the contenders from the pretenders, as the programs that are able to raise the money to improve their facilities, coaching, etc. enough to gain a spot in the AAC will most likely be the best long-term partners for the conference.
With dozens of suitors scratching and clawing at each other to one-up the competition, Mike Aresco can sit back, light a cigar, and enjoy his leverage as he watches to see which G5 programs are really up to the challenge of joining the country’s strongest G5 conference.