Big 12 conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby had an explosive press conference. Now, what the Big 12 does typically doesn’t impact the AAC, but that’s not where the college football world is right now. With a realignment panic in full swing, though, when a conference commissioner speaks there is impact.
What Bowlsby said is already sending reverberations through the sport, and it directly implicated the AAC. He accused ESPN of conspiring with the AAC to steal three or five members from the Big 12. This would take the AAC to 14 or 16 teams, lead to contract re-negotiations, make the AAC a power conference, and twist the knife in a dying Big 12.
In response, the Big 12 sent a cease and desist letter to ESPN. Essentially, the accusation is that ESPN has been working with the AAC to get more of their programs to jump ship and move to an ESPN TV contract following Texas and Oklahoma departing to the SEC. The idea is that ESPN would want more properties to hold over Fox, with the AAC being the conference under their ambarella that would make the most since for this realignment towards. Additionally, such a move could lead to the nullification of the Big XII’s Grant of Rights which would allow ESPN to profit from the broadcast of Texas and Oklahoma games in the SEC.
.@SINow has obtained the cease and desist letter that the Big 12 sent to ESPN.— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) July 28, 2021
In it, commissioner Bob Bowlsby says that ESPN has reached out to at least one of the eight remaining Big 12 members in an attempt to convince the school to leave in wake of the Texas and OU exit. pic.twitter.com/j50gEBPWBY
For their part, ESPN has denied any grand conspiracy, as stated by the Big 12. The AAC, meanwhile, has stayed quiet throughout the entire process.
Assuming it’s true, this means several things. Now, that might be dangerous to assume, but it’s also an interesting path to walk down. So, let’s break down what this means in the long-term.
For one, it effectively ends the Power 6 campaign, as the Big 12 is going to be dead if this is what happens. Three to five teams is not enough to run a conference on, and whoever might be leftover is going to go running for a different conference. The AAC, meanwhile, will take their place as the fourth or fifth P5 conference, depending on the season.
The next thing it means is that there is going to be more money coming to the AAC’s current members. Adding multiple schools will force a re-negotiation of the media deal that the AAC currently holds with ESPN. It should lead to more money coming in to each conference member, which will further separate them from the rest of the current Group of Five, putting them financially closer to a conference like the PAC-12. In other words, a clear middle class will develop.
In the case that the AAC adds five teams, they’d be up to a total of 16. That would likely mean the AAC has to rework how they do scheduling. Either you play the seven teams in your side of the division, plus two teams from the other side, or you move to a pod structure. The former option is a bad idea, which would ultimately feel like two conferences that happen to play a championship game against one another. The latter is a unique idea, though. Pods would essentially put four teams together, based on region and rivalries. You’d play the other three teams in your pod, along with half of the other teams in each other three pods on a rotating basis. Either way, this would mean going to a nine game schedule.
Put aside the question of just how valid Bowlsby’s concerns are, and continue to assume they’re valid. What teams would the AAC actually be looking to add going forward? Well, the first three seem pretty obvious.
The Horned Frogs make sense in more ways than one. They are a well-coached and stable program. More importantly, they’re part of a major TV market, which has long since been the strategy of building the AAC around strong bases. However, what makes TCU the most interesting team is that they both had to work their way into the Big 12, being pushed aside following the Southwestern Conference collapse, before effectively going through that cycle again. Furthermore, their rivalry with SMU would immediately be one of the best in the conference. Clearly, this is a cultural fit.
No one is getting a worse deal in the Big 12 than the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Working under the presumption that they and Oklahoma were a package deal in conference alignment, the Cowboys had no idea that this was coming. It was a complete and total blindside. They don’t fit into any other major conference either, in particular due to various institutional requirements of the PAC-12 and B1G. Still, Oklahoma State is the third best program in the Big 12, behind Iowa State and Oklahoma, which would be a major addition to the AAC. A built-in rivalry with Tulsa doesn’t hurt either.
In an alternate reality, West Virginia would never have been invited to the Big 12, and would have been in the AAC the whole time. The ACC makes the most sense for the Mountaineers given their rivals like Pitt and Syracuse, but the AAC is a solid second option for them.
After those three, there are a bunch more questions about each possible team. Does the AAC ignore Kansas football for their basketball program? How much value does Kansas State bring? Is Texas Tech too geographically isolated? Is Iowa State worth taking, or are they only as good as Matt Campbell? Is Waco a big enough TV market to ignore cultural issues at Baylor? The questions go on and on.
It’s also worth pointing out that the ACC could add just three Big 12 schools and find two other schools to grab, like Boise State for instance, to get that number to 16. Of course, until anything happens this is all just speculative fiction. Still, for the AAC and its programs, it’s an incredibly exciting possibility to think about.