Since the University of Connecticut announced its departure from the American Athletic Conference and return to the Big East on June 26th, 2019, the conference realignment rumor mill has been spinning with renewed fervor. A few weeks later, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said there were no immediate plans to replace UConn. These plans could obviously change if the conference finds a potential suitor. First, let’s eliminate some programs that probably won’t be candidatesto join the AAC:
Boise State – Enjoys running table in the Mountain West too much to leave. Logistical nightmare
BYU – Probably content to stay independent unless they receive a Power 5 invite. Would likely have to give up their BYUTV media rights. Also far away.
Air Force – Travel problems. The closest conference opponent is 676 miles away.
Army – Would have to move the Army-Navy game to before Conference Championship week (since it’d be a conference game), and that’s just not gonna happen.
Here are this writer’s suggestions for a potential 12th team:
The AAC is mostly made up of research institutions located in large urban areas in the eastern half of the US. You don’t get any more “research institution in large urban area” than Atlanta’s Georgia State University. If GSU joined today, they would be the second largest university in the conference in terms of enrollment with over 52,000 students. Atlanta is also, of course, a desirable market and a mecca for college football. The AAC currently has no organic reach in the state of Georgia. Georgia State is improving in football and offers a really good basketball program. However, their facilities are kind of below par for the American Conference and they’ve struggled with fan support. These growing pains are understandable for a newer FBS program, having only made the move in 2012. Consider Georgia State as a high risk/ high reward candidate for AAC membership.
Located in Lynchburg, VA, Liberty University is one the largest private non-profit universities in the nation. The Flames have only been in the FBS since 2018, but has progressed very quickly at this level. They won a bowl game in only their second season, which coincidentally was their first season of being allowed bowl eligibility. Liberty is an unproven commodity, but they have a great financial situation and excellent facilities. The Flames have a really good athletic program overall. The AAC ought to at least kick the tires on Liberty.
The UAB Blazers are surprisingly not a bad candidate for AAC membership. Yes, they did struggle in football for years and axed the program at the end of the 2014 season, but since their rebirth in 2017, they have been better than ever. The Blazers have registered 3 straight winning seasons and a CUSA championship. UAB is in a much better financial condition since signing a new long-term Multimedia rights deal with Learfield IMG College. Additionally, they have good facilities and will play in a fancy new stadium in 2021. UAB also happens to be situated in the #1 college football TV market and the 44th largest overall TV market in the country – one in which the AAC doesn’t currently have a foothold. Are they necessarily watching UAB? No, but adding the Blazers would expand the AAC’s footprint.
As a lifelong Tulane fan, I hate Southern Miss with the burning intensity of a thousand suns. However, I do have a great deal of respect for their football program. USM has always done more with less. A smaller school without a huge budget or a ton of resources, the Golden Eagles have registered winning seasons 39 out of the last 50 years. Southern Miss has won 8 conference championships in football, including 5 in Conference USA. While Hattiesburg isn’t exactly a huge market and Southern Miss isn’t the flashiest name, they would provide the AAC with a consistent and respectable football brand. However, their basketball program probably wouldn’t do much to benefit the conference. USM would make sense as a football only member.
If you drive to the middle of nowhere, hang a left, and then drive 2 more hours, you will find yourself in Boone, NC. This town of about 19,562 residents is the home of the Appalachian State Mountaineers. Despite their remote location, App State easily has the best football program of anyone on this list. App State fans are passionate about their Mountaineers and have lead the Sun Belt in attendance for three straight seasons. The downside? Boone is obviously not an attractive market and the AAC already has a small market team (ECU) in the state. Appalachian State also brings nothing to the table in basketball. When you consider them as a possible football-only member though, this option becomes much more attractive.
Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. The AAC is already a good conference and shedding the dead weight of UConn only made it better. Furthermore, it may be foolish of the league to throw money at a school that could water down its product. Additionally, if a member gets poached by the Power 5 or the league decides to kick someone out and move to 10 teams, they could implement a round robin format in football and a double round robin in basketball. It could be a savvy business move for the conference to stand pat until ESPN is inclined to negotiate a more lucrative TV rights deal. On the flip side, adding a school that strengthens the conference could give the AAC leverage to land a better deal.
Other possible candidates: Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Old Dominion, North Texas