When the news came in that Texas and Oklahoma were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, we knew a major trickle-down effect was on the horizon in terms of conference realignment. While initial rumors suggested that the Big 12’s future was in serious jeopardy, Bob Bowlsby was able to bring in BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF to help fill the void and keep the league alive. However, as I wrote earlier on the website, the Big 12’s misery was passed on to the AAC as Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF are among the conference’s best programs on an annual basis. Therefore, the power structure in the Group of 5 is currently up in the air.
Before this latest round of realignment, the AAC was universally renowned as the best Group of 5 league in college athletics for the better part of the last decade. With the best teams and the most lucrative television contract of any non Power 5 league, it was clear that the MAC, Sun Belt, Mountain West, and Conference USA all looked up to the AAC. Now, with the recent success of athletic programs like Coastal Carolina, San Diego State, Appalachian State, and Louisiana (Just to name a few) in those other leagues, it’s fair to wonder if the AAC’s reign atop the Group of 5 is sustainable.
With all of this context, an interesting development occurred this week on the conference realignment front. On Tuesday, Conference USA Commissioner, Judy MacLeod, sent a letter to the AAC requesting a dialogue on conference realignment and regionalization. While the letter didn’t lay out any explicit plans, the idea would be to discuss potential reorganization between the two leagues, such as creating one conference in the east and one in the west. As it sits, the C-USA and AAC have little geographic identity and have vast footprints. Both stretch from the Eastern Seaboard all the way to Texas, with overlapping members in many states.
So what is the motive behind the proposed reorganization? Saving money. ADs and commissioners often talked, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, about their desire to decrease travel expenses. However, the current geographic footprint of the AAC and C-USA doesn’t cater to reducing travel expenses at all. For instance, Temple and SMU, separated by 1,600 miles, are both in the AAC. In fact, the only school that SMU can “bus” to in conference is Tulsa. In the proposed reorganization, the AAC and C-USA reorganization would likely be made along East–West lines. An idea of the changes could look like this:
CURRENTLY (Cincinnati, Houston, UCF as Big 12 Members)
*Wichita State is a non football member of the AAC
Potential Reorganization Proposal
This reorganization would allow neighboring schools to compete in the same conferences, injecting more natural geographic rivalries and allowing schools to save on travel expenses at a difficult time financially. C-USA schools like FAU and FIU would be in the same conference as USF, currently in the AAC. East Carolina, in the AAC, would find itself in the same conference as Charlotte, currently in C-USA. The same goes for SMU, an AAC member, and C-USA schools North Texas, Rice, UTEP, and UTSA. Not only will it significantly reduce travel expenses, the geographic rivalries can spark more ticket revenue and sponsorships.
Even though this proposal seems like a great idea, initial reports suggest that it won’t come to fruition. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco is still focused on creating the top Group of 5 league and a push for Power 6 status, and league sources say the conference has no interest in such a move. So the idea of dropping down and offering a lifeboat to the weaker C-USA is a non-starter in their eyes.
While this proposal is prudent and financially responsible, it’s not a surprise that it’s looked down upon by the AAC. Self-preservation and self-interest rule the day in conference realignment. It always has, and it always will. The American has been rumored to be attempting to pry UAB and Charlotte from Conference USA in recent weeks. So even though Judy MacLeod’s proposal definitely has a little self-preservation element to it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a rational idea for both leagues. But as we know, you can’t assume rationality when it comes to the business of college sports. I hope in the future, people in power in college athletics grow to understand that oftentimes, they are better off when they are together, not apart.