Will the AAC be the poached or the poachers in conference realignment?

Commissioner Mike Aresco touted the American’s stability and recent success Wednesday. Were Big 12 teams listening?
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, seen here in a file photo, said his conference is stable and well positioned in this round of realignment.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, seen here in a file photo, said his conference is stable and well positioned in this round of realignment. [ AP (2015) ]
Published Aug. 4, 2021|Updated Aug. 4, 2021

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco addressed the conference realignment elephant in the room quickly and repeatedly Wednesday during the league’s media day.

No, he said, the AAC is not trying to steal teams from other leagues. No, he said, the AAC has not reached out to any Big 12 schools or “colluded” with ESPN about adding them, as multiple reputable outlets have reported. But …

“We’re a strong conference with a strong brand,” Aresco said. “... (If) there are schools interested in us —schools interested in us — who would enhance our brand and be a good cultural and competitive fit, then why wouldn’t we consider them?”

And that leads to the existential questions facing the AAC: Which schools, if any, are interested in joining? Will the AAC be the poachers or the poached?

Related: Jeff Scott’s on USF’s role in conference realignment: ‘Go win’

The answers are different, or at least less obvious, than they were at the league’s media days five years ago.

Back then, Aresco acknowledged the possibility of defections as the Big 12 considered adding programs like USF, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston. AAC teams weren’t just open to the idea of jumping west for more money, a viable path to the playoff and the perks that come with being in the Power Five; some of them were discussing it publicly.

“Everybody in here’s trying to get an invitation,” then-Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said at the time.

Compare those words to what Cincinnati’s current coach, Luke Fickell, said Wednesday.

Cincinnati's run to the Peach Bowl last year is one of the AAC's recent football success stories.
Cincinnati's run to the Peach Bowl last year is one of the AAC's recent football success stories. [ AARON DOSTER | AP (2020) ]

“(What) our entire league has done the last few years has put themselves in a position that with realignment — there could be some other things happen for all of us,” Fickell said. “Meaning that we bring people in.”

The shift comes after Oklahoma and Texas decided last month to bolt for the SEC, weakening (if not destroying) the Big 12. Instead of hearing pitches from other schools, Kansas and West Virginia have both made not-so-subtle social media posts touting their strengths, in case other Power Five leagues (ACC? Big Ten?) are listening.

The AAC, meanwhile, has been steady. Its only recent defection was UConn (which, from a football perspective, was addition by subtraction).

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“If a conference isn’t stable,” Aresco said, “then who knows what its future is, whereas this conference is (stable).”

Aresco didn’t call out the Big 12 directly, but he didn’t need to.

Aresco and his coaches were eager to talk up other AAC strengths Wednesday. The league has a strong partnership with ESPN. It has had as many appearances in prestigious New Year’s Six bowl games (five) and wins (two) as the Big 12 (minus the ones from Texas and Oklahoma).

Related: Why Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC matters to FSU

“I don’t see a whole lot of difference from where we’re at right now and what the other conferences are like,” said Houston coach Dana Holgorsen, who coached West Virginia from 2011-18.

There is one notable difference: money.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said this week that Texas and Oklahoma account for half the Big 12′s TV revenue. The league pays its schools about $28 million from TV deals, so the leftovers are worth $14 million each — or twice as much as what AAC schools are receiving.

The top of the AAC compares favorably on the field to what will be left of the Big 12, but its Temple/East Carolina basement isn’t as strong or valuable. And the Big 12 already has the Power Five designation and autonomy the AAC hopes to attain.

If any schools in the Big 12 or elsewhere have reached out, Aresco isn’t saying. He did, however, say that he has had preemptive conversations with current members to make sure they understand the league’s value and why they’re in a better place now than they were five years ago.

“With all the things swirling around now, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Aresco said. “We just want everyone to step back, look at the situation, and we’re basically staying calm and just analyzing the situation.”

And waiting to see whether the AAC will remain the poached or become the poachers.

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