American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco’s state-of-the-league report Thursday sounded like a warning.
Not for the AAC. But for a sport in turmoil as the latest round of conference realignment consolidates money and power at the expense of everything and everyone else.
“Something important is being lost,” Aresco said to kick off the AAC’s media day. “Let us not pretend otherwise.”
Rivalries are the most obvious casualty. UCF-USF won’t be an annual game when the Knights move to the Big 12 next year, though both teams have expressed interest in continuing it somehow. Oklahoma’s upcoming departure for the SEC will probably sideline its entertaining Bedlam series with Oklahoma State. Oregon-Oregon State and Washington-Washington State could join those endangered rivalries if the Pac-12 crumbles.
Other things may be lost, too, if the Big Ten and SEC continue expanding and become even more powerful. The interest in marquee matchups like Michigan-Ohio State and Florida-Georgia won’t fade. But what happens to the rest if what Aresco called the “decades-long charm” of regionality shrinks or disappears? How engaged will supporters of a mediocre 5-5 UCLA team be for a November matchup halfway across the country compared to a showdown with Cal or Stanford? What happens if college football goes from a regional sport played nationally to a purely national sport?
“How will it affect fans? Interest in the game?” Aresco asked. “How will it affect the schools not in the two dominant conferences?”
His last question is similar to the one Alabama coach Nick Saban posed last week at SEC media days. For Saban, the question was hypothetical. For Aresco and the American, it’s existential.
The AAC rose from the ashes of the Big East, which splintered in a previous round of realignment. As much as Aresco talks up his league as a Power Five peer, it remains a mid-major conference.
The American is at a disadvantage in the current College Football Playoff system, as UCF fans know well. Cincinnati needed a perfect storm to crash the Playoff last season. As unlikely as the Bearcats’ run was, it’s at least possible in the current model. It might not be in a future CFP format, or in a landscape dominated even more by the Big Ten and SEC. And if USF fans never have the illusion of a shot at a championship, how much will they tune out?
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“Creating a large group of second-class citizens would not appear to be a healthy development…” Aresco said. “You don’t want just a few fanbases caring and the rest not caring.”
Aresco didn’t claim to have answers to all of his questions. Some won’t become clear until the dust settles years from now.
But Aresco does have some ideas. Expand the playoff in a way that’s accessible to the next Cincinnati so as many teams and leagues are relevant for as long as possible. Though the amateurism model no longer exists (if it ever truly did), make sure the sport remains tethered to academics rather than professionalizing it fully. Consider a breakaway from the NCAA to acknowledge the fact that Division I-A football is different from everything else. Keep scholarship limits reasonable to promote competition diversity.
The playing field, Aresco said, is not level. It never has been. But the sport will put itself as risk if it knowingly becomes even more top heavy.
“I don’t know if we can keep what has made college football and college sports special,” Aresco said, “but we have to try.”
• USF was picked to finish ninth in the 11-team conference in a poll of media voters. Houston was picked to win the league, followed by Cincinnati and UCF.
• Bulls coach Jeff Scott said he is “very pleased” with what Baylor transfer Gerry Bohanon has shown him so far. Both Bohanon and incumbent Timmy McClain will get reps with the first team early in camp before a starting quarterback is named.
• UCF coach Gus Malzahn said the quarterback competition between Mikey Keene and Mississippi transfer John Rhys Plumlee is “even as can be” entering camp and that he hopes to name a starter “sooner rather than later.”
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