In wake of UConn’s exit, don’t be shocked if AAC stands pat

The conference may be content to move forward with 11 football-playing schools.
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco addresses the media during an NCAA football media day in Newport, R.I.(AP Photo/Stew Milne, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco addresses the media during an NCAA football media day in Newport, R.I.(AP Photo/Stew Milne, File)
Published June 28

The initial reports of Connecticut's departure for the Big East barely had traveled from Storrs into cyberspace when speculation arose of which school would replace the Huskies in the American Athletic Conference.

UMass or UAB. Boise or BYU. Army or Air Force.

The discussion has intensified now that UConn’s move formally has been announced (though its official start date in the Big East won’t be before July 1, 2020), and several schools in less-prominent leagues (or no league) undoubtedly are preparing a pitch for AAC entry.

So into which region will the league tap? Northeast? Northwest?

How about nowhere? That’s our prediction.

Don’t be shocked if the AAC stands pat ― for now ― with 11 football-playing schools. In the wake of the Big East’s announcement Thursday that it was bringing UConn back into its fold, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco suggested in a series of interviews with league reporters that his brand still can manage nicely as is.

“We’ll consider a 12th school, but unless that school helps our strength and really enhances our brand why would you do it?” Aresco told the Houston Chronicle. "We’re not going to do anything that dilutes the brand and diminishes us at all.”

By any objective measure, the league appears capable of withstanding the loss of the Huskies. Of the AAC’s three most prominent sports, only women’s basketball is dealt a significant blow by UConn bolting.

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Huskies football, which has averaged three victories over the past half-dozen seasons, had become an albatross, and the once-sparkling men’s basketball program hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2016.

Moreover, UConn’s departure doesn’t fundamentally alter the new 12-year-, $1 billion media-rights deal the AAC recently struck with ESPN (though some numbers may be fine-tuned due to a change in inventory). And a conference title game for football still can take place.

Current NCAA legislation allows conferences with fewer than 12 teams (i.e. Big 12) to hold title games if they play a round-robin schedule. The AAC, which wouldn’t have a round-robin format, could seek a waiver of that rule and almost certainly would get it. The Sun Belt, which has only 10 teams (in two five-team divisions), holds a league championship game.

All of which indicates Aresco and his schools may not be inclined to expand unless they find a program that (A) adds real value and (B) makes geographic sense.

[ MORE USF: The new media deal for USF’s conference has ESPN Plus, and minuses ]

BYU would make sense as a football-only member (it forbids its athletic teams from Sunday competition), but it’s a geographic outlier that would pose a considerable travel expense for the rest of the league. Same with Boise.

Army may not work simply because the Army-Navy game ― typically held the weekend after conference title games ― would be compromised. UAB exists in a decent TV market, but hardly decent enough to move the AAC needle.

And Aresco already has sternly ruled out UConn remaining as a football-only member.

“Our conference will continue to move forward in pursuit of its national goals in football, men’s and women’s basketball, and Olympic sports,” Aresco said Thursday.

In this case, that pursuit may involve standing pat.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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