Mike Aresco used to dub the AAC the sixth power conference, as teams like UCF and Cincinnati consistently proved their national value on the gridiron. In recent years, however, Aresco has been tasked with battling just to keep the AAC alive as a top-tier Group of Five conference.
With Friday’s news that SMU is joining the ACC next summer, the American has lost Cincinnati, Houston, SMU, and UCF to Power Five conferences. While the AAC has added several programs, including a notable addition of UTSA, there’s no doubt the league looks weaker on paper than just a few short seasons ago.
On the other hand, the Sun Belt expanded (and strengthened) last fall with the additions of JMU, Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss. Just last football season, JMU broke into the AP Top 25, Marshall beat Notre Dame, and Old Dominion took down Virginia Tech.
The league is thriving, and Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill said during an ESPN+ broadcast Friday that there has been outside interest in joining, although the league seems content in its current form.
“There’s certainly some interest, and that’s a testament to our schools,” Gill said. “They’ve done a great job of building great programs and creating a conference that people want to be a part of. We’re really excited with who we are. We’re good with 14. That’s a really good number for us.”
The Mountain West retained San Diego State after a brief Pac-12 flirtation, an important win for the league’s future. The MWC is also in the mix to become the new home for Oregon State and Washington State, teams that would immediately add value to the conference.
While the AAC weakens, the SBC and Mountain West have become stronger G5 leagues.
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AAC opts to avoid western expansion
As for the AAC, it’s no longer looking west to add teams. The league had reportedly pitched Oregon State and Washington State on joining, but that hope won’t become reality.
“Instead, we plan to focus any expansion efforts on schools that allow for sensible and sustainable competition and student-athlete well-being within our strong geographic footprint,” Aresco said in a statement.
The next 3-5 years figure to be critical to the AAC’s future outlook – and the future outlook of the entire Group of Five. The playoff will expand to 12 teams next season, presumably giving the Group of Five annual access to the most prestigious postseason event in all of college football.
That’s a big deal, and as of Sept. 2023, the AAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt are likely to battle for that top spot. Can the AAC sustain its position as a top Group of Five league if it stands pat?
Group of Five positioning
If I’m Aresco, I’m worried.
UTSA, Tulane, and Memphis may need to carry the conference on its back beyond 2023. That’s a big ask, and it would help if a program like East Carolina or Charlotte or even Florida Atlantic became a relevant team nationally.
While Aresco cites the league’s “strong geographic footprint,” the AAC’s geography is confusing.
The league doesn’t have divisions, and it has teams scattered across states like Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. What’s the geographic identity of the conference?
I’d argue the AAC is turning into a hodgepodge of decent, albeit unspectacular football programs that lack meaningful connections with each other. Why should Temple fans be excited about road games this season with Tulsa, North Texas, and UAB?
The biggest argument I’ve heard from AAC fans on why the league remains relevant is its television deal with ESPN. I stand by the theory that if your league’s fans are bragging about an off-the-field financial metric, your conference has serious issues.
TV deals aside, the Mountain West contains schools with similar identities and proud football traditions, which include conference rivalries. The Sun Belt boasts rivalries across two regional divisions, reducing in-conference football travel. Fans of the 14 SBC teams are largely excited that their teams are in the league.
Do you think Memphis fans are thrilled about remaining in the new-look AAC?
Plenty of fans would rather watch and follow the Mountain West and Sun Belt than the AAC. In the short term, the AAC holds the more lucrative TV deal. If the AAC doesn’t act swiftly to ensure its league isn’t taking a dramatic on-field dip, the details of these deals could eventually swing to favor the MWC and SBC.
AAC expansion options
The AAC isn’t completely void of options for expansion. The Athletic reported Friday that Army might be a fit for the league, joining Navy as AAC football members. Making that rivalry a conference game would be an intriguing addition for the conference.
Additionally, the AAC could look at other independent programs. Would bringing UConn back into the mix as a football-only member make sense? The program is improving under Jim Mora.
The AAC could eventually try to grab another team from CUSA as well, perhaps Liberty, which has significant financial backing.
Aresco has long boasted about the AAC’s power and potential, but with four of the conference’s best teams bailing in recent years, it’s becoming harder for Aresco’s vision to become reality.