Yesterday I sent a life-or-death question into the ether: If you’re an AAC fan, how would you like the conference to proceed in the wake of UConn’s reported departure for the New Big East? Some trends emerged, and I’m going to dive into the most popular responses as well as the most random ideas.
But first, should the AAC expand at all?
Before we start spitballing elaborate 16-team super-G5 conference ideas, we need to decide if UConn’s departure warrants a countermove in the first place. It’s a fair question. While Husky basketball certainly carries name recognition, it’s easy to forget that the men’s basketball program has done virtually nothing to help the conference since their 2014 national championship. (What an insane sentence, but tell me it isn’t true.) After this past season’s conference slate, I ranked every team’s winning percentage in regular season conference play since the AAC’s inception. UConn finished seventh. That’s right. A program that won a national title five years ago was unable to win with more regularity than the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. While Connecticut fans will tell you the reason they failed to out-perform Tulsa was that they were playing them (don’t spend too much time tracing the logic here), the fact is that even UConn’s most valuable sport from the AAC’s standpoint was a near-wash.
Shift your attention to the gridiron, and it only gets worse. In the last decade, UConn football has slipped from Perennial 8-Win Bowl-Trip-Maker to the laughingstock of the college football world. The program has seven total wins since 2016. Tulane won seven games last season alone. (The Green Wave also won a bowl game, something UConn hasn’t done in a decade.) Peruse the S&P+ rankings (make sure you allow your browser a moment to load all 130 FBS teams), and you’ll find UConn in the basement. The Huskies finished 128th in 2018 and are projected to be even worse this season.
With this in mind, there are two schools of thought.
The first side will tell you that the AAC has a chance to upgrade. With basketball, you’ll lose name cache and fan base, but you can probably find a team that can do better than the .509 win percentage UConn mustered in conference play over five seasons. With football, statistics tell you that any team not named UTEP will bring stiffer competition.
The second school of thought says that any basketball addition may replace UConn’s level of success on the court but will do so with a decreased brand prestige. In a conference fighting for national respect, this matters. This group also says that you can upgrade UConn’s football program without issue, but you’ll ultimately be adding a team that pales in comparison to the AAC’s upper crust of Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, Memphis, etc. Is adding a pair of mid-level AAC-caliber programs worth the revenue split and the “watering down” of the AAC’s already-fragile brand?
I’m in the second group. Would I like to add BYU football? Yes. Would BYU agree to send their football program to the AAC? I highly doubt it. Would I be okay with adding Boise State football? Yes. But do I love the idea of playing 10 pm ET games in Idaho? And would I be okay with adding the Broncos in all sports, which would probably need to happen? Not really. On the basketball side, I think there’s even less to gain. VCU and Dayton are the closest things to logical basketball-only additions. The Rams are a historically relevant program that has crushed most of the A-10 over the last seven seasons, but that 26-win guarantee is inevitably going to slip against stiffer competition, at least to start. Is splitting revenue with a bubble team a net positive? And might it be better to expand the AAC’s conference schedule to 20 games and play a true round robin? The Flyers, meanwhile, are parked right up the road, and Cincinnati (and John Brannen) would never agree to start fighting recruiting battles with a conference foe separated by roughly 50 miles.
So there’s where I stand. Evaluate the logical possibilities, and I don’t see a tremendous reason to expand if we have the choice. Who knows what ESPN will ultimately have to say about all this.
That’s enough about my vote, though. I asked what you had to say and cut things off at 500 responses. (While I opened this up to all fans of an AAC school, it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of these responses reflect the views of Cincinnati fans.)
Should the AAC do anything about UConn’s departure?
Yes, they need to get back to 12 teams in all sports—48.9%
No, they should remain at 11 teams in all sports—33%
Yes, they need to get back to 12 teams in football only—11.3%
Yes, they need to get back to 12 teams in basketball only—6.7%
I was a little surprised that only a third of respondents wanted to stand pat at 11 in all sports, although I suppose part of this can be pinned on the excitement of speculation. Doing nothing isn’t very sexy.
The Popular Choices
Boise State—26 votes
The Oddball Choices
San Diego State
I’ve stated my stance is anti-expansion, but if I had to expand, I’m not doing an all-sport addition.
BYU is the only win across the board, and they’re 1,700 miles from Cincinnati and don’t play any sports on Sundays. Both of these are likely deal breakers on the AAC’s side, which assumes BYU agrees to share its football program and negotiations even get that far.
I see the upside of Buffalo. Their athletics budget is robust for a non-AAC G5 school, they’ve had balanced success in football and basketball recently, and they match the AAC’s footprint while also serving as a cultural fit. However, to use a pro sports concept, I don’t think the American is in a position to draft a player mainly based on upside. We did that with Tulane, Tulsa, and ECU, and see how that’s worked out so far. We’re in win-now mode. I don’t think we can afford to give a school a boost and wait around for them to compete regularly at a higher level.
With the oddball choices, each of which received just one vote, we get some fun. James Madison? Really? Ohio and Miami don’t make any real sense unless they’re fused together and moved somewhere out of Cincinnati’s backyard.
Georgia State, on the other hand, should probably be getting more attention here. Although they just lost their basketball coach to Tulane, they’ve made the tournament three of the last five years. The football program is new to FBS and has struggled to find its footing. However, they have an asset. They play in Atlanta. Their football stadium is even at (former home of the Braves) Turner Field, which the school since converted to Georgia State Stadium. I’m not sure they’re AAC-ready, but they seem like an athletic department ready to make a leap in a conference like C-USA, for starters.
The Popular Choices
Boise State—113 votes
The Oddball Choices
Regardless of what I think, my guess is the American expands in football. I’ll be following the Boise situation closely because their football-only addition is the closest thing to a perfect overlap in the Venn diagram of factors at play.
Army joining as a football-only member has to be the Vegas favorite right now. I’m not an AAC insider, but it kinda feels like it might happen.
BYU is the dream choice, but getting the currently independent Cougars to agree to share their monster (by G5 standards) of a football program while giving up scheduling flexibility—and maybe even revenue—seems like a long shot.
Marshall is an interesting choice from a proximity and success standpoint. They’ve made a bowl game in five of the last six seasons, averaging nine wins per season in that span. They’re also 7-0 in bowl games since a loss in 2004. I’m not jumping up and down at the idea of adding them, but it’s hard to argue they’d fail in the AAC.
The Popular Choices
The Oddball Choices
Serious basketball-only choices are fewer, with only four gaining any real support among those I surveyed. If the AAC does add a basketball-only program, which seems unlikely, VCU is the frontrunner.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Dayton gets knocked for its proximity to Cincinnati. Otherwise, they’ve got the success and fan base to make a move to the AAC seem logical.
I’m not a fan of adding a school with an FBS football program as a basketball-only member, and I can’t imagine Aresco is either. That makes Buffalo and BYU feel unlikely.
St. Louis, despite an unimpressive resume across the last five seasons, does create an interesting conversation, and it would add another Memphis-like C-USA rival to the mix. I don’t see how they’re a better fit than VCU.
Northern Kentucky? Their ascension (under the guidance of a coach UC just hired) has been impressive, but c’mon people. Do we think NKU is ready to roll with top 25 programs? And even if they could, do we want a next-door neighbor in the conference?
The departure of UConn and the AAC’s response to it makes excellent summer fodder... but I don’t think any realistic outcome has a significant impact on the near future for the Bearcats. This isn’t life-or-death. It’ll be interesting to follow, though.
I’ll have more opinions on this story as it develops throughout the summer.