The American Athletic Conference’s latest rebuild leaves Conference USA in a precarious position.
The American Athletic Conference Board of Directors and commissioner Mike Aresco announced Thursday morning that six universities had their applications for membership in The American approved by the conference’s nine continuing members.
As reported Tuesday by Capital Gazette, the six schools being added to the American are Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio.
This latest shuffling is part of the fallout from the most recent round of conference realignment kicked off this summer when Oklahoma and Texas decided to bolt the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The ripple effects are now being felt across the country.
The American was in the market for new members after three of its most successful schools — Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida — announced in September they would be joining the Big 12.
Those moves are expected by the 2023 football season, and the American hopes to have its six new members in place when the departing schools leave.
The result would be a 14-team conference, with four schools in Texas — the three new members and SMU.
C-USA has been a frequent target when the American, formerly the Big East, has needed to reconstitute. After the latest realignment moves have been completed, 12 of the American’s 14 football-playing members will be former C-USA schools.
Earlier this month, C-USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod sent a letter to AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco proposing a merger of sorts between the two conferences to make each a better geographic fit for its members. The AAC had no interest and instead went on the offensive.
“On behalf of the American Athletic Conference presidents, I look forward to years of healthy competition with our six new members,” said Michael Fitts, president of Tulane University and chair of the AAC Board of Directors.
“I am confident that we have not only added fine institutions that share our collective ambition for national success, but we have done so in a deliberate and sensible way that will contribute to the long-term future of the conference.”
The American will have a presence in four of the top 10, seven of the top 25 and 12 of the top 51 Nielsen media markets. The league will have four teams in the state of Texas, two each in Florida and North Carolina and one each in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Aresco said in a statement the American has enhanced its geographical concentration, which will especially help the conference’s men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports teams. He believes the AAC will bolster the athletics programs of the six new member institutions through its media rights partnership with ESPN. Additionally, the AAC increases the value in live content options for CBS Sports, which features selected men’s basketball games on CBS Sports.”
“I am extremely pleased to welcome these six outstanding universities to the American Athletic Conference,” said Aresco. “This is a strategic expansion that accomplishes a number of goals as we take the conference into its second decade. We are adding excellent institutions that are established in major cities and have invested in competing at the highest level.
Conference USA will be down to eight members — Old Dominion, UTEP, Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Florida International and Western Kentucky — with an unclear future.
In the past, Conference USA has poached the Sun Belt Conference when it needed replacement schools. Middle Tennessee, FIU and Western Kentucky were all members of the Sun Belt.
But the Sun Belt is now in a position of strength relative to C-USA.
“I don’t see any Sun Belt schools leaving,” former Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters said.
This time it could be the Sun Belt poaching C-USA.
“Throughout this process, if we identify a school that adds value to the Sun Belt, we’ll certainly consider them for membership,” Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill said back in September.
Marshall, in Huntington, West Virginia, would have a natural geographic rival among the Sun Belt’s 10-team football conference with Appalachian State, based in Boone, North Carolina.
Southern Miss could fit between Sun Belt schools South Alabama and Troy to the east and Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe to the west.
Where could C-USA turn?
“There does come a time when there are no more options,” former Sun Belt and Western Athletic Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said.
Liberty, a private school in Lynchburg, Virginia, has expressed interest in joining a conference that could house its currently independent FBS football team. It has invested heavily in athletics and the Flames have played in bowl games each of the past two seasons. Liberty’s other sports programs compete in the Atlantic Sun.
FCS programs looking to make the jump from Division I college football’s second-tier to its top level, the Bowl Subdivision, could also be an option.
When Benson was trying to save WAC football in the early 2010s, he couldn’t persuade some of the strong FCS programs in the West such as Montana and Montana State to make the step up.
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When he became Sun Belt commissioner in 2012, he found FCS schools in the region more eager to jump