The American Athletic Conference has received a waiver from the NCAA to conduct a conference championship game in football despite having only 11 members for the 2020 season.
The Philadelphia Enquirer first reported the news on Saturday after interviewing commissioner Mike Aresco prior to the Southern Methodist at Temple game. Aresco confirmed the information to The Capital on Tuesday, stating the American Athletic Conference was notified the waiver had been granted on Friday.
“We’re happy the NCAA acted in our favor, and did so very quickly as well,” Aresco said. “It’s really a relief to get this done because the conference championship is so important.”
While the two-year waiver would expire in 2021, Aresco said the American could petition for an extension or seek legislation from the NCAA making the setup permanent.
Aresco noted the Big 12 Conference, which actually only has 10 teams, was granted legislation that allows it to play a nine-game round-robin schedule then hold a postseason championship game between the top two teams.
“Legislation takes time. If that’s the route we go, we would need to file relatively soon,” Aresco said. “We’re not sure at this time what is the next step.”
The American Athletic Conference is being reduced to 11 teams for football by the departure of Connecticut, which is rejoining the Big East Conference for basketball and most other sports. It was the dissolution of the Big East due to multiple defections that led to formation of the American.
Many of the past members reformed the Big East Conference, but it no longer sponsors football. Connecticut officials had hoped to remain in the American as a football-only member, but Aresco nixed that idea immediately.
There has been much speculation as to which school could potentially replace Connecticut in order to keep the American Athletic Conference at 12 for football. However, Aresco reiterated a stance he has held since Connecticut announced it was leaving the AAC.
“Right now, we don’t see any reason to add another school. We would only be interested in an institution that adds value to the league and enhances our brand,” said Aresco, noting there is no prospective member that fits that criteria. “We want to stay put at 11 teams for the time being.”
Aresco said there is almost zero chance the AAC would add a 12th member in time for the 2020 football season. Therefore, the waiver was critical as otherwise the American would have been required to implement a round-robin format in order to hold a championship game.
That would have meant 10 conference contests and none of the current 11 member schools was interested in doing that. Such a format would have been impossible for Navy, which is locked into playing service academy rivals Army and Air Force and is determined to maintain its series with Notre Dame.
“We were all in agreement that we want to continue to play eight conference games,” said Aresco, noting that most AAC programs are committed to playing at least two Power Five conference opponents per year. “Those non-conference contests mean a great deal to this league and we certainly did not want to lose them.”
Aresco said the American Athletic Conference football championship has been televised nationally by ABC Sports for five straight seasons. Last year’s game between Memphis and Central Florida received a television rating on par with the Power Five conference championships.
“It’s been an extremely meaningful game that does wonders to promote the league,” Aresco said.
Receiving the two-year waiver from the NCAA also buys time for the American Athletic Conference to further explore the viability of adding a 12th school. Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said there are pros and cons to standing pat at 11 members.
“It’s more lucrative for each school at 11. On the other hand, the divisional format has served Navy very well,” Gladchuk told The Capital on Tuesday night.
When it joined the American Athletic Conference in 2015, Navy requested to be placed in the West Division for recruiting purposes. Playing in the West guaranteed the Midshipmen appeared annually in Texas, arguably the most important state to the football program in terms of recruiting.
“I thought the East and West Divisions served our institution quite well,” Gladchuk said. “There’s no telling right now who we would and wouldn’t play based on whatever the new scheduling format winds up being.”
Aresco said AAC officials are still trying to figure out how an 11-game conference schedule would work and what factors would determine which schools played each other. Associate commissioner for football Scott Draper and senior associate commissioner for broadcasting Tom Odjakjian are spearheading the effort to develop a scheduling plan.
“We’re trying to determine how we’re going to schedule 11 teams. We have the most experienced people in the business working very hard on this issue,” Aresco said. “We’ve talked to the Big Ten about how they did it for almost 20 years.”
Aresco was alluding to the fact the Big Ten Conference increased to 11 football members with the addition of Penn State in 1990. Nebraska’s defection from the Big 12 Conference brought the Big 10 to 12 members, and it increased to 14 with the arrival of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014.
Gladchuk said none of the current American Athletic Conference presidents or athletic directors has any preconceived notions about whether 11 or 12 schools is better for the future. They have simple determined the American can operate with 11 in 2020 and 2021.
“We all agreed that 11 works. Everyone is content with 11 right now. We can be effective at 11,” Gladchuk said. “This waiver gives us two years to determine whether going to 12 makes sense or not. We now have time to conduct a comprehensive study as to what’s in the best interest of the league.”
Gladchuk acknowledged the decision would be based on whether a university with a quality football program expresses interest in joining the American.
“Any school with any significant horsepower is already affiliated with a conference,” he said. “People might bring up Army, but Army has repeatedly stated it has no interest in joining a conference, so we’ve put that possibility behind.”
This past March, the American Athletic Conference announced it had signed a 12-year media rights deal with ESPN that is reportedly worth $1 billion. That new contract guarantees the 11 member schools an annual payout of approximately $7.5 million.