The American Athletic Conference is settling on a handful of expansion candidates that will likely kick off the next round of realignment at the Group of Five level, multiple sources told CBS Sports. The timing of that next round could be impacted if Texas and Oklahoma attempt to make an early entry into the SEC.
In reaction to the Big 12's recent raid of Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, the AAC has focused on recruiting a group of schools that includes Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State and UAB, sources tell CBS Sports. UAB, a member of Conference USA, is the only non-Mountain West team on that short list.
That suggests AAC commissioner Mike Aresco could be looking mostly West in search of equal television value for the three prize pieces he lost to the Big 12.
Boise State and UAB have been discussed most prominently among the five expansion candidates. Inclusion of any or all of the four aforementioned Mountain West candidates could destabilize that league to the point the that the AAC would remain the clear top conference in the Group of Five.
It is believed the AAC will expand by at least four teams to get to 12 members. It only had 11 prior to the departures of Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, which will occur in 2023.
UAB lies in a college football hot bed (Birmingham, Alabama) with a new field (Protective Stadium, Oct. 2 vs. Liberty). The AAC is selling Boise State based on the potential to be the league's most powerful program, one that could chase a playoff spot each year based on the structure of the proposed 12-team playoff.
The AAC has earned five of the seven automatic New Year's Six bowl berths in the College Football Playoff's seven-year history.
What's emerging is a tug-of-war for the best brand names available at the Group of Five level. Presented with the possibility that an expanded AAC could monopolize a Group of Five playoff berth in ongoing realignment, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson stood firm.
"I would just say that same argument could be made if [those teams] remain in the Mountain West Conference," he said.
There could be a tug of war over Boise State, which is desirable beyond the Group of Five. CBS Sports reported Friday that Boise State and Memphis would be top targets for the Big 12 if the league expands to 14. Multiple Big 12 sources have said privately and publicly the league may not be done expanding.
"Anybody with aspirations for the Big 12 [might say], 'Why would I go anywhere except wait for a couple of years and wait for the Big 12 to expand again?'" said a Group of Five source involved in the realignment process.
Big 12 executives are also watching closely as the Pac-12 negotiates a new TV deal in 2024 when its current agreement with Fox and ESPN expires. If the Pac-12 media rights revenue approximates that of the Big 12 at that time, there is a feeling within the Big 12 some Pac-12 schools might be interested in joining.
For now, if the AAC can't get its top choices listed above, there is an additional group of 10-12 teams that would be considered, sources said. Among those teams under consideration are FAU and UTSA of Conference USA. Both are seen by some AAC officials as having the potential to becoming the new UCF -- emerging programs in a large, football-mad markets that could make a national splash under the right conditions.
While that list of core candidates may shrink or grow depending on the day, realignment below the Power Five level remains in the wait-and-see stage because of the Texas and Oklahoma situation. Little is expected to happen until there is more certainty about Texas and Oklahoma migration to the SEC.
While Big 12 sources say publicly they are holding the programs to the term of their current media rights contract (four more years with Fox and ESPN), there is suspicion that the two will find a way to extricate themselves before the 2025 season. That could affect everything from conference composition to how leagues can be priced in the media market.
The Big 12 has announced BYU will enter the league in 2023, while Cincinnati, Houston and UCF will enter no later than July 1, 2024.
As such, the AAC is expected to move first on any additional expansion because it lost three valuable pieces and is down to only eight members. If it loses two more members, the AAC's automatic qualification status for the NCAA Tournament could be impacted. Sources also tell CBS Sports that ESPN could rework its media rights deal with the AAC at a lower price due to a membership composition clause in their contract.
Sources say the clause could be activated if the AAC lost UConn, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. UConn left the AAC entirely in 2020, becoming an independent in football while joining the Big East for basketball and other sports.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco is not worried about a reworking of the deal, persons close to those discussions tell CBS Sports. Aresco has been telling constituents that he hopes to keep the value of the conference's media rights payout equal to what it was before Cincinnati, Houston and UCF left for the Big 12. AAC schools are paid approximately $7 million annually as part of a deal signed in 2019 with ESPN.
"My advice [is], until you know what you're joining, are you really sure you want to make a move?" said Karl Benson, who once oversaw the largest FBS league in existence as commissioner of the 16-team WAC in the late 1990s. "Until you know what's left of the American, what are you getting into?"
- Air Force: Service academy partner with Navy, already an AAC member.
- Boise State: Established football excellence. Possible travel partner for other Western candidates. Might have to decide between the AAC now or Big 12 down the line.
- Colorado State: One of the best new stadiums in the country. The football program is struggling, and CSU doesn't exactly deliver the Denver market.
- San Diego State: New stadium, beautiful city, West Coast talent. But if the AAC stays (somewhat) intact, why would SDSU leave the best remaining Group of Five league? Its only other option would be a Big 12 that wants to expand beyond 14. Travel would be an issue.
- UAB: The city of Birmingham, coach Bill Clark and athletic director Mark Ingram deserve tremendous credit for making the program attractive since it was shut down in 2014.
- FAU: A Sunshine State replacement for UCF. Lane Kiffin showed the Owls' potential winning two conference titles in three years.
- UTSA: A rising program in a large market that would theoretically replace Houston in the state of Texas.
- Mountain West: North Texas and Tulsa are under consideration by the MWC. That could be a proactive move if the AAC takes some MWC teams. However, depending on which way realignment moves, the Mountain West could become the dominant Group of Five conference itself if it stays intact as there may be no combination of schools for the AAC that could make up for losses of Cincinnati, Houston and UCF.
- Conference USA: Former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany as a consultant. Even in retirement, Delany remains one of the most powerful persons in college athletics.
- Total realignment: Creating geography-based leagues -- combining teams from the AAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt -- has been discussed given the clear redundancies between the conferences. The AAC and C-USA each have schools in Texas and Florida. C-USA and the Sun Belt each have teams in Texas, Alabama and North Carolina. The AAC and C-USA have teams in Texas, Florida and North Carolina.
Why not cut travel costs with a geographical lineup that would look something like this?