The American Athletic Conference is set to consider expansion this week after six Conference USA programs applied for membership on Wednesday. If all six teams are added to the AAC, it would expand to become a 14-team league once realignment shakes out.
The six potential institutions looking to join the American from Conference USA include FAU, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB, sources told CBS Sports on Monday. It's expected that all six programs will be approved as new AAC members. Yahoo Sports' Pete Thamel first reported the movement.
Adding North Texas, UTSA and Rice would allow the AAC to retain a strong geographical foothold in Texas, while FAU would join South Florida in the conference, Charlotte and UAB would have regional partners in East Carolina and Memphis, respectively.
The potential moves comes months after AAC members Cincinnati, Houston and UCF opted to depart for the Big 12, leaving the league with just eight football-playing members. The AAC previously looked to the West by courting Mountain West institutions Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State. However, all four schools declined the possibility of moving conferences.
"We do want to get back to either 10 or 12 [schools]," AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told the Orlando Sentinel in September. "We have some good candidates and we're only dealing with candidates who have approached us -- who have expressed an interest in us. It's proceeding and I'm reasonably confident we're going to end up as a strong conference and our goal is to be even stronger than before."
The AAC is banking on safety in numbers. At 14 teams with many important geographic footprints under its belt, the American would stand with the Mountain West as the two strongest non-Power Five conferences. The move would also gouge Conference USA, which may now seek teams from the Sun Belt or a partnership with that conference after itself being reduced to eight members.
This round of realignment would leave Conference USA with just eight remaining members, which is one reason why it recently sought but failed to convince the AAC and Sun Belt to regroup along geographical lines. It is believed that there will remain 10 FBS conferences following this round of realignment.
As for when this would all transpire, that remains unknown.
"This probably is in the hands of Texas and Oklahoma," said a source from one of the six Conference USA teams exploring the AAC. "The sooner they go, the sooner we can go."
The headliners of the new group are UTSA and UAB, perhaps the two best teams in Conference USA this season. The Roadrunners entered the AP Top 25 for the first time at No. 24 after a 7-0 start. UAB and FAU have captured the last four C-USA championships dating back to 2017.
Like UTSA, Charlotte is one of the younger programs in college football. The 49ers started operations in 2013 and have found modest success under third-year coach Will Healy, who holds a 13-12 record across the last three seasons. North Texas reached three straight bowl games from 2016-18 and has dramatically improved its facilities and funding in the past five years, but it may be searching for a new coach after a 1-5 start in 2021.
Rice would be a somewhat-surprising addition, though it shares an academic familiarity with Navy. Since falling out of the Southwest Conference in 1995, the Owls have struggled to stay competitive in non-power conferences. Rice has finished with a losing record 18 times in the last 26 seasons since the SWC folded.
The group puts an emphasis on big markets, featuring teams in Houston, San Antonio, Birmingham, Charlotte and on the edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Other schools that will compete in the hypothetical AAC include SMU, Memphis, East Carolina, Temple, Tulsa, South Florida, Navy and Tulane.
It's not clear what a 14-team AAC would be worth in media rights revenue. Conference USA schools get about $500,000 annually in their current TV deal. The AAC, as it currently exists, averages $7 million per team. That figure is expected to decline significantly after the loss of three schools to the Big 12.
Mountain West sources told CBS Sports on Monday night that the conference will not expand beyond the current 12 teams in football. MWC presidents see no value in adding teams. A contributing factor is that the MWC's rightsholders, Fox and CBS, would be unlikely to increase their contracts if the league expands, MWC sources said. Teams in the league earn an average of $5 million per year, and the MWC's current TV deal expires in 2026.
"I don't understand the value of 14 [in the AAC]," said a high-profile source familiar with media rights worth of schools, "but more power to them."
MWC commissioner Craig Thompson admitted this weekend that he had spoken to "four to six" schools while investigating potential expansion. Three of those were thought to be North Texas, UTSA and Rice with an aim of creating a stronger recruiting presence in Texas.
Two weeks ago, Colorado State and Air Force said they would stay in the MWC despite interest from the AAC. CBS Sports reported this summer the Big 12 could still expand to 14 with the addition Boise State from the MWC and Memphis from the AAC.
The AAC has long been considered the premier Group of Five conference, but the loss of three headliners put the league in a hazardous position. The Big 12 nabbed six of the seven outright conference champions since the AAC began operations in 2013. While the additions will add some new contenders to the conference, the league will almost certainly fall back.
Metrics used by the Group of Five to measure schedule strength now show the MWC as the dominant conference among the five. It is known that AAC commissioner Mike Aresco has been telling his existing teams to stand strong as he aimed to keep the conference in a position of strength. The AAC has gotten five of the available seven New Year's Six bowl berths in the history of the CFP.