Conference realignment is back! Or, at the very least, a much smaller version of it could be on the verge of happening.
On Saturday, CBSSports.com's Matt Norlander was able to confirm reports thatand return its sports to the Big East. (At least, the sports that the Big East sponsors.) UConn had been a member of the Big East since its inception, but left the conference in 2013 when the previous round of realignment split the conference in half with the smaller, basketball-only schools creating a new Big East, and the larger schools with football programs left for Power Five conferences, or helped form a new league in the American Athletic Conference. UConn chose the AAC, and it seems to regret the decision.
The problem for UConn and the AAC is that, as CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd reported, if the Huskies do return to the Big East, the AAC has, which is understandable.
UConn's departure would leave the AAC as an 11-team conference, making it the second-smallest FBS conference in the country, ahead of only the 10-school Big 12 (ah, conference realignment math, how we've missed you). So, if UConn does leave, and the AAC boots out its football program, where would the conference turn to for a UConn replacement?
Let's speculate recklessly and try to figure that out.
The service academies
When the AAC expanded after forming, it was Navy that shed its independence to become the conference's 12th school. Could the conference look to another service academy to join them? Air Force would make a lot of sense for the conference, as would Army. While neither brings an attractive market, they're the Army and the Air Force. They have strong followings that could make the conference stronger than UConn ever did. The question is, would either want to join the AAC?
If you're Air Force, being in the same division as Navy would add another dimension to a rivalry that already exists, but do you want to take on that kind of travel schedule? Air Force is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The closest AAC school is Tulsa in Oklahoma. That's a 10-hour drive or a 90-minute flight.
As for Army, the Cadets have given the conference thing a try before. From 1998 to 2004, Army was a member of Conference USA. It didn't go very well. Over the course of seven seasons, the Knights won 13 games. Maybe things have changed, but Army does value its independence and freedom to schedule as it pleases.
An old flame
Remember when Boise State was a member of the Big East for like 10 minutes that one time? Well, what if the AAC checks in to see if the Broncos are interested one more time? While I'm sure there would be some interest from both parties here, I'm not sure either will be willing to try it again given what happened last time. Boise State had second thoughts for a reason, and I'm not sure if those reasons have changed. Though I suppose that with the AAC separating itself a bit from the rest of the Group of Five, maybe it would look more attractive than last time. Still, Boise State would face all the same travel problems Air Force would have, except the distances are even greater.
Take another Independent
There aren't many big brand schools out there for the taking right now, and if Army isn't available, the biggest name would be BYU. The question here is could BYU make more money as a member of the AAC than it currently does as an Independent. The school has a TV deal with ESPN, and it's expected to renew that contract soon. How much more money would being in the AAC be worth than the exclusive deal it has now? And would it be enough to offset the travel costs?
Raid Conference USA (again)
A Conference USA school seems to make the most logical sense from a practicality standpoint. Many current AAC schools came to the conference from C-USA as it is. The schools are also much closer than all the schools mentioned above, save for Army.
But do any of them bring enough? If we're going by size of the schools, FIU has an enrollment of nearly 53,000 students (including online-only students). North Texas is behind it at roughly 36,000, and FAU has almost 31,000. UConn's current enrollment is 32,000, and it ranks sixth in the AAC. The problem with those three is that the AAC already has two schools in the state of Florida, and two in Texas. Would adding a third in either state bring anything it doesn't already have?
So maybe a school like Charlotte or Old Dominion could make sense. The AAC already had East Carolina in North Carolina, but Charlotte is the biggest city in the state with the ninth-largest population in the country. Old Dominion could bring a new state in Virginia, which ranks 12th in the country in population. These could be new, useful markets.
I suppose if looking for program strength, the conference could turn to UAB, but I'm not sure how much sense that would make for the AAC. Sure, Birmingham is one of the most college football-mad cities in the country (if you look at TV ratings for individual games, I'm not sure a game has ever been televised without Birmingham being one of the top 10 markets), but are people from Birmingham watching for UAB? I don't know. Still, it would bring a program to the conference that could help the football product, and also give the AAC inroads in an area of the country rich in football talent. Whether or not AAC schools could crack the stranglehold of the SEC is another matter entirely.
Buffalo: If you look at current AAC schools, you typically find schools located in larger metro areas. Buffalo would fit that profile, and the school has a strong enrollment with over 30,000 students. It would also keep the conference's profile in the northeast if that's important to them after losing UConn.
Appalachian State: It has a strong football program, but it's not an exceptionally large school with an enrollment of just over 19,000. Plus, as mentioned before, the AAC is already in North Carolina with ECU. Charlotte would probably be a more attractive option.
Georgia State: Don't laugh! I wrote it off when initially considering this list, but Georgia State does have some things that would make it attractive to the AAC. The school has an enrollment of over 52,000 (including online-only students) and is located in Atlanta, the unofficial capital of college football. Georgia State would give AAC schools easier access to recruits in the state of Georgia as well. I certainly wouldn't call it a favorite, but don't be shocked if you hear the Panthers mentioned. I mean, if the Big Ten can look at Rutgers and say "we want that," then the AAC could see the same thing in Georgia State.
Staying at 11
Go ahead and reread the list of options you just went through. Do any of them seem like a slam dunk to you? Is there one school out there that you can say improves the conference without a doubt? I'm not sure that option exists, so it's possible the American sticks at 11 schools. The Big Ten did it for 20 years, so it's not like it can't be done.
And depending on how negotiations with UConn go, as well as with the conference's TV partners, it's possible the 11 remaining schools could find themselves in a position where they're getting more money as an 11-school conference than they would with a 12th team.