In case you’ve been hiding under a large rock over the past few days, the UConn Huskies are leaving the American Athletic Conference and returning to the Big East.
The news broke over the weekend and was cemented this week. The higher ups at the school are holding a press conference at Madison Square Garden on Thursday to make it official. All UConn sports will finish out the 2019-2020 sports seasons in the AAC, and then begin in the Big East in July of 2020 – except for football. They’ll be an FBS Independent for now.
UConn’s move seems like a good one for the school. The Huskies are re-joining a conference that they have a ton of history with and a bunch of rivals in. Fans of the school’s women’s and men’s basketball teams have been begging for this move. They want to see UConn play Georgetown and Villanova, not SMU and Tulsa.
But UConn leaving the AAC throws the alignment of the conference that Navy plays football in off just a bit. It leaves the American with an uneven number of teams at 11 (it should be noted, 10 of the AAC’s member schools play almost all sports in it, while Navy is a football-only member and Wichita State is a basketball-only member). This has led to a lot of speculation, arguments, takes, hypotheses and theories about what’s next for the AAC. And Army and Air Force have been mentioned frequently in these discussions.
Let’s answer some questions about what’s next for the conference and how it affects the Service Academies.
Will Army or Air Force join the American Athletic Conference?
Most likely, no.
Let’s start with Air Force. First off, the Falcons already belong to a conference and a pretty decent one too in the Mountain West. If the American is the sixth best college football conference, the MWC is in the mix for seventh best. Air Force already plays lacrosse outside of the MWC (which is fine because the MWC doesn’t have it), but if the Falcons opted to play a second sport outside of it, and the one that brings in the most money, the MWC might just kick Air Force to the curb all together. So, Air Force would have a fancy new home for its football team, but would have to find a place for all of its other sports, like the Big Sky or WCC, potentially. Joining the American as an all sports member seems unlikely for Air Force, and travel for its non-football sports would be a nightmare.
One of the luxuries of being in the MWC for Air Force is that its pretty close to the rest of its member schools. If Air Force were to join the AAC, they’d be spending a lot more money on travel. Colorado Springs would be the furthest west campus in the conference. It’s closest in-conference opponent would be Tulsa, which is about a 10-hour drive or a 90-minute flight away. Trips to Tampa, Florida and Greenville, N.C. would be about 1,900 miles away.
And while making Air Force vs. Navy a conference game might sound cool on the surface, the set up runs the risk of these guys playing twice in one season in football, which takes a bit of the luster out of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy. This is a rivalry that doesn’t need to be enhanced by conference stakes.
In short: the AAC’s footprint is a bit too far away from Air Force and the Falcons have no real reason to leave the MWC.
Ah, yes. The Black Knights.
Army football is having a bit of a renaissance at the moment. From 1986 through 2015, Army had one bowl victory and seven winning seasons. Over the past three years, Jeff Monken’s teams are 29-10 with three straight bowl wins. It ended last season with 11 wins, ranked 19th in the AP Poll and finished the year by hanging 70 on Houston. Army football is in one of the best shapes its ever been in. But is this success sustainable? Maybe. The Black Knights have also benefited from padding their win total by scheduling FCS teams twice a year. They might not be able to do that in a conference.
Many will argue that Army football would be better off in a conference than as an independent. Had they been in one last season, they might have gotten a shot at playing in a New Years Six Bowl, or at least one with a bit more flair and one with a bigger payout than the Armed Forces Bowl. Being in a conference comes with bowl tie-ins and guarantees. As an independent, Army could go undefeated this year and still end up in the Armed Forces Bowl. (Last year, Justin Mears broke down why Army is hindered by not being a member of a G5 conference.) Being in a conference could also give Army a boost in recruitment and allow it to get some cash from TV deals.
Still, Army has been down this road before and it didn’t turn out so well for them last time. From 1998 through 2004, the Black Knights were a member of Conference USA. During that seven-season run in the conference – under four different head coaches: Bob Sutton, Todd Berry, John Mumford and Bobby Ross – the Black Knights won just 13 games. They never sniffed a .500 record or a bowl game.
Things could be different for the Black Knights this time around under Monken. Army is 6-1 against AAC schools over the past three seasons, and they also have two wins over ACC schools.
But here’s what matters to Army football over making a bowl game, or being in a conference or posting a .500 record: beating Navy.
And joining the American Athletic Conference would ruin the current set-up of the Army-Navy game. It’s the one time every college football season where every eyeball in the sport are on these two teams. There are no other games on.
Thing is, it takes place after conference championship games. If Army and Navy are in the same conference, that means this annual game full of pomp and pageantry has to be moved. It turns into just another rivalry game. It would be surprising to see either school give up the current exclusivity that the Army-Navy game has now. The Army-Navy game is perfect the way it is. It doesn’t need to be enhanced by conference standings, and moving it to November would damage its impact. The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy doesn’t need the AAC.
If Army wants to get back in the business of being in a conference, it would be better off in the MAC or taking another go at CUSA.
So, if Army and Air Force aren’t joining the American, who is?
The conference has a few options here.
In addition to Army and Air Force, another school that has been mentioned often as a potential UConn replacement is BYU, but like Air Force they are way outside the footprint of the AAC. BYU has also previously flirted with the AAC, among other conferences, but has remained an independent. BYU would certainly strengthen the American – but do the Cougars want to travel to East Carolina and USF every year, or do they want to keep their ESPN contract to themselves and schedule a few games with big Power 5 schools like USC? It seems like the latter.
The AAC could try to pluck another up-and-coming Group of 5 team for its 12th spot. There’s teams like Appalachian State, UAB and Marshall, who have a lot of history and fit in the geographic footprint of the conference, or there’s schools like Georgia State or Charlotte that exist in big television markets. There’s also the idea of going after a powerful FCS team ready for a jump to prime time, like James Madison.
If the AAC gets extra desperate for a 12th school, it could consider Liberty. The Flames made the jump from FCS to FBS Independent recently and haven’t hid how thirsty they are for college football relevancy. They hired former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw and former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze (It would be a massive understatement to say that the two of them have checkered pasts). Liberty is also run by a guy named Jerry Falwell Jr. and, well, um… You can Google him if you want to figure out why other schools in the American might be weary about being associated with him. However, despite all that, Liberty does have a massive alumni base with deep pockets. And in college football, sometimes – well, most of the time – money matters more than mostly everything else, unfortunately.
And if the AAC adds a football-only member to get to 12 schools in that sport, it may want to do the same for men’s basketball. So then the conference may have to coerce a school like VCU to leave the Atlantic-10.
Or, the AAC could just stay at 11 teams. This would mean that the AAC ditches divisions. Each team would play eight conference games, and when the dust settles, the two highest in the standings will meet in the conference title game.
This set-up also means that AAC’s current members get a little bit more of the pie in the new media rights deal it just signed, which – before UConn left – was slated to pay each school $7 million annually over the next 12 years, beginning in the 2020-21 season.
According to Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk, the AAC likely won’t be adding just any school to get to 12 members.
“I don’t think we bring in anybody that doesn’t add value,” Gladchuk told The Athletic. “That’ll be my vote. I don’t think we fill to fill. I have no interest in that. It means there’s one less distribution to make. It means we get a little more of the revenue sharing. Anyone that comes in has got to be a plus rather than a fiscal detriment.”
He also told the AP: “Whoever it is has got to bring value and I don’t know who’s out there that does. Is there anyone that can enhance the situation?”
The answer could be no. And that’d be just fine.