On Saturday East Carolina will be making its final football visit to Connecticut before the Huskies leave the American Athletic Conference to make a go of it as an independent.
Their impending departure has sparked a vigorous debate over where the league should go from here.
Should it rush right out and find a replacement school? Or should it stand pat, at least for now, and soldier on with its 11 remaining members?
The NCAA took the some of the urgency out of the decision last month when it issued the AAC a waiver that will allow it to continue playing a conference championship game without the requisite 12 teams or two-division alignment.
With three conference teams currently ranked among the nation’s top 25 and Navy just on the outside looking in, the AAC is as strong on the gridiron as it has ever been. A valid argument can be made that it is deeper, more balanced and more competitive than at least one of those rival leagues self-designated as Power 5.
And you know who I’m talking about.
Given the current landscape and the leverage of that valuable NCAA waiver in hand, there is absolutely no reason for commissioner Mike Aresco to expedite the search for just anyone to take UConn’s place. Rebound relationships, after all, rarely last and almost always end badly.
It’s better to wait for just the right fit to present itself — whether it’s Boise State, Army, Marshall or any of the other frequently mentioned possibilities — regardless of how long it takes.
In the meantime, the AAC will have to decide on how it will determine its championship game participants and, more importantly, how to equitably schedule an 11-team league playing eight conference games a year, since Aresco has already announced plans for doing away with divisional play in 2020.
One plan being floated around has the AAC designating a permanent partner for each school to play each season in an effort to maintain natural rivalries such as Central Florida-South Florida and Houston-Southern Methodist.
“We’ve tried to put together some models that have a permanent opponent, for instance UCF and USF really need to play every year,” Aresco told the Memphis Commercial Appeal recently. “But we don’t have a lot of big rivalries like other conferences have.”
Since ECU is one of those schools that doesn’t have a traditional or geographical rival among the AAC’s current membership, it’s anybody’s guess as to who would be the most logical choice for the Pirates’ permanent partner.
Cincinnati is the first school that comes to mind, since the Pirates and Bearcats have a history that dates back even before they were both members of Conference USA. The teams have played every year since 1986 and staged some memorable duels.
But there’s a good chance that Cincinnati would prefer to have the much more accessible — and these days, more competitive — Memphis on its annual schedule.
Navy would make sense from a logistical standpoint considering its location, just a short drive up Interstate 95. But with the Midshipmen having won five of six previous meetings, most by lopsided margins, such an arrangement probably wouldn’t sit well with the Pirates.
That would leave Temple as the only other option, unless the league decides to throw geography out the window and pair ECU up with a school out West, most likely Tulane.
There is one other solution, of course. And that is to go out and find the Pirates a suitable partner by filling the UConn vacancy with a program that is not only located in close proximity to Greenville, but has a large, passionate fan base and a track record on the field that would only enhance the AAC’s already strong brand as a Power 6 entity.
One that like Cincinnati, Memphis and SMU is currently ranked among the nation’s top 25 and is already outgrowing its current conference affiliation.
Maybe it’s time for Aresco to get Appalachian State on the phone.
What about Liberty, they are pouring a bunch of money into athletics and are moving in the right directions. If the AAC waits two or three years to make a move, Liberty will likely be in a position to add depth to the AAC, thus becoming a regional partner for ECU.
Jon Forthbright says
“There is one other solution, of course. And that is to go out and find the Pirates a suitable partner by filling the UConn vacancy with a program that is not only located in close proximity to Greenville, but has a large, passionate fan base and a track record on the field that would only enhance the ACC’s already strong brand as a Power 6 entity.”
LOL – ACC envy creeps in again!
Baseball Buc says
This long-time Pirates fan has no envy for the ACC and no desire to play the Apps every year. But that doesn’t mean the Bucs won’t play anyone, anytime anywhere. Time to rebuild the Pirates and bust some Apps, break a Wave or roast a Ram. Whatever it takes to break thru! Go Pirates!!
Gene Stallings says
I agree that we should play App at least every other year. I think that the conference needs to pick a program that will boost the power of the conference with a known National name and history.
Steve Reaves says
natural rivalry / history with ECU / location / successful football / no threat to ECU in recruiting unlike App St / ODU / Charlotte
Irish Spectre says
Trying to manufacture rivalries generally doesn’t work.
Boise State, Army and App State would all enhance the conference.
Irish Spectre says
…though AS being added would likely make ECU’s recruiting job that much more difficult.
Southern Mississippi would be an old time rival and natural fit from a tradition standpoint. The two have a long and excellent football tradition going back at least to the 70’s. So. Miss. has a strong football tradition and given a chance to play in a better league would probably soon have their team back at their old level of outstanding play. We already have to recruit against 4 in state ACC schools. We don’t need another in state rival on equal conference footing with us.
Leagual Planner says
I don’t understand why many of the schools mentioned in this discussion have been mentioned at all. Some people seem to be throwing names at a wall without considering the AAC’s needs or how UConn fit into the conference before deciding to leave. UConn is an Eastern school and played football in the East Division, as well as a full member, so it would not make sense to replace a full member with a football-only member (especially when there is no chance of Army giving up their independence). Any school not in the Eastern Time Zone should be ruled out immediately.
The six schools in the AAC West Division are Navy (since Wichita State doesn’t have football), Tulsa, SMU, Houston, Tulane, and Memphis. The five remaining teams in the AAC East Division are Cincinnati, Temple, East Carolina, USF, and UCF. Any replacement for UConn, in my opinion, should bridge the gap between Cincinnati, Temple, and East Carolina, or go slightly further South to bridge the gap towards the two Florida schools. Such a school should have a decent basketball program, and be in a large or mid-sized media market, as the only AAC member which isn’t is East Carolina.
In consideration of all that, the top-tier options for the AAC if they don’t want to stay at 11/11 should be one of Old Dominion, Georgia State, or UNC Charlotte, as they have the best combination of what the AAC looks for in members. The next-tier options should be Buffalo, UMass, and Coastal Carolina. Schools like Marshall and Appalachian State don’t fill the bill because even though they are good at football, they are almost always bad at basketball, and have no media market. James Madison needs to move up to CUSA or the Sun Belt first if they hope to one day join the AAC.
The biggest problem the AAC has, however, is that it’s a media market conference held together by little other than TV contracts. It’s basically four CUSA West escapees (Tulsa, SMU, Houston, Tulane) plus Memphis and the Navy + Wichita State combo … along with a decent base for an Eastern conference (Cincinnati, Temple, East Carolina, USF, UCF) … but no real similarities or long-term vision between the two sides other than to not get left behind in the race for bigger facilities and TV contracts after being thrown into the same life raft during the expansion madness of 2010.
Imagine if, instead of quitting and possibly harming their football program to the point of never being able to join a P5 conference in the event of a future shake-up, such as Notre Dame deciding to go all-in on the ACC, which would then mean they need a 16th member, UConn had done something bold! What if UConn had tried to win the other Eastern schools over to their point of view? Imagine if UConn, Temple, Cincinnati, ECU, Memphis, USF, and UCF had instead decided to form a new East-centric league inviting UMass, JMU, ODU, Charlotte, and Georgia State to get to 12.
The dumping of Tulane, Houston, SMU, and Tulsa could then serve as a catalyst to spark the much-discussed CUSA and Sun Belt reorganization. Navy would return to independence in football. Wichita State could seize the initiative to assemble a mostly-Southern non-football conference with teams like Oral Roberts, UALR, New Orleans, TAMU Corpus Christi, UTRGV, UT-Arlington, Dallas Baptist (up from D2), New Mexico State, and Denver. That would get those schools out of football-focused leagues and create a reasonable geographic footprint for their Olympic sports.
Danny Whitford says
Leagual Planner, that is a very well thought out take on what could have been and what might be. Hmm… — Danny Whitford, Editor
Leagual Planner says
Thanks Danny. I am sure that plenty of other fans also believe the AAC’s composition is a mess, but it appears that none of the schools will take the necessary steps to turn things around because they fear potentially losing assets which they already have, such as NCAA automatic bids or TV contract values. The conference is too spread out geographically and that means different segments of the membership have too many diverging priorities that prevent the league from being as cohesive as it needs to be.
And as I posted last week, I don’t see how a 12-team conference consisting of UConn, UMass, Temple, Cincinnati, James Madison, Old Dominion, ECU, Charlotte, Memphis, Georgia State, USF, and UCF would be any worse than the current AAC. I believe the losses of Tulane, Houston, SMU, Tulsa, and Wichita State would almost be a wash due to getting rid of the excess travel (UConn could be replaced by Buffalo since they won’t come back, while Navy should be a scheduling and bowl partner, but not an actual member).
Right now the AAC is basically what CUSA was before the huge realignment of 2003 to 2005 with football-only members (Navy instead of Army and ECU), as well as non-football members (Wichita State instead of Charlotte, St. Louis, DePaul, and Marquette), and schools that are spread all over the map. I guess this makes sense when you consider that Mike Aresco was the guy who negotiatiated some of CUSA’s old media deals when he was a TV executive and is fully invested in such a view of league construction.
That mention of Aresco brings up another issue. Why should programs like ECU and Temple, or even USF and UCF, be in a conference that moves its headquarters to Dallas? And of course constantly sending multiple teams to Texas has been an issue since the CUSA days as well. I just wish one of the school Presidents or ADs would take the initiative to lead ECU, Temple, Cincinnati, Memphis, USF, and UCF in forming a new breakaway league based mostly in the East and inviting the five schools that I referenced above.
Schools from the East have never been able to get their collective act together, which is why they are now divided among so many different conferences. At least somebody doing what I map out would bring the majority of the top remaining non-P5 programs from the East under one umbrella. There are quite a few administrators who would love to run a G5 league and can negotiate TV contracts or deal with the NCAA just as well as, if not better than, Aresco. It would set these schools up better for the long haul.