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.