Since forming from the remnants of the Big East and rejects of the Power Five back in 2013, the AAC has seen a startling rise to prominence. The conference has sent teams to a major bowl in five of the last seven years, had a total of 15 teams finish in the AP Top 25 and has easily outpaced the rest of the Group of Five.
But despite all that success, including fielding more Top 25 teams than the Pac 12, ACC or Big 12 in 2019, the conference is no closer to being a true power than it was seven years ago.
The AAC doesn’t have an auto-bid to a major bowl, its TV revenue lags heavily behind the Power Five even with a recently-signed deal, and the College Football Playoff has made it clear that a non-power team will never be invited to the party.
So, it’s time for the conference to be proactive. College Football’s immediate future is in flux thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the sport’s financial situation is certainly looking grim for the coming year. But a season still is presumably on the way and things should be largely back to normal within a year or two.
When that time comes in 2022 or 2023 when conferences finally have plenty of money to play with again, there is only one path forward for the AAC: expansion.
It was a surprising and arguably disappointing move by the conference to choose to remain at 11 teams after UConn bolted for the Big East. It’s a rare opportunity for a conference to lose one of its worst programs and suddenly have an open slot to improve.
There were discussions, mostly among fans and media, of adding teams like Georgia State or Army, but it appears that was never a serious option for the AAC.
In a few years, it needs to be. There is a real path here for the conference to rise up even further among the rest of the Group of Five, essentially lock up an NY6 bid for its champion every year, and have a shot at even more TV money down the line. But this isn’t about plugging in one school to get back to 12 football members. It’s time for the conference to think bigger.
Within the next few years, the AAC needs to add Boise State, BYU and San Diego State. Yes, this goes against our current coronavirus challenge that’s led to teams looking for more regional opponents, but that’s a short-term reality. Adding these three schools as football-only members is more than doable. First off, let’s go over why this is a good idea.
On paper, the only real difference between a power conference and a mid-major is the lack of an auto-bid to a major bowl. In the six years of the CFP system, the Mountain West has largely been the AAC’s only real competition for the Group of Five NY6 slot. Raiding a solid program like San Diego State and the crown jewel itself, Boise State, effectively takes the Mountain West out of the running.
Boise and the AAC account for five of the six Group of Five NY6 participants. The Playoff Committee loves its football brands, and the Broncos getting games against the other most respected G5 teams in the country makes everyone look better.
And speaking of brands, that’s where BYU comes in. The Cougars have fallen off slightly over the last few years, but are still largely considered a quasi-power team and are the only mid-major with a national championship. The school has a massive fanbase and would bring another instant-credibility matchup to the conference.
These three teams also could dramatically increase the AAC’s TV value. San Diego State and BYU both play in Top 30 markets, bringing in tons of new eyeballs. And while Boise doesn’t add much value on that front, the Broncos make up for it by being arguably the biggest Group of Five brand in the nation. Adding these schools helps the AAC make up more ground in brands, strength of schedule and money.
Now, let’s go over why this isn’t at all a pipe dream.
The AAC has held firm that it’s not planning to replace UConn, but it’s been close to an open secret that the conference doesn’t plan to have an odd number of teams for the unforeseeable future. And these three programs all have reason to join.
Boise State’s relationship with the Mountain West has always been rocky, but has come undone even more in recent months. The Broncos felt slighted by the MW’s new TV deal and have also been frustrated with the lack of promotion from the conference. If the AAC came calling within the next couple years, Boise will likely finally be ready to jump.
Meanwhile, San Diego State at one point was ready to come onboard to the AAC when it was still the Big East. Bringing that offer back again with the promise of more money (and the realization that the MW could be irrelevant if Boise is coming too) would likely bring them into the fold.
And it’s already been theorized that BYU was interested in subbing in for UConn after the Huskies announced their exit. The Cougars have seen their brand decline as an independent and also have to deal with all the scheduling and bowl struggles that come with that. If the offer is there, then they will come.
Snatching up these programs would make the AAC a 14-team conference in football, with the divisions likely breaking down this way:
- East Carolina
- Boise State
- San Diego State
Suddenly, the AAC has multiple teams that have played in a NY6 Bowl this decade in each division, as well as eight teams that have finished in the Top 25 at least once in the last three years. That’s a hell of a conference.
More brands. Better games. More Money. More exposure. When the time comes to expand, the AAC has to consider a power play to the West.