Wednesday, February 19, 2014

College Realignment: The AAC's Next Move

Everyone blames Tulane, but Tulsa was the problem.

When the yet-unnamed American Athletic Conference announced that Tulane was joining the conference, the response was not good. It was widely considered the straw that broke the back of the old Big East, causing the Catholic 7 to split. This, of course, kindly ignores the fact that without Fox Sports 1 overpaying for a mid-major basketball conference, that split never happens.

tulane football 2014
Regardless, Tulane wasn't the problem. Even before the Tulane football team's renaissance in 2013, the school offered advantages. Not only was it located in a major American city, the talent surrounding said city, particularly in football, is second-to-none. No, the AAC teams won't beat SEC teams for Louisiana talent but even the second-string talent in that state is superior to the first-string talent in, say, Connecticut.

And if Tulane ever gets it going – especially with a new on-campus football stadium coming in 2014 -- there is the potentially of capturing the attention of New Orleans.

What does Tulsa bring?                                                                                            

Tulas was added because of its past success, which is the exact wrong reason for adding a team. Nothing about realignment should be based on on-field success because on-field success is uncontrollable. Teams need to be added because they bring viewers, they bring eyeballs or they open up valuable recruiting territory.

Despite Texas A&M's football success, the SEC didn't invite them to play Alabama tough – they were invited because a lot of people live in Texas. Other than Tulsa, only two other schools made major conference moves due to past success.

The Big Ten added Nebraska. The Big East added Butler. Thanks to multiple national titles spanning decades upon decades, Nebraska is a nationally-recognized brand name that people care about. It made sense. Thanks to two NCAA final appearances with Brad Stevens, Butler appeared to be a budding brand name. But once Stevens left – similar to what will happen to Boise State's brand appeal now – the school's program returned to its mid-major status and the Big East was left with another DePaul.

As we move into 2014, the AAC will have 11 schools that will all play football and basketball. It is not a workable number, as the Big Ten struggled with 11 for close to 20 years before adding Nebraska. That conference has added two major markets, sort of, with perennial also-rans Maryland and Rutgers, but that's a story for a different day.

In 2015, Navy will join for football-only, and the AAC will have 12 teams for football and 11 teams for basketball. Will that work?

In my opinion, no. The 12 will work for football but the 11 seems unwieldy for basketball because it leaves one team without a conference game twice a week – once for the weekday games, once for the weeknight games. I don't see that working.

So what does the AAC do? And you thought college realignment was over.

The conference needs to at least one basketball program. How they do that opens up myriad possibilities. Do they add just one basketball-only school to balance out Navy? Do they add multiple basketball-only schools? Do they add a school for both sports? Do they add a mix of both?

Without further ado, let's look at some possible expansion candidates in no particular order. At the end, I'll share what I would do – followed by what I think the AAC will do. The pickings are slim...

byu football 2014
BYU
Let's just call BYU Mike Aresco's white whale. As the realignment wheel has slowed down for now, there is only one brand-name school not in the AAC or a major conference. No, it's not Boise State. It's BYU. It has an established, national brand. It has a history of very, very good football teams. It has its own deal with ESPN. And it's having trouble playing top teams later in the year and that may become even more difficult as the Big Ten moves to 9 games, Notre Dame plays 5 ACC teams a year and the SEC debates its own move to 9 games.

Essentially, the AAC has to wait BYU out and hope like heck they can make it happen. They could join as a football-only member, as they have a current agreement with the West Coast Conference and the AAC can offer them football games across the Eastern part of the United States in metro markets.

This may happen in the future if BYU continues to have trouble scheduling, but recent agreements with Cal and Arizona State appear to mitigate these concerns, even if the Notre Dame series appears to have been put out to pasture.

Air Force/Army
If BYU is MIke Aresco's white whale, than the Air Force and Army duo is his windmill. By all accounts, the old Big East has been trying to lure Army for several years and came aggressively after Air Force when it looked like Boise State and San Diego State would join. But just as the Mountain West bent over backwards for Boise State, it did so for Air Force by guaranteeing they would remain at 8 conference games – the same thing Aresco has said for Navy – to keep the service academy games going.

But what if all three were in the same conference? And could play those games as part of a conference schedule? Wouldn't that change things?

Ultimately, I don't see this happening simply because Air Force had their chance and ended up being very adamant in their commitment to the Mountain West, as well as a healthy disgust for college realignment. As for Army, they need to win football games so desperately that they are in a completely different situation than Navy.

Mike Aresco will keep dreaming.

Charlotte
Remember what I said about how on-field results don't matter? Charlotte has yet to play even one FBS game and they're on the list strictly because of their location. Charlotte is a Top 25 television market. It is in the heart of ACC country and wouldn't it be fun for the AAC to launch an assault on its southern aggressors?

The basketball team has history with 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, though the past decade has been relatively dry with only 3 NIT appearances since the last Big Dance appearance in 2005.

The football team, well, it's played a grand total of one season on the FCS level. I know you're thinking this is crazy and it might be. But the goal of the AAC for the length of the current television contract is to be in a place to get a much, much better next contract. Adding another huge television market with a program that has potential? Well, why not, right? You're the AAC – what do you have to lose?

UT-San Antonio
Why am I even listing them? Because San Antonio is a Top 40 television market. Because UTSA plays in the Alamodome. Because they routinely draw over 25,000, with crowds over 30,000 for a game against Houston last year and 40,000 for Oklahoma State. If Charlotte has potential, USTA is already delivering. With SMU and Houston already in the fold, the conference would have teams all three major metro Texas cities and the exposure would exponentially help recruiting in the state.

The basketball team, of course, is 8-16 as I write this in a terrible Conference USA. Doesn't the AAC have enough terrible basketball teams? Yes. But football is driving this bus.

Saint Louis
A top 10 team in a top 20 television market? This should be a no-brainer if the conference wanted to add one basketball-only school to balance out Navy. But Saint Louis is holding on to a faint hope that the new Big East will expand and they will be next in line. And if the new Big East does expand, they would be the first phone call. But the new Big East is not expanding. Hell, it might not survive past a few years when Fox inevitably acquires the Big Ten television package  – remember, they own half the Big Ten Network – and Fox Sports 1 ignores the conference in lieu of a real major conference.

Saint Louis should join the AAC if they call. But they won't.

Dayton
You can repeat everything I said about Saint Louis here, except for the part about a Top 10 team in a top 20 market. Dayton is a very good basketball school in a basketball-mad city that would go crazy for regular visits from Cincinnati, UConn and Memphis. Alas, Dayton would likely be third or fourth on the basketball-only wish list. This makes it all the more puzzling why they think the Big East would call -- and why the Big East apparently is interested in calling.

VCU/Richmond
Richmond, Virginia is not Charlotte but it is a bigger television market than Knoxville, Dayton, Green Bay, Omaha or, ugh, Tulsa. It is also one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country for both football and basketball. As we saw when Shaka Smart took VCU to the Final Four – the reach of Richmond echoes throughout the state.

The question, though, becomes which school to invite. At first glance, it would seem like a no-brainer to invite VCU. But what happens if/when Shaka Smart leaves? Like Brad Stevens, maybe Smart doesn't leave for another college but would have to be a fool to turn down the NBA. Richmond is a better program, over the long-term, than VCU but VCU has Shaka Smart and momentum.

Add a VCU team led by Shaka to the AAC, with Cincy, UConn and Memphis, and you would instantly add a handful of high quality conference games to the league's basketball schedule. They would need Shaka's word in blood that he wouldn't leave, lest the conference ends up with a Butler-like disaster dragging down on it.

umass dunk
UMass
As a basketball-only option, UMass would be a perfect choice. It would instantly give UConn a New England partner and, frankly, UMass basketball means more in Boston than Boston College basketball does because a grand total of zero people in Boston care about Boston College basketball. The basketball program has rebounded and will likely make a tournament appearance this year. As with a Shaka-led VCU team, it would be a strong contender in the conference and create some exciting new conference games.

But the football team. Oh, the football team. A move to the FBS has been disastrous, at best, with games played in a 95% empty Gillette Stadium, which is understandable for a team play MAC opponents. Would a move to the AAC give the football program enough life to be successful? Or would games against UCF and Memphis elicit the same apathetic shrug that Kent State and Eastern Michigan did?

There is the real possibility that the football team moves back to the FCS level where it belongs and the AAC could cleanly grab the other sports to at least give UConn a travel partner in non-revenue sports.

UMass is a wild card here because it sort of has what the AAC wants –  and a whole lot of what the AAC wants to stay far, far away from.

Wichita State
Butler and VCU had zero success before Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart. Wichita State made a Final Four in the 1960's, an Elite Eight in the 1980's and a Sweet 16 in the 2000's before Gregg Marshall showed up and they are currently undefeated through 27 games a year after a Final Four appearance. The TV market is #69, which isn't great but still seven spots higher than the "metro" hometown of Creighton.

The AAC could do worse, right? If they needed to add one basketball-only school, wouldn't Wichita State provide some interest and potential? The AAC needs to move the needle and who knows if Wichita State moves the needle after Gregg Marshall inevitably moves on. Let's just say the AAC would have to consider it.

What I Would Do:
In a perfect world, the AAC would figure out a way to add BYU. The reality is the league is more likely to get 4-6 football games a year against BYU as I think they will fight to maintain independence unless they are literally out of options, scheduling-wise.

In a realistic world, Navy a sole football-only playing member simply doesn't work. So I would remove Navy as a full conference member, which I bet Navy would want as well, in lieu of signing for 6 games every year – and add 6 games every year against Army.

That is the ideal scenario -- the conference teams play 8 conference games and a guaranteed nonconference game every year against Navy and Army. You could even steal a page from the ACC and bring both schools in the fold for bowl game agreements to sweeten the deal there.

That leaves the AAC with 11 teams, and needed to add one school to get to 12 for both. If UMass had any sort of pulse for a football team, they would be my choice. But they do not. So I continue with the AAC's method of grabbing major metro markets and take a flyer on Charlotte. Why not, right?

What The AAC Will Do:
Nothing. And that sucks. They are going to play with 11 basketball teams in 2015 and keep Navy for football, which will prevent the league from ever playing 9 conference games and ruins Navy's schedule forever due to 8 conference games and 3 games against Army, Air Force and Notre Dame on the schedule every year. In the end, no one will be happy.

The best move for all parties involved is for Navy to move on – let's see if Mike Aresco has figured this out.

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4 comments:

  1. I don't follow the logic that the other suggestions would be much better than Tulsa. All of your other suggestions except Army, Air Force and BYU would be basketball only, which is limiting. I see no reason to miss out on football revenue unless the basketball revenue from one school is more than football and basketball combined for another. BYU could be a good candidate, but is generally regarded as a highly conservative religious institution, which may detract from recruiting somewhat. Army/Air Force are often respectable in football, but from a recruiting standpoint they present an obvious contingency clause in that their students are in the military. Tulsa's TV market is #60 according to Neilsen, which is higher than Dayton (64) or Wichita (67), and close to Richmond (57). The football recruiting in Oklahoma is also solid, and many of Tulsa's players are often recruited by nearby Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Arkansas, whose campuses are all within appx 100 miles from Tulsa's. There will always be those players who choose somewhat lower-tier programs over big-time programs like Oklahoma for the opportunity to make am immediate impact.

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    1. I wasn't implying they would all be better than Tulsa, I was simply listing out what was out there for the AAC if they wanted to avoid scheduling 11 teams for basketball for the future.

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    2. UMass is only in the MAC for football through the 2015 season, after that they have a homeless football team, the Sun Belt only has 11 football programs, so they might want UMass, but all the Sun Belt football members are nowhere near Massachusetts. If Conference USA chooses to go back to 16 teams they could possibly add UMass as a football only member with another school. I cannot picture UMass leaving the Atlantic 10 for Olympic Sports unless they get an full membership invite from The American, which is unlikely due to the caliber of the UMass football team. I don't think they can afford football Independence. I think their best choice is to go back to FCS in football, unless they get an Olympic Sports only invite from The American.

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  2. I think the ideal solution for The American is to have 12 full members. While BYU would be a good add, they are all the way in Provo, Utah. They should either make Navy's Olympic sports leave the Patriot League for The American or add Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) for Olympic sports only. If the ACC ever goes to 16 schools, Connecticut is as good as gone. SUNY Buffalo or Northern Illinois might make good members if they cannot lure BYU, Air Force or Army. Given that only Connecticut, Cincinnati and Temple are the only American schools in the North, any expansion should be in the North.

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