While three of its top member schools prepare to enter another league, the American Athletic Conference is poised to expand itself and remain the sixth-strongest conference in college football.
“The American has been Power 6 all along and will be one moving forward,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco tells Sports Illustrated in an interview Wednesday. “The Big 12 is taking our teams because of what’s happened to them. That tells you all you need to know in terms of where we are. Teams will be interested in us that have the resources to compete at the highest level in our league with an outstanding TV partner in ESPN.”
The AAC’s Houston, Cincinnati and UCF, plus BYU, an independent, are expected to submit applications for membership into the Big 12 this week and the conference could admit them as soon as Friday, something SI reported last week. The Bearcats and Knights have already submitted their applications to the Big 12, according to local reports.
However, the three teams have not submitted their exit notice to the AAC, Aresco says. AAC members are required to give a 27-month exit notice and pay a $10 million penalty. The notice—usually in the form of a letter—starts the 27-month clock.
The intention, sources say, is for the AAC trio to start play in the Big 12 in 2023, or about 23 months from now, something that’s not possible unless the American agrees to negotiate the clock with a heftier exit fee—which is a likely scenario. When UConn left the league in 2019, the AAC negotiated down its 27-month clock by increasing its penalty to $17 million, and the Huskies formally joined the Big East in July 2020.
Aresco declined to discuss specifics of potential exit negotiations, but he is prepared to take the next step forward of adding new members.
“The DNA in this league isn’t going to change,” he says. “Our remaining schools have competed extremely well with the schools leaving. The schools leaving have had success, but they’re not dynasties. We’ll add schools and we’ll replenish and reconstitute.”
In the past, Aresco has dismissed the terms used to separate the top five conferences in FBS from the other five—Power 5 vs. Group of 5. He refers to his league as being in the Power 6 and believes that the Big 12’s maneuvering justifies those statements.
“They said we couldn’t officially be a Power 6 at the time, but now what’s happening? Those teams are supporting the Big 12. It’s interesting irony,” he says. “This demonstrates our success without question.”
Though Aresco declined to reveal potential new members, the top options are likely to start with UAB, a rising power in the G5 located in the heart of the Deep South. Football success is an important piece to any new additions, as well as fan support and school resources. Several others may fit that mold, including Air Force, Army, Colorado State, Boise State, North Texas, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina and Arkansas State.
The last four teams to leave the AAC were the top four Group of 5 public schools in athletic department revenue, according to figures from USA Today. UConn topped that list, ranking behind 51 Power 5 programs with $80.9 million in revenue in 2018–19. Houston, UCF and Cincinnati are the next three, followed by Air Force in the Mountain West, East Carolina (AAC) and Colorado State (Mountain West).
The latest realignment wave was triggered by Oklahoma and Texas’s impending departure to the SEC, leaving the Big 12 scrambling—and quickly—for replacements. With the four new additions, the Big 12 is expected to retain its status as an Autonomy 5 league. The NCAA granted autonomy powers in legislative matters to the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12, but that might not matter soon enough. The governing body of college athletics is studying ways to overhaul its own system with a constitutional convention later this fall.
However, the most important piece relates to the College Football Playoff. The Power 5 conferences hold lucrative bowl tie-ins as part of the CFP contract, which does not expire until after the 2025 season.
How the four new additions impact Texas and Oklahoma’s situation remains murky and may depend on the discretion of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who could strike a compromise at any time. It also may depend on lawyers. It’s unclear if adding four members would supply UT and OU a loophole to wiggle free of any contractual obligation.
For now, the two schools are bonded to the conference at least through the 2024 season by way of the league’s grant-of-rights agreement. Breaking that agreement early would mean owing the Big 12 large sums of money, potentially upwards of $100 million for each year remaining on the deal.
Separately, the two programs owe an exit penalty as part of a long-term agreement that conference members established several years ago. The exit fee is two years’ worth of gross revenue, which is expected to be around $80 million.