Skip to main content

As the realignment world turns: American reportedly has expansion targets

The conference could put the "American" in American Athletic Conference, possibly stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.

Say this for the most recent round of conference realignment: it's quite literal.

The Big 12 got bigger and went back to 12, stretching its borders from Orlando to Provo in adding UCF, BYU, Houston and Cincinnati. And now it appears the AAC is set to put the "American" into American Athletic Conference.

Dennis Dodd of reported Thursday the American is focusing on Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State and UAB in its next round of realignment.

Note that the report doesn't say American is definitely adding those schools, just that that group appears to be the league's top targets.

The American began as a 10-team conference in 2013. After losing Louisville to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big Ten in 2014, the AAC moved to 12 teams by pulling East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane out of Conference USA and luring Navy from independence. 

Connecticut took its Olympic sports to the Big East in 2020 and its football team went independent, bringing the league roster to its current 11. Losing UCF, Cincinnati and Houston will drop the conference to eight, so it's unlikely the conference would add all of the above five and just the above five.

UAB is the best football program within the conference's footprint. The Blazers have become one of college football's bet stories under Bill Clark, enduring a self-induced death penalty in 2014 and coming back stronger than ever in 2017. UAB has won two of the last three Conference USA titles and is favored to make it three of four this fall. Crucially, the program will also open a new stadium next month. Good as UAB has been on the field, it's hard to imagine the American playing games in the cavernous, ancient Legion Field.

Boise State's appeal is obvious. The Broncos represent the best brand left on the board by far -- in fact, I argued Boise's brand was so strong they should get the Big 12 spot that ultimately went to Houston. 

Colorado State's administration has demonstrated a commitment to football, even if the product on the field indicates the opposite. The Rams opened Canvas Stadium in 2017.

San Diego State has UCF vibes. The Aztecs share the nation's eighth-largest city only with the Padres and are set to move into a new stadium next year. Air Force brings a built-in national fan base and a pre-standing rivalry with Navy. (Would it make sense for the AAC to also add Army and bring the entire Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series in-house?)

Naturally, just because the American may want these schools doesn't necessarily mean they'll get them.

UAB feels like a shoe-in to join once invited. No one seems to be happy in Conference USA, and the school has just as much history with Memphis and Tulane as its C-USA bunk mates.

The Mountain West schools might be a different story. In addition to the obvious hurdle of joining a true coast-to-coast conference, the MW can credibly argue it's in a better spot now than the 8-team AAC.

Presented with the possibility that an expanded AAC could monopolize a Group of Five playoff berth in ongoing realignment, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson stood firm.

"I would just say that same argument could be made if [those teams] remain in the Mountain West Conference," he said.

Make no mistake, adding Boise and friends would be an act of war upon the Mountain West -- the AAC doing to its closest competitor what the Big 12 just did to it. There's also this: Boise may straight up pass on the AAC because it believes a Big 12 invitation could be coming. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has indicated his league may not be done expanding. 

In the event the Mountain West schools don't come, the American still has options. 

Army has a rising football program, a national fan base, and sits neatly within the existing footprint.

Florida Atlantic and UTSA (along with UAB) fit the same profile of what the AAC is set to lose -- urban schools in hot bed states with major growth potential. 

We all knew Texas and Oklahoma's move to the SEC was a seismic shift that would demand action from the rest of the sport. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 chose to end the dog-eat-dog chain reaction that has been the hallmark of every other realignment cycle. The Big 12 had no choice but to expand.

And as the chain reaction works its way down the ladder, it seems the dogs are getting hungry at the Group of 5 level.