The American Athletic Conference’s latest rebuild leaves Conference USA in a precarious position.
Six schools from C-USA - UAB, UTSA, Rice, North Texas, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic - have applied for membership with the American and are expected to be accepted by the end of the week, according to two people with knowledge of the process who spoke with The Associated Press.
An announcement could come as soon as Thursday. The people spoke to AP on condition of anonymity Wednesday because the league was not yet prepared to make its expansion plans public.
The shuffling is part of the fallout from the latest round of conference realignment kicked off this summer when Oklahoma and Texas decided to bolt the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The ripple effects are now being felt across the country.
The American was in the market for new members after three of its most successful schools - Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida - announced in September they would be joining the Big 12.
Those moves are expected by the 2023 football season, and the American hopes to have its six new members in place when the departing schools leave.
The result would be a 14-team conference, with four schools in Texas - the three new members and SMU.
C-USA has been a frequent target when the American, formerly the Big East, has needed to reconstitute. After the latest realignment moves have been completed, 12 of the American’s 14 members will be former C-USA schools.
Earlier this month, C-USA Commissioner Judy McLeod sent a letter to AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco proposing a merger of sorts between the two conferences to make each a better geographic fit for its members. The AAC had no interest and instead went on the offensive.
Conference USA will be down to eight members - Old Dominion, UTEP, Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Florida International and Western Kentucky - with an unclear future.
In the past, Conference USA has poached the Sun Belt Conference when it needed replacement schools. Middle Tennessee, FIU and Western Kentucky were all members of the Sun Belt.
But the Sun Belt is now in a position of strength relative to C-USA.
“I don’t see any Sun Belt schools leaving,” former Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters said.
This time it could be the Sun Belt poaching C-USA.
“Throughout this process, if we identify a school that adds value to the Sun Belt, we’ll certainly consider them for membership,” Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill said back in September.
Marshall, in Huntington, West Virginia, would have a natural geographic rival among the Sun Belt‘s 10-team football conference with Appalachian State, based in Boon, North Carolina.
Southern Miss could fit between Sun Belt schools South Alabama and Troy to the east and Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe to the west.
Where could C-USA turn?
“There does come a time when there are no more options,” former Sun Belt and Western Athletic Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said.
Liberty, a private school in Lynchburg, Virginia, has expressed interest in joining a conference that could house its currently independent FBS football team. It has invested heavily in athletics and the Flames have played in bowl games each of the past two seasons. Liberty’s other sports programs compete in the Atlantic Sun.
FCS programs looking to make the jump from Division I college football’s second-tier to its top level, the Bowl Subdivision, could also be an option.
When Benson was trying to save WAC football in the early 2010s, he couldn’t persuade some of the strong FCS programs in the West such as Montana and Montana State to make the step up.
When he became Sun Belt commissioner in 2012, he found FCS schools in the region more eager to jump and they helped fortify the conference. No. 15 Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State have turned into two of the Sun Belt‘s best programs since transitioning.
“Without patting myself on the back, I think the Sun Belt did a pretty good job of identifying the upside in App and Coastal and even Georgia Southern,” Benson said.
FCS powerhouse James Madison in Harrisonburg, Virginia, has shown interest in moving up and could be a potential solution for C-USA, if not a target for the Sun Belt.
Northeast football independents Connecticut and Massachusetts would likely be football-only options for C-USA.
The American targeted schools based in large media markets and fertile recruiting territory for football.
UAB has been C-USA’s most consistent winner in recent seasons, playing in three straight league title games and winning two. FAU won Conference USA titles in 2017 and ‘19 under then-coach Lane Kiffin. North Texas played for a C-USA title in 2017.
UTSA is a relatively new major college football program. The Roadrunners’ first season was 2011, but they already have played in two bowl games and are currently undefeated and ranked No. 24 in the AP poll.
Charlotte is also a newcomer to the highest tier of Division I football, having joined in 2013.
Rice, a private school in Houston, has the longest history of major college football competition among the six schools heading to the American. The Owls were once a member of the Southwest Conference with schools such as Texas and Arkansas.
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