Don’t realign. Combine.


Any minute now we are going to hear that six schools – Charlotte, UTSA, North Texas, Rice, Florida Atlantic and UAB – have officially left Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference. Which means that any minute now, the landscape of college athletics (but most importantly college football) is going to change. This begs one very important question.
Who benefits from this?
All of this is happening essentially because Oklahoma and Texas left the Big XII for the SEC. Needing to fill the void, if not in stature than in numbers, the Big XII poached Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston from the AAC and Independent BYU. Thus, Pandora’s Box was opened.
Look, I get it from the Big XII’s perspective. The four teams they invited to join their conference all hold a certain amount of cache. Houston is a Final 4 team from this past year’s NCAA Tournament and located in the heart of Big XII Country, not to mention a respectable football team. They will fit in well. Cincinnati is kind of the opposite. Right now, they are the hottest G5 team out there and have a respectable basketball team. As far as revenue generating sports go, the Big XII got two of the best programs they could. Add BYU and UCF, who both have had their moments on the big stage, and I can understand the decision on the Power 5 conference’s part.
What I don’t understand is what is happening as a result of that.
The American was generally regarded as a notch below the Power 5 conferences, but slightly more highly regarded than fellow G5 conferences Conference USA and the Sun Belt. But that was in no small part because of the three teams that they are losing. What’s left is perfectly fine, but put it this way, if SMU was a flagship, the Big XII would have offered them a spot. If Memphis was so desirable, the Big XII would have offered them a spot. They aren’t, so they didn’t.
Let’s look at it from the AAC’s perspective. UTSA and Charlotte are on the come-up as programs in good-sized markets (and could face each other in the CUSA Championship game in a sad bit of irony). And UAB is an established program. So I get those three. As for FAU, Rice and North Texas…I have questions.
What exactly are G5 conferences looking for when poaching schools? It can’t just be about the market that they are in. Florida International is a CUSA program located in the very fertile recruiting base of Miami. There wasn’t one word about them changing conferences. One would think that market might be every bit as appealing as Houston. It can’t be about how successful they are on the field, otherwise the AAC would be knocking down Marshall and Coastal Carolina’s door. And seriously, what does Rice provide as far as an on-field product that an FIU doesn’t?
What’s exactly in it for the teams? The logical answer is TV exposure, as ESPN has a contract with the AAC so they basically have the pick of the litter as far as who they want in the conference. But with the emergence of streaming services and alternative cable options such as FS1 and CBS Sports Network, ESPN isn’t the only show in town anymore. Besides, no one – and I mean NO ONE – is tuning in to North Texas vs. Temple or FAU vs. Navy, but in the new and “improved” AAC, you are getting those matchups. Have fun with that.
From a program perspective, is the end game that Charlotte ultimately ends up in the ACC? Or UTSA in the Big XII (or whatever it will be called)? Or, uh, UAB ends up in the SEC? Those things just aren’t happening anytime soon (or in UAB’s case, probably not ever). They just went from medium-sized fish in a small pond to medium sized fish in a different-but-same-sized pond.
So what’s the solution? Well I wrote about this once before when the realignment merry-go-round began, but I really think the G5 conferences need to look no further than our friends the Transformers.
Stay with me.
In the Transformers universe, there is something called a Combiner. A combiner is a group of Transformers that assemble and combine their bodies into a larger super robot. They could have fought among themselves, but realized that they were more powerful collectively.
The G5 needs to be a Combiner. With the way these conferences are cannibalizing each other, it’s headed that way anyway. Don’t believe me? Ok, let’s take a deeper look at what the conferences will look like after the most recent realignment.

American: SMU, Memphis, East Carolina, Temple, Navy, Tulsa, Tulane, USF, UAB, Charlotte, Rice, North Texas, UTSA, FAU
Conference USA: UTEP, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Florida International, Southern Miss, Old Dominion
Sun Belt: Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, Appalachian St., South Alabama, Troy, UL Monroe, Texas St., Georgia St., Georgia Southern, Arkansas St.

As you can see, the AAC now extends from Texas through the South into Florida, up through the Carolinas, up along the coast and into Philadelphia. CUSA now extends from Texas through the South into Florida and up to West Virginia. The Sun Belt extends from Texas through the South into Georgia and up along the coast into North Carolina. That’s oversimplifying the geography a bit, but you can see the pattern. There’s too much redundancy among the three conferences.
The reality is that try as they might, Conference USA is going to have a hard time existing, especially with the AAC growing in numbers and the Sun Belt growing in status thanks to teams like Coastal Carolina, Louisiana and App St. all being in the Top 25 at some point since the start of 2020. With a couple more successful years in football, UTEP may catch the eye of the Mountain West. Marshall is likely to look for greener pastures at some point as the likely standard bearer in CUSA. And while it is entirely possible that schools such as James Madison and Jacksonville State move up from the FCS to FBS level, I’ll believe it when I see it. What remains will fit in perfectly in the Sun Belt. 3 becomes 2 and the Spider-Man meme becomes reality. At that point, AAC and Sun Belt officials should realize that they are competing against each other when they should just merge and try to get the Power 5 to notice them. Split into regional pods like the SEC is planning on doing. How does North Texas vs. Temple make more sense than North Texas vs. Texas St. (not currently a conference game)? How does FAU vs. Navy make more sense than Louisiana Tech vs. Tulane (not currently a conference game)?
Obviously in this scenario, the Mountain West and MAC exist in their own little bubble and seem content there. There may be slight tweaks such as the MW gaining UTEP or Buffalo deciding to make a move somewhere down the line. But for now, they are what they are. They ain’t hurting nobody.
As for the other three conferences, instead of reshuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, my advice is this: Don’t realign, combine.
Put it on a t-shirt.

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