A common trend at the beginning of the decade has made a splash in 2019, at least for one program — conference realignment. The Connecticut Huskies have announced departure from the American Athletic Conference in favor of the Big East, effective 2020.
The move is not official yet. UConn must vote on the move to the Big East and officially withdraw from the American, which may happen in the coming weeks. The Big East will be UConn’s future home for the majority of its sponsored sports, but the conference is nonexistent in football. Stadium’s Brett McMurphy reported the Huskies plan to remain in the FBS and not revert to the FCS, which they upgraded from in 2000. That leaves four options: remain in the American, become independent, join Conference USA, or join the MAC.
The MAC should avoid UConn. This is UMass 2.0.
UMass transitioned from the FCS to the MAC in 2012, a move intended to balance out the conference’s divisions with an even-numbered 14 teams. However, Temple departed for the Big East, which became the American in 2013, prior to the 2012 football season. In a 13-team league, UMass spent four seasons as the geographic outcast of the conference and compiled an 8-40 overall record and 7-25 record against conference opponents. The Minutemen left after the 2015 season to become an FBS Independent which set the MAC back to 12 teams. Adding another New England program that seems destined for failure would be questionable move for a conference that has great stability.
Nine of the 12 MAC programs have 40+ years of tenure in the Group of Five’s most stable conference. Akron and Buffalo joined in the 90s, as did Northern Illinois, who rejoined after a brief hiatus as an Independent/Big West member from 1986 to 1996. Since the turn of the millennium, the conference has twice been unsuccessful on adding a 13th member.
Buffalo is the current geographic outcast of the MAC, lying slightly northeast of the Rust Belt. But UConn is a whole different animal. A drive from Storrs, CT to Buffalo, NY is actually longer than a drive from Buffalo, NY to Kalamazoo, MI. Connecticut would be a 6-hour drive and over 400 miles away from its nearest geographic member Buffalo, causing the MAC’s athletic departments to incur ridiculous travel expenses.
Adding Connecticut also hinders the current conference members in their revenue sharing. A primary reason why the Big 12 refused expansion in 2016 after Northern Illinois and several other teams mailed in their résumés, adding a 13th program generates less revenue for the other 12 athletic departments on bowl games, TV deals, and other costs split among the conference. The MAC has 12 full-time members and adding a perennial cellar dweller that’s millions of dollars in debt as a football-only member is an illogical move.
While Connecticut participated in a Fiesta Bowl in 2010 (despite finishing unranked and 8-5), the Huskies have become nothing more than a laughingstock in the sport since. Despite a large fanbase and identifiable brand, inviting UConn wouldn’t add any prestige to the MAC. In 2018, UConn finished 1-11, failed to beat an FBS team, and had arguably the worst defense in the modern era. Randy Edsall’s Huskies allowed over 50 points and 617 yards per game. UConn now has posted eight-straight seasons with a losing record, failing to finish above .500 once as a member of the American.
Perhaps UConn’s most memorable moment in the AAC was former head coach Bob Diaco creating the “Civil ConFLiCT” rivalry trophy with UCF, a trophy which UCF disregarded and left on the bleachers in the pouring rain when the Knights prevailed in 2016.
Terrible shot from press box but there on end of bench at 40 yd line, that's Civil ConFLiCT trophy 10 min after game... pic.twitter.com/qd7tZbNHKE— Mike Anthony (@ManthonyCourant) October 23, 2016
The Huskies have downgraded conferences to the Big East in basketball (a far cry from the former Big East in which UConn was a part of) and other sports, where they’ll generate a lot less revenue than the AAC. The AAC established a somewhat-lucrative TV deal in March, resulting in $83.3 million per year to be split among the member institutions, standing as the richest Group of Five league.
The one question from here is, does Buffalo look to leverage its recent success into a deal with the AAC? The Bulls are fresh off their most successful season in football and basketball history and are the MAC’s most geographically inconvenient and least-tenured member. If the AAC does not retain UConn as a football-only member and cannot acquire Army due to the Black Knights’ satisfaction with independent scheduling, Buffalo is a logical choice for the conference.
Buffalo has a strong fanbase and is located in a major city, a common theme among American programs (Houston, Cincinnati, UCF, South Florida, SMU, Tulane, Memphis, Temple). The Bulls could seamlessly replace Connecticut’s footprint in the American Northeast. For Buffalo, a move to the AAC could work wonders in terms of financials and national recognition.
That’s the move that causes the most chaos in this scenario. The MAC would be reduced to 11 full-time members, and only then should the conference even consider adding UConn. Even still, a 12th full-time member would be more beneficial than a football-only program to the MAC.