The day we thought might come back in the fall of 2016 with talks of the Big 12 expanding could finally be coming home to roost in the upcoming season of collegiate sports, though on a much smaller scale.
Reports have surfaced that The University of Connecticut plans to join the Big East Conference in all sports except for football effective 2020, leaving the door wide open for a number of options, both for UConn as a program and many Group of Five conferences as a collective.
The American Conference has elected not to keep UConn football as an affiliate (a la Navy,) instead telling them to hit the road due to poor performance and attendance numbers. It’s really a fitting end to UConn in the AAC, as their tenure in the still-maturing league was mostly one of necessity and rancour. The program suffers from a $41 million debt, albeit one which suffers from some unique circumstances, and it had no natural rivals in a conference which was largely the leftover pieces of a dispute between basketball schools and football schools, with a dash of reactionary expansion thrown into the mix.
Fan sentiment to being in the AAC was, to put it lightly, less-than-enthusiastic, as clamours to leave the conference have been ongoing since the program was forcibly separated from the original Big East back in 2013. Of course, some of the anger comes from the idea that UConn is deserving of being a Power Five squad, specifically in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
UConn, as an institution, made the decision that was best for the university as a whole in leaving the AAC, and was a wise move from that perspective. UConn is, after all, a basketball school. It makes no sense for them to be in a football-focused conference such as the AAC. But at this point, the program and its fanbase has too much emotional investment and, dare I say, pride, to simply abandon football outright.
Here’s the thing: expansion or realignment is ultimately about timing and what a particular conference wants. Power Five programs have already told UConn no (both in the past and currently,) and unless something catastrophic happens to the college landscape, that opinion likely won’t change any time soon. Simply put, having UConn as a women’s basketball power being the headline program of a 24-sport roster is not an attractive enough option for P5 power-brokers (as unjust as it is,) and considering UConn’s debt problem, they may have to cut some sports just to stay afloat. That’s something a program with the pride of UConn simply won’t do.
There’s still an opportunity for UConn to show it can be an attractive program for the inevitable EXPANSIONPALOOZA of 2023, but only if they can show the patience of a well-run program.
This is where a marriage of convenience with the Mid-American Conference makes sense.
For the other 23 sports, it makes a lot of sense to return to the Big East, a conference with which they have a lot of history. In football, the MAC would be best equipped to handle UConn as a member, with a geographic footprint that is most fitting, and a team which is currently at the level of a MAC peer institution. (Sorry, UConn fans, even you have to admit that fact.)
The MAC’s contract with ESPN is fairly similar to the AAC’s, so there’s no need for Huskie fans to change their viewing habits, which would be a potential problem if they joined Conference USA, for instance. Joining the Sun Belt would be less-than-ideal too, as the conference has embraced a round-robin schedule and recently kicked out two schools which did not fit the footprint in Idaho and New Mexico State.
Independence is a non-starter. Just ask former MAC satellite UMass, who has been wandering the desert since 2016. Dropping to FCS is too; just ask Idaho how their 2018 season went after voluntarily dropping to the Big Sky.
The creation of the College Football Playoff has changed the very nature of the college football landscape, for better or worse. UConn was no longer seen as a viable football asset to the AAC, and therefore, it’s gone. But that does not preclude UConn from being a valuable football asset to the MAC, which has remained laggard in comparison to its G5 peers.
Some observers, our own Steve Helwick included, will point out the ramshackle nature of UConn’s past performance as part of this particular assessment. This is, in my opinion, a reactionary train of thought. In such matters as collegiate football, especially within the past few years, the question of expansion has stopped becoming a matter of assets.
Instead, it’s become a matter of what you have as content.
UConn in the MAC is an instant content generator. More national eyes will descend upon the MAC as the Huskies try to make their way through their new digs, resulting in a sort of redemption narrative. At the same time, MAC schools can go up against a school with name-brand recognition and position themselves as more legitimate programs, and whether we agree with it or not, national perception of conferences and teams have affected the selection process when it comes to the weekly polls and the eventual NY6 team.
The MAC, unlike its other G5 peers, has struggled to get one team ranked, much less two. Adding a team like UConn might help in that respect, even if their current outlook isn't so bright.
I’m aware it likely wouldn’t fly with UConn fans, or even many MAC fans. Temple, UCF and UMass have burned the league in the past. But you simply can’t deny that 1) people would tune in and 2) recruits would take notice, and both of those things are exactly what a league like the MAC needs to grow itself as a brand.
Perhaps in a league that’s more on par with their own performance, UConn could find a way to build their program into a routine competitor. If they also make plans to invest long-term and set a goal to get the program to a certain point, the MAC could be a perfect stepping stone for UConn to figure out where they need to go.
If it all goes perfectly, it’s a win-win. UConn can re-establish its former ties with the Big East and rehab its image on the basketball side, while honing in a focus on the football side which could make them a stronger program. Meanwhile, as part of the deal, the MAC could ask UConn to face MAC teams in non-football sports as an out-of-conference opponent, a big win for the other sporting programs.
More importantly for the MAC, going after UConn as a football-only program now would make a great insurance policy, should the conference get raided as a result of a grab-and-go by their peer conference. It, at the very least, would signal that the MAC is serious about protecting its programs and has a plan for the long-term in that respect, rather than being a passive party.
If one looks at it as purely a football asset decision, there is nothing to gain. If you look at it from other perspectives (academic prowess, facilities, expansion of geographic footprint, national perception, etc.) the MAC would be prudent to seriously consider it, even if it’s counter to their stated position of preferring full members only.
UConn in the MAC would not be a perfect match, by any stretch; no marriage of convenience is. Divisions, for one, would likely have to change, which impacts future schedules.
But it would certainly be a missed opportunity to not consider seriously the benefits of such an option.