Conference realignment has been almost commonplace these last few years. We have seen rich conference rivalries and traditions dissolve, for a few extra dollars. The next major money grab could greatly affect the Mid-Conference.
Major conference shake-up is inevitably in the near future. Just five years ago the Big 12 was rocked by the departure of four major teams. Texas A&M and Missouri bolted for the SEC, while Colorado found a home in the Pac-12 and Nebraska fleeted for the Big Ten's greener pastures. Now sitting at ten members, the Big 12 can no longer wait around to expand or else other P5 conferences will surpass them.
Most of the possible expansion candidates hail from the American Athletic Conference. Some schools mentioned include, BYU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, and others. Sources say that if the American Athletic Conference were to lose one team, another school would be invited. If the conference losses two teams they are prepared to compete with ten and maintain two separate divisions. American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco spoke to the Orlando Sentinel about the possibility of departing schools.
"I think if we lose a school would we add one? In all likelihood we probably would. You don’t want to be 11 in football, but on the other hand you could do it. If we lost two, which would probably be the worst-case scenario … we could stay at 10. With the new legislation, we could easily stay at 10, play a championship game, have 5 team divisions and have an eight-game [conference] schedule. We could do that if we wanted to."
Let's just hypothetically envision BYU and one AAC team bolt for the Big 12 in the near future. That leaves us with one open spot in the American that needs to be filled.
Most believe the conference will look to schools like Southern Miss, Marshall, and Texas-San Antonio to fill the void. Personally, Northern Illinois seems to be the best available program.
First and foremost, Northern Illinois would bring a competitive football program. Football is a huge factor to consider when evaluating a school during conference realignment. Only Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State have won more football games than Northern Illinois in the past six seasons. Northern Illinois has won the MAC West Division six consecutive times, securing the MAC title three times. The Huskies have also appeared in 11 total bowl games, 10 since the 2004 season. This includes their memorable 2012 season, when Jordan Lynch lead the Huskies to a matchup in the Orange Bowl against the Florida State Seminoles.
Everyone knows Northern Illinois would add a solid football team, but also the Huskies give the American a foot in the Chicago market. The city of DeKalb is about 1 hour west of Chicago. According to Nielsen, the Chicago television market is the third best in the United States. Adding Northern Illinois gives the American Athletic Conference an opportunity to air conference contests to about 3.5 million television homes. The American Athletic Conference should deeply consider grabbing Northern Illinois and increasing their viewership in Chicago.
Sturdy football and being located near a major television market is what most conferences desire in an expansion candidate. Northern Illinois is sound in both those categories, but a poor basketball program could hold the Huskies back. The American Athletic Conference is a decent basketball conference. The American is home to some very historic programs such as Memphis and Houston, and also some up and coming programs like Tulsa and SMU. Northern Illinois basketball is not up to par with other American Athletic team. Northern Illinois has only made the NCAA Tournament three times since the 1960's. Also, Northern Illinois basketball fan support is very limited. Last season, the Huskies averaged an lackluster 1,470 fans per home contest. Northern Illinois is not going to entice the AAC with attendance figures that low.
Northern Illinois is an attractive candidate the American Athletic Conference should consider to fill the voids left by departing schools. Would Northern Illinois be willing to make the move to the American, who knows? At the very least if the American needs to fill a gap, Northern Illinois should be given serious consideration.
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