UConn is headed back to the Big East. The Huskies’ Olympic sports are leaving the American and will compete in the Big East starting in the 2020-21 season, sources told Stadium. An official announcement could come as early as this week.
UConn’s departure leaves two major question marks. What is the future home of UConn football, since the Big East doesn’t sponsor football? Will the American stay at 11 members or find a 12th school to replace UConn?
Let’s start with UConn. The Huskies will not drop football or drop down from FBS to the FCS level, multiple sources at UConn told Stadium. However, UConn doesn’t have a definitive landing spot on its future football home. Sources said UConn would pursue being a football-only member with the MAC, Conference USA or even with the American.
Those options, however, appear unlikely at best. Sources said it’s a “non-starter” for UConn to join the MAC unless it’s as a full member and UConn’s chances to join C-USA “are doubtful,” another source said. Some UConn personnel had hoped UConn could remain a football-only member in the American, playing some men’s and women’s basketball non-conference games against American opponents as part of the deal.
As far as UConn’s chances to remain a football-only member in the American, one source summed it up this way: “They are delusional.”
Multiple sources said UConn had been told a football-only membership was not possible if it left for the Big East.
“We can’t believe UConn even thought we would consider (allowing UConn a football-only membership), and frankly thought that was made clear to them long ago every time a rumor popped up about them and the Big East,” a source said.
So UConn’s most likely – perhaps only – option at the FBS level is as an independent. That would be tough financially and schedule-wise; good luck getting teams to visit East Hartford, Conn., in late October or November.
The Huskies also have had limited success since playing in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl. Since then, UConn has had eight consecutive losing seasons, three head coaches and one bowl appearance (a loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl). UConn has won three or fewer games in five of the last six seasons. Last year they were 1-11, the worst record in the program’s 20-year history.
By leaving the American, UConn has basically admitted it doesn’t aspire to – or can’t – compete at the highest FBS levels. They could follow the path of Idaho, who dropped from FBS to FCS in 2018. Yet UConn sources stress this is not an option and the Huskies’ football program will remain at the FBS level.
But an industry source isn’t as confident. “They have to say that at this point. If not, it destroys whatever chances they have to recruit.”
The bottom line: UConn’s move to the Big East will be “popular with our fan base,” a source said. “They never fully bought into the American. UConn football is so social for fans, more than X’s and O’s. They will come back when we win. The difference of playing East Carolina vs. playing a Western Michigan, etc., doesn’t mean much to them.”
When the Big East’s Catholic schools were leaving several years ago and the remaining schools had to come up with a new conference name, the “America 12 Conference” was among the favorites for the league’s new name.
They instead went with the American Athletic Conference, and that decision could turn out to be prophetic: The America 12 name would have been off by one in football if the league remains at 11 schools after UConn leaves.
“If there was an obvious choice to be our 12th team, that would probably be the way to go,” a source said. “But when the Big 12 was reportedly going to expand the last time (by taking some AAC members), our thought was we wouldn’t go to 12 just to have that number.”
FBS independents Army and BYU are the most likely candidates for the American’s 12th team, multiple sources said. “Both have many caveats,” a source said. It’s quite possible neither school wants to join, but as attractive as they are to the American, there are some concerns.
For Army, the Black Knights have been one of college football’s best stories the past couple of years. Back-to-back Commander in Chief trophies, a 21-5 record the last two seasons and three consecutive bowl victories.
However, prior to 2016, Army had losing records in 18 of its last 19 seasons. The Black Knights have benefitted from playing two FCS opponents each season – this year they face Morgan State and VMI. Would they be allowed to schedule two FCS teams a year in the AAC?
Also, their last go-around in a conference did not turn out well. From 1998-2004, Army was in Conference USA and never finished better than 3-8 overall in those seven seasons. Army left the league, in part, because it couldn’t be competitive. And remember: Six of those C-USA schools are now in the American.
“What happens if Army reverts back to the 20-year stretch before its current three-year success?” a source said.
A different and more significant concern would be how the Army-Navy game (if it was a conference game), played annually on the third Saturday in December, would impact the conference. Not only is the AAC league title game played a week before the Army-Navy game, but the College Football Playoff rankings are released six days before the game is even played.
That could be a major hurdle with no easy solution.
As far as BYU, the Cougars were nearly AAC members several years ago but the sides couldn’t reach an agreement.
“We were very close with BYU years before the last television deal, but they had too many demands and wanted to be treated differently on TV rights than other members,” a source said.
In other words: BYU wanted more TV revenue than the other league members.
“BYU does provide a potential late-night (TV) window and weeknight games and a (national) brand,” a source said.
But BYU might want to stay where it is: as an independent that has a television deal with ESPN that is expected to be renewed, a source said.
So the American has to make a decision in the next several months: stay at 11 or get back to 12?
“Is 11 better? With fewer pieces of the pie there is more revenue for the 11 schools to split than 12. Plus there’s no perfect or obvious choice as our 12th member.”
Another source admitted that “other than the service academies and perhaps BYU, I can’t see anyone rising up that makes it better to add than to stay pat at 11.
“I guess,” he said laughing, “we sound like the Big 12 when it decided not to expand a few years ago.”