AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco: “We have lost three teams, but they are not irreplaceable.” – HERO Sports

AP Photo/Stew Milne
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco has heard the predictions of the AAC’s demise in wake of another major conference realignment. 
He understands that Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston leaving after this season to the Big 12 will be a major loss.
The AAC in football next season will bring on Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA. They are joining holdovers SMU, Memphis, East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa, South Florida, Navy (a football-only school), and Temple. 
On paper or anywhere else, it doesn’t seem like an equal trade, and Aresco isn’t viewing the situation with blinders. It’s just that he points to past history and feels the AAC will not only survive but continue to prosper. 
For years, the AAC has enjoyed the unofficial designation of the top G5 conference in football, and Aresco sees no reason why it can’t continue, although he realizes that certain things have to happen.
Losing Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston is a major gut punch, but Aresco is confident in the future. In fact, he feels the Pac-12 losing UCLA and USC to the Big Ten and the Big 12 losing Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC is a much more crippling blow.
“The Pac-12 and Big 12 have just lost four teams you can’t replace,” Aresco said in an interview with HERO Sports. “They’re irreplaceable in terms of their brands.”
Then he said the kicker.
“We have lost three teams, but they are not irreplaceable.”
Aresco wasn’t being disrespectful to the three. He points out that all three had years when they weren’t powerhouses in the AAC.
The AAC formed in 2013, with the leftover schools from the disbanded Big East. The AAC began conducting a championship game in 2015.
Since then, Houston won the inaugural title in 2015 and lost to Cincinnati in last year’s championship game. In that span, the Cougars also had losing records in 2019 (4-8) and 2020 (3-5).
UCF won consecutive titles in 2017 and 2018, going a combined 25-1 in those two seasons. But before that, the Knights were 0-12 in 2015 and 6-7 in 2016.
Cincinnati, the only G5 team to earn a College Football Playoff berth (last season), went 44-7 from 2018-2021 and won AAC titles in 2020 and 2021 while losing in the championship game in 2019 to Memphis. Yet the Bearcats were also 7-6 in 2015 and 4-8 in both 2016 and 2017.
“There was a year UCF was 0-12,” Aresco said. “Cincinnati came on with Luke Fickell, but prior to that had not done much. Houston, until last year had about five years (of not being dominating). This is not to denigrate these teams, they are playing at a high level, but they are replaceable. Those other four, you can’t replace a brand like Texas and Oklahoma, and how do you replace USC and UCLA? There isn’t really a true P5, it’s really a P2,” he said, referring to the SEC and Big Ten.
Again, he wasn’t disparaging the three teams departing, just suggesting that the AAC can rebound. In fact, Aresco feels Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF will immediately be highly competitive in the Big 12.
“Right away, I have no doubt they will be strong,” he said. “Again, they would have continued to be playoff candidates in our league.”
Aresco did admit that some of the remaining AAC teams have to show improvement as do a few of the newcomers.
“We’ve got five or six really pretty darn good teams this year,” he said, “but the second half of our league is not as good as it needs to be.”
Aresco says he is giving Temple a pass because of first-year coach Stan Drayton. The Owls lost in the AAC final in 2015, won the title in 2016, had three more straight winning seasons, before falling off the cliff, going 4-15 the past two seasons. 
“I think Stan Drayton is the right guy,” he said. “Temple had it really going well for a while, they were one of our best teams and it deteriorated and I think they will come back,” he said.
He then pointed to two old standbys as teams that need to pick it up.
“We need USF and Memphis and some of the other teams, we just need to step up,” he said. “Tulane I think is going to have a pretty good team this year. We know East Carolina, they have a great coach in Mike Houston and they are showing to be a good team. We think SMU is a really good team. I think we have really good teams but we have some that are struggling.”
Aresco said before joining, the six new schools had to demonstrate a major commitment to football. 
On another topic, it was interesting that when Houston beat UTSA in the season-opener, this reporter suggested Aresco would be rooting for UTSA, the new team next year, and not for Houston, the departing team. Houston won the game 37-35 in triple overtime.
Aresco, showing true loyalty, says he was indeed rooting for Houston and he told that to UTSA.
“Houston is leaving, but I absolutely put emotions aside and I was rooting for Houston because they are still in the conference,” he said. “We want to be playing on New Year’s Day this year (as the one eligible G5 team) and if Houston loses that hurts our chances.”
Aresco is happy with the new proposed 12-team College Football Playoff, which is scheduled to begin in 2026 but could start as early as 2024.
“This should benefit us and the most important part is the six-six, the six automatics, and the six at-larges,” he said.
With six automatic conference qualifiers, it guarantees a G5 school will earn a berth. 
“The six is the biggest part of this, it’s the critical part,” he said. “Clearly, going to 12 teams benefits everyone. I don’t expect we will have a huge opportunity with the six at-large, but we might find that at-large team that can qualify (from the AAC) as well as the automatic.”
Aresco isn’t naive and understands that a conference could come in and lure more of the AAC teams.
“It’s possible, you always have to be conscious of it,” he said. “Could a conference come in and take our teams? Sure, they could, but I don’t know that they will. I don’t know that financially it would make sense.”
He always keeps in perspective where the AAC was in its infancy and how far it has come and feels it can remain a dominant conference.
“When the Big East broke up, this conference was a collection of schools that really didn’t know where to go,” he said. “If the teams had gone to another conference, I don’t think any of them would have the success they had in our conference because we have been able to do a deal with ESPN that gave us great exposure.”
The deal, which originally was to expire in 2032, has been extended through the 2033-2034 season. The extension came after the AAC lost the three schools and added the six.  
“We negotiated with ESPN and they kept us whole, which was really remarkable, losing three of your premier teams,” Aresco said. “And in exchange for that, we extended our deal a couple of years. We are thrilled because we keep the exposure we had before and they also gave us enough revenue to bring on the six teams. ESPN has been great to us.”
While Aresco wouldn’t give details, at the time of the original deal, it was reported that schools would earn an average of $6.2 million per year. A source confirmed that the schools will be receiving in that same neighborhood from the deal. 
“This conference is well-heeled financially,” Aresco said. 
The AAC has received large payments for recent exit fees. It received $17 million from Connecticut as an exit fee when it left to join the Big East. Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF are each paying $18 million exit fees. 
“We have a significant reserve fund,” he said. 
And he feels the AAC has a significant football future. 
HERO Sports is the go-to website for FBS and FCS football news, analysis, and predictions.


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