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Conference Realignment, The ‘Pact’ Against the SEC, and the Group of Five - Part II

Following up with yesterday’s article regarding college football realignment, here’s a ranking of the American Athletic Conference members that will be attractive to the Big 12.

Yesterday was an overview of all the scheduling possibilities from the so-called ‘pact’ that the Pac 12, Big 10, and ACC will allegedly come together with and combat the SEC. To read about all of the complexities from that situation, including how UCF Football will be impacted, you can read that here.

Additionally, if you want an overview of how and why these conference realignment moves have and will continue to be made, plus information regarding the Knights and where they rank with the Big 12 membership, watch this YouTube video:

For today, this article will focus solely upon how the members of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) rank in terms of Big 12 membership. The prime candidates from the AAC include, by alphabetical order: Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, SMU, and UCF.

There could be more schools under consideration, but the above list represents the most likely candidates to jump into the Big 12, at least for now.

For this exercise, there needs to be a clear notice that the list was created as a combination of how good the football program is combined with what really drives conference realignment, and that’s television and advertising. Those are the two categories and nothing more. The second aspect honestly holds more importance than the first based on recent decisions by the Big 10 (Rutgers -- New York, Maryland -- Washington, D.C.) as an example, because neither has been good at football for a very long time.

All television market data was pulled from mediatracks.com

Cincinnati Bearcats

This is a program that went from back-to-back 4-8 seasons in 2016 and 2017 to being a top 15 program during the past season. It’s incredible how the Bearcats were transformed under the leadership of Head Coach Luke Fickell. During the past three seasons, the Bearcats went 31-6.

Luke Fickell, Head Coach, Cincinnati Bearcats

Luke Fickell, Head Coach, Cincinnati Bearcats

To be very clear, the Bearcats are a program on the rise and arguably the best Group of Five program in the country. With a chance for the 2021 season to earn double digit victories again, it will be interesting to see if the Bearcats could make a run at the college football playoff. It’s not out of the question. All of that momentum makes the Bearcats attractive to the Big 12.

Television and Advertising: Cincinnati is close to other good television markets such as Indianapolis, Columbus, Louisville and Lexington. None of them are truly elite, but Cincinnati is located in a unique pocket; it’s also a very football-hungry section of the United States where small towns tune in to watch the Bearcats. It makes it harder to project how the Big 12 would view the Bearcats from purely a media standpoint.

The city of Cincinnati is the No. 36 media market for 2021.

Houston Cougars

The Houston Football program goes up and down. With a disappointing 15-18 record during the last three years, the Cougars fell on difficult times. It’s hard to understand considering the level of prep football talent the greater Southeastern section of Texas possesses in and around Houston.

Clayton Tune, Quarterback, Houston

Clayton Tune, Quarterback, Houston

Can the Houston program rise up quickly? Yes, that’s a fact. In 2011, the Cougars went 11-1, and the same result transpired in 2015. Houston could be a really unique piece to the Big 12 because football is important in that area of the state of Texas, as well as that entire region of the country. With the right head coach and administrative influence from the Houston brass, Houston could be a football power if it gained Big 12 membership.

Television and Advertising: The city of Houston is the No. 8 media market for 2021.

Memphis Tigers

Finding coaching stability will be the key for the Tigers. The Memphis Football program has witnessed three different head coaches since 2015. It’s been a stepping stone program for head coaches to go on to other programs. Florida State Head Coach Mike Norvell came from Memphis, where he was the leader of the program from 2016 through 2019.

Can current Memphis Head Coach Ryan Silverfield win big at Memphis? It’s debatable. The Tigers won double digit games only three times in program history -- 2014 (10-3), 2017 (10-3) and 2019 (12-2) -- making this a more risky move for the Big 12. Still, Memphis provided recent proof it can be a top 20 football team, and It’s still a rich recruiting area. With Memphis being close to Alabama and Mississippi, two of the richest prep football talent-producing states in the country, the Tigers have areas to bring in top talent. It’s also only a 391 mile drive from Memphis to Atlanta, another area the Tigers recruit hard. Memphis is intriguing from a football standpoint, but not a slam dunk to be a good addition to the Big 12.

Television and Advertising: The city of Memphis is the No. 51 media market for 2021.

SMU Mustangs

With only one season of 10 wins since 1984, it’s hard to understand how a program located in the heart of Dallas, Texas cannot be doing better in football. Since the days of the early 1980s, however, SMU has struggled. It’s still the only program to ever be given the Death Penalty by the NCAA, meaning completely shutting down the football program for extravagant recruiting violations (cash, cars, jobs for parents, etc.). Still, that was over 30 years ago. The Mustangs did do better of late, one year in particular.

The one season that really turned out well for the Mustangs would be 2019, when SMU earned a 10-3 record. No other nine-win team came about since 1984, and only two eight-win seasons occurred. Hard to imagine SMU being at the top of the board for the Big 12 with those marks in the history books, but there is the television aspect of the equation, where the Mustangs are the best from this list of five schools.

Television and Advertising: The Dallas-Fort Worth media market is No. 5 for 2021.

UCF Knights

From a consistency standpoint, UCF reigns supreme from these five institutions. The Knights won 10 or more games seven times since the beginning of the 2007 season. From the last three seasons, the Knights are 28-8. The Knights went undefeated in 2017 with a 13-0 record, followed up by a 12-1 record in 2018. That 25-1 two-year mark helped to propel the Knights into more national attention, and more homes of top recruits.

Quarterback Dillon Gabriel and Wide Receiver Jaylon Robinson, UCF

Quarterback Dillon Gabriel and Wide Receiver Jaylon Robinson, UCF

The Knights could be a very good team in 2021, and with Dillon Gabriel playing quarterback under the direction of first-year UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn and his power-spread offensive attack, there is reason for optimism in Orlando. UCF could be the other non-Power Five program, along with Cincinnati, that makes a run at the college football playoffs.

There’s been an emphasis by the UCF administration to build the football program in recent years, and that could be the reason the Knights are the best bet from this list of five to be added to the Big 12. A financial and social commitment to football is essential to earn Power Five status with the Big 12 or any other conference.

Television and Advertising: The city of Orlando is the No. 17 media market for 2021.

Ranking the Five AAC Schools for Big 12 Membership

  1. UCF
  2. Cincinnati
  3. Houston
  4. Memphis
  5. SMU

There’s certainly debate about the order. It would be easy to rank Cincinnati No. 1 because of its recent past, but when considering the Bearcats only possess the No. 36 media market, that’s not all that attractive. Conversely, three of the other four programs reside in better media markets.

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Gus Malzahn

UCF Head Football Coach Gus Malzahn

As for UCF, it’s a unique combination of a program on the rise, a coach that’s beaten Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban three times and been a part of the 2010 Auburn National Championship, and it’s been a 10-win team seven times in 14 years. That 50% ratio stands out, and so does a good media market. That’s the reason UCF is No. 1 on the list.

Houston is a gold mine if it ever finds a coach that wants to stay and make the Cougars a great program. For whatever the reason, that’s not happened in recent memory. Is it the Houston administration that’s lacking? Not enough money to keep assistants from bolting to the ACC, Big 12, or SEC and taking a pay increase? It’s certainly not because of a lack of recruiting territory. The Houston area continues to churn out top high school football talent. Houston is the enigma from this list, and comes in at No. 3.

Memphis holds the distinction of being the new program that’s winning from this list. Much like Houston, Memphis needs to hold onto coaches longer. Money could be the issue, but there’s reason to believe Memphis Football could be really good with the right coaching staff in place.

SMU holds very little football heritage despite being located in Dallas. Perplexing. Can the Mustangs rise up and be a formidable force? Possibly, but are the resources being placed into the SMU Football program to have a big-time coaching staff and big-time facilities? The media market is awesome, but there’s just been too long of a period of time between SMU winning big and modern day to believe SMU wants to invest in football at a top-notch level.

You will find me on Twitter @fbscout_Florida and @UCF_FanNation

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