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American Athletic Conference expands to 14 teams for football, adding six Conference USA programs

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The American Athletic Conference on Thursday announced that six new programs will join the league, expanding it to 15 members overall with 14 football-playing partners. Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA — all current members of Conference USA — sent in applications to join the AAC that have formally been approved by the conference’s nine remaining programs.

“On behalf of the American Athletic Conference presidents, I look forward to years of healthy competition with our six new members,” said Michael Fitts, Tulane president and AAC Board of Directors chairman. “I am confident that we have not only added fine institutions that share our collective ambition for national success, but we have done so in a deliberate and sensible way that will contribute to the long-term future of the conference.”

Though a formal start date is not yet known for the six new programs, the hope is they will all begin competing in the AAC at the start of the 2023 season, sources tell CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander. 

“There’s a ton of moving parts. So much has to do with when the three departing schools leave,” a source told Norlander.

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Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are all leaving the AAC for the Big 12 at a yet-to-be-determined date. The Big 12, meanwhile, is unsure about the departure timeline of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, though the league publicly stated that it expects those teams to remain with the conference for their full terms through the 2024 season.

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The moves of Cincinnati, Houston and UCF kicked off a major realignment shift within the Group of Five ranks. The AAC reportedly courted four schools from the Mountain West, but all ultimately decided to stand pat. 

UAB and FAU have captured the last four Conference USA championships, while UTSA entered the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history in Week 8. North Texas won nine games in 2017 and 2018, while Rice won the conference in 2013. Charlotte only started FBS football in 2015 and has a 13-12 record in three seasons under coach Will Healy. 

The AAC’s move gives the league a strong foothold in Texas with four institutions in the Lone Star State: Rice, North Texas and UTSA joining SMU. The move also doubles down on expansion into major markets. Expansion members bring the AAC into Charlotte, San Antonio, Birmingham and Houston. Existing schools, meanwhile, sit in Dallas, Memphis, Tulsa, Tampa and New Orleans. Getting to 14 teams gives the league some buffer in case of additional realignment. 

“We do want to get back to either 10 or 12 [schools],” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told the Orlando Sentinel in September. “We have some good candidates, and we’re only dealing with candidates who have approached us — who have expressed an interest in us. It’s proceeding, and I’m reasonably confident we’re going to end up as a strong conference and our goal is to be even stronger than before.” 

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Losing its three top institutions to the Big 12 makes it unlikely that the new AAC will match the existing $7 million each program gets annually for television rights fees despite adding six new members. However, it will be a significant step up from the approximately $500,000 paid to Conference USA teams, even if they are given a smaller slice of the AAC pie than some of its more prominent programs. 

The AAC has been considered the premier Group of Five conference throughout the College Football Playoff era. However, the Big 12 took six of the last seven conference champions, creating an opportunity for the rest of the Group of Five to contend. 

Colorado State and Air Force previously turned down interest from the AAC to stay in the Mountain West. The MWC plans to stay at 12 teams and may have taken over the mantle as the top overall Group of Five conference.

The Sun Belt is in the midst of exploring expansion, targeting Southern Miss, Marshall and Old Dominion from Conference USA, along with FCS James Madison. However, Conference USA has also targeted James Madison. Should the Dukes opt to join C-USA, sources tell CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd that Marshall and Old Dominion would likely stay. 

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This wide-ranging round of realignment was kicked off by Texas and Oklahoma shocking college football and announcing moves from the Big 12 to the SEC. The Big 12 backfilled with the AAC, leaving the AAC to poach from Conference USA. It all may be just getting started.

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