The American Athletic Conference has reached a mutual agreement with Cincinnati, Houston and UCF for the three schools to depart and join the Big 12 Conference on July 1, 2023, the AAC announced Friday. The three schools join BYU as new Big 12 members, meaning the league will field at least 12 members for the first time since realignment in 2011. The buyout for the teams to exit the conference early is $18 million per school, according to The Athletic.
“I would like to thank UCF President Alexander Cartwright, Cincinnati President Neville Pinto and Houston President Renu Khator – as well as Tulane President Michael Fitts, who is chair of our Board of Directors – for their efforts and leadership to arrive at a sensible resolution to the three schools’ departure from the conference,” said AAC commissioner Mike Aresco in a statement. “All three institutions enjoyed tremendous success under the American Athletic Conference banner, and all three were instrumental in taking the conference to great heights, both athletically and academically. We wish them the best and look forward to having them compete in our conference in 2022-23.”
The decision means that the three schools are now entering their final seasons in the AAC after serving as founding members. The timing couldn’t be better, as the three teams combined to finish 44-10 in 2021, while Cincinnati became the first Group of Five program to earn a trip to the College Football Playoff. The three AAC coaches ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in our AAC coaches rankings.
With the way things stand, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and BYU would join the Big 12 before Oklahoma and Texas depart for the SEC. While there’s still a chance the Sooners and Longhorns leave earlier than the initial 2025 deadline set out by the Big 12 Grant of Rights, there has been little movement on either school’s part to pay the massive buyout required by Big 12 bylaws.
If Oklahoma and Texas are still in the league as the new teams join, the Big 12 will likely split into two, seven-team divisions to break up the 14-team league, according to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. However, new NCAA rules passed since Dodd’s reporting in January mean the league would not be required to host divisions in order to field a conference championship game.
“We talked just a little bit about it, but we didn’t dive [the teams up],” Cincinnati AD John Cunningham told Dodd in January. “Do you go North-South? Do you go East-West? I think there is some obvious things that would break that way, but we’ll figure that out as we go.”
The decision becoming official has already set off another round of announcements involving other leagues. Charlotte, one of six Conference USA schools moving to the American Athletic Conference, announced that it will move to the AAC in time for the 2023 season. The other five schools — FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA — are expected to make similar announcements soon.
“We’re thrilled to be joining The American in 2023-24 and are diligently preparing for this transformational opportunity,” Charlotte athletic director Mike Hill said. “We look forward to competing in such an outstanding league. We’re also grateful to our colleagues at Conference USA and anticipate an exciting final season as members in 2022-23.”
With three programs leaving and six entering, the AAC will be a 14-team league in time for the 2023 football season. In addition to the AAC departures in 2023, Conference USA is losing Old Dominion, Southern Miss and Marshall to the Sun Belt in time for the 2022 season. Liberty, New Mexico State, Sam Houston and Jacksonville State will join the league as replacements in 2023.