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American Athletic Conference prepares for Big 12's expansion


NEWPORT, R.I. - Everybody in the American Athletic Conference is prepared for the storm. Publicly, nobody is panicking.

The AAC held its annual gathering in New England to eat lobster, kick off its fourth football season and start talking about what happens if the conference loses members to Big 12 expansion.

''I cannot stand here this morning and ignore the recent Big 12 news regarding realignment,'' Commissioner Mike Aresco said during his state of the conference address Tuesday. ''Although I do want to address it at the outset, I'm not going to dwell on it.''

Coming off a successful 2015 on the field that included 10 victories against Power Five teams and four teams ranked in the Top 25 at some point, the conference is again facing uncertainty. While Aresco likes to tout the American as the equal of a Power Five league - he uses the term ''Power Six'' - the fact is there is still a wide gap in revenue and prestige between the AAC and high-resource conferences.

The Big 12 offers a chance for two or maybe even four schools access to the pot of gold that comes with Power Five inclusion. And most of the 12 schools in the American have expressed interest either publicly or privately in joining. There are no secrets here.

''I think it's pretty evident who's been maneuvering, but we respect each other enough to not put each other on the spot,'' said East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher, who is the chairman of the American AD's group.

Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen said: ''We're committed to the present right now. I think that keeps us balanced.''

Aresco met with AAC athletic directors in Rhode Island over the last three days. He said the meetings were productive and all schools participated. While the public nature of the Big 12's exploration of expansion is not ideal, Aresco said, he is pleased with the transparency of his members.

''I think we've set a tone that we are going to approach this in a workman like fashion,'' Aresco said in an interview with the AP. ''We're not going to be morose. We're not going to be acting like woe is me. Just the opposite of that. This just means there is work to be done.''

Aresco said contingency plans to deal with possible departures have been discussed. He would not give details, but said the league has considered that it could lose as many as four members, dropping membership to eight.

''All things considered I think we'd like to be back at 12 if we lose some schools because it gives you more (television) inventory,'' Aresco said. The American is halfway through a six-year television deal with ESPN.

''There is only a handful of schools that I think would be attractive to us. What we don't want to do is risk the progress we've made, put it in jeopardy. We don't want to do anything to dilute our brand in any way. Could we stay at 10? If it makes more sense, absolutely. Especially in the short-term. We can play a championship game at 10.''

Aresco said he has not had an extensive conversation with Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby about the Big 12's plans, but they did talk. Aresco said he is comfortable that he will be kept in the loop as the Big 12's plans come into focus. Aresco said Bowlsby did not lay out a timetable other than to say the Big 12 hoped to work quickly.

Aresco took over as commissioner in 2012 when the American was still the Big East. The conference was falling apart during that round of realignment. Ultimately, defections forced the conference into a near-complete makeover and what emerged was the American Athletic Conference. Aresco said having gone through the Big East's downfall will help the American get through this.

''This is not going to be fun. It's not going to be easy,'' Aresco said. ''We know we had to rebuild three years ago. I think it was a dire situation then. It's probably less so now but that doesn't mean that there won't be specific challenges. We're trying to be prepared.''

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