In the end, it was inevitable…we all were just waiting around for the details to be finalized.
In fact, no one associated in any way with West Point football should be surprised by Wednesday’s announcement that Army is joining the American Athletic Conference as a football-only member. Actually, the only thing that may be surprising is that the merger begins so soon, kicking off next fall with a full eight-game AAC slate.
That means Army may have to buy its way out of six or seven contracts with other schools that expected to play the Black Knights in 2024. West Point may have to do the same thing over the next five to 10 years. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said in a press conference on Wednesday that the league is prepared to help out without going into details.
A flurry of Power Five conference changes last summer made it a foregone conclusion that Army could not remain an independent much longer. First, it is going to get harder and harder for any independent not named Notre Dame to find quality competition to compete against, let alone get them to visit a home field like Michie Stadium. Some Power Five conference are considering nine or even 10 conference games and stating that they want their members to schedule only other Power 5 teams, plus Notre Dame, in the future to fill out their non-league schedules.
Second, and maybe more importantly, an affiliation with the AAC is going to put more much-needed revenue into the West Point’s athletic program coffers. The league has at least seven bowl bids and its own TV contract with ESPN and Aresco stated that Army, like Navy, which is also a football-only member of the AAC, will continue to have its own deal with CBS Sports going forward.
Third, as last week’s disaster at LSU showed, it is becoming more and more clear that Army, as well as dozens of FBS schools, can no longer compete with the big boys of college football and the Black Knights needed to find a home where they have the best chance to be competitive.
That home is the AAC, which apparently came hat-in-hand and with a nice checkbook to get Army to be its 14th football member. After losing some of its best programs – Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston to the Big 12, and next season SMU to the Atlantic Coast Conference – the American has become a more balanced league, with some saying it is no longer the premier Group of Five conference in the country. Right now, Tulane, Memphis and UTSA, a team that Army beat this year, are the cream of the crop though Aresco stressed that other teams, including Navy, have risen to the top of league standings at certain points.
I understand the concern from many Army fans that this might be Déjà vu all over again. The team’s terrible experience as a member of Conference USA from 1998 to 2004 still leaves a bitter memory in many old-time Army fans. But that ended nearly 20 years ago and much has changed on the college football landscape, especially more bowl tie-ins and media money, for the West Point brass to not seriously consider a league.
Plus, the days of Todd Berry and a pro-set offense that did not work at West Point are long over. Army has, hopefully, locked down coach Jeff Monken through at least the 2027 season and has shown that it can be competitive against Group of Five schools on a regular basis.
So, what happens next? First, as the conference puts together next year’s schedule over the next month, Army simultaneously will have to figure out its two non-league games, plus Navy (a non-conference game that will continue to be played in December) and Air Force. The bet here is that Dartmouth from the Ivy League and either Syracuse or the much-rumored but not confirmed game versus Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium next November stay on the schedule. Rice, an AAC member, is also on the schedule, meaning that up to seven other games will have to be cancelled.
Second, the onus will be on Monken and his coaches to recruit and develop the best possible players to compete in the AAC. It can be done. Air Force, undefeated through seven games this year, has done an admirable job in the Mountain West over the decades and Navy has had some success in the AAC before hitting a few bumps in the road in recent years.
That should be enough to prove that Army can compete. The question remains will the Black
Knights rise to the challenge?