Last week, Army announced that the school will forgo its longstanding football independence and join the American Athletic Conference as a football-only member beginning in the 2024 season. As a result, UConn, UMass and Notre Dame are left as the only independent schools in FBS football. Notre Dame, however, is a partial member of the ACC, which puts them in a whole different category. Taking into account the five games they’re required to play against ACC foes, along with their yearly rivalry games against USC and Stanford, the Irish essentially function as a team with a conference. Not only that, Notre Dame has a history on the gridiron, which neither UConn nor UMass can compete with, especially very recently. From 2012 through 2022, the Irish have compiled an overall 106-35 record, including a National Championship game appearance, as well as two other College Football Playoff appearances. In that same time frame, neither UConn or UMass has finished a season above .500. With that said, the schools aren’t comparable.
History has shown that when a UConn football coach speaks, people should listen. Just look at Bob Diaco, who was mocked when he told reporters that the American Athletic Conference should put their games on Nickelodeon in an effort to appeal to younger audiences. Here we are in 2023, and the NFL playoffs have been a smashing success on the channel.
Maybe people should listen when Jim Mora discusses the state of the program. He has not been shy about his desire to join a conference. This past summer, he vehemently campaigned for the Huskies to receive an invitation to join the Big 12, who had been looking to expand into new markets. In fact, talks were so serious that Commissioner Brett Yormark was spotted on the Storrs campus meeting with Athletic Director David Benedict and other members of the Athletic Department. Of course, UConn was passed over for that opportunity, as the Big 12 and Yormark chose to go a different route, grabbing Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State from a collapsing PAC-12. Even after missing the Big 12, Mora has remained steadfast in his position.
“Recruits do care about being in a conference, and that’s a real deterrent to us right now,” Mora noted on his radio show prior to the game against USF. “Not being in a conference is absolutely killing us.”
Mora’s position is understandable. It’s hard to build a consistent program when there is no consistency around the program itself. Going from playing some of the elite programs of the sport (think the game against No. 19 Tennessee this weekend) to mid-major opponents (FIU, UMass and many more) and bouncing back and forth between the two over a 12-week season is really hard, especially for a program trying to make the jump from rock bottom to regular bowl contenders.
So, what are the options for UConn and Mora? Well, there isn’t a whole lot. It feels relatively safe to say that the Power Conferences, Big 12, Big 10, SEC and ACC are done with expansion for now and won’t be pursuing new members for the time being. This leaves the ‘Group of Five’ conferences, which, if UConn were to join in a football-only capacity would almost certainly mean that UMass would have to tag along as well. Even within these less-prestigious conferences, the market for UConn isn’t huge, especially without basketball. With the Mountain West based on the Pacific Coast, it’s hard to envision UConn being fit when the school is located almost 3,000 miles away from its constituents. UConn would face similar problems in Conference USA or the Sun Belt, both based in the south. UConn’s former conference, the American, has a little northeastern niche with Army and Temple, which UConn could add to. However, Commissioner Mike Aresco refused to let the Huskies stay on as a football-only member when they left the conference in 2020, and odds are he has not changed his stance.
That leaves one option left for the Huskies, and it happens to be a near-perfect fit. That’s the Mid-American Conference, the lovable cohort of lesser-known schools situated in the heart of the Midwest and known for their Tuesday and Wednesday night showdowns on ESPN. If UConn and Mora want to take a step to be a consistent winner, getting in on some MACtion is how they should start. Joining a conference like the MAC would give the Huskies geographically relevant opponents like Buffalo, along with other Ohio, Michigan and Illinois opponents, a comparable distance or shorter than the games they’ve scheduled in Tennessee, Texas and Georgia. UConn would also have a chance to compete for conference championships right away. In 2022, only four of the 12 MAC teams were ranked inside of the FBS Top 100, per ESPN’s Football Power Index. They did this while having some of the weakest schedules in the sport. UConn came in at 120th last season (probably a bit low) while playing the 69th-hardest schedule in the country, which would be good for the second-toughest schedule in the MAC.
Another major advantage UConn would have is the facilities and resources for their athletes that other schools can’t match. The Burton Family Football Complex is touted by many as a Power Conference-level facility and is better than most schools in the MAC have to offer. When it comes to recruiting battles within the conference, it would be hard to imagine recruits picking against the facilities and resources the Huskies have to offer.
To close, take a moment and think about Gonzaga Basketball. Think about their program as a whole, which has not missed the postseason since 1998. Although they are in the WCC, a conference filled with small schools along the West Coast, the school invests in them like they’re a team playing in a Power Conference. The facilities and resources are top-notch, and none of the other schools in the WCC are able to consistently compete with them. The vision for UConn Football should be that of Gonzaga Basketball. Join a conference like the MAC, where UConn can use its expanded resources to rise above the competition and turn into a consistent winner. Mora and the fans want to see wins. There’s no better way to get there than joining the MAC.