American commissioner Mike Aresco denies any collusion to add Big 12 teams

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco denied allegations that his conference and ESPN had "strategically aligned or plotted to influence conference structures," adding that any suggestion otherwise was "a completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation."

Last week, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby suggested that ESPN and an unnamed conference had gone after several remaining Big 12 teams and told CBS Sports the American had pursued three to five teams from his conference. Aresco vehemently fired back at that assertion Wednesday.

"Our conference has never strategically aligned or plotted with ESPN to influence conference structures," Aresco said during a virtual media day event. "We wouldn't do that, ESPN has never done that and would not do it. We do consult with our television and business partners on issues related to our conference; everyone does. But any suggestions or statements that we colluded with ESPN with regard to the structure of any other conference is a completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation, and that's all I really have to say about this at this point."

In a cease-and-desist letter Bowlsby sent to ESPN last week, he wrote that the network had "actively engaged in discussions with at least one other conference regarding that conference inducing additional Members of the Big 12 Conference to leave the Big 12 Conference."

ESPN responded last week, saying the claims in the letter "had no merit."

Also on Wednesday, Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting the U.S. Department of Justice "investigate ESPN's role in the potential destruction of the Big XII Conference and if any anti-competitive or illegal behavior occurred relating to manipulating the conference change or ESPN's contractual television rights."

After Texas and Oklahoma announced last week that they would leave for the SEC, the future of the Big 12, with only eight members remaining, has come under increasing scrutiny. With 11 conference schools and attractive members including Cincinnati and UCF in the American, speculation has centered on that conference and its long-term future.

While Aresco said the league has not specifically contacted other schools, he would not comment on whether schools have reached out to his league. But he did say, "If there are schools interested in us who would enhance our brand and be a good cultural and competitive fit, then why wouldn't we consider them? Whatever happens down the road, we're going to continue to focus on growth and excellence."

Aresco repeated multiple times that he believes his conference is strong and unified but acknowledged the uncertainty in the college landscape as schools and leagues work to figure out what comes next.

"We've discussed with our membership what our strategic vision for this conference is and why it would be wise for them to stay in this conference, which is a growth conference, which is a conference that's strong and stable," Aresco said. "We don't know what's going to happen, so we just want everyone to step back, look at the situation, and we're basically staying calm and just analyzing the situation."

"Any suggestions or statements that we colluded with ESPN with regard to the structure of any other conference is a completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation, and that's all I really have to say about this at this point." American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco

As for the proposed 12-team College Football Playoff model, Aresco said the American remains in favor of it -- even though new concerns have been raised because SEC commissioner Greg Sankey served as one of the architects of the plan. With Texas and Oklahoma in the mix now, the SEC stands to gain even more in a 12-team model.

But Aresco said that is also the case for the American, which has been on the outside looking in during the entire history of the CFP despite having had multiple teams undefeated at the end of the regular season, including UCF (2017, '18) and Cincinnati (2020). The Bearcats, as the preseason choice to win the American, could find themselves in the playoff discussion again this year.

The CFP board of managers next meets in September to hear feedback from all the conferences and stakeholders involved.

"The CFP plan is a good one," Aresco said. "The current expansion speculation should not derail or delay the process. I see no reason for that. There was broad support for the CFP plan, then it should move forward. It creates greater opportunities for a wide range of teams, including our teams, who deserved a shot in prior seasons and didn't have one.

"No one will ever convince me that some of our teams couldn't have competed and done really well and possibly won a national championship. We feel the 12 teams creates opportunity, and that's the key. The playoff is getting a bit stale when you have the same teams over and over again. It's a real issue. What this does, it will energize college football."

New UCF coach Gus Malzahn also voiced his support for the 12-team format.

"You see the change in two teams added to the SEC and you hear people saying, 'Oh, it's going to push it back,'" Malzahn said. "I think that's a bunch of bull, man. What's best for college football is to move forward sooner rather than later, have the 12 teams, and so hopefully that will happen."

With COVID-19 case counts rising in the United States, Aresco said the league has incentivized vaccinations across the conference -- especially since the league will not reschedule games this year.

Aresco announced that if a team is unable to play because of an outbreak, it would result in a forfeit, following similar measures already announced by the SEC and Big 12.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.