Column: On outside of Power Five looking in, Aztecs must weigh options

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It’s probably a little like standing by for the last flight out before the impending snowstorm, watching four lucky souls get the final seats and then forlornly pressing your nose against the glass of the terminal window while the plane roars down the runway and disappears into the night sky.

The Big 12 made it official Friday, inviting BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida into its conference in all sports beginning in 2023-24 to replace outgoing Texas and Oklahoma.

San Diego State, Boise State and the rest of the Mountain West and American Athletic Conference … noses pressed against the glass.

The Big 12 now actually will have 12 members, not 10, which is about the only thing that makes sense right now in the increasingly incongruous world of collegiate athletics. But SDSU has no choice other than gathering the puzzle pieces left scattered across the table and assembling them into some sort of picture, whether or not they perfectly fit.

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The first step for the Aztecs is acceptance, understanding their lot in life: a mid-major school on the West Coast with few palatable options.

They’re not going to the Big 12. That’s done for the foreseeable future.

They’re not going to the Pac-12, either, not now, maybe not ever as much as Aztecs fans try to convince themselves that they will. Expansion is a function of need and want, and the Pac-12 neither needs nor wants another mouth to feed.

San Diego might rank as the country’s eighth largest city in population (mostly because the city limits extend far from downtown), but that’s deceiving. It’s the No. 27 Nielsen media market with 1.13 million television households. Dallas is ninth in city population but fifth in media market at nearly 3 million because it also encompasses Fort Worth and the urban sprawl between.

And anyway, the Pac-12 already controls the San Diego market, where TV ratings for UCLA or USC football games regularly outpace SDSU, often by a considerable margin. (Basketball, as good as the Aztecs have been over the past decade, doesn’t drive realignment or TV contracts.)

So that leaves them exactly where?

Now that the Southeastern Conference has claimed Texas and Oklahoma and the Big 12 has stabilized, the ripples of conference realignment have reached the so-called Group of Five. The Mountain West and American Athletic Conference are nervously staring at each other from opposite sides of the country, waiting to see who attacks first.

The Mountain West probably has the better current membership. The AAC offers about twice as much TV money as the Mountain West’s $3 million per year per school, although ESPN might have something to say about that with the departures of the three marquee schools.

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AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco already is talking expansion, telling Sports Illustrated: “The DNA in this league isn’t going to change. Our remaining schools have competed extremely well with the schools leaving. The schools leaving have had success, but they’re not dynasties. We’ll add schools and we’ll replenish and reconstitute.”

Boise State, Colorado State and Air Force have been mentioned as potential replacements, along with 10 schools from the Central and Eastern time zones where the AAC currently operates. One reason SDSU might not be a candidate is because, responding to a report in January that the AAC was considering SDSU and Boise State for expansion, Aztecs Athletic Director John David Wicker called it “a nonstarter because we can’t put all our teams in the American and there’s no viable alternative on the West Coast for the rest of our teams (if only football went to the AAC).”

Conversely, there are whispers that the Mountain West could raid the AAC for SMU and Memphis while shedding its dead weight (hello, San Jose State and Hawaii). That might be a nonstarter, though, given the haircut they’d take in TV revenue and exit fees, along with the debatable TV value they’d bring to the Mountain West.

Another possibility: The Mountain West binds together and remains intact, banking that Alabama-Birmingham, Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State or whoever the AAC might add won’t give it enough juice to maintain its foothold as the best conference outside the Power 5.

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Except you’re still getting only $3 million a year from your conference in television payouts while some power conferences are north of $50 million, further widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.

And so another back-of-the-napkin scheme emerges, perhaps not immediately but somewhere over the horizon: A national, breakaway conference with the best of the rest.

SDSU, Boise State, Colorado State, Air Force and UNLV (because of its football facilities, not its history) from the Mountain West. SMU, Memphis, South Florida and Navy from the AAC. North Texas, which is pouring money into facilities, from Conference USA. Maybe Army, currently an independent in football, so you have all three service academies.

The geography works in football because teams all charter to games, and there’s little difference in time or expense to fly for another hour or so to Dallas instead of Albuquerque. In basketball and Olympic sports, you could focus schedules within your region and add one or two trips east or west — not ideal but not unreasonable.

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It wouldn’t draw $40 million per school from the TV networks. But it might get you $10 million, which is better than $3 million. It also raises your national profile and better positions you if or when the tectonic plates of collegiate athletics shift again.

Until then, the Aztecs must wait. And hope.