NEWPORT, R.I. – Say what you will about the American Athletic Conference, but it knows how to put together a party.
Cincinnati lineman Parker Ehinger admitted to eating five lobsters at the annual AAC clambake Monday night. Hours later at the Hyatt Regency hotel, Ehinger was talking about the Bearcats striving for a perfect season, protecting quarterback Gunner Kiel, and enjoying the fact that Cincinnati is the overwhelming favorite to win the first ever AAC championship game on Dec. 5.
Name another player from another conference who could share those experiences. There is no denying the truth. Coaches, players, administrators, bowl representatives, and media members enjoy this event. There is good football to follow soon. But the conference previously known as the Big East has its share of insecurities.
The AAC remains the Rodney Dangerfield Conference. If you don’t understand that, just keep reading. Here are five takeaways from AAC Media Days in Newport.
AAC still searching for respect
The message delivered by AAC commissioner Mike Aresco in his annual media day remarks doesn’t change much from year to year. Aresco’s opening speech Tuesday lasted about 35 minutes. Each time, you listen and walk away feeling that the American simply can’t attain the respect it desires from the Power Five conferences in college football. That creates challenge for the 12 member schools
And when it comes to national media attention, the AAC might as well be nonexistent.
“I do not like the perceived divide that has developed in college sports, especially in college football,” Aresco said. “I would like to see more media attention, which influences public attention and public opinion, focused on us, not simply on the so-called Power Five.”
Aresco again emphasized that the AAC offers schools with tradition and “emerging programs.” Aresco said the AAC remains committed to providing full cost of attendance “and other items that promote student-athlete well-being.”
“All this means that we will compete at the highest level,” he said. “The NCAA Governance redesign, affording as it did autonomy in certain legislative areas to the five big conferences, can be viewed as problematic for us because we are not in the autonomy group.
“It was essentially a self-selecting process and we are not currently in large part because realignment changed our membership significantly. Although this situation now poses challenges for us, we have no intention of surrendering to it.”
Aresco promises the AAC will move forward with a vision, ready to fight and will turn “perceived problems into opportunities” as the situation remains out of the conference’s control.
“Therefore our goal is to be in the Power Five conversation as the sixth power conference,” he said. “That we can control by our performance on and off the field.”
The bottom line, and the coaches and the players admit it without hesitation, is winning games on the field, and proving that the AAC belongs. Last season AAC teams were 4-22 against teams from the Power Five.
That won’t buy anyone respect. Or make any money.
“We’re doing everything they’re doing right now, we’re just not getting that big check [from the biggest bowls],” USF coach George O’Leary said. “How long can you sustain it? The name of the game is to win, not just the conference games but win the non-conference games. That’s how you get recognized and that’s how you’re judged.”
That doesn’t mean there is an absence of good teams in the AAC. Cincinnati is the pick to win the conference championship and has the potential to climb into the national rankings. Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville, who has been a head coach at Mississippi, Auburn, and Texas Tech, is not a believer in a competitive gap.
“I look at it as a Power One,” Tuberville said. “There’s about 25 percent of those teams in the Power Five that control college football. The rest of them are about like us. We can compete with the rest of them. There’s a gap but it’s not really between the Power Five and us, the Power Six. There’s a gap between the have’s and have not’s in college football.”
Everyone loves a championship game
UCF won the AAC title outright in 2013. But last season, Memphis, UCF and Cincinnati all finished 7-1 in league play and shared the AAC championship.
That will never happen again. With Navy joining the conference this season, the AAC football conference has 12 members and qualifies, under NCAA rules, to hold a championship game. Circle Dec. 5 on the calendar if you find that appealing.
Players and coaches are pumped.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve always had to share a title. I just want to win it outright,” said Cincinnati senior offensive lineman Parker Ehinger, whose Bearcats were the overwhelming favorite in the media poll announced Tuesday.
Memphis, Houston and Navy all received first-place votes in the West Division. One of them could end up in that Dec. 5 game. Navy is in a conference for the first time in the 135 seasons the Midshipmen have played football.
“Being able to play for a conference championship really changed the game,” Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds said. “And also having the opportunity to go to bigger bowls that we might not have had before. It’s really up to us now.”
SMU coach Chad Morris was offensive coordinator at Clemson from 2011-14.
“I played in a conference championship in the ACC, and to know the first week in December, our conference is going to have huge momentum; that gives you something to play for,” Morris said.
UCF coach George O’Leary sees possibilities beyond the new format.
“I’m a big believer in divisional play and a conference champion,” O’Leary said. “I don’t like three teams being named conference champions. I think our conference champion will have a great opportunity to move on to one of the BCS games and get a slot there.”
Temple coach Matt Rhule said, “It’s the way football should be done. It should be settled on the field. If you want to be at that [Power Five] level, you’ve got to do the same things they’re doing. That’s what we’re doing.
Taste of Texas
This isn’t your father’s Big East Conference with a new name. The Texas invasion of the AAC has gone even deeper with new coaches at SMU, Houston and Tulsa. All three have Texas backgrounds.
“Football in general is embraced [in Texas],” said Morris, who was born in Edgewood, Texas and graduated from Texas A&M. Morris invested 18 years in Texas high school coaching – 16 as a head coach, from Eustace to Lake Travis.
Houston coach Tom Herman was born in Cincinnati and went to school at Cal-Lutheran. He comes to the Cougars after stints as offensive coordinator at Iowa State and Ohio State. But he’s a little bit Texas.
“I cut my teeth coaching in the state of Texas,” Herman said. “This is my sixth college in the state of Texas coaching. From Texas Lutheran to the University of Texas to Sam Houston State, Texas State, Rice and now back to U of H. It’s home.
“Most of my adult life has been spent in the state of Texas. Two of my children were born in the Houston area. I’ve been recruiting the city of Houston since I was 25 years old.”
New Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery is born and bred in Texas. You can tell that from his accent, which he uses to poke fun at Herman.
“Some of us are real Texans and some of us aren’t,” Montgomery said. “Some of us just claim it. . . . I love it.”
Can Montgomery survive in the neighboring state of Oklahoma, a traditional football rival for Texans?
“No doubt,” he said. “The first thing I found out, as I got in and around the university and city . . . great, great people. It’s the same type of people that I’ve grown up with; people that will give you the shirt off their back. It’s been a good transition for me and my family.”
Keep an eye on Temple
The Owls were picked to finish third in the East Division, behind Cincinnati and UCF. But this team could be a sleeper. Coach Rhule has 19 starters returning, including 11 on defense.
That defensive unit, led by linebacker Tyler Matakevich, ranked fourth national in scoring last season (17.5 ppg). One year after not being able to stop any offensive unit, the Owls forced 30 turnovers – an increase of 17.
“It was weird in 2013, we weren’t a good team, but we were second, third or fourth in the conference in pretty much every offensive category,” Rhule said. “Defensively we couldn’t do anything. We flipped that last year. The goal is to get the two things together this year.
“They’ve grown up together. I’m excited about seeing them playing. If we can help them offensively by being a little more efficient then we’ll be a really good team.”
Rhule said the offensive goals are to establish the run, improve on third-down conversions and cut down turnovers. The Owls will learn a great deal about themselves early, opening with Penn State at home, followed by road games at Cincinnati, Massachusetts and Charlotte. Temple also gets Notre Dame at home on Oct. 31.
Reaching for perfection
As far as we know, Connecticut coach Bob Diaco was the only AAC coach to forecast an undefeated season and national championship for his team. Let’s face it: That was an attempt to get attention. The Huskies enter the season as the worst team in the AAC.
Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville would never go there. But Parker Ehinger did.
“That’s definitely our goal, to go undefeated and go to an [Access] bowl game,” said Ehinger, leader of the Bearcats offensive line and leftover from the Big East days. “We don’t have the automatic bid any more. It’s not as easy as it used to be.
“I’m a humble guy, but at the same time, I like seeing our team up at the top in the preseason ranks. It’s just something to live up to.”
For the Bearcats, that would mean running the table in the AAC and being perfect in non-conference play that includes games against Miami (Florida), at Miami (Ohio), and at BYU. Cincinnati opens against Alabama A&M of the FCS.
That’s a relatively common scheduling philosophy, according to UCF coach George O’Leary, who just added the role of athletic director to his duties.
“Normally you have four games,” O’Leary said. “You go after one that is a front-page cover if you beat them, one that you have to play well to win, then two others that if you play the way you’re supposed to, you win. That’s the way I look at. I’m always trying to upgrade the schedule. I think you get better because you play better people.”
O’Leary also knows an entire season can go down the drain during the non-conference weeks.
“Once you get that third loss, I think you’ve got problems,” he said.
And that’s the last thing any team in the AAC needs right now.