Whoa… Chill-out SEC fans, it’s just a question. Albeit, a question any college football fan should entertain.
While the week-to-week match-ups may not have the glamor of ranked opponents or national title implications, the American Athletic Conference has become one of the most interesting leagues to watch.
With big wins against Power Five opponents, three undefeated teams, a tight conference title chase, and plenty of coaches and players worthy of national award consideration— the AAC is chalk-full of intriguing stories to follow the rest of the way.
Challenging the Power Five
Commissioner Mike Aresco began the “Power Six” rhetoric at AAC media days before the season, and luckily for him several teams have stepped up to the challenge of bringing the conference into the national spotlight with attention-grabbing performances against the big boys.
Overall, the conference is 7-12 against Power Five opponents this season, but several of those games were much closer than expected (e.g., Florida squeaking past ECU 31-24 in Gainesville and Missouri just edging out UConn 9-6 in Colombia). The point here being that it’s not just the top dogs in the conference putting the Power Five to the test.
Temple kicked off the 2015 AAC coming out party with a dominant week one win over rival Penn State, 27-10. The Owls sacked Christian Hackenberg 10 times in the game, and shut down the Nittany Lions offense to beat PSU for the first time in 74 years. The Owls have another chance to make a statement as they host the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Saturday night with the College GameDay crew heading to Philly to preview the match-up.
Just a week later, a revamped Houston team earned Tom Herman his first big win by beating Louisville on the road, 34-31. The game showed us all what do-it-all quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is capable of, as he totaled 334 yards of offense and threw three touchdowns in leading the Cougars to a comeback win over the Cardinals.
ECU missed out on beating Florida early in the year, but just a couple weeks later they knocked off Virginia Tech for the second straight season as the Pirates continued their pillage of the ACC.
Five days after ECU’s victory, Cincinnati took down another ACC flagship program by defeating Miami 34-23. The Bearcats had struggled against Power Five opponents recently, so the win was crucial for Tommy Tuberville’s program.
Easily the biggest of them all thus far, Memphis welcomed Ole Miss, ranked 13th at the time, to the Liberty Bowl and exacted revenge for last season’s loss by handing the Rebels a loss, 37-24. The Tigers also picked up a win against Kansas to add to their Power Five resume.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention USF’s 45-21 win over Syracuse. Hey, a win over a Power Five opponent is a win over a Power Five opponent. I credited Memphis with beating Kansas, didn’t I?
Undefeated Teams, AP Poll Makers, and a Tight Conference Title Race
That sub-heading says it all, no?
The American has three unbeaten teams and they all find themselves inside the AP Top 25.
Temple comes in at No. 21, and could make a significant jump with a win over Notre Dame this weekend. The Owls are up two games in the AAC East standings, and with head-to-head wins over Cincinnati, UCF and ECU, they are very much in control of that half of the conference.
Houston checks in at No. 18 in the polls, and sit atop the AAC West with one more conference win than both Memphis and Navy. The Cougars still have Cincinnati, Memphis and Navy left on the schedule, so the race for the West is still wide open.
Memphis, sitting at No. 16 in the AP Poll, is the highest ranked team in the conference and has its eyes set on the Group of Five access bowl bid. Paxton Lynch and the Tigers’ offense have been phenomenal this season, making up for the step back the defense has taken due to roster turnover. Memphis still has games against Houston and Temple left, along with a home match-up with Navy.
The AAC West is going to be a wild division to watch down the stretch as Memphis, Houston and Navy are all still undefeated in conference play and have games against one another.
Coaches and Players Demanding National Attention
Memphis has won 14 straight games under Justin Fuente. 14!
This is a program that won three total games in 2013, and Fuente has the Tigers looking at back-to-back double-digit win seasons while finishing in the AP Top 25. His name is sure to be on the short list of a number of Power Five schools looking for coaches now or in the future.
A lot of Fuente’s success has to do with his decision to make Lynch his starting quarterback as a freshman two years ago. The move has paid off, as Lynch should be considered for a bunch of national awards if he keeps this outstanding season going. The Tigers are third in scoring and sixth in total offense so far this season with Lynch at the helm, as he ranks eighth in the nation in total offense.
While he hasn’t had the rebuilding job Fuente was faced with, Herman has been exactly what Houston needed to take a talented group of players to the next level as well. Known for his work with Ohio State in getting Heisman-caliber performance from all three of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, Herman has worked his magic on Ward Jr.
The Coogs signal-caller is ninth in the country in total offense and he’s the team’s leading passer and rusher. HE has accounted for 25 total touchdowns to rank third nationally in scoring per game. As with Lynch, I expect Ward Jr. to contend for several national awards if he keeps Houston on a winning track.
So with all this said, the proof is in the pudding. No matter which way you look at it, the AAC is for real and very well could be college football’s most interesting conference.