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AAC race up for grabs, but it needs dominance

AP Photo/Brian Blanco

The American Athletic Conference race remains too close to call. A half-dozen teams could take the title. That makes for a very competitive league. Who doesn’t like that? But in a weird twist, that level of even play is killing the AAC by destroying its chances of making a big splash.

It happened again Friday night when the Temple Owls ran roughshod over the University of South Florida Bulls, one of the nation’s hottest and most pleasing-to-watch teams, 46-30.

USF (6-2, 3-1) was hoping to streak through its remaining schedule, shedding the memory of a non-conference defeat against Florida State, and contend for the first league title in the program’s 20-year history. Instead, the Bulls now must pin their hopes on somebody beating Temple (5-3, 3-1) in order to win the AAC East.

Truthfully, the Bulls, on the verge of the program’s first top 25 ranking since 2011, didn’t at all play like a championship team on Friday night.

Temple, continuing its rise from woebegone program to contender under Coach Matt Rhule, put on a textbook performance. The Owls played keep away, mounting drive after drive, mostly utilizing the running of Ryquell Armstead (career-high 210 rushing yards).

Meanwhile, Temple’s defense was good enough. And that’s saying something against the Bulls, who feature quarterback Quinton Flowers (who accounted for 277 yards and three touchdowns) and running back Marlon Mack (70 yards rushing).

The hurry-up Bulls have scored early and often all season. For the first time, they looked out of sorts — and Temple’s defense had plenty to do with that.

USF saw nation-leading streaks end in consecutive games with 200-plus-yards rushing (12), 35 points (11) and 440 yards overall (11).

The Bulls got huge runs from Flowers (50 yards) and Mack (30-yard touchdown). Other than that, it was a night-long struggle. When good things emerged, they were snuffed out by penalties. Overall, no team has done a better job of containing Flowers and Mack this season.

If Temple sweeps through its remaining games — Cincinnati, Connecticut, Tulane and East Carolina (with a combined record of 11-14) — the Owls will make their second consecutive appearance in the AAC title game.

Meanwhile, even though Navy’s rise seems really cool to the unaffiliated fan, its 46-40 win against Houston was exactly what the league did not need. The Cougars, who upset FSU in last season’s Peach Bowl, opened with an attention-getting win against Oklahoma and were being picked by many as a College Football Playoff team.

Poof.

That’s gone.

Who wins the AAC? Anyone’s guess? But it’s likely that the AAC champion will be shuffled to a mid-range bowl. The Group of Five top spot looks like a tussle between Boise State and Western Michigan, meaning one of those programs will hit the big time, likely the Cotton Bowl, when the final rankings are released on Dec. 4.

Just as everything fell into place when Houston emerged last season, circumstances are working against the AAC this time.

At least AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco no longer must worry about a raid by the Big 12 Conference, which had expansion candidates in Houston, Cincinnati, USF, Central Florida and Connecticut (or about half of the league’s membership).

The Big 12’s decision to not expand (at this time) has kept things status quo. That means the AAC can continue its profile of a very competitive league that seems to be getting more balanced each season.

To get the nation’s attention, though, the AAC needed a super power, an undefeated team, preferably a crowd-pleaser.

Not going to happen this time.

The AAC, hoping to raise its profile, must settle for an unpredictable race that can only lead to second-tier status.

Too bad, because it’s a very fun conference to watch.

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