Anyone who has claimed that s/he knows what’s going to happen in the next week of the AAC this season has been unwise to be that bold.
The American — with only Conference USA following a remotely similar trajectory — has cut against the grain in 2016 as far as college football conferences are concerned. It’s not that other conferences have been free of flux; they have undergone quite a lot of change. The point of emphasis in the AAC: Its changes have been far more severe than the shifts in any other FBS league, with C-USA being the only conspicuous exception.
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The ACC has always featured Clemson and Louisville at the top. Those teams started quickly — not always at their best, but always good enough to win. Louisville’s only loss was to Clemson. Those have consistently been the best teams in the ACC in 2016. North Carolina and Virginia Tech have been the best in the Coastal Division. The flow of play in the ACC has been appreciably linear.
The Big Ten has elevated Wisconsin and Penn State, and the spectacular fall of Michigan State is shocking, but especially in the cases of the Badgers and Spartans, those realities steadily evolved this year, certainly after UW beat Sparta in East Lansing. Moreover, the Big Ten is still a Michigan-and-Ohio-State league. There’s no mystery there.
The Pac-12 has witnessed a very unexpected power shift, with Stanford and especially Oregon declining while Washington and Washington State have soared. Colorado’s substantial ascendance is a plot twist. However, the flow of the season for all these teams has been relatively consistent, Stanford being a partial exception only because its schedule has gotten softer. This notion of a linear direction for a team — such that one can generally expect a given performance from one week to the next — largely holds in the Pac-12.
The Big 12 is the Power Five league which comes the closest to being hard to predict from week to week. Texas Tech, TCU, Texas, and now Baylor — they’re all very confusing teams. However, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia are bastions of stability within the league.
The SEC isn’t hard to read: As soon as Tennessee’s schedule got tougher, the Vols started losing. Other teams are really mediocre, such that any SEC West team not called Mississippi State or Ole Miss should enjoy good odds against any SEC East team. The league is not that much of a mystery, just a grab bag of average-to-below-average football other than Alabama.
The Mountain West has produced good seasons from Boise State and San Diego State. Wyoming is the one big surprise in the league, but this is not a particularly unpredictable league — in spots, yes, but not top to bottom.
The Sun Belt has created a three-team hierarchy of Troy, Appalachian State, and Arkansas State. It’s true that Arkansas State couldn’t tie its shoelaces out of conference, but as soon as league play began, the Red Wolves found themselves. The Sun Belt is a league in which one can fairly reliably expect certain teams to win from week to week.
Conference USA, as shown in colleague Alex Kolodziej’s lastest haiku-flavored report, is chaotic and volatile. C-USA is more often a puzzle than not, it’s true. Yet, from that clutter and disorder, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech still have a very good chance of creating an expected high-end title game, thereby satisfying conventional wisdom relative to late August.
The American? This is the league which is truly different — not only in terms of the two teams likely to be division champions, but in terms of the weekly flow of play.
The AAC needs an unexpected Temple loss in order for one of the teams in the AAC title game to exist in line with preseason predictions. This was supposed to be a Houston-South Florida confrontation on December 3, but UH is nearly done — it needs a ton of help to have any shot at the West Division crown — and USF has to get a Temple loss at some point. However, the Owls have already endured the toughest parts of their league slate.
Temple against the Tulsa-Navy winner would be an out-of-left-field development… but that’s just the beginning.
What’s also conspicuous about the AAC is not merely the winners and losers from week to week, but the way teams win: decisively.
The AAC is the barroom brawl of FBS conferences in 2016.
Houston crushes UConn, and later gets crushed by SMU.
Navy soars past Memphis on October 22, and then falls behind 28-0 to USF on October 28, in a seven-point game which felt like a 35-point defeat. That USF team which crushed Navy played a clunker the previous week, falling 46-30 against Temple. The Temple team which maxed out against USF played a poor game the previous week, needing a touchdown with one second left to escape UCF.
Stop for a moment and realize that in a year of Tom Herman and South Florida, a Temple-UCF contest might have been the most pivotal game in the AAC.
Memphis loses to Tulsa, 59-30, getting run out of its home stadium, and then hangs a 51-7 beatdown on SMU this past Saturday in Texas, humiliating a group of Mustangs which had climbed to 4-4 and seemingly turned the corner. (NOPE!)
If you think you know what’s coming in South Florida-Memphis and Tulsa-Navy, you’re either crazy… or you should go to Vegas and make bank.
That’s the AAC this year. College football’s wildest conference has been some kind of thrill ride.