Back at the American Athletic Conference media days before the season began, conference commissioner Mike Aresco made no bones about the intentions of his league with one notable statement:
“If we look and act like the so-called Power Five, we will be in the conversation and eventually ‘Power Six’ will enter the media and public lexicon and perceptions,” he said.
Back then, it was a pipe dream. Today?
Well, the “Power Six” isn’t exactly a reality, but the AAC has certainly made waves nationally.
From big wins against Power Five competition, to high profile players and coaches to general success on the field, the American embraced the ‘Power Six’ theory and ran with it all the way to eight bowl teams and the Group of Five New Year’s Six bid.
In just three years, the AAC has gone from a fledgling conference featuring a mixed bag of former Big East, C-USA and MAC programs, to one knocking on the door of Power Five relevancy.
2015 has been critical to that rise.
Success against the Power Five
This one can be taken with a grain of salt as the American technically had a losing record against Power Five opponents this year (8-11 plus two additional losses to quasi-ACC member Notre Dame), but that can only be viewed as success within the league office. In 2014, the AAC went 4-22 against Power Five teams (and independents), and also suffered a 4-6 record against the other four Group of Five leagues.
That’s what makes 2015 so impressive for the American, as it not only had a much better go of it against the Power Five, but also dominated the Group of Five with a 10-1 mark.
Temple began the year with a marquee win over Penn State and went on to have a last minute shot at beating Notre Dame fall short. Houston was able to take down Louisville early in the year on the road. ECU has made it annual habit of beating ACC teams, and it kept the streak alive by going into Blacksburg and coming out victorious over Virginia Tech. Cincinnati joined the party by beating “The U” after getting waxed by the Hurricanes last season. And finally, the most impressive Power Five take down was delivered by Memphis, which beat a 13th-ranked Ole Miss team that finished the year at No. 12.
Overall, absent Navy and Temple taking down Notre Dame and something like USF shocking Florida State, Aresco likely couldn’t have envisioned a better season for the American against the Power Five.
Players and Coaches in the National Conscience
It started in the off-season with the high-profile hires of Tom Herman at Houston, Chad Morris at SMU and Philip Montgomery at Tulsa. Those three plus incoming Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo were joining an already notable group of coaches including Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati, George O’Leary at UCF and Justin Fuente at Memphis.
Herman instantly put Houston on the map nationally, and the momentum he built from day one resulted in an AAC championship and the Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six. He quickly hit the radar of Power Five programs everywhere as the coaching carousel swirled, but elected to stay with the Cougars and is certainly getting paid handsomely to do so.
As for his fellow first-year head coaches, Montgomery already has Tulsa bowling after an impressive offensive season and Morris is clearly rebuilding an almost completely barren SMU program.
Niumatalolo shared AAC coach of the year honors with Herman with another impressive campaign at Navy, and Fuente parlayed his incredible turnaround of Memphis into the head coaching job at Virginia Tech as Frank Beamer’s replacement.
As for the players, at one point or another this season it seemed like a quarterback in the AAC was being named the new “Heisman dark horse”.
It started with Gunner Kiel before the season began as his team was an overwhelming favorite to win the AAC. Then it turned into Paxton Lynch, who began the season on an absolute tear and is likely to be one of the first quarterbacks selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Next up was Greg Ward Jr., who was essentially accounting for Houston’s entire offense before an ankle injury slowed him a bit down the stretch. And finally Navy’s Keenan Reynolds came extremely close to being invited to New York as a Heisman finalist, but fell a bit short despite another superlative season to cap his sterling college football career.
The point here is this: the American Athletic Conference can produce stars, and that is critical to remaining nationally relevant in the way Aresco believes the league can.
Eight Bowl Eligible Teams, Top 25 Teams and the Access Bowl Bid
When three quarters of your conference moves on to the college football postseason and three of your teams finish the regular season in the Top 25, you’re doing something right.
Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston, Navy and Temple were all thought to be locks for bowl eligibility before the season, but having UConn, USF and Tulsa emerge and qualify with resurgent seasons was a welcome surprise for the conference.
Houston (No. 18), Navy (No. 21) and Temple (No.24) all wound up inside the College Football Playoff Committee’s final Top 25 of the regular season.
More teams involved in bowl season and/or ranked only equals more exposure and opportunities to cultivate Aresco’s “Power Six” rhetoric.
Of those eight teams, four will face Power Five opponents, presenting the league with an opportunity to make an even louder case for the existence of the “Power Six.” Navy will take on Pitt in what’s essentially a home game in the Military Bowl. Tulsa will face Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl, in a game it could win if its offense forces a shootout. Memphis gets Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl in an interesting match-up, and the Tigers in blue and gray have already proven they can beat an SEC opponent.
And finally, No. 18 Houston will play No. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve. It’s the second time in three years that the AAC will represent the Group of Five in the New Year’s Six, and I fully expect this to be a competitive game.
The Coogs aren’t your typical star-struck, non-AQ bunch playing the role of “David” to Florida State’s “Goliath.” Herman brings big game and national championship-winning experience to his squad, and it should be entertaining to see what Ward Jr. can do against the Seminoles with that ankle fully healed.
All-in-all, 2015 has been a banner season for the American, and with some more big wins possible during bowl season, the brand of this conference and Aresco’s dream of a “Power Six” are both on the rise.