The most interesting college football league isn't in the Power 5
Before the Big 12 announced its plans to expand in July, the most recent wave of conference realignment had been basketball-driven. In December 2012, the Big East's seven non-FBS teams—all of which have strong hoops traditions—decided they would strike out on their own and with the Big East name. From that, the American Athletic Conference was born, eventually cobbled together with pieces of the left-behind Big East, part of Conference USA, and Navy. The roster of teams—especially after Louisville and Rutgers departed for the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, in 2014—seemed confusing geographically and athletically uninspiring.
Now, though, in its fourth season of play, the AAC looks like anything but a conference built on shifting basketball alliances. It's the darling of the Group of Five, the lower-tier league with high odds to get a team into the College Football Playoff—and it might just be the most interesting conference of college football to watch in 2016, both on and off the field.
Ok, sure, you're saying. We all love Houston, and Memphis was a fun little experiment a year ago, and the name Keenan Reynolds sounds vaguely familiar. It would be easy to look at the AAC as just a flash in the pan, a breeding ground for coaches like Justin Fuente to be snatched by ACC teams, for quarterbacks like Keenan Reynolds to be turned into receivers and then waived in the NFL, even for entire programs like Houston to ascend to bigger conferences and paychecks. And it could be. With its success—and with yet another wave of realignment looming—the AAC has become a mystery. Will the Big 12 pick off its best assets, or will it be allowed to grow into a consistent (and money-making) lower-tier power?
This summer, when Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby announced his conference would be vetting potential expansion teams, most programs in the AAC were candidates—in the sense that any university with halfway functional football seemed to be on the Big 12's radar. In late July, Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples ranked his top 11 most likely Big 12 candidates; seven of the teams came from the AAC. And finally, on Sept. 1, when ESPN reported that the Big 12 had narrowed its focus to 12 teams, eight American teams remained as real candidates. Eight. That's 80% of the conference.
At AAC media days in August, Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville told SI's Pete Thamel that "there's not anyone in this room not trying to get into the Power 5," and the AAC's greatest assets may be its eventual undoing. The conference contains coveted television markets—Houston, Orlando, Dallas, New Orleans and Tampa, to name a few—and its schools have shown a willingness to invest in sports. Look at the $3 million annual salary Houston gave Tom Herman last November or the facility improvements underway at Memphis or the new on-campus stadium Tulane opened in 2014. These are programs that want to move to the next level; status is more easily achieved by jumping to a conference that already has it than by idling as your conference grows its own.
It's impossible to say what might happen to the AAC if and when the Big 12 expands. It's likely that Houston would bolt, but would the conference lose one team, or potentially two or three? Would the Big 12 pick off its most talented programs, or would it favor better television markets and take a bottom-dweller like Tulane, which remains in the realignment conversation? If the AAC wants success, it needs to focus on what it can control now—and it can look no further than this weekend.
A year ago, the AAC played 18 games against Power 5 teams. This season, it'll play 20 (it's gone 3–4 in those games so far), and Saturday's schedule features six such games—all of which American teams have more than a puncher's chance of winning. Memphis should beat Kansas. Temple looks like a match for Penn State, and even though the Owls are playing on the road, they should draw a friendly crowd. Connecticut is favored at home against Virginia, as is South Florida on the road at Syracuse and East Carolina at South Carolina. Only UCF is a true underdog, but playing at home against Maryland, it at least has a hope and a prayer.
That's a long-winded way of saying that it wouldn't be crazy to bet on the AAC going 5–1 this weekend against the Power 5, and it should expect to at least finish 4–2. Success of that level would be no small feat for a Group of Five conference—and it says a lot about what the future could hold in terms of nonconference schedules, exposure and teams' chances at major bowl games.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images; Steve Cannon/AP; Joe Murphy/Getty Images
The AAC's future is built on more than just Houston and Herman. It's built on the next tier of teams, which could anchor it in a post-Houston world: South Florida, Temple, Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis, which hired Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell last offseason. It's built on young coaches like Temple's Matt Rhule and South Florida's Willie Taggart, coaches whose teams would be smart to pay up to keep them when the time comes. Not every school has Houston's checkbook, but they need to give their coaches reasons to stay—reasons beyond a hope and a prayer of joining the Big 12.
To look at the list of American coaches is to see opportunity. Only Niumatololo has been at his school for more than three years; the next longest-tenured coaches (Rhule, Taggart and Tuberville) are going into their fourth seasons at their respective schools and have yet to even go through a full recruiting cycle. Of the conference's four first-year coaches, only one has had a head job before: Tulane's Willie Fritz, who's 56 and has spent his career coaching (and coaching well) among college football's lower tier. Apart from him, the conference added young, first-time head coaches in Norvell, East Carolina's Scottie Montgomery and UCF's Scott Frost. Landing offensive coordinators from Duke (Montgomery) and Oregon (Frost) was no minor coup. Keeping them, if their teams are successful, will be even more challenging.
But for now, and to stay sane, the AAC needs to think smaller: next weekend, next month, this season's playoff. Of course there's not a coach who's taken an American job in the past few years who hasn't thought of it as his chance to jump to something better, but the conference has to use that as an asset. It doesn't matter how it gets its coaches and recruits or why its schools are investing. What matters is that it gets them, that its teams put money into football, because no matter what happens with the Big 12, the AAC can still have a strong base come next fall. The conference needs to look at 2016 as an opportunity—not just to prepare to jump when the Big 12 waves a carrot, but to build something of its own.