There’s a certain pecking order or caste system when it comes to the NCAA. You have the “cool/popular” kids in the Power 5 conferences and then you have everyone else in the “Group of 5” and beyond. The Power 5 consists of the Big XII, Atlantic Coastal Conference, Pac-12, Big 10 and South East Conference. The Group of 5 consists of The American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt conferences. However, with the recent string of football success The American has had, it’s high time for them to start getting some respect from the cool kids.
The American Athletic Conference is one of the newest conferences in collegiate sports. It was crafted in 2012 right after the split of the Big East under Commissioner Mike Aresco. The AAC or “The American” as it goes by, is made up of schools each with a deep history in athletics. These schools are: the University of Central Florida, the University of Cincinnati, East Carolina University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Houston, the University of Memphis, Navy, the University of South Florida, Southern Methodist University, Temple University, Tulane University, the University of Tulsa, and Wichita State University. Navy is the only one out of the group that is only there for football. Wichita State was just added to the conference over the summer and will participate in all sports except for football. The conference also has some associate members such as San Diego State and California State University for rowing. When the conference was first created back in 2012 the University of Louisville and Rutgers University were also members however they both left in 2014 to go to the ACC and Big 10 respectively.
AAC football has really raised a few heads over the past few years. The American has had a combined 15 teams play in bowl games in the last two seasons with 7 teams reaching bowl eligibility this season. In 2015 Houston went 13-1 and in 2016 three teams (Tulsa, Temple, USF) finished the season with at least 10 wins. The conference has also put two of its teams in New Year’s Six bowl games as Houston beat Florida State in 2015 in the Peach Bowl and UCF defeated Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl in 2013. The teams have also had some big wins over teams from the Power 5 conferences. In 2015 Temple defeated Big 10 opponent Penn State for the first time in over 70 years. USF defeated Syracuse and South Carolina last season, Memphis defeated a ranked UCLA team earlier this season and UCF beat Maryland 38-10 at UMD. This season was highlighted by an undefeated season by UCF as they went 12-0, are currently ranked #10 in AP top 25 poll and are on their way to the Peach Bowl to take on the Auburn Tigers. They are the only unbeaten team in the top 25. Memphis and USF also finished the season ranked at #19 and #23, each winning 9+ games.
At this point though it does seem like the AAC is just the farm system for Power 5 schools looking for their next head coach. Since 2014, 4 coaches from the American have gone on to become coaches at top programs. This includes Scott Frost who just recently accepted the head coach position at the University of Nebraska after leading UCF to an undefeated season. Tom Herman was the first to leave for greener pastures back in 2015. He accepted the position as the Texas Longhorns new coach after leading the University of Houston to an AAC championship and a Peach Bowl win against Florida State.
Willie Taggart and Matt Rhule followed suit the next year as they left their teams at the end of the 2016 season, both changing the culture of football at those schools. For Taggart, he doubled the win total each year he was the coach of the USF Bulls. Started with two in 2013, four in 2014, eight in 2015 and capped it off with an 11 win season in 2016. This was enough for the University of Oregon to come calling and Taggart left USF with a .500 record. Taggart will only spend a year at Oregon as he will be the head coach of Florida State next season. For Matt Rhule, he completely turned around the culture of Temple football. Temple’s football program hadn’t been very successful over the past few decades. Rhule’s tenure started off rough as the team only won 2 games in 2013. However Rhule led them to bowl eligibility the next year with a 6-6 record and then in 2015 led Temple to their best season in program history. The Owls went 10-2 on the year including a huge win over in-state rival Penn State. Temple also hosted College GameDay for their game against Notre Dame which they lost in the final minutes. Rhule finished his stint at Temple with a 10-3 season in 2016 which included an AAC championship win over Navy. He then accepted the head coaching position at Baylor despite all the scandals and turmoil that university has recently faced.
As a non-power 5 conference you have to do more to get the same kind of attention or notoriety. This includes not only scheduling games against better competition but also beating them, which teams from the American have done. The conference has also had some pretty great accomplishments as well. College Game Day was in Philadelphia for Temple vs Notre Dame in 2015. Former Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich won the Bednarik Award and the Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player in 2015, while former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. From a draft perspective The American has sent a good many players to the NFL. 2017 saw 17 players from the conference drafted to the NFL which beat a previous record set by the conference in 2014 when 12 players were drafted. In fact The American had more players drafted (15) in 2017 than the Big XII (14). Hasson Reddick highlighted the 2017 draft class from the AAC going #13 to the Arizona Cardinals. This marked the fourth straight year in which The American produced at least one first-round pick.
So with all this, one would think that the conference deserves a little more respect from the NCAA especially in terms of rankings and bowl games. This year the conference has adopted the “Power 6” slogan with P6 on different items during football games including helmets. Now there are reasons why The American isn’t part of the cool kids just yet. For starters their programs don’t bring in the type of revenue and fan appeal as the majority of power 5 schools. Secondly there hasn’t been a prolonged period of consistent success amongst the programs. Although UCF went undefeated this year they are only 2 years removed from a winless season. Temple and Houston took some steps back this season after having back to back 9+ win seasons. A poor bowl record by AAC teams in 2016 doesn’t help either. In a few years if the majority of teams in the conference can have steady attendance at games and consistently have 2-3 teams ranked in the AP polls at the end of the year while also securing a New Year’s Six bowl game then there should be serious talks about inviting them to the cool kids table. Until then the committees should really give teams that succeed in the conference a little more credit because some of them could easily hold their own in conferences such as the Big XII or ACC.