Mike Aresco is very happy. Mike Aresco is very worried.
Such is life when you're the commissioner of the first new major college conference since the Big 12 formed in 1996 after the Southwest Conference disintegrated. But in 1996, the Big 12 was adding Texas and Texas A&M to a conference led by Oklahoma and Nebraska. That was easy.
path to success. Its birth was littered by bad decisions and greed.
The Big East would still be a power conference if the membership from early 2011 stayed intact. The conference turned down a billion-dollar deal from ESPN in hopes of a bigger payday down the line. But before NBC or Fox could even load up the Brinks truck, ESPN conspired to destroy the league. They pried Pittsburgh and Syracuse away and it became a battle for survival. ESPN effectively saved itself a billion dollars. The majority of Big East football schools ended up in better situations.
For UConn, Cincinnati and USF, they most certainly did not. As the American Athletic Conference was born on July 1, 2013, the most notable thing to celebrate the occasion was ESPN immediately deleting the Big East blog. It was not the most promising start.
The entire goal of the AAC is to prove it is a major conference and to extract a much more lucrative television contract after the current deal expires in 2020. That gives the league six years to do something special.
Six years in college sports is a literal eternity. As we look ahead to the 2014 football season, the AAC is in limbo. It is not on par with the Power Five, but it clearly sits above the other Group of Five conferences.
To see into the AAC's future, we must first examine its brief past. Here's the good and bad from Year 1
Good: UConn basketball
I mean, obviously, right? The UConn women winning another national title was almost a given based on the talent assembled but it still meant something that it happened. It meant more, however, that it came a day after Kevin Ollie and the men cut down the nets in JerryWorld.
From the beginning, Aresco had pointed to Cincinnati and UConn as the lynchpins of the conference. They have combined for 3 BCS berths since 2008. They have become perennial Top 25 teams in basketball, with UConn establishing itself as the nation's premier program since 1999. There is no need to rehash the UConn "fall from grace" story but its run in March once and for all put it to rest.
The AAC is a major conference in basketball.
Bad: Temple everything
What the hell happened here? When Temple was brought back into the Big East fold, there was some good vibes around a football program that had returned to bowl games under Al Golden and appeared to become a solid asset to the conference in a major American city. Instead, Temple was one of the worst teams in college football last year.
While that may have been okay, the basketball team decided to toss in what has to be considered the program's worst year since, I don't, ever? Temple basically became the AAC's DePaul, with its inclusion due to location. It certainly did not help that both St. Joe's and Villanova had banner years, with the former winning the Atlantic 10 tournament and the latter being a Top 10 team.
Major conferences usually don't include the 3rd best team from a city. Temple needs to get its act together.
Good: UCF football
We should take another moment to thank Louisville for its one-year stay in the AAC because they made UCF football. Without the win at Louisville, UCF's win in the Fiesta Bowl may have been looked at as a fluke. But thanks to that win, which was admittedly viewed as a fluke at the time, the Fiesta Bowl victory proved to be validation.
The AAC now enters 2014 with a true standard bearer and, as a bonus, it's a school that is actually happy to be in the conference! What a concept right?
Bad: The dregs of the conference
In both men's basketball and football, the conference had several very strong teams on top and a bunch of brutally bad teams on the bottom. In basketball, this led to horrible underseeding in the NCAA Tournament and SMU missing out on the tournament completely. In football, it led to UCF not even cracking the Top 10.
Simply put, the teams at the bottom need to stop sucking so badly. Temple, USF, UConn and Memphis were four of the worst football teams last year and they were all in the same conference. Temple, USF, UCF and Rutgers were four of the worst basketball teams last year and they were all in the same conference.
That cannot happen again. Not for a league fighting for any ounce of respect it can get.
Good: The New Year's Six
The new bowl system arrives with six major college bowl game on New Year's Day and New Year's Eve. While two are designated as playoff games, the other four are just bowl games with huge payouts. One team from the Group of Five conferences, which includes the AAC, MAC, Mountain West, Conference USA and Sun Belt, will get a berth.
Thanks to UCF's rise to prominence last year, the AAC will be the favorite to get that berth in 2014. In fact, due to Boise State's decline, the AAC should be the favorite to get this berth every year moving forward. Little has changed from previous years as if this system was in place in 2013, UCF still would have played in a big bowl game, though likely one closer to home.
This is a good thing. The AAC needs to make this guaranteed berth theirs.
Bad: The College Football Playoff
An AAC team is not making the four-team playoff if it goes undefeated. At least not in 2014. It would take several high profile non-conference wins to even be in consideration.
The game is rigged. The AAC cannot win a national title in football.
Good: Television exposure
The ESPN contract is not good from a bottom line standpoint, everyone can agree on that. But the ESPN contract is really, really good from an exposure standpoint.
I live in Washington, D.C. Every single UConn conference game in basketball was on my television. Starting in 2014, the same can be said for football. This is huge. The contract states that every conference game must be shown on a national network, which means ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPNU or the rapidly improving CBS Sports Network. The latter two are available nationally, though usually on sports tiers. Still, they are widely available. For a conference fighting a perception battle, this is fantastic.
I live in Washington, D.C. I don't even have the option of getting the Pac-12 Network. The Big Ten Network is not available nationally. The SEC Network likely won't be. Those conferences are certainly making more money but the AAC does, begrudgingly, have the power of ESPN behind them. That helps.
Bad: Cost of Attendance
Mike Aresco has made it clear that his conference will match anything the Power Five will provide to student-athletes (employees?) and SEC commissioner Mike Slive is already making noise on what he wants to provide.
Can every AAC team afford this? Sure, UConn and Cincinnati won't break a sweat. But what about Tulsa? Tulane?
Good: Geno Auriemma
If there was anyone associated with the conference that should be bad-mouthing it, it's Geno. And he loves to run his mouth. But during UConn's undefeated run, he said only the right things about the AAC. No team will be affected more, at least in the short team, by the conference. There are no other good women's basketball teams.
But Geno has said repeatedly that it doesn't matter. They are still the UConn women. They are still one of the few, if only, women's program that makes money and they make a lot of it. They will be fine even if Notre Dame is too afraid to play them.
Bad: The Horde
Throughout UConn's run to dual championships, the Connecticut media hammered home the notion that the Big Ten and ACC were foolish for passing on UConn during realignment. This is likely true. At this point, it doesn't really matter anymore. It happened. It's over.
Time and time again, UConn president Susan Herbst and UConn AD Warde Manuel were asked about it. Time and time again, they towed the conference line. As they should, because we know UConn wants to leave but it doesn't need to be stated.
The Horde, which covers UConn sports, harped on it so much that it has infected UConn fans, who now collectively want nothing to do with the AAC. Is it really so bad? The team won dual national titles in the Big East and the AAC. It seems to be working out, right?
I wish The Horde, and by proxy UConn fans, would focus on the program and not the confusing world of realignment.
Good: East Carolina football
Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina join the AAC in 2014, replacing the departing Rutgers and Louisville. Of the three, East Carolina football is by far more the most intriguing and exciting. The program has been a consistent winner in Conference USA for years and routinely draws home crowds of 50,000+. Like UCF, a move to a bigger conference and a bigger stage - weekly games on ESPN - could turn East Carolina into a true football power.
It's been a long time since Jeff Blake and East Carolina made a New Year's Day moment, but the past shows the program can make a national impact.
Temple, Memphis and USF were the three worst teams in the conference. They also play in large NFL or NFL-sized stadiums which meant 40-60,000 empty seats during games. Having been to a Temple game in a 1/10th-filled stadium, it is really, really depressing. Even if the beer lines are short.
Obviously, the losing doesn't help. But the AAC needs more games on television that look good on television. UCF played two games late in the season, one at Temple and one at SMU during an ice storm, that gave the appearance of a high school game. It's not a good look for a team trying to crack the Top 10, ya know?
Good: Rutgers is gone
While it was great to have Louisville in the league for one year, it was awful having Rutgers. They didn't want to be there, carried around a black cloud of controversy and played poorly. UCF's big Thursday night moment late in the season was ruined because Rutgers was the opponent and all the announcers could talk about was how crappy Rutgers was, diluting the fact that UCF was really, really good.
Bad: Conference branding
I don't like the name. The conference didn't want anyone to call it the AAC as to not confuse it with the ACC but AAC is all anyone uses. It was pretty absurd to think the sports media was going to run with The American and the American Athletic Conference in full doesn't roll of the tongue.
To be fair, the big A logo with the star is bad-ass and looks great on a football field. The name has left much to be desired.
Good: The Perception
And ultimately, this is the most important. It helps that when the league started, the perception was that the league was going to fail in the most tragic way possible.
Instead, it has a BCS bowl win and two national titles to its name. It has established itself as a major college basketball conference. It has staked its claim to be the sixth-best college football conference. It has momentum. The media's criticisms have waned. The jokes have mostly subsided.
The first year for the AAC was not perfect. It was very, very good. The league remains in perpetual limbo, but it is trending closer to the Power Five than the Group of Five.
That means Year 1 was a success.
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