You have to give the football programs – and the athletic directors – in the AAC a ton of credit for the non-conference scheduling in 2014.
When I first mulled over this piece, I was expecting it might be tough to get to 10 meaningful non-conference games for AAC teams. Instead, I counted an astounding 24 games against Power Five teams or BYU/Boise State. More promising is that not all of these games are supposed “body bag” games where the AAC team is showing up to be a patsy. Sure Memphis to UCLA or Temple to Penn State may qualify, but Cincinnati visiting Miami begins a home & home series.
As college football moves to a playoff, there should hopefully be an added emphasis on non-conference games – this is crucial for the AAC as it needs to maintain its stranglehold on the “best of the rest” spot in the New Year’s Six bowls. Wins early against quality competition by any AAC team, just as in college basketball, will boost the strength of schedule for everyone.
This list is ranked on what a win would mean for the conference. But there was some thought put into the realistic potential for an AAC victory. As great as Memphis beating UCLA in the Rose Bowl or USF beating Wisconsin in Camp Randall would be, those odds are minute. I mean, let’s be honest, those are losses.
10) Temple at Vanderbilt, Aug. 28
This doesn’t seem to make sense, right? Temple in a game that is more important than, say UConn at BYU or UConn at Boise State? Well it is and I’ll explain.
Temple is seen as one of the weaklings of the AAC. They, along with Memphis, USF and UConn, combined to form an absolutely putrid bottom of the conference last year in football. The conference needs all four to improve. USF will have games against Maryland, NC State and Wisconsin. Memphis travels to UCLA. It is a big ask for any of those teams to step up and win.
It is a gigantic ask for Temple to pull off the upset here, but there are some signs that indicate it may be in the general realm of possibility. For starters, Vanderbilt is breaking in a new coach after James Franklin left. Secondly, for all the hype that Franklin delivered for the program – it all left with him to Penn State, recruits included.
The game will be one of the first telecasts on the new SEC Network. What an incredible statement for the AAC to have one of its “weaklings” defeat a big, bad SEC team on the road on the conference’s brand new network. Even a good showing by Temple in a showcase game would go a long way.
9) Georgia Tech at Tulane, Sept. 6
This is a massive game for Tulane. For all the mocking that Tulane has endured, the bowl game last year and its location – not just in New Orleans, but its football talent-rich state – could foreshadow big things for the program. Remember, Tulane can be good – they had an undefeated season (1998) in my lifetime.
But more than any of the potential, it is the reality that Tulane will be playing this game on campus. No more home games in the massive Superdome with 50,000 empty seats. They have a perfect opponent in Georgia Tech, as it is merely an average ACC that has been susceptible to some bad defeats in recent years – hello Middle Tennessee State.
A win for Tulane here would be huge for the program and the conference. Its opening weekend conference opponent has a similarly big opportunity…
8) Oklahoma at Tulsa, Sept. 6
When everyone blamed Tulane, I blamed Tulsa. Why were they invited to join the AAC? At least Tulane could point to being the AAC’s version of Rutgers due to location. Tulsa…well, what was Tulsa? Last year, the football program plummeted to its worst record in years and is looking like an albatross in the league.
However, any time you can get a program the stature of Oklahoma to visit and guarantee yourself an ESPN or ABC telecast, it’s a really, really big deal. Of all the games on this list, this is the one that the AAC is least likely to win. It doesn’t matter. If Tulsa has this game close going into the third quarter, it will be one of the biggest wins for the league’s perception.
7) Cincinnati at Miami, Oct. 11
Miami is a great team to play these days. Its name still registers with fans and media alike, despite the fact the program hasn’t been a national title contender for nearly 15 (!!) years.
This is as close to a “must-win” on this list for AAC perception, and for Cincinnati’s New Year’s Six bowl plans. They have another much bigger game in the non-conference but winning this one would be huge for strength of schedule.
6) East Carolina at Virginia Tech, Sept. 13
East Carolina may have the toughest non-conference schedule of any team in the country. They play North Carolina the week after this and another game on this list the week before. Virginia Tech is respected but lacks the sex appeal of, say, Oklahoma. It’s probably not fair to the Hokies and Frank Beamer, but such is life.
East Carolina beat Virginia Tech in 2008 and fought them for four quarters last year before succumbing 15-10 in their worst offensive performance of the season. If East Carolina is as good as people think they are – and as good as they think they are – they need to seal the deal here.
5) UCF at Missouri, Sept. 13
As with Virginia Tech, Missouri does not get anywhere near the respect it deserves. They were a game away from playing in the National Title game last year – essentially a quarter away, since the SEC Championship Game was close through three – yet they are ignored when it comes to discussing SEC favorites in 2014.
Look at me – even I am disrespecting the Tigers. This will be UCF’s toughest game in the non-conference. But it won’t be the biggest.
4) Texas A&M at SMU, Sept. 20
I believe Texas A&M is in for a rough year. Johnny Football is gone. They open on the road against South Carolina. They have road games against Alabama and Auburn, which they could not beat in College Station last year. For all the swagcopters around Kevin Sumlin, this is still an 8-4 football team at best.
For SMU, it’s time for June Jones to produce something big. Getting the Mustangs back into bowl contention was a great story and an excellent way to end Pony Excess. But can he take the next step with SMU like he did with Hawaii? It’s foolish to suggest this would be his “Hawaii 2007” year but can Jones finally deliver a program-defining win?
SMU has three non-conference opponents from the Power Five. The road game at Baylor in week 1 feels like too much. The home game against TCU feels like not enough. This is the one. As with Temple against Vanderbilt, everything is about perception and no one has a better reputation than the SEC.
3) Penn State vs. UCF, Aug. 30
A perfect storm of opportunity. This game will be played in Ireland, so like Notre Dame/Navy in 2012, it will start on Saturday morning and will have football-starved fans across the country watching with no other games going on. Penn State is a huge, brand name playing its first game under lightning rod coach James Franklin. There will be a ton of hype going into this game.
For UCF, it will be seen as a game for validation. Sure, they won the Fiesta Bowl with Blake Bortles. Can they keep it going? Are they good enough to be the AAC’s flag bearer?
In terms of importance for the league, this might be #1 because a loss – especially a bad one – would undo all the good from 2013. But a win, that would be two in a row for UCF over Penn State and a fantastic way to start the year.
2) East Carolina at South Carolina, Sept. 6
SANDWICH GAME ALERT!!
South Carolina’s first game is against Texas A&M and the first ever broadcast on the SEC Network. South Carolina’s third game is against Georgia and will kick off the 2014 CBS schedule.
Do you think anyone who cares about the Gamecocks has spent even one second thinking about East Carolina?
If UCF had beaten South Carolina last year, they would have been undefeated and on the fringe of a hypothetical playoff discussion. I’m not saying, but I’m just saying…
1) Cincinnati at Ohio State, Sept. 27
Simply put, it does not get any bigger for Cincinnati or the league. Ohio State is a prohibitive Big Ten favorite and seemingly a lock for the first college football playoff with all of its talent returning.
Cincinnati won 9 games last year and got zero respect because people only saw them lose to Teddy Bridgewater and lay an egg in Charlotte during bowl season. Tommy Tuberville has produced strong recruiting classes. There are talented players. It would take a huge effort – obviously – to beat Ohio State. It is definitely reasonable.
This game is #1 because out of all AAC games this year, no game could make as big an impact. If Cincinnati could knock off a likely Top 5 team and national title contender on its home field, everything changes for the conference.
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