The biggest win in 2014 for the American Athletic Conference already happened. Nothing the conference does on the field for the remainder of this calendar year will match what happened on day number one.
It is impossible to overstate how much UCF’s win over Baylor in Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s night meant for the conference.
There were many good things that happened to the AAC in its first year. The UConn basketball programs pulled off a double championship. Louisville provided a top quality opponent in basketball and football for other teams to shoot for. Houston made it to the Super Regionals in baseball. SMU, Cincinnati and Memphis rounded out a very top-heavy basketball conference.
Yet none of those accomplishments – and yes, as a UConn fan, I’m including dual national titles – comes close to what the Fiesta Bowl meant for the conference.
Football rules the world right now. UConn has four men’s national titles since 1999 while the Big Ten has one and that means nothing when it comes to realignment.
With one last gasp at being a major conference, the AAC proved that it was a major conference.
The beauty of UCF’s win was the thorough nature of it. There were no excuses. When Louisville beat Florida, many said that the big, bad SEC team wasn’t motivated to play in a half-empty Superdome. There were no such qualms about Baylor in its first BCS game.
To make the victory even sweeter, Baylor had been held up by the media all years as the “future” of college football, a sexier version of the up-tempo offenses that have spread across the country. So when that game started, Baylor took the field as a three-score favorite because everyone had fallen in love with them. And the disrespected team from the AAC did what big, bad Texas and big, bad Oklahoma couldn’t do – dominate Baylor.
When that game ended, everything changed for the AAC. Simultaneously, nothing changed for the AAC.
The Power Five conferences are nothing more than a cartel at this point, as the ongoing Ed O’Bannon trial is proving in remarkable detail. Their actions are not based on the good of the sport or fostering competition – it is about maximizing revenue.
When the BCS moved to the dreaded double-hosting model in 2006 and appeased the “non-BCS” leagues – and Congress – by opening up berths, they were not maximizing revenue. In the years that followed, the BCS had 10 slots, with one going to the Big East champion and one going, nearly every year, to a non-BCS school. This wasn’t working.
The New Year’s Six and the new college football playoff now provides 12 slots with 11 going to the Power Five and one going to the “best of the rest” champion of the other five leagues.
For many observers, this change was the signal that the then-Big East, now-AAC was doomed to irrelevance. It would be battling with the other also-rans and would lose its annual grip on a New Year’s Day showcase.
That may have been true. Until the 2014 Fiesta Bowl happened. Moving into the 2014 college football season, it would take a minor miracle – namely, an undefeated team – to prevent the AAC champion from playing in a New Year’s Six bowl.
There is not enough being made of this fact.
While I believe college football needs to stop dwelling on past results, there is no doubt that perception and reputation are going to play a huge factor for the first college football playoff selection committee. How will they ignore the AAC?
We have already started to see the momentum building for the football side of the conference, with UCF lauded on ESPN as the second-best program in Florida, above Florida and Miami. Cincinnati and Houston were fringe Top 25 teams a year. There is plenty of buzz around East Carolina, which could pull off a UCF-like ascension in year one of its new conference.
Just as the Power Five raided the old Big East, the AAC has essentially grabbed every mid-major team worth a damn except for Boise State. And the Broncos are coming off of their worst season in a decade and regretting its decision to stay in the Mountain West.
As the 2014 football season starts, the champion of the AAC will be the overwhelming favorite to grab that “best of the rest” slot in the New Year’s Six. The other four conferences – Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC – simply do not have the strength, top to bottom, to produce a champion on par with the AAC champion unless they go undefeated.
People think the goal of the New Year’s Six and the Power Five was to eliminate the Big East champion from the mix. They are wrong. The Big East champion was not the problem. It was the Hawaii, the Northern Illinois and the Fresno State’s of the world that were causing problems. You think Fox liked airing Hawaii/Georgia on New Year’s Night? Or that ESPN wanted to trot out Northern Illinois/Florida State to kick off 2013? Even the famed Boise State/Oklahoma game dragged in the ratings.
Last year, the AAC was guaranteed a BCS bowl berth.
This year – barring an undefeated challenger – the AAC is guaranteed a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
The real question for the AAC is not whether its champion can play in one of those games. The question is whether its undefeated champion can play in a semifinal game.
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