This year, the AAC should have six bowl teams. Last year, they had only 4.
Last year, the AAC had four of the absolute worst teams FBS had to offer. This year, they have only 1.
That's good right? Nope, it's horrible. The parity that Roger Goodell fantasizes about is now keeping Mike Aresco up at night.
In 2013, the AAC was comically top-heavy in football. UCF and Louisville, each led by first round NFL quarterbacks, combined to go 24-2 and finished in the Top 15. It was a resounding success for the AAC's perception and undeniably crucial as the league's automatic bid to a major bowl game disappeared.
As this year started, the AAC champion seemed to be the front-runner for the Group of Five's new automatic bid to a major bowl for the top-ranked champion. Even back in August, the rumblings about Marshall's weak schedule had begun and the Mountain West appeared void of a top contender with Boise State expected to take a step back.
In short, everything was in place for the AAC to place its champion in the Peach Bowl and remain the best non-power league. That's when parity struck the AAC. That's why the league will likely be on the outside looking in.
The first Top 25 from the selection committee revealed the AAC’s respect as East Carolina with two ACC wins – even over poor ACC teams – was the only Group of Five team in the rankings. Remarkably, they remain the only Group of Five team to be ranked, further indication of the committee’s respect.
Unfortunately for East Carolina, the ACC competition proved a lot easier than the AAC competition. They lost to a vastly improved Temple team in the rain. They went down to Cincinnati. It is not even first in the league.
UCF is currently tied for first. They lost to UConn. They struggled mightily to beat Tulane at home by 7.
There's two ways to look at the parity that has overtaken the league: the teams at the top aren't very good or the teams at the bottom aren’t that bad. It's likely a combination of both. Regardless, the league has produced far more close games and surprising results than it did a year ago.
While the focus last year was on UCF and Louisville, Houston and Cincinnati cruised to 8- and 9-win seasons respectively by feasting on bottom feeders. In the bowl season, the teams were exposed by power conference foes in Vanderbilt and North Carolina – not exactly Alabama and Florida State – in bowl games. They had been artificially propped up.
That isn't happening in 2014. That's why there's currently a three-way tie for the conference lead and four other teams with three conference wins.
The most unfortunate part of this new-found parity is the terrible, terrible timing. Last year, it didn't matter how good the league performed. Someone was playing in the Fiesta Bowl whether ESPN, fans or the media liked. UCF was a worthy team and proved so by dispatching previously-heralded Baylor.
Yet this is the year that the conference needed a Top 15 team led by an NFL quarterback. This is the year the AAC is forced to prove its worth and earn that bowl bid. East Carolina appeared to be that hope, but they failed once they realized the AAC conference slate is a lot harder than it is in Conference USA – just ask undefeated Marshall.
The conference is still getting respect, as a three-loss Memphis team was cited by selection committee chair as being under consideration for the Group of Five bid. Memphis, though, has no marquee games left and don't you think Aresco wishes Memphis played East Carolina and/or UCF.
It's not a lost season for the conference. The bottom half of the conference had to improve to prevent a Marshall-like scenario. Temple has gone from terrible to 5-5 and should be bowl-eligible. South Florida has improved as well, now 4-6 and finally showing signs of life. The aforementioned Memphis is one of the best turnaround stories in the sport. And while UConn is still leaving a lot to be desired, they have trotted out promising freshmen and have a young coach in place with potential.
There is no doubt that the AAC is a much, much better league from top to bottom in 2014. And that's the problem.
Moving forward, the AAC needs at least one great team to step out every year. East Carolina had that chance and failed. Who will be the AAC's Boise State?
The good news about parity is every AAC school – even SMU with the right hire – can realistically believe they are the answer.
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