The 2015 college football season could not have gone any better for the American Athletic Conference (AAC). But for it to linger, the AAC must dominate bowl season.
As a UConn football fan, I have had a vested interest in the success of the AAC. While most fans of AAC teams are desperate to get out, I’ve been far more intrigued by the potential of the conference. The keys to success are there. The conference encompasses half the country, with schools located in several of the country’s biggest markets. The AAC has a great deal with ESPN – in terms of exposure, if not money. And individual schools are showing their willingness to spend.
But until 2015, the AAC lacked the on-field results to back it up. The 2014 season marked a huge step back for the AAC in terms of national perception because parity overtook the league. In retrospect, it was actually a huge step forward because teams were recharging and reloading.
By the end of October, Temple was hosting College Gameday, Navy’s Keenan Reynolds was a Heisman contender, Houston’s Tom Herman was the hottest new coach in America and Memphis was on the fringe of the playoff debate. At least three of the four were in every poll through the end of the year.
However, looming over the AAC’s success, was a reminder of how far the old Big East had fallen – a lineup of bowls that appeared dreadful. The St. Petersburg Bowl? The inaugural Cure Bowl?? Sun Belt and MAC opponents? What was even the point?
Instead, when the bowl matchups were revealed, every team – with the exception of Temple – received an opponent that would lead to a statement win for the AAC. Think about it:
- Houston plays Florida State in the Peach Bowl, which is obvious.
- Memphis plays Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl, another opportunity to take down an SEC team in what will essentially be a road game.
- Cincinnati plays San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl, a chance for the sixth-best AAC team to take down the Mountain West champion.
- Navy plays Pitt in the Military Bowl, which would give Navy its first 11-win season in school history and would do so over a decent Power Five opponent.
- Tulsa plays Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl, which will give the 6-6 team a chance to ruin Frank Beamer’s send-off and make a ton of national headlines.
- UConn plays Marshall in the St Petersburg Bowl, which could result in a win by a 6-6 AAC team against a 9-3 Conference USA team.
- USF plays Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl, a chance for the fifth-best AAC team to take down the Conference USA Champion.
- Temple plays Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl, which is the most disappointing matchup for the AAC but a game Temple must win.
The reason why this bowl season so much for the AAC is what could be acheived.
On one hand, games against Power Five teams can showcase the AAC belongs on that level. On the other hand, games against Group of Five teams can show the AAC is clearly superior to those conferences.
The AAC does not currently have an automatic bid to the New Year’s Six, a huge change from the BCS era that many felt would cripple the conference. But in 2015, had anything really changed? It was a foregone conclusion since mid-October that the automatic Group of Five berth would go to the AAC champion, though USF did its best to ruin that.
By the time the first AAC title game came along, it was set in stone – the winner of Houston and Temple would play in the Peach Bowl. Through on-field success, the AAC became a Power Five conference, if only for one December Saturday.
The distinction of a Power Five conference is an arbitrary one. There are no requirements or benchmarks to hit. They had existing relationships with bowl games and ESPN and they made the rules. The AAC was left out. It doesn’t have to stay that way.
The goal for the AAC is simple: It must lock up the Group of Five berth every year. If that happens a couple years in a row, then everyone will start to look at the AAC differently. But since college football is an arbitrary sport – locking up the 2016 berth begins with the perception of the AAC from 2015.
Right now, the perception of the AAC is that it is clearly the strongest Group of Five football conference. Over the next few weeks, the AAC will have 8 nationally-televised opportunities to turn that perception into a reality that lasts until next September.
The bowl matchups broke just right for the AAC to make a huge statement. Every fan of every AAC team must pay attention. This is the AAC’s big chance.
The results of these 8 games could change the entire future of the conference – and that’s not hyperbole.