Time for the American Athletic Conference to Rise Up

A call to BYU for a scheduling arrangement makes sense, too

by John Furgele (The Real 228, accept no substitutes)

The Big 12 got what it wanted and probably needed and that was attention.  You know the history.  In 2014, both Baylor and TCU were 11-1 and both were left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.  While many screamed that it was unfair, was it?  Most pundits said that had the Big 12 conducted a conference championship game like the SEC, Pac 12, ACC and Big Ten, the winner would have advanced.  But, often, truth is stranger than fiction.  That year, Oregon was 12-1, Ohio State was 12-1, Alabama was 12-1 and Florida State—the defending champion—was 13-0.  With a human committee in place, it came down to good old subjectivity and both Baylor and TCU were left on the outside.

The conference then decided to petition the NCAA so they could play a conference title game as a 10-member outfit, a wish that was granted.  Now, the league could decide to expand to 12, 14 or even 16 members, or they could stay at 10 and have a title game, something that the SWAC does with its 10 members at the FCS level.

The league decided that any publicity was better than none, so they invited prospective universities to apply for Big 12 membership, and as usual, all the shafted schools who wanted Power 5 association applied.   Cincinnati, Connecticut, BYU, Houston, Memphis, Central and South Florida all decided that preparing PowerPoints and interactive presentations were a must in the hopes of landing a Power 5 slot and the money that goes with it.  How could Cincinnati not be playing in a Power 5 conference when Kansas, Iowa State and even West Virginia were?

What was the result?  For all the attention they received, they received it for doing nothing.  The show lasted for what—17 months—and in the end, the conference decided to do nothing, so the Big 12 will remain like the Big Ten, poorly named with its 10 members.

The conference that felt the pressure was the fledging American Athletic Conference.  When the seven Catholic members left the old Big East for the new Big East, the AAC was formed.  In the league’s first year, their champion was allowed to play in a BCS bowl, in this case the Fiesta and in that game, Central Florida (with Blake Bortles at QB) throttled Baylor.  The next year, they lost that slot and their teams were scrambling, playing in games like the Poinsettia Bowl, Bahamas Bowl and Cure Bowl.

The American offered plenty to the Big 12.  The conference has schools in big cities like Houston, Philadelphia, Orlando, Tampa, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Annapolis/Baltimore/Washington, D.C and New Orleans.  Good-sized cities, cities that could help the Big 12 make some inroads in the eastern part of the United States. The American put on its best face and said that they have a great conference with great schools in great cities, but deep down they knew that they couldn’t hold back a Cincinnati or Houston should the Big 12 come calling.

In this way, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) reminded me of the Articles of Confederation, which was in essence, the United States Constitution before the Constitution.  The A of C served from 1781-1787 and was a loosely configured alignment of the United States.  It had some rules and regulations, but for the most part it allowed the states to do their own thing.  South Carolina could have slaves, but if France attacked it, the other 12 states would come to her defense.  The AAC was the same way.  It was an organization, sure, but when a third of the organization is looking to leave, how strong can it be?  If your girlfriend is still dating others on Fridays, how serious of a girlfriend is she?

As most fifth graders have learned, the Articles of Confederation failed.  The Founding Fathers knew that the “conference” of states had to be strengthened and the result was the creation of the U.S. Constitution, which despite some struggles along the way has lasted for 229 years, which all in all is a nice, little run.

Now, that the Big 12 expansion charade is over, it is time for the AAC to ditch the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution.  The conference has to believe it’s good and moreover, sell that it’s good to the rest of the college football world.  We know that Cincinnati, Houston and Connecticut were devastated that they didn’t secure Big 12 membership, but I hope that the first three phone calls—or in today’s world, text messages— AAC commissioner Mike Aresco received were from these three schools.  The message is simple:  “Let’s go forward and make the AAC the best it can be.  Let’s market our cities, our great universities, our great mix of urban, private and religious schools and present the AAC as a united and close-knit group.”  If the AAC can stay unified, they could negotiate a better TV deal and perhaps become what Aresco calls a Power 6 conference.

The Big 12 is really the Big 2; if Texas and Oklahoma ever explore moving, the Big 12 becomes a combination of the Mountain West and the American.  We know that can’t happen until 2024 or 2025 when the grant of rights runs out, but if you don’t think there will be another seismic shift in the college athletics landscape, you are only kidding yourself.

The AAC has to have everybody on the same page.  They can’t have Cincinnati, Connecticut and Houston continue to flirt with other conferences and even though it looks like things are stable, they can’t get caught up in the nonsense.  They have to swallow their pride and make the AAC work, something that they can do.  They have 12 football members (Navy is football only), they play in good sized stadiums and they have the opportunity to beat Power 5 schools.  For schools like Cincinnati, they can now look a recruit in the eye and sell them on the AAC.  No longer do they have to say that the AAC is nice, but we expect to play in the Big 12 very soon.

With no expansion imminent, the AAC schools need to call the big boys and say, “let’s play.”  Why can’t Cincinnati play at Alabama and why can’t Alabama play at Cincinnati?  Memphis needs to look Tennessee in the eye and say, “look, you’re the big boy, we’ll play you three times, but one of those games is going to be at the Liberty Bowl.”  Connecticut should do the same with Notre Dame.  It makes sense for the Huskies to visit South Bend, but in return, the Irish have to come to East Hartford, not Yankee Stadium or Met Life Stadium in the Meadowlands.  The AAC is not the MAC, nor the Sun Belt, and they have to think and act like a big boy if they want to get treated as one.

In one scenario, the AAC would add BYU, Boise State, Colorado State and perhaps one more school to get to 16.  They could play eight conference games, have a conference championship game and send their champ to a major bowl game.  That scenario is unlikely for two reasons.  One, it makes the league too big geographically.  If we remember the WAC tried to make a go of it with 16 schools and it just didn’t work.  Two, it would move the AAC back to an Articles of Confederation feel, something that they need to get off of right now.  But, the AAC could do what the ACC did for Notre Dame and that is provide four to five games per year for BYU, which will continue to play as an independent.  If BYU could play four to five AAC schools per year, it would be a win-win for them and the AAC.  Conference schools like to play BYU early in the year, but when October and November get here, most schools want to play in their conference, not outside of it, leaving BYU with games against Wagner and Southern Utah instead of Temple and Houston.  The exception is the SEC, which likes to schedule an FCS or Sun Belt team the week before Thanksgiving as their “prep game” before playing their finale.

It is time for the AAC to rise up and be heard.  They are still intact and they have plenty to offer college football and college athletics.  This is not the time for Cincinnati, Connecticut and Houston to hang their head in shame; it is time for them to be the leaders of a “new” and re-energized conference.






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