A case for the AAC and the ‘Power Six’ in college football

Photo via The Associated Press

Recently, the American Athletic Conference has become more and more a part of the national conversation. The AAC commissioner sees this as a great thing, as he wants to be seen as a “Power Six” conference.

An unfortunate aspect of their consideration as a conference is that football will be the major deciding factor here, but of course, if the AAC is included in a new “Power 6” metric other sports will be included.

Traditionally there are five power conferences: the ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, and the Pac-12. Many college football fans and the programs of the AAC itself hope to rally behind the younger conference and establish it as a power conference.

The major problem is the balancing game that the AAC knows it’s playing. If the teams get too good for the conference, they will likely jump ship to a P5 conference if given the chance. But if the teams do not continue to improve and generate more revenue, then the conference will never be considered as a new power conference.

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Commissioner Mike Aresco is heading efforts to gain the conference more recognition. Photo via Cloe Poisson / Hartford Courant

Last year, the Big 12 considered adding some AAC teams to their ranks, but ultimately passed. Conference commissioner Mike Aresco was more than relieved—even though many perceived insult in the Big 12’s decision—when he realized he wasn’t losing his best teams.

With the AAC teams locked in (for now), their most important task is elevating themselves in the eyes of their peers and “earning” placement among the power conference teams. The two most important ways of achieving this, wins and money.

Is the AAC winning enough games?

The AAC makes a compelling case to be included among the power conferences when one looks at the recent upward trends of their teams’ performances. As the AAC is comprised of younger teams with fewer resources, they cannot consistently have top 10 teams, but this will continue to change as the conference fields more and more impressive teams each year.

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Houston upset Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl, shocking the college football world. Photo via The Associated Press

Let’s consider 2015, a year in which signified the beginning of the AAC’s possible breakthrough. Houston spent the entire year climbing in the rankings, first breaking through in Week 6 and continuing until it was ranked No. 8 in Week 15.

The Cougars beat all three of their P5 opponents: Vanderbilt, Louisville, and Florida State. They beat FSU in the Peach Bowl when FSU was ranked No. 9 in the nation and their only loss was against Connecticut.

Usually, around now the argument is made that they had an easy schedule and this isn’t an accurate representation of a truly powerful team, but this was not the case in 2015.

Temple was ranked for the second half of the season, and ended their season at 10-4. They had an outstanding win against Penn State, as well as a narrow loss to Notre Dame.

Navy ended the year ranked at No. 18 after an 11-2 season with a great win against Pitt in the Military Bowl.

Memphis hovered around the middle of the rankings midseason in 2015 and got up to No. 15, ultimately ending the season at 9-4 and losing to Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl.

Was this a one-off year?

Did these teams drop off the face of the earth after 2015? No, and some other teams began performing just as well.

Memphis ended the season at 8-5 with a P5 win over Kansas.

Navy enjoyed a successful 9-5 season while hovering around the rankings and entering them for four of the weeks.

Temple had narrow losses to both Wake Forest and Penn State, ending the season at 10-4 having been ranked during the season at least once. Houston ended the season at 9-4 with wins over San Diego State, Louisville once again, and the Oklahoma Sooners.

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USF quarterback Quinton Flowers led the charge for the Bulls in 2016, and has helped the program gain national recognition. Photo via Andy Jones / TBO Staff

The USF Bulls had a breakout season, going 11-2 with a high-profile win over South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl. They ended the season ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll.

Tulsa also ended its season positively, with a 10-4 record and hopes of cracking the rankings in 2017.

Navy, Houston, Tulsa, USF, and Temple are all expected to have impressive seasons next year as well. In the last few years, five of these AAC teams have enjoyed being ranked at some point.

In 2016, seven of the Pac-12 teams were ranked at some point, with five of them ending the season ranked. The Big Ten hosted six ranked teams as well. The Big 12 only had four teams that held rankings in 2016, and TCU dropped out early and ended their season at 6-7.

It is clear that the AAC deserves consideration. They’ve been winning games against P5 opponents consistently and have been ranked. USF is already being predicted as an outlier for the New Year’s Six bowls.

If the conference can continue this trend of winning—and there is no indication that they won’t—we are doing them a disservice by continually discounting their achievements and refusing them higher status as a conference.

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The AAC released their plan to become a “POW6R” conference earlier this year. Photo via TheAmerican.org

Is there enough money in the conference? 

In a perfect world, the amount of money the teams could put into the industry wouldn’t have to matter for consideration, and the article would end here. Unfortunately, revenue plays a considerable role in gaining access to the P5 group.

The AAC released a detailed and ambitious plan to become a P6 conference. The five-pillar plan includes several discussions on revenue, marketing, and more.

“Pillar 4” is entitled “Branding, Marketing, Communications, and Public Relations” and Pillar 5 is entitled “Revenue Generation.” Read the plan for a more detailed view on how the conference will attain and maintain the finances and revenue of a P5 team.

In short, they have been making impressive steps in recent years with media partnerships, stadium renovations, and pumping more money into their football teams. They aren’t there yet and they know it.

If they can take the steps outlined in the plan, then the AAC will look much better for consideration to be in the exclusive P5 group.

Two possible outcomes 

The AAC starting to look more and more desperate, trying to sit with the cool P5 kids at lunch. There are two possible outcomes for the conference: gaining admittance to the P5 is the obvious favored choice as it has the teams, the potential, and the drive to do so.

The other outcome is detrimental to the AAC. The better teams in the AAC keep trying to gain admittance to the P5 conferences, and they start biting. The AAC loses its best teams and becomes much like the rest of the Group of Five conferences. It becomes another Mountain West or Sun Belt conference: they have one or two good teams, but won’t ever be that much a part of the national conversation.

So whatever happens, the AAC has to act quickly. They clearly deserve the consideration, and these next few seasons are vital. If the teams can go above and beyond expectations, they may find themselves in a good position for bargaining their place among the big boys.