Chris Franklin takes a look at the upcoming AAC football season.
NEWPORT, R.I., (C+P) –– The American Athletic Conference had a successful first year, culminating with one of its teams, Central Florida, winning the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Now entering its second year, the AAC looks to improve its standing amongst the other conferences. The following piece illustrates the major takeaways from the 2014 AAC Media Day.
This year’s theme: Power
Commissioner Mike Aresco opened up this year’s proceedings with his address on the state of the conference. When listening to his speech, there is one thing that is evident. He believes that the AAC is among the top conferences in the country. At one point, he even changed the nickname given to the conferences from the Power Five to the Power Six: “Our goal is to be in the conversation as the sixth power conference. I believe, by virtue of our performance that we already are.” Also during his address, Commissioner Aresco brought up the conference’s academic success, the amount of bowl partnerships (the AAC will even run the Miami Beach Bowl, the first conference to maintain its own bowl game) and autonomy. The commissioner even weighed in on the hot-button topic of paying players. “We are opposed to paying players, to professionalizing the model. That concept, not as widely supported as the litigators would have you believe, will destroy the raison d’être of college sports.”
New Kids on the Block
The conference saw two of its members leave for new conferences. Louisville joined the ACC and Rutgers became a member of the Big Ten. The conference did pick up three of the top teams from Conference USA in East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. All three schools are in decent sized media markets, helping the AAC’s overall footprint. Each team will be bringing something new to the conference. Tulsa and Tulane both possess respectable defenses and East Carolina appears ready to compete for a conference championship.
Strength of Schedule
One of the guests present at the AAC Media Day was Bill Hancock, Executive Director of the College Football Playoff. When going over the playoff committee’s criteria regarding rankings, strength of schedule was one of the major factors. The AAC has the toughest non-conference opponent winning percentage from last year of any of the FBS conferences in the country (.566). In comparison, the SEC is fifth, and the Pac-12 is last. UCF Head Coach George O’Leary said it best though: “We need to be scheduling people. Not just scheduling these games but winning them.” If the conference is successful in the majority of these games, it will help with the conference’s goal of being considered a power conference.
Toward the end of the 90s, the Mid-American Conference was not known as a power conference. The one thing that the MAC was able to do was churn out decent quarterbacks such as Ben Rothlisberger, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, all of who eventually made it to the NFL. The American finds itself in a similar situation. The amount of talent at the quarterback position is impressive. Last year’s conference leaders, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater were selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
SMU coach June Jones knows offense. His “Run and Shoot” attack has been used in the NCAA and NFL. Throughout his years of coaching, he has gotten the most out of his quarterbacks, and he has seen much talent at the position in the conference. “The formations have dictated that the quarterbacks have to be efficient. I think that has come to the forefront. I’ve seen Tulane’s quarterback (Tanner Lee), and I’ve seen some reports that he could be one of the best ones in the country. We have some guys in our conference who are very competitive,” Jones said when talking to Coach and Player Magazine. Houston’s John O’Korn and Temple’s P.J. Walker were invited to the Manning Passing Academy, an honor given to the nation’s top collegiate quarterbacks. Both sophomores look to improve upon their solid freshman seasons. It will be very interesting to see how these two signal-callers will develop with a full season as their respective teams starting quarterback.
This year, the conference has East Carolina signal-caller Shane Carden who threw for more than 4,100 yards last season and will play under the watchful eye of numerous NFL scouts. Carden has appeared on many preseason award watch lists and also has been considered a finalist for this year’s Heisman. Although he has received much early attention, Carden is not letting the award talk get to him. “It is an honor to be named with some of those great players. Right now, I am just focused on getting this team focused on the season. We have some big games early on, and we are going to focus on them right now.”
Surprise Team to make a bowl from the AAC
The AAC will most likely field six bowl eligible teams this season. One of the teams will be a surprise: The Temple Owls. The Owls are a team with the talent to compete with anyone in the conference. The team is one of the youngest in the nation. Along with P.J. Walker, linebacker Tyler Matakevich looks to help a Temple team that should have had more than two wins in 2013. The Owls gave up second-half leads and had trouble finishing out games. “Some of the losses last year, some of the lessons that we learned were what we needed to move our program forward,” stated Matt Rhule, head coach at Temple. One area that should be improved for the team is the defense. “What we have right now is much competition. That is what you saw in the spring, and it will help carry-over into the fall.” When asked if Temple draws some parallels to the New York Giants, a team that Rhule coached for during the 2012 season, he replied with the following: “It is like anything else. You need to have great players at every position. When the Giants have been at their best, when guys age and retire, there are some holes. We feel like we have replaced a lot of those holes on our team this year. We will see over the next two years what we can do.” Temple has the talent and the schedule to win six games this season and play in a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
*denotes bowl eligible
Although the preseason Media poll had Cincinnati winning the conference, the senior-led experience of the Knights will allow them to repeat as champions of the American Athletic Conference. One thing is for sure; this is a very wide-open conference that will provide plenty of entertaining games and highlights in 2014.