Much-Maligned American Athletic Conference Feels Confident
Newport, r.i. — Commissioner Mike Aresco took to the podium at media day for the American Athletic Conference and talked about power.
“We all hear a lot about Power 5 conferences, the Equity 5, the High Resource 5, the Group of 5, the Autonomy 5, whatever you choose to call them, and we consider ourselves a power conference as well,” Aresco said Tuesday. “We’re not going to take a backseat to anyone. We see the landscape as five plus one and we’re knocking on the door. Our goal is to be in the conversation as the sixth power conference. I believe by virtue of our performance that we already are.”
Bold talk, indeed, from the man in charge of the former Big East, but this is definitely the time to boast.
In the American’s first season, the re-invented league won national championships in men’s and women’s basketball (Connecticut) and had its football champion (Central Florida) win a BCS game.
The end of the Bowl Championship Series also meant the end of automatic entry for the American into the biggest and most-lucrative bowl games. In the new College Football Playoff, the Big 12, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference and Pac-12 — aka the Big 5 or Power 5 — have assured themselves spots in the six high-profile New Year’s bowls. The American doesn’t have that guarantee.
Conceivably, an AAC team could play its way into the semifinals. If not, the American gets lumped in with the Mountain West, Sun Belt, Mid-American and Conference USA. Only the best team, as chosen by the playoff selection committee, from those five conferences is guaranteed a spot in those six bowls.
The American, which adds East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa this season, has a couple teams that seem well positioned to make a run at that spot. UCF is replacing star quarterback Blake Bortles, but brings back much of the team that went 12-1 and beat Baylor 52-42 in the postseason.
The Knights are picked second in the American this year behind Cincinnati, and play a loaded nonconference schedule that includes Penn State in Dublin, Ireland, at Missouri and BYU.
Cincinnati (9-4 last season) has 16 starters back and former five-star recruit Gunner Kiel likely taking over at quarterback. The Bearcats also play at Ohio State and Miami.
“I think if you want to talk about playoffs, then the people that talk better play people,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “Nonconference schedule needs to indicate what’s going on. I don’t buy the power stuff. We’re going to give cost of attendance. We’re going to give the kids money to eat. How much can you eat? Everything that they’re doing we’re doing.”
Aresco said the American does not fear the power-grab being made by the wealthiest conferences in the NCAA’s current attempt to restructure. He said his conference supports a plan to allow the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC a certain level of autonomy when it comes to making NCAA rules.
“Although we would prefer to be in the autonomy group, we should not feel threatened by a certain level of autonomy for those conferences with significant resources who want to do more for their student-athletes,” he said. “This system would not be necessary if those conferences did not worry that lesser resource conferences might frustrate their efforts to do more for their student-athletes. We, too, as a conference have resources and visibility. We share the same goals and eventually we want to be in that same autonomous group in that same room.”
Aresco said as long as scholarship limits and transfer rules are still controlled by all FBS members, the American has the ability to compete with the Big Five.
The American’s resources, however, fall far short of what the Big Five conferences have at their disposal. Those leagues have billion-dollar TV contracts that help provide $20-plus million annual payouts to members.
The American’s TV deal with ESPN is worth $126 million over seven years.
Still, Aresco wants to make the case the American is closer to the ACC than the MWC as the playoff era begins.
“We do not accept the notion that we’re not a power conference or this ‘have not’ tag that some people use,” he said. “We have resources. We have enormous potential. Make no mistake. We’ll remain an integral part of the FBS college football fabric. We’ll always have naysayers. We have far fewer now than before. It’s our job now to prove them wrong as we did last year, as UCF did in the Fiesta Bowl, as we did in the basketball championships with UConn.”