Strike a conference down, and it shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
OK, so perhaps that’s a bit over-dramatic. But in the fifth season of the College Football Playoff, the American Athletic Conference is rolling along nicely despite bearing the brunt of damage the new system’s consolidation of power among five leagues inflicted.
Since the division of conferences under the Playoff system, the American Athletic has existed as its own island in the college football landscape. The league’s brass has long touted the concept of “Power 6,” a branding gimmick designed to associate the American more with the ACC/Big 12/Big Ten/Pac-12/SEC than C-USA/MAC/MW/Sun Belt.
Power 6 and its hashtag, #POW6R, sometimes stoke the same agitations that UCF’s claim to the 2017 national championship inspire. However, the American Athletic’s performance in the Playoff era comes closer to that of the Power Five than its Group of Five brethren.
The most recent Associated Press Top 25 poll features a newcomer at No. 25, Cincinnati. The Bearcats’ return to the polls for the first time in almost six years gives the American Athletic Conference three teams in the Top 25.
That’s not insignificant, given that The American’s three matches that of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. Only the Big Ten and SEC boast more currently ranked members. It’s also not an aberration: The American spent much of the final stretch of and concluded the 2017 season with three ranked teams. USF really should have been last November for the War on I-4 — that the Bulls weren’t smacks of Playoff conspiracy (if you’re a Playoff tinfoil hat-wearer like me).
The 2015 regular season ended with three American Athletic teams in the polls, and began the final month with four members ranked.
Success against Power Five competition certainly contributes; each of the three ranked American Athletic teams this season have at least one win against an opponent from a Power Five conference.
“We talk about Power Six: You look at us against Georgia Tech; you look at Houston, and what they did against Arizona, how well they played. You look at ECU and North Carolina,” said USF coach Charlie Strong, whose Bulls have been in the Top 25 at some point in each of the past three seasons (including 2016, pre-dating Strong’s arrival in Tampa). “You have teams in this league that can play with anybody in the country.”
Nonconference records vs Power 5* opponents (2014-2018)
Pac-12 41-35 (.539)
SEC 52-47 (.525)
Big Ten 54-50 (.519)
ACC 55-65 (.458)
Big 12 29-39 (.426)
American 34-66 (.340)
MAC 17-82 (.172)
Mountain West 16-82 (.163)
CUSA 7-92 (.071)
Sun Belt 3-74 (.039)
*Includes Notre Dame
— Kyle Bonagura (@BonaguraESPN) September 11, 2018
While its win percentage doesn’t exceed any of the Power Five, almost doubling the nearest Group of Five counterpart speaks volumes. So, too, does outpacing the Big 12 in the sheer number of non-conference, Power Five. And yet, as UCF cracked the Top 10 this week and aims to extend the nation’s longest win streak when it faces Memphis, the Playoff seems no closer for the Knights than it did a year ago.
“UCF got full consideration from the committee last year,” Bill Hancock told the Associated Press two weeks ago. “I believe the committee at the end of the season had ranked UCF higher than the sports writers and the coaches had. So they got every consideration and they had a wonderful season.”
Hancock insisting the Knights were given “every consideration” — in a year with a pair of two-loss Power Five champions and an at-large selection with a Sagarin strength-of-schedule in the 50s — sends up a red flag. Defending last year’s decision to exclude UCF sure feels an awful lot like a preemptive measure to defend this year’s decision, should it come to that. Such a move would fly in the face of the assurance repeated in recent years: Go undefeated after a great previous year, and you’ll get in!
But then, such is the bill of goods the Playoff sold upon its inception.
The College Football Playoff was born on something of a bait-and-switch tactic. Its institution was pushed, in part, on the concept of giving more programs a realistic shot at a national championship. In reality, it seems like an empty measure meant to silence the outsiders, even weakening them. No conference felt this more than the American Athletic’s forerunner, the Big East.
I don’t believe I’m out-of-turn suggesting the Bowl Championship Series would persist today, were it not for the antitrust lawsuit the Mountain West Conference issued when Utah was hosed out of a split national championship in 2008.
The final tipping point came in the dreadful 2012 BCS Championship Game between Alabama and LSU, an unnecessary and boring rematch. Public demand for a playoff was never more fervent than after a 2011 season — and not due exclusively to the final SEC-ification of the national college football landscape.
Boise State that season built the strongest case for an outsider playing in the BCS Championship. As the Broncos progressed further into the season with an unblemished record, after years and years for repeated, Top 15 finishes, some within the BCS worked their hardest to sabotage the underdogs.
Craig James, for example, comically down-voted the Broncos even before their BCS title bubble burst — which came in the waning moments of a game against the previous season’s Rose Bowl champion, TCU.
TCU played in consecutive BCS bowls prior to that epic game at Boise State in 2011, solidifying itself as a perennial powerhouse in the same vein as Boise State. And TCU plays an important part in the American Athletic’s defiance of the Power Five/Group of Five model: A few weeks prior to beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, TCU announced it was leaving the Mountain West for the Big East.
The Big East also had, for a time, Boise State set to join. San Diego State, a program that’s won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons, was also set to join. And this was at a time when the Big East still counted Louisville, West Virginia, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh among its ranks. Hell, even Rutgers deserves mention, since it was a Big East member and hadn’t yet gone into its current tailspin.
This is a strong lineup, but it never came to fruition, obviously. The Playoff was always intended as a consolidation of power, which meant a consolidation of money and resources. Conference realignment took off in the summer of 2010, with commissioners and athletic department chairs eyeing the new football landscape.
The Pac-12 took the If you can’t beat ’em, invite them to your party approach with Utah. The Big 12 followed suit a year later when it added TCU. The Big 12 also kept from dying with the addition of West Virginia before the 2012 football season, but West Virginia would have never had reason to leave the Big East if the power-grab hadn’t sacrificed the conference.
As realignment and Playoff planning was afoot, the Big East was renegotiating its television contract. Television is the Wizard of Oz when it comes to this sport, and the handling of the Big East was perhaps the most damning peek offered behind the curtain.
Despite the sabotage TV negotiations wrought, Big East champion Louisville sent the conference out in style in the 2012 season with a dominant Sugar Bowl win over the SEC’s Florida Gators. Charlie Strong, now at USF, was head coach of the Cardinals that season.
He was again in 2013, the first campaign of the American Athletic and last of the BCS era. That was also the last the American Athletic had guaranteed access to one of the designated, top-tier bowls.
As stated above, the Playoff has qualities to it that come off as a half-hearted effort to simply shut up the outsiders. The automatic berth into one of the New Year’s Six bowl, after the BCS spent the first half-decade of its existence keeping outsiders excluded altogether, is a step in the right direction. At least, it would be if it didn’t reinforce the glass ceiling in two key ways.
The American Athletic appears well on its way to sending its champion to the New Year’s Six bid. Now, that’s great from the perspective that the American/Big East has won each of its last five appearances in BCS/New Year’s Six bowls: West Virginia over Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl; Louisville over Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl; UCF over Baylor in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl; Houston over Florida State in the 2016 Peach Bowl; UCF over Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl.
But, by categorizing a conference more comparable at the top to a Power Five, the Playoff has made the so-called access bowl less accessible. The American Athletic receiving Power Six designation would most likely be a boon to the current Group of Five, opening that spot up to one of the other four conferences.