More Power to ya? AAC continues to fight for relevancy in college football landscape
All the helmet stickers and slogans touting the American Athletic Conference as part of a so-called Power Six are not working on the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Central Florida, one of only two unbeaten teams left in FBS, was ranked 14th by the committee in the latest rankings and Memphis (10-1), which plays the Knights in the American championship game on Saturday, was 20th.
As Commissioner Mike Aresco continues to push against major college football’s glass ceiling, advocating for his schools and trying to position the American Athletic Conference as a Power Five peer, just how far off the league is from achieving its goal has been apparent every Tuesday night since Halloween when the CFP rankings are released.
“I just believe the system will have more credibility if our guys have the chance to compete on a more level playing field,” Aresco said this week. “It’s very tough to fight the whole P5, G5 (Group of Five) divide. It’s just not easy. We accept that. We’re not naive. But we certainly are going to try to do something about it.”
The American has separated itself from the other four FBS conferences (Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt) known as the Group of Five on the field over the last three seasons.
During that time, the AAC is 30-6 in games against other G5 schools. The AAC champion is a lock to earn the Group of Five’s guaranteed spot in this season’s New year’s Six bowls, making it two of the last three years for the conference. The AAC has struggled overall in the last two postseasons with a 4-11 mark.
According to the Sagarin computer ratings, which ranks conferences by divisions, the American’s West division with Memphis, Houston and SMU, is ninth best in Division I. That puts it in between two Power Five divisions, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal and Southeastern Conference’s East. The AAC East is 13th. The only other Group of Five division ahead of it is the MAC’s West, with Toledo and Northern Illinois.
Still, the selection committee has UCF (11-0) directly behind Stanford (9-3) and Washington (10-2) from the Pac-12 in its rankings, citing the Knights’ strength of schedule and a shaky defense. (The committee doesn’t use the Sagarin strength of schedule rankings, but those have UCF at 83 and Washington at 57. Wisconsin, the other unbeaten in FBS and ranked No. 4 by the committee, is 61st.)
Coming off a thrilling nationally televised victory last Friday against USF (9-2), it seemed the Knights would finally be in position to at least crack the top 10 in the CFP. Instead the rankings prompted this tweet from UCF athletic director Danny White: “You’ve gotta be kidding me!!!”
Aresco voiced his concerns last week about the rankings in a radio interview, but he said this week he was not blasting the committee.
“All I said was that I thought our league deserved more respect and that I thought it was going to be really hard to get into the playoff even though I thought we had deserving teams and have proved it by what they did,” Aresco said.
Aresco’s Power Six push is not just a slogan. It’s a three-pronged plan that starts with getting the conference a better television contract. The current deal with ESPN expires after the 2019 season and pays the league about $21 million per year. The Power Five conferences each have long-term deals that pay hundreds of millions of dollars yearly. Informal talks with ESPN will start next year, Aresco said.
“If we have a TV deal that gets closer to what the other P5, P6 have then we have the credibility to say we belong in that group,” Aresco said.
Step two is to try to convince one of the major bowls to agree to a deal with the American similar to what the Power Five conferences have with New Year’s Six bowls. That would give the conference another big payday and guaranteed big stage for its champion every year.
The third step is to have the American be part of the NCAA legislative process that gives autonomy to the Power Five to makes some rules without the approval of the rest of Division I.
The American’s effort to distance from the rest of the Group of Five doesn’t sit well with many in those conferences.
“I don’t think the American is any closer to being the sixth league than the Mountain West is,” Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman said.
Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier said he thought Aresco tried to “bully” the committee and called the Power Six a “false narrative.” Frazier said he thinks the Group of Five would be better served working together within the current system to create a quasi-Group of Five playoff or play-in game instead of hoping for a playoff spot that will probably never come.
“We can monetize it and have clarity about who really is best,” Frazier said.
Realistically, the Power Six is a long-shot play for the American. But it has no shot without the teams playing well. This year, the conference has that covered.
“They are giving me the ammunition that we need,” Aresco said. “And now it’s coming to the point where they’ll be a tipping point. We’re going to have to do some things and become aggressive because you can’t just sit back. It’s not going to just happen by alchemy or magic, believe me.”