After failing to consistently get quality seeds in the NCAA Tournament, it was inevitable for the Wichita State Shockers to join the American Athletic Conference.
For months there has been speculation about the Big 12 Conference in regards to expansion. In regards to the Power Five Conferences, the Big 12 is the only one that doesn’t have a conference title game as they only have 10 members, whereas the Pac-12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, and Big Ten Conferences all have at least 12 members which grants them access to a conference title game.
Once upon a time the Big 12 did have 12 members, but in 2011, the Colorado Buffaloes left for the Pac-12 and the Nebraska Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten. 2012 would see the Missouri Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies join the Southeastern Conference which left the Big 12 on life support with just eight schools. The Big 12 was then able to lure the West Virginia Mountaineers and TCU Horned Frogs to leave the Big East Conference, but they were still fighting an uphill battle to the other Power Five Conferences; especially since they’ve been unable to get out of their own way.
In 2014, both the Baylor Bears and TCU went 11-1 in the regular season, with identical 8-1 conference records. In head-to-head competition, Baylor would get the best of TCU, but Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby instead opted to not name a conference champion in favor of allowing the College Football Playoff Committee to select its team from the conference for the field of four. However the committee would bypass both Big 12 teams in favor of the Ohio State Buckeyes out of the Big Ten who would win their conference title game. This would infuriate the Big 12 as they soon believed that a conference title game would enhance their chances of placing a team into the College Football Playoff.
For nearly a year the Big 12 has looked into expansion as they were courting numerous schools for either two or four spots. And if the Big 12 decided to expand, the American Athletic Conference was set to take the biggest hit.
The American Athletic Conference was formed in 2013 as they were formed of some schools that had migrated to the conference from Conference USA, along with some of the leftovers from the Big East. The AAC is comprised of 12 members that understand that they aren’t among the elite of college football, but it hasn’t prevented them from putting a quality product on the field.
Some American Athletic schools have quality wins on their resume. In 2013, the Central Florida Knights went 12-1 en route to upsetting Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. In 2015, the Memphis Tigers scored a 37-24 victory over the Ole Miss Rebels of the Southeastern Conference en route to a 9-4 campaign. The Houston Cougars would go 13-1 last season, and they served notice when they upset the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference in the Peach Bowl. And now as the Big 12 has balked at conference expansion, the AAC could really benefit.
Houston appeared to be a logical fit for the Big 12 with their close proximity to the Southwest region that comprises most of the conference’s schools. And an invitation to the Big 12 for Houston would have meant renewing rivalries with former Southwest Conference members such as the Texas Longhorns. Houston also went as far as making upgrades to their football facilities. However some Big 12 schools outside of the State of Texas were opposed to the Cougars joining the conference due to the fact that it would have meant having another school from the Lone State State to compete with as far as recruiting goes in the college football hotbed.
Memphis doesn’t have a long and storied college football history, but they do have deep pockets. FedEx is based in Memphis, Tennessee and their CEO Frederick Smith was willing to provide the Big 12 with sponsorship for a conference title game which was ultimately shot down. But like Houston, Memphis can now focus on building their brand in the American Athletic Conference.
After consecutive upset victories over Houston and Memphis, the Navy Midshipmen are the only American Athletic Conference team that is ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. Navy is in their second season in the AAC as the conference reached out to them several years ago to be a football-only member which would give them the ability to have a conference title game. In nearly two seasons in the AAC, Navy is 16-3 and there is a strong possibility that they could win the conference crown. Unlike some of the schools in the AAC, Navy has a football history which gives the conference credibility. And once you factor in the resurgence of Central Florida under first-year head football coach Scott Frost, along with the emergence of the Temple Owls, and the consistency of the Cincinnati Bearcats, the AAC could be ready to make an impact on the college football scene.
In order for a conference to work, all members within the conference must be on the same page. The inability to function as a unit has seen the demise of conferences such as the Big East and Southwest, which could be the fate that the Big 12 might have sealed due to their inability to expand and protect their brand; in spite of the fact that the NCAA will allow them to have a conference title game in spite of not having 12 members. But as the Big 12 could be in trouble, the American Athletic Conference could be ready to shine if everyone is on the same page.
The American Athletic Conference provides its fans with some excitement on the gridiron and if they can continue to pull of upsets over Power Five schools, along with the ability to maintain their head coaches such as Houston’s Tom Herman, UCF’s Frost and Ken Niumatalolo of Navy, the conference could begin to chip away and although that it’s a long shot, possibly create for themselves a seat as far as being a player in the College Football Playoff.
People laughed when Michael Aresco became the American Athletic Conference’s first commissioner when the conference was formed in 2013. Aresco had a past history as a television executive which has helped the AAC in negotiations for television deals which was can help all of the members going forward. Aresco’s ability to negotiate has given the AAC stability as all of its members appear to be happy. And in this era of college football, that is what it’s all about which gives the AAC more than just a fighting chance to survive.