Can the American conference turn early success into something bigger?


Mike Aresco didn’t think he was going out on a limb this summer whenever he said that the American Athletic Conference could eventually play its way into the power-league conversation. Nearly halfway through the season, the on-field product suggests Aresco’s forecast may be ahead of schedule.

South Florida’s win over Syracuse pushed the American conference to 4-3 against the ACC this season. The league boasts three undefeated teams. It has beaten teams from three Power 5 conferences, with the potential for more Saturday, when one of those perfect teams, Memphis, hosts Ole Miss of the SEC.

“I thought we competed the last few years, but we didn’t win as many nonconference games as we’re winning now,” said Aresco, the American commissioner since its 2012 makeover from the old Big East. “I honestly thought it was just a matter of time, with the coaches we had, the way we’re building our programs. ... I felt that everybody was making a commitment.”

The surprising part may be that the league has played so well despite the struggles of its Florida schools. USF’s win over Syracuse was the Bulls’ first against FBS competition this season. Their Interstate 4 rival, UCF, has gone 0-6 one year after splitting the league title, and two years after winning the Fiesta Bowl.

Aresco is happy the league has taken care of business against its Group of Five brethren, going 11-3 against those schools, with two of those losses coming against independent quasi-member BYU. This season’s overall surge has been charged in large part by the influx of up-and-coming coaches in recent years.

Tom Herman is 5-0 in his first year at Houston after assisting with Ohio State’s national title run last year. Fellow undefeated coaches, 39-year-old Justin Fuente (Memphis) and 40-year-old Matt Rhule (Temple), are among the hottest names on the circuit, turning former laughingstocks into formidable programs.

First-year coaches Philip Montgomery (Tulsa) and Chad Morris (SMU) have sparked excitement among their constituencies with high-powered offenses that have given scares to Big 12 powers like Oklahoma and TCU. Second-year Connecticut coach Bob Diaco has already surpassed last year’s win total and pushed Missouri to the limit last month.

“It’s so different,” Diaco said of Year 1 to Year 2. “You just push yourself to do better, and that creates its own new challenges, but the challenges from a year ago really are no longer present, which is great. The team is so much stronger.”

There is also first-year league member Navy, which is coming off its first loss of the season but could still challenge for the league crown.

“You try to look for some silver lining in the deal and that's one of them,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said after losing at Notre Dame. “We just got to press forward, try to get ready for conference play.”

The Big Ten will reportedly count Navy, Cincinnati and UConn toward the league’s requirement of playing one nonconference Power 5 team per year, a seemingly arbitrary designation that has captured the predicament Aresco faces: He has never cared for the exclusivity of such scheduling rules, but he is glad that one league has at least cracked open the door for the American.

“If they’re going to have these requirements -- and not all the conferences do, but several of the big ones do -- then obviously we feel strongly that all the teams from our conference ought to be included as acceptable opponents,” he said.

The biggest characterization surrounding the American could come this December. What if there is an undefeated team? Houston will have had wins over the ACC (Louisville) and SEC (Vanderbilt). Memphis will have beaten the Big 12 (Kansas), SEC (Ole Miss) and perhaps the MAC champion (Bowling Green). Temple will have topped the Big Ten (Penn State) and Notre Dame.

The College Football Playoff, after all, was conceived when the American was still the Big East, when there were six power conferences and not five. Would there still be room for the American, enough room to cast aside two other power conferences?

“I don’t know yet. I honestly don’t know,” Aresco said. “I hope so. I have a lot of respect for the committee. I think it’s a tremendous committee, it really is. These are really knowledgeable people. I’ve said they’ll give us a fair shake. We’ve got to win the games first. Let’s have an undefeated team that has beaten some of the so-called 'P5' teams, some of the prominent 'P5' teams, and shown what they can do. And when that happens, then let’s see where we’re ranked. And if we’re not ranked where we think we should be, then maybe I would say something. But the point is, let’s give it a shot first, and now we’ve got three undefeated teams at the moment, and we’ll have our chances.”