Coaches struggle to explain American Athletic Conference’s early woes _lowres

Associated Press/News & Observer file photo by CHUCK LIDDY -- Tulane wide receiver Justyn Shackleford has 33 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns this season.

Two weeks in a row during his Tuesday news conference, Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson began by praising fellow American Athletic Conference coach Ruffin McNeill for huge nonconference victories with East Carolina.

When the Pirates stunned Virginia Tech on the road, Johnson recalled his own history in Blacksburg, Virginia.

“In Blacksburg, you just don’t win,” Johnson said. “I took some great Miami teams in there (as an assistant coach) and left with an ‘L.’ Ruffin McNeill has the power this week because of what he’s done.”

When the Pirates followed up by blowing out North Carolina 70-41, Johnson said McNeill had earned his “power point of the week again.”

He stopped there, but what he and everyone associated with the AAC could have added was this: “Thank goodness for East Carolina, because the rest of us are reeling.”

East Carolina’s rise to No. 19 in The Associated Press poll — making the Pirates an early favorite for the guaranteed non-Power Five spot to one of the major bowls — has obscured the league’s otherwise lousy results. The other 10 teams in the AAC received zero votes — the same as everyone from the Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt, with the exception of C-USA school Marshall, which is 27th.

Even worse, the AAC has fared poorly in head-to-head matchups against the other conferences outside of the power structure, scuttling commissioner Mike Aresco’s implication in July that the AAC was closer to the Southeastern, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 than the other conferences were to the AAC.

On the field, no one but East Carolina has backed up Aresco’s bravado.

Before Central Florida hosted BYU on Thursday night, AAC teams were 7-25 in nonconference games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. Never mind their 3-16 mark against the Power Five leagues, which actually was better than the marks posted by Conference USA (0-20) and the Mountain West (3-17). The real indictment was the AAC’s 4-9 record against opponents outside the Power Five conferences.

Tulsa (1-4) lost at home to Sun Belt member Texas State and was no match for Colorado State of the Mountain West, falling 42-17.

Temple (3-1) lost at home to Navy, which is currently on a three-game skid that includes losses to Western Kentucky and Air Force.

Independent BYU had no problem with Connecticut (1-4) on the road, winning 35-10, and handled Houston (2-3) at home 33-25.

The most head-scratching results came against Conference USA, a league that appeared to be rendered irrelevant by the recent departures of UCF, Houston, Memphis, SMU, East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane for what is now the AAC.

C-USA got its revenge by going 3-1 against the AAC, with UTSA shocking Houston 27-7 in the debut of the Cougars’ new on-campus stadium, North Texas smashing SMU 43-6 and FAU trouncing Tulsa 50-21. Making those scores look even worse, the combined record of those three winners against anyone else is 2-11.

Memphis restored some pride by beating Middle Tennessee 36-17, but the overall picture has not been pretty. In contrast to the AAC’s struggles, Conference USA is 16-3 against FBS teams outside of the Power Five. The Mountain West is 8-6.

“Overall, year in and year out, (the AAC) will be able to hold our own,” said Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, whose Bearcats were 2-1 out of the league heading into Saturday’s game at Miami. “At times, anybody is going to struggle, whether you call it the Power Five or the ones that we’re in.”

Several AAC teams have dropped off dramatically from a year ago.

UCF (2-2), which gave the AAC credibility by beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl last year, has struggled to remain elite without quarterback Blake Bortles, the third pick in the NFL draft. After losing a 26-24 nail-biter to Penn State in Ireland, the Golden Knights lost 38-10 at Missouri and fell off the radar.

Houston (2-3), which was 8-5 in 2013 and lost four regular-season games to bowl teams by an average of five points, came up empty in its loss to UTSA. Quarterback John O’Korn, a freshman phenom who threw 28 touchdown passes last year, was benched last week in a 17-12 loss to UCF. He has eight interceptions and six touchdowns.

Tulane, a 7-6 bowl team in 2013, swung and missed against Power Five opponents Georgia Tech, Duke and Rutgers. The Green Wave was outscored 116-40 in those games.

SMU (0-5), which played in four consecutive bowls from 2009-12 under coach June Jones, has hit rock bottom. Jones resigned two games into the season, and the Mustangs were outscored 202-12 in a rigorous nonconference schedule that included Baylor, Texas A&M and TCU.

The simple answer for the AAC’s struggles is its inexperienced quarterbacks. East Carolina is the only team with an upperclassman starter who also started last year: senior Shane Carden. But each team’s issues have been different.

“If you ask (if) can I put a finger on (the reasons for the conference’s struggles), no, I cannot,” Houston coach Tony Levine said. “It comes down to execution and winning the turnover margin regardless of who you play.”

Outside of East Carolina, the only positives for the AAC were Temple’s 37-7 victory at Vanderbilt to open the season and Memphis’ close losses at UCLA (42-35) and Ole Miss (24-3).

Memphis received five votes in the latest coaches poll. Despite the league’s September flameout, Tuberville expects East Carolina to get some company in the polls by November.

“I think somebody else will move up in there as the year goes along,” he said. “I don’t think it really means a lot who’s up there right now.”