Despite some marquee victories, the American Athletic Conference could not bridge the gulf separating it from the Power Five conferences at the end of last season.
Houston coach Tom Herman, who made headlines in two attention-grabbing years, left for his dream job at Texas. South Florida’s Willy Taggart, who guided the Bulls to a double-digit win total for the first time in program history, departed for Oregon. Perhaps most painfully, Temple’s Matt Rhule, fresh off a rare conference championship, headed to scandal-plagued Baylor instead of staying in Philadelphia.
The cold reality is the AAC never will be able to compete financially with the big-money conferences. The league’s task is validating Mike Aresco’s oft-stated tenet that the AAC is closer to the Power Five leagues than the other Group of Six conferences (Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American, Sun Belt) are to the AAC.
Look for Aresco to repeat that line at the Summer Kickoff and Media Days, which start Monday and end Tuesday in Newport, Rhode Island. Then wait to see if the AAC has found equally good coaches to replace the ones who left.
Houston and Herman provided three signature moments for the AAC in the past two years, beating FSU in the Peach Bowl in 2015, upsetting third-ranked Oklahoma last September and clobbering fifth-ranked Louisville in November.
Temple and Rhule beat Penn State in 2015, almost stunned No. 9 Notre Dame that same year and won the AAC championship game last season.
South Florida was the league’s only top 25 team at the end of 2016, finishing 19th in the Associated Press poll after beating South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
Throw in Memphis, which shocked No. 13 Ole Miss in 2015 before coach Justin Fuente bolted for Virginia Tech, and the talent drain at the top has been substantial. The Tigers took a step back under new coach Mike Norvell in 2016, an anticipated drop since they also lost quarterback Paxton Lynch, a first-round NFL draft pick.
South Florida, at least, hired a big name in Charlie Strong, who will try to duplicate his success at Louisville after flopping at Texas. He knows the state, having spent 13 years as an assistant at Florida, and he knows big upsets, having beaten the Gators in the 2013 Sugar Bowl while coaching Louisville.
Houston went with Major Applewhite, the school’s offensive coordinator under Herman, for his first gig as a head coach. He had a checkered history as offensive coordinator at Texas and Alabama before his stint with the Cougars.
Temple hired former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, another first-time head coach. The Owls wanted someone with a similar background to Rhule, a defense-minded coach who had been a career assistant.
The newcomers join a list of respected returning coaches, including Navy’s Ken Niamutalolo, the 2016 AAC coach of the year, Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery, who won 10 games last season, Central Florida’s Scott Frost, who took the Knights to a bowl game in his first year after inheriting an 0-12 team, and Tulane’s Willie Fritz, whom Athlon Sports placed 22 spots ahead of LSU’s Ed Orgeron in its ranking of every FBS coach this summer.
The question is whether the AAC can continue to notch the high-profile victories that have earned it notice. As the only league returning its 2016 offensive and defensive players of the year (South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers, UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin), it has plenty of positives heading into the season.
A better bowl performances would help, too. Before the postseason last year, the AAC flapped its wings about Houston going 2-0 against top-10 opponents yet losing three times in league play. But the league flopped in the postseason, going 2-5 with lopsided defeats to Arkansas State of the Sun Belt (UCF), San Diego State of the Mountain West (Houston) and Western Kentucky of Conference USA (Memphis).
Gaining real traction always is going to be an uphill battle.