The American Athletic Conference failed miserably last year in its attempt to hold its own with college football’s “Power Five” leagues.
But the offseason went much better.
Houston, refusing to settle for a seven-win season, fired coach Tony Levine before its bowl game and replaced him with Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, whose team won the national championship a month later.
SMU, which plummeted to 1-11 and prompted June Jones’ resignation two games into the season, hired Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, a Texas native who graduated from Texas A&M.
Tulsa, which won only twice two years removed from a Conference USA championship, sacked Bill Blankenship and named Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery coach.
The three new coaches’ old schools combined for a 35-6 record in 2014. Baylor led the nation in scoring; Ohio State was fifth.
Although Clemson struggled a bit offensively, the Tigers ranked among the top 10 in scoring the previous two years.
Those were three high-profile hires for a two-year-old conference that managed just three wins in the regular season against the Southeastern Conference, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, plus independent Notre Dame.
“They were arguably the three best offensive coordinators in the country,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said ahead of Media Day on Tuesday in Newport, Rhode Island. “They are going to energize the league with their style of play.”
The AAC failed to live up to Aresco’s bold words a year ago that it “was not going to take a backseat to anyone.” Its victories against “Power Five” opponents came versus teams that finished 7-6 or worse: East Carolina over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and Temple over Vanderbilt.
The AAC’s three co-champions swung and missed. Cincinnati traveled to Miami and lost 55-34. UCF played at Missouri and fell 38-10. Memphis fared the best, challenging UCLA before losing 42-35. The Tigers also hung with Ole Miss into the fourth quarter, but the Rebels outgained them 426-104 and pulled away for a 24-3 victory.
In 2013, the AAC’s first season, league champion UCF stunned fifth-ranked (and Big 12 titlist) Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Last year, no one from the conference was in the conversation for the major bowl bid guaranteed to a team from a league outside the “Power Five” (Boise State earned it), with top candidate Memphis settling for a bid to the Miami Beach Bowl against unranked BYU.
“Part of that is we played the toughest nonconference schedule of anyone,” Aresco said. “We made considerable progress, and each year our teams get stronger. We had less depth two years ago, even though UCF won the Fiesta Bowl.”
Whether that contention is reality or just P.R. pablum, the AAC’s coaching changes showed ambition. Houston, in particular, acted like a big-time program.
At many schools outside of the top-tier conferences, a 7-5 regular season would be cause for celebration.
The Cougars also came within a yard of beating UCF and 11 yards shy of tying Cincinnati in the final seconds, but a 27-7 home loss to UTSA in the opener at new on-campus TDECU Stadium and another home defeat to Tulane sealed Levine’s fate.
Enter Herman, a hire with national championship pedigree who is bringing in the highest-ranked recruiting class (No. 34, with two four-stars) of anyone in the AAC, as rated by Rivals.com.
“That’s exactly what we want everybody trying to do,” Aresco said. “We’ve got to have people who want to get back to that ‘Power (Five)’ conference. We can’t force our way into the (‘Power Five’) group because that’s a governance thing, but we can convince the public we belong in the conversation with the other five. Look at Houston. Tom Herman has just energized the place.”
Clearly, coaches around the country are not convinced the AAC is rising in stature. In their preseason poll, UCF and Cincinnati received one vote apiece — and that’s it.
“To be honest, we’re a little under the radar now, and that’s fine because we’re going to have several good teams,” Aresco said.
“I’m satisfied that we are continuing to build and every team is getting better.”
The chances to prove it against “Power Five” opponents will come early and often. Tulane opens at home against Duke on Sept. 3. Temple entertains Penn State two days later. UCF travels to Stanford, East Carolina plays at Florida and Houston heads to former AAC member Louisville on Sept. 12. Cincinnati gets Miami at home on Oct. 1. Memphis hosts Ole Miss on Oct. 17.
“We just need to win more of those games,” Aresco said. “It’s on us. We’re not daunted by the challenge.”