|Posted on December 7, 2016 at 8:40 AM|
Article by Dan Tortora
It has been a tumultuous football season, to say the least, for the American Athletic Conference (AAC).
Not on the field, though.
Navy handed the Houston Cougars their first loss of the season, when Houston was ranked in the top-6 in the nation. The Midshipmen would go on to win the AAC West Division title over a surging Tulsa Golden Hurricane team and Houston, who had won it a year prior, advancing the Midshipmen to their first AAC Championship game and their first conference championship game ever in their history, having been independent for 134 years. Navy ended the regular season at 9-3 and will move forward into the bowl season.
Tulsa under second-year head coach Philip Montgomery is going to back-to-back bowl games, advancing to the postseason in both of Montgomery's two years coaching the Golden Hurricane. Montgomery also led Tulsa to three more wins in the regular season this year than in his first year, from six to nine.
Memphis defeated both Temple and Houston, the two teams with returning personnel who both advanced to the AAC Football Championship a season before; the Tigers took care of the Cougars when the Cougars were ranked in the nation's top 20. This has all been accomplished in Mike Norvell's first season at the helm of Memphis' team, who achieved eight wins with their new leader and will, thus, be in the bowl season as well.
UCF (Central Florida) in its first year under new head coach Scott Frost advanced to six wins and a bowl berth after going 0-12 the season prior.
SMU (Southern Methodist) did not just defeat, they subdued Houston in a 38-16 victory over the Cougars when the Cougars were ranked in the top 11 in the country. In just head coach Chad Morris' second season with the Mustangs, they rose from two wins in 2015 to just shy of a bowl bid in 2016, ending with five wins.
East Carolina, yet another AAC team with a new head coach this season, elevated themselves over the N.C. State Wolfpack (ACC), a team that is bowl-bound this season, under the leadership of Scottie Montgomery.
South Florida went on the road to the Carrier Dome and trounced the Syracuse Orange of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and later emerged victorious over the top-25 ranked Navy Midshipmen. The Bulls ended the season 10-2, four wins more than needed to become bowl-eligible, and, therefore, will play in the postseason.
Temple held within a touchdown in a loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions, a team they defeated a year prior, and went on later in the season to claim the AAC East Division title, following with a win over top-25 ranked Navy to win their first AAC Football Championship, and they did it on the road at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Houston took down a top-3 ranked team and a top-5 ranked team nationally at the time of play, defeating the Oklahoma Sooners (Big 12) and the Louisville Cardinals (ACC), respectively. They will play in a bowl game after going 9-3 this year, making it seven of 12 teams advancing from the AAC to the bowl season in 2016.
The tumultuous part happened away from the games themselves.
The Big 12 conference opened the discussion on expanding their conference this season and almost all of the AAC's 12 member schools were on the list. This looming possibility of losing member schools when the AAC was built on the rubble of arguably the largest scale of poaching ever in college football leading to the demise of the Big East Conference football-wise, meant that this conference may have to rise from the ashes once again. The potential of Big 12 realignment hung over the AAC from AAC Football Media Day in Newport, Rhode Island, at the beginning of August of this year through the majority of this season.
When the Big 12 finally decided not to expand, as of right now, there was some relief, or at least some hope of relief.
But, the Big 12 had not given up.
They had simply focused their efforts on another angle.
Do not take the AAC's member schools. Focus, rather, on the head coaches of those member schools to lead current Big 12 member schools back to prominence. The PAC-12, having already expanded out from the former PAC-10, followed suit in not looking at member expansion, but rather, a new face to lead their program.
Despite signing contract extensions a mere year ago in December of 2015 that took Tom Herman through 2020 with Houston, Matt Rhule through 2021 with Temple, and Willie Taggart through 2020 with South Florida, all three head coaches chose to leave the AAC. Two will join the Big 12, Herman with the Texas Longhorns and Rhule with the Baylor Bears, while Taggart joins the PAC-12's Oregon Ducks.
That means that the only two head coaches in the young history of the AAC to win AAC Football Championship titles, Herman in 2015 and Rhule in 2016, are now gone to another conference. South Florida, under Taggart, fought to the bitter end in both 2015 and 2016 to come up just shy of Temple for the AAC East title.
Herman, at Houston for a mere two seasons, helped lead the Cougars to back-to-back bowl berths.
Rhule took Temple from a 2-10 team in his first season (2013) and turned them into a bowl-bound team a year later at 6-6 (2014). Following in the last two seasons (2015 and 2016), Rhule has helped advance the Owls to back-to-back 10-win campaigns, and back-to-back bowl games.
Taggart has been the definition of progress at South Florida, going from 2-10 to 4-8 to 8-5 to 10-2 from his first season as the Bulls' head coach to his fourth and final campaign with the team.
The AAC has, therefore, lost three of its greatest assets, three of its major talking points in its effort to expand the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision, or Division I-A) "Power-5" conferences denotion out to a "Power-6" platform to include the AAC with the Power-5 grouping of the ACC, Big 12, PAC-12, Big Ten, and SEC (Southeastern Conference).
On top of these three losses, Tommy Tuberville, a longtime collegiate football head coach who has been on the inside and the outside of the so-called "Power-5", and someone who has been vocal in his support of the AAC product, stepped down as head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats following a 4-8 season where the Bearcats went 1-7 in the AAC and failed to reach a bowl game.
The AAC is left to regroup, again.
To hope for strong head coaches who can step into large-gaping vacancy holes in their member schools.
It is an uphill climb once more.
Luckily for the AAC, they have been asked to do nothing but have to climb uphill since their institution.
They were born in the fire and emerged from the ashes.
Adversity already tried to test the AAC.
It is time once again for the AAC to show how well they win both on and off the field.
If I was a betting man, I would most certainly not place my chips on adversity to win this one either.