The American Athletic Conference may be, arguably, the strongest and deepest of the Group of Five conferences in college football, but the bowl season has not gotten off to a good start for the conference that sells itself is the sixth power conference. Houston and UCF both took losses in the two bowl games involving teams from the AAC on Saturday, getting the conference off to a disappointing 0-2 start to the season.
Houston suffered a blowout loss in the Las Vegas Bowl against Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State, with Donnel Pumphrey setting the new all-time NCAA rushing record in the process. The Cougars were a five-point favorite heading into the matchup with the Aztecs and returned home with a 24-point loss in the head coaching debut of Major Applewhite. For a team that knocked off top five opponents Oklahoma and Louisville in the regular season, ending the year with a 9-4 record and a Las Vegas Bowl loss (and a head coach to Texas) was a bitter ending to a promising season. UCF’s loss to Arkansas State was not quite as shocking of an upset, with the Knights coming into the Cure Bowl as a slight favorite against the Sun Belt co-champions.
The image problem for the AAC is it just suffered two losses to champions from two other Group of Five conferences right out of the gate. And it is not as though the AAC had a stellar postseason last year either. The AAC went just 2-6 in postseason bowl games a year ago, the worst overall record of any conference. The bowl record a year ago was overshadowed by Houston’s victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl, but the AAC went winless against Conference USA (0-2), the MAC (0-1), and the Mountain West Conference (0-1) last bowl season. The American went 2-3 in bowl games in 2014 and 2013 too.
If the AAC is going to come together and support its case to be the top Group of Five conference, it will have its work cut out for them the rest of the bowl season, although there may be some favorable matchups to come.
Tulsa will take on Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl, and the Golden Hurricane should be a decent favorite in the game. But one should never count out the Chippewas this time of year. Memphis gets a tough draw against Conference USA champion Western Kentucky, although the Hilltoppers are going through a coaching change that could impact the team in the Boca Raton Bowl. Navy’s matchup with Louisiana Tech could be a challenge given recent depth concerns for the Midshipmen from their last two games played against Temple and Army.
Two AAC teams, Temple and USF, will take on power conference opponents, Wake Forest and South Carolina, respectively. Both the Owls and Bulls should stand a good chance to boost the AAC’s record and to do so against the ACC and SEC would be a good finish for the conference. But if the AAC comes up with another losing record and tacks on more losses against Group of Five conference opponents, the talk about the AAC’s pedigree among non-power conferences will be tarnished for an entire offseason.