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American Athletic Conference

American Stories – The American has Arrived

Tom Groeschen - Cincinnati Enquirer

NEWPORT, R.I. – Mike Aresco no longer needs to paint a picture of what the American Athletic Conference could become someday.

After five years of knocking at a closed door at the College Football Playoff, the league commissioner has enough evidence to support his theory that his league can hold its own with members of the power conferences

“I have said many times over the years that to belong to this group, one does not have to be the Big Ten or SEC; neither are some of the other autonomous five conferences the equivalent of the Big Ten or the SEC,” Aresco said during his state-of-the-0conference speech at the league’s annual media day here.

“We simply have to show that, although we are something different, we are also very much alike and belong in that company. I like to use the analogy: We can be JetBlue, which is a major carrier, but it’s clearly different than a United or Delta or an American. I think the comparison is apt because we’re a major conference, but we do things a bit differently.

“We recruit a little bit differently, we hire coaches differently, we schedule a bit differently. Witness our Thursday and Friday football schedules on ESPN, which has given us tremendous national exposure. But in many of the key ways that matter, we are alike.”

American schools pay cost of attendance for their student-athletes, get a growing amount of television exposure and their best teams have had success against other power conference opponents during their first five years, with three New Year’s Day bowl victories, a men’s national championship in basketball and three women’s basketball titles.

The ultimate proof came this past January 1 when UCF completed a perfect 13-0 season by defeating SEC power Auburn, which had a win over in-state rival and eventual College Football Playoff champion Alabama, 34-27, in the Peach Bowl at Atlanta.

The Knights finished sixth in the final AP poll but never had a chance to be part of the conversation for the four-team College Football Playoff when invitations were handed out. UCF was ranked 12th in the final CFP poll.

Aresco was more than willing to make up for the slight by awarding the Knights a spot at the top of the mountain after they became the first FBS team to go undefeated since 2013. “We salute UCF on its national championship, which they have a right to claim,” he said. “They finished No. 1 in the Colley computer index, and many schools over the years, including Alabama, have claimed national championships based on such metrics.

“This isn’t an issue of war and peace. UCF and its fans and followers around the country can enjoy this. But a larger point can also be made, that this UCF team deserved a shot at the national championship and could have won it. Our best teams, which were New Year’s Bowl winners – UCF in 2014 and 2017, and Houston in 2015 – could have beaten anyone in the country. The same can be said of some of our other strong teams.

“I fervently hope that UCF’s 2017 performance and the performances of so many of our teams over our five-year history, convinces the CFP selection committee to take a closer look and to evaluate us differently. Our league is very good, very underrated despite our success, and there is no question that the G5 tag has a lot to do with it.

“Houston’s ranking in 2015, UCF’s ranking in 2017: neither made sense, and each team proved that in their respective New Year’s Day Bowl wins. We do not want a glass, or a grass if you will, ceiling in college football, as it is terribly unfair to our terrific players and coaches.”

With coaches who are rising stars, increased numbers of NFL players and improved facilities, The American is making a bold statement.

History speaks volumes. In 2015, Houston (12-1) was ranked 18th in the final CFP poll. The Cougars went on to defeat eighth-ranked Florida State, 37-17, in the 2016 Peach Bowl.

“College football is far more democratized than it once was,” Aresco said. “Yes, the so-called blue blood programs still tend to dominate year to year, and the autonomous conferences have the advantage of money, tradition, facilities, name recognition, television exposure and fan bases, but other schools can now emerge and are emerging. Our conference is the prime example. UCF, Houston, USF, Memphis, Navy, Temple and others in our league have reached new heights. We have depth, we have had multiple 9, 10, 11 and 12-win teams.”

This year, the American is the only conference in the nation that returns its Offensive Player of the Year (quarterback McKenzie Milton of UCF), Defensive Player of the Year (All-America defensive tackle Ed Oliver of Houston) and Special Teams Player of the Year (All-America Tony Pollard of Memphis). Oliver could be the best NFL prospect in the country. Milton is a legitimate Heisman candidate. Pollard is the most dangerous return man in the country.

“Yet, I still see our teams getting slighted. I see television shows where the focus is on Alabama, Clemson, Miami, Auburn, Ohio State and Georgia when in fact USF or UCF or Memphis are major challengers and are not mentioned,” Aresco said. “The game between Oklahoma and Houston in 2016 is an example. Baker Mayfield got all the attention, but Greg Ward and Houston won decisively. We will keep fighting for the attention and recognition that we deserve and that we have earned, we will put to rest ‘the strength of schedule’ argument used against us.”

Featured 2018 non-conference matchups for the American include Cincinnati at UCLA; UConn at Boise State; ECU at Virginia Tech; Arizona at Houston; Memphis at Missouri; Notre Dame vs. Navy at San Diego; Temple at Boston College; Tulane at Ohio State; Tulsa at Texas; UCF at North Carolina and Georgia Tech at USF.

Aresco knows there will always be push back from the skeptics.

“But we will never surrender to the naysayers,” he said. “These same skeptics likely would not have given George Washington and his Colonial army much chance against the mighty British, either, and we know how that one turned out. The only failure on our part that would ever concern me would be the failure to strive.”



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