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An ‘American’ Story: New American Athletic Conference Suffers in Face of Realignment
By Matthew Postins/College Football America editor-in-chief
A couple of years ago at the Big East spring meetings, former Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun wrote the Big East Conference’s epitaph, even if no one believed it at the time.
“My own personal opinion – and I won’t probably see this – in the next couple of years, four or five years down the road, I think you’ll see a separation [of the football and non-football membership],” Calhoun told the media. “I think it’s inevitable.”
Welcome to inevitability.
No conference worked harder to stay relevant in college realignment than the Big East.
No conference took a bigger fall due to college realignment than the Big East.
The Big East, as most of us that have followed college sports the past 30 years knew it, is no more.
The coup de grace came this past spring when the so-called “Catholic 7” (read: the seven schools that don’t play FBS football) negotiated a split with the football-playing members to leave the league and take their name with them.
From the ashes of that split rises the American Athletic Conference, which would prefer not to be called the AAC, but has more in common with Conference USA than its former self.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse followed the money to the ACC starting this fall. Next fall Louisville follows suit. The theory holds that if the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12 or the SEC chooses to expand again, chances are “The American” (as it wishes to be called) will be poached first.
Though, frankly, there won’t be much to poach after the Cardinals depart. The marquee schools, if you want to call them that, will be Cincinnati and … well … hmmm. One struggles to complete that sentence.
The former Big East’s efforts to prop itself up failed. At one time it had convinced both Boise State and San Diego State to join for the 2013 season.
But when it became clear that the new reality of college football would be a four-team playoff and no BCS bowl bids, the pair ran back to the Mountain West.
Now the league is held together by the best of Conference USA.
Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF join the American in all sports starting this season.
East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa join the American for all sports in 2014.
Navy joins the American for football in 2015.
But the American will have to enjoy its final season of guaranteed access to the so-called BCS bowls as the conference will not be part of the preferred ‘Group of Five’ that will enjoy automatic access beginning in 2014. And if that final berth doesn’t go to the Louisville Cardinals, then something has gone horribly wrong.
The Cardinals are stacked with talent and confidence after beating the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl, so expectations are high in Louisville.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a legitimate part of the Heisman conversation, is back, along with wide receiver DeVante Parker. Running back Dominique Brown is back from injury. Three of the starting five offensive linemen are back.
The defense is stocked with eight returning starters, including All-Big East picks linebacker Preston Brown, safety Hakeem Smith and safety Calvin Pryor.
There are few holes in this Louisville outfit, and a favorable non-league schedule means the Cardinals could finish undefeated.
Who can stand in Louisville’s way? The team with the best shot is Cincinnati, despite the coaching change that saw the Bearcats stunningly lure Tommy Tuberville away from Texas Tech to replace Butch Jones, who went to Tennessee.
Jones left Tuberville plenty to work with, including wide receiver Anthony McClung, offensive tackle Eric Lefeld, offensive guard Austen Bujnoch and linebacker Greg Blair.
Rutgers — which is headed to the Big Ten in 2014 — has to settle its ongoing quarterback battle between Gary Nova and Chas Dodd.
Rutgers returns four starters on the offensive line and top pass rusher Jamal Merrell. The Scarlet Knights need a new running back and a replacement for perhaps the best defensive player in Rutgers history, linebacker Khaseem Greene.
UCF can compete right away thanks to quarterback Blake Bortles, who threw for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. Strong safety Clayton Geathers leads a defense that must find five new starters in the front seven.
USF hired Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart to replace Skip Holtz. He’ll have to rebuild an offense that has just three returning starters.
UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni is feeling the heat in Storrs. The offense might help him turn it down, if quarterback Chandler Whitmer progresses and running back Lyle McCombs takes another step in his development.
The league’s new Texas schools, Houston and SMU, will feel some growing pains. SMU must replace all-everything back Zach Line and linebacker Ja’Gared Davis, but quarterback Garrett Gilbert and most of his receivers are back. At Houston Tony Levine must get more out of his quarterback, David Piland.
Memphis and Temple are in full-on rebuilding mode. Second-year coach Justin Puente hopes to get more out of the Tigers, though he laid a good foundation last year and has sack leader Martin Ifedi back. The Owls must adjust to a new coach in Matt Rhule and restock the talent that put them back in this conference.