This is a two-part post. In Part I, I talk about how the American has established itself as the top Group of Five conference. In Part II, we’ll discuss what that means, and where we go from here.
The American Athletic Conference is only three years old, but they’ve done pretty well for themselves in those three years. 2015 was the American’s best season yet, with a New Year’s bowl winner, two teams in the final top 25, the consensus national defensive player of the year (Temple’s Tyler Matakevich), and a player who finished in the top five in Heisman voting (Keenan Reynolds). There were plenty of skeptics who doubted the viability of the Big East’s football remnants, but the conference has not only survived, but thrived.
Indeed, the case can easily be made that the American has emerged as the top Group of Five conference.
Discussions on that topic usually boil down to a choice between the American and the Mountain West. The American was formed in 2013, and the two conferences have only played each other seven times since then. While the American does hold a 4-3 advantage in those games, it isn’t much of a sample size from which to draw any conclusions. Other metrics, however, make the picture more clear.
The two leagues have played almost the same number of games against Power Five conferences over the last three years, but the American has won nearly twice as many (19-10). Only one Mountain West team has finished in the AP top 25 over that span (Boise State was #16 in 2014). The American has had four, including two in the top ten, #10 UCF in 2013 and #8 Houston in 2015.
(These numbers don’t include Louisville and Rutgers in 2013, nor do they include Navy prior to 2015. Otherwise, they would be even more in the American’s favor. In 2013 and 2014, Navy was 5-1 against the MWC and won two games against current Power Five members).
The American also leads the Group of Five in attendance. The league average in 2015 was 31,870, while the Mountain West’s was only 23,744. Three American programs (Temple, Memphis, and ECU) averaged more than 40,000, and all three drew more than a dozen Power Five programs. Five American programs averaged more per game than the Mountain West’s attendance leader, Boise State. The Broncos were the only school in that conference to average more than 30,000. More than half of the schools in the American did.
While 31K is a modest number in the big picture, there were some very encouraging data points that went into that figure. The American didn’t need big out-of-conference games in order to draw a crowd; some of their best games were against each other. Memphis and Navy brought in more than 55,000 for a prime time game. ECU and USF drew over 45,000, as did Cincinnati and Memphis. The American had eight different intra-league games that topped 40,000 fans. The Mountain West’s most-attended conference game was San Diego State-Wyoming at 36,688. The American was able to create big-game atmospheres that were unmatched in the Group of Five.
None of this should come as a surprise. The Mountain West was always a top-heavy conference, gaining its reputation as giant-killers based on the strength of its three best teams. Every Mountain West championship was won by either BYU, TCU, or Utah from 2003-2011. The positive press that those programs received masked issues in the lower half of the league. As with several other schools in the Cal State system, there were calls to drop football at San Diego State. New Mexico went 1-11 each season from 2009-2011. While every conference has programs experiencing ups and downs, the Mountain West had a glass ceiling; no team outside of the “big three” finished a season ranked in the top 25 after 2000. When BYU, Utah, and later TCU left for greener pastures, none of the remaining programs were well-suited to fill the void.
The Mountain West responded the only way it could, by essentially becoming the WAC from which it had originally divorced. That wasn’t all bad; programs like Boise State and Fresno State certainly had experienced their share of on-field success. The problem was that the MWC didn’t add these WAC programs because they were the best fits for the league. They added them because they were the only ones they could add due to geography. While Boise and Fresno were logical additions, the very future of football is in doubt at schools like Hawaii and San Jose State. No offense to either of those programs (I am a Hawaii sympathizer, after all), but it’s hard to imagine that the Mountain West would have targeted them for expansion if they had a choice. One could argue about the value of programs like Nevada or Utah State, but in the end it would be a moot discussion. Mountain West expansion, by necessity, was based more on geography than each program’s individual potential.
The creation of the American after the dissolution of the Big East is a different story. The Mountain West became a media darling in the BCS era, usually at the expense of the Big East. Optics played a big part of that. From 2000-2011, the Mountain West never had a split championship. There was always one team that played the role of flagship for the league. That wasn’t the case in the Big East, which had shared championships in six of its last ten seasons. Because the best teams in the league beat up on each other, they often weren’t ranked as high as the Mountain West’s single champion. The conferences’ reputations, though, were set by the performance of their highest-ranked teams.
The problem with that way of thinking is that it gives you no indication of the depth of a conference. The Big East was always more balanced from top to bottom. It makes sense that it would be, since, as a BCS conference, its members were in a far better financial position. It also explains why so many teams were able to contend for the league crown.
The programs that left the Mountain West were unquestionably the league’s top performers. That wasn’t entirely the case with the Big East. In the last six years of the league, either UConn or Cincinnati earned at least a share of the conference title. The Bearcats won 10 or more games in 5 of those years. Both schools remain in the American. UCF went 12-1 and beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl in 2013, even with Louisville and Rutgers still in the conference. The Big East was certainly diminished after it was raided, but because it was deeper to begin with, it had a stronger foundation upon which to rebuild as the American.
Louisville, West Virginia, and Pitt were all consistent winners when they left the Big East. Syracuse, however, had only two winning seasons in the decade prior to their joining the ACC. Rutgers had put together winning seasons, but they were a .500 team when they left the American. While those two athletic departments were tough losses, the combination of Houston and Navy could arguably be considered an improvement strictly in terms of on-field football performance. There’s no denying that some of the other programs targeted by the American, particularly Memphis, SMU, and Tulane, were struggling. Nevertheless, they still fit into the league’s strategic vision: schools with potential for growth in major metro areas. Memphis has already begun to realize that potential. In contrast, because of their geography, the Mountain West wasn’t able to craft a true membership strategy.
The Mountain West’s commissioner frequently touts its stability as a strength, and he has a point; Big 12 expansion rumors usually include BYU and a number of American Athletic Conference schools (Cincinnati, UConn, and Houston being the most frequent mentions). That “stability” is a double-edged sword, though. While it’s true that the threat of Big 12 expansion is a danger to the American, the fact that these programs are seen as having greater potential is a testament to the overall strength of the league. At the risk of sounding overly harsh, saying that you have stability is just another way of saying that nobody wants what you have.
One thing that the Mountain West does have is Boise State, which was lured back after the Broncos had agreed to join the Big East. It was impossible for the league to replace all three of BYU, TCU, and Utah, but in the Broncos they at least have one program that meets (or beats) the same standard of recent on-field results. The problem is that the Mountain West made several concessions to Boise State in order to keep them, and those concessions weakened the league as a whole.
The Mountain West distributes its television revenue by first paying schools that appear on qualifying national networks, then equally dividing whatever is left. The schools that play on ESPN or the broadcast networks get paid more. Of all the teams in the conference, only Boise State is guaranteed a minimum number of qualifying “bonus” games each year. As a result, the Broncos earn more money than the rest of the league, while others struggle to get by. This is a problem if you are trying to run a football program. The uncertainty in what each school will earn in a given year makes it difficult for athletic programs to set a budget. We see result of this in the hires that these programs make.
There has been a tremendous amount of coaching turnover in both the Mountain West and the American since 2013. The traditional formula for these programs would be to hire a hot-running BCS-conference offensive or defensive coordinator looking for the right head coaching opportunity, or to hire a successful head coach from a lower-profile FBS school. However, that’s becoming more difficult. Head coach salaries are escalating at all levels, and although every conference is making more from the College Football Playoff than they did from the BCS, the “Power Five” is proportionally making far more. That means they are able to pay more for their assistants as well, making those top coordinators more expensive to hire away.
Since 2013, there have been eight head coaching changes in the Mountain West. One program hired another FBS head coach (Boise State), and Colorado State hired a Power Five coordinator. The rest took a different route. Two schools hired FCS head coaches (Wyoming and San Jose State). Nevada hired a position coach from Texas A&M. Hawaii hired Nevada’s offensive coordinator, while Utah State promoted their own offensive coordinator. UNLV hired a high school coach.
Compare that to who was hired in the American over that same time frame. Both Tulane and USF hired winning FBS coaches. Cincinnati hired Tommy Tuberville away from Texas Tech. Memphis and ECU hired Power Five assistants senior enough to get the “Assistant Head Coach” label. Houston, SMU, Tulsa, and UConn all hired sought-after Power Five coordinators, while UCF hired Scott Frost despite Syracuse’s interest in him. Just as importantly, American schools have been able to retain the coaches they hire. Houston, Temple, and Navy all retained their successful head coaches this year despite interest from other schools. While the American hasn’t reached Power Five-levels of money, they are good enough programs that coaches are comfortable waiting for the perfect opportunity before moving on from them.
Now, that’s not to say that the guys hired by Mountain West schools aren’t good coaches. They very well could be. Guys like Craig Bohl certainly don’t need to apologize for their resumes, and Matt Wells has the highest winning percentage at Utah State in 40 years. The point isn’t that they’re bad coaches; the point is that they’re less proven at the FBS level. Because Mountain West schools are unsure of what their budgets will be from year to year, they can’t spend very much. They are forced to get creative and take more chances when hiring coaches. Some of those hires will succeed, but when they’re inevitably hired away, the cycle of hiring unproven coaches will continue. That makes it more difficult to sustain success and build the kinds of programs that can become flagships for your conference.
In essence, with the concessions that they made in order to retain Boise State, the Mountain West has recreated the same glass ceiling that they’ve always had. Presumably, the hope is that Boise State will be able to fill the same role as Utah, BYU, and TCU in driving the perception of the conference. Boise State has been in this position before, though. If they couldn’t do that for the WAC, they won’t have that effect on the Mountain West, either. Even if they could, it would be an illusion. The American would still be the healthier league from top to bottom.
Results on the field can fluctuate from year to year. Every team, and every conference, has its ups and downs. However, when you combine on-field results with a solid foundation that includes attendance, potential for growth, and mutually beneficial revenue distribution, it’s clear that the American is the Group of Five conference in the best position to succeed over the long term.