There is Tuesday Night MACtion tonight with the potential to affect the Group of 5 New Year’s 6 bowl landscape. Otherwise, this post could await the College Football Playoff rankings refresh and could be a lot less speculative. The speculation: How far will Houston (#19 last week) fall? Will Temple replace Memphis as a third AAC team in the committee’s rankings? Will Toledo re-appear, as the Rockets did in the AP poll?
The top-ranked champion of the “Group of Five” or G5 conferences earns a slot in one of the New Year Six bowls – this year the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl. For the second week in a row, the American Athletic Conference is the only G5 conference appearing in the College Football Playoff Committee top 25 rankings. With three AAC teams there, to all others’ zero, it is safe to say that the American has established itself as the cream of the G5s. While that gives the AAC champ the inside track, the other conferences have some contenders lurking, and worst-case AAC fratricide could leave the door open.
Continue reading “G5 Access Bowl Roundup”
That was a good Tuesday for Navy Football.
ICYMI, the College Football Playoff Committee released the first set of rankings, which included American Athletic Conference members Memphis at #13, Temple at #22 and Houston at #25. With the only other “Group of Five” team in the rankings being then-undefeated Toledo at #24, a very clear path is drawn up for the AAC champion to be the highest ranked G5 champion and get the resultant Peach / Fiesta Bowl bid.
One of the underrated benefits of the Army-Navy Game is that the media uses it each year to reacquaint themselves with both programs. A lot of the stories in the week leading up to the game are reflections on each team’s season up to that point. If you need a snapshot of the big-picture issues facing either program in any given year, try narrowing your Google search to the first week of December. It’s like digging up a time capsule.
That’s how I came across this 1998 article about Army’s move to Conference-USA. I found it fascinating for reasons that others might find it a bit unnerving. Nearly 17 years later, we’ve come full circle. Switch “Army” and “Navy,” and these quotes could easily have been said today:
“We’ve been on TV seven times this season,” said Army coach Bob Sutton, in town last week to preview Saturday’s Army-Navy game at Veterans Stadium (noon kickoff), the 99th meeting. “That’s more than we’ve ever been. We’ve already felt the impact in recruiting. [The conference] is close to a lot of our major recruiting areas, from Virginia to southern Florida across to Texas.”
According to Lengyel, Navy has no problems scheduling quality football opponents. Next year, the Midshipmen’s first five opponents are Georgia Tech, Boston College, Rice, West Virginia and Air Force. (Navy has home-and-home games with Temple to open the 2000 and 2001 seasons).
TV, scheduling, and recruiting benefits for the team joining a conference? No scheduling problems for the team that isn’t? These are essentially the same pros & cons offered today by the other party. It’s sort of funny, but given Army’s eventual fate in Conference-USA, is it also foreboding?
I don’t think so.
Army’s reasons for joining Conference-USA were far different from Navy’s decision to join the American. Army felt that they were striking while the iron was hot, capitalizing on their top-25, 10-2 season in 1996. To them, the time was right to make a step up in competition; joining C-USA was the logical move to take their program to that ever-elusive “next level.”
Navy’s motives are different. I wouldn’t call Navy reluctant to join the American; to the contrary, they’ve been vocal advocates for the conference and leaders in shaping it. However, it’s a move being made out of perceived necessity, not ambition. It’s a different world in 2015, and Navy leadership feels that the days of viable independence are numbered. As scheduling, bowl game access, and television coverage are being consolidated among the conferences, Navy is joining the American in an effort to preserve their standing in the broader college football world.
To that end, the success of Navy’s decision can’t be measured solely in terms of wins and losses. Time will tell whether the decision to join the American Athletic Conference was the right one, but even now there are positive signs. Think about it; for the last 4 months, one of the main storylines about the Navy program has been how the College Football Playoff committee should handle a potential Navy berth in the Fiesta, Cotton, or Peach Bowls. If the goal of joining the American was to preserve Navy’s relevance, the fact that this conversation is even taking place is a pretty decent indicator that the goal is being achieved.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Winning matters, and for most people it probably will be the only measuring stick they use to judge Navy’s decision to join a conference. With the similarities between Army’s 1998 optimism and that of Navy today, it’s only natural to fear that the same optimism will be met with the same results. Fortunately for Navy, though, the similarities end there.
Army wasn’t without success in the decade leading up to their C-USA debut, putting up 5 winning seasons in that span. There were two problems, though. The first was with who those winning records came against. Army went 9-3 in 1988 and 6-5 in 1989, but in each of those seasons they played four I-AA teams. They averaged playing three I-AA teams every year, mostly against the likes of Holy Cross, Bucknell, Lafayette, etc. The rest of their schedules weren’t exactly filled with a who’s who of college football at the time, either. That leads us to the second problem. If Army had 5 winning seasons in those 10 years, that means they had 5 seasons against those light schedules that weren’t winning seasons. When the Cadets won 10 games in 1996, West Point leadership didn’t recognize it for what it was: an outlier for a .500 program straddling the line between I-A and I-AA. Army was in no position to make a move into C-USA, and made matters worse by replacing Bob Sutton with Todd Berry.
In contrast, a look at the 10 years prior to their joining the American Athletic Conference tells you that the Navy program is in a far better position. The Mids have been a consistent 8-9 game winner over the last decade, and the schedules that Navy has faced were of a different caliber than the ones faced by those Army teams. Army won 27 games against I-AA opponents, while Navy has won 17 against BCS/Power 5 opponents. Army had only played 3 of its future conference-mates a total of 5 times in the 10 years prior to joining C-USA. Navy, on the other hand, makes regular appearances on many American schedules. Of Navy’s 8 conference opponents in 2015, 5 have played at least part of a multi-game series with the Mids since 2005 (a sixth, Houston, was scheduled to play Navy before a conflict forced them to cancel). While Army was stepping up to play in C-USA, Navy is joining a conference of familiar peers, and doing so with the program’s all-time winningest coach at the helm. There’s no guarantee that Navy will win, but there’s no doubt that they belong.
Comparisons between Army and Navy are common, which is understandable given the unique nature of service academies. That doesn’t mean those comparisons always appropriate, though. Each program’s decision to join a conference was the product of different times and different teams. Because of that, we have every reason to expect a different outcome.
This time next year, we’ll be talking about the American Athletic Conference championship game.
This year, though, the American joins the Big 12 in adding to the slate of non-championship games this weekend. Memphis clinched a share of the championship last week, and UCF joined them at 9-3 (7-1) Thursday night with a Hail Mary win over East Carolina. Cincinnati can match those records, hosting Houston. The conference will declare co-champions, and allow the College Football Playoff Committee to choose one if there is a shot at the Cotton/Peach/Fiesta access bowl. Memphis is presently ranked ahead of the others, and in the only game between the three beat Cincinnati in October, so they probably look the best to the committee. However, that is an increasingly small chance: Boise State should clinch that bid with a win today, and Northern Illinois made its own strong case dominating the MAC conference championship game for the Huskies’ 11th win. Marshall could still look better than one of our tri-champions as well with a similarly strong performance in the CUSA championship.
Farther down the food chain in the American, Temple is trying to improve to 6-6 and get bowl eligible at Tulane. (Is this where I mention that SMU is looking for the Mustangs’ first win, visiting 2-9 UConn? Okay, done.)
The Owls would be the sixth bowl-eligible team in the conference. Without an access bowl bid, the American has five bowl tie-ins, and Temple might not be able to secure a bowl spot left open by another conference. The American’s bowl line up looks pretty good this year: BYU, two matchups with the ACC, one with the SEC, and supposedly a Big 12 backup to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl (depending on how Playoff and New Year’s Day slots go out, Big 12 may not meet all their primary tie-ins though, much less secondary ones.) Next year’s lineup for the expanded American expands to seven games, but only one each against the SEC and ACC, while covering the waterfront against the other Group of FIve teams.
I know not too many Navy fans are dialed in to the minutiae of our future conference yet. As long as we have a bye week, though, we might start guessing which Group of Five conference champion will go to the Fiesta, Peach, or Cotton Bowl. As we’ve discussed, the exposure and more importantly the money will be a springboard to staying with the haves in the next tectonic shift of the college football landscape.
At the moment, the highest ranked G5 member is our future conference-mate East Carolina. Why have they climbed to #18 in the AP poll and #16 in the Coaches Poll? They went 2-1 against South Carolina, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina, and looked pretty good doing so. The Pirates have the inside track, but still have the hardest part of their campaign in the American ahead: at Cincinnati, UCF, and even at 4-1 Temple will be tests.
Also creeping into the top 25 is Marshall, from Conference USA. Marshall? Yes, Marshall. They were Phil Steele’s pre-season pick for the access bowl nod. Reason number one is their talented QB Rakeem Cato. Reason number two is their relatively soft schedule. ESPN’s Football Power Index calculates Marshall’s chance of winning out as 45% – that is ridiculous and the best mark of any of the 128 teams. The schedule doesn’t offer any big wins to increase the possibility that the Herd will thunder ahead of the Pirates, but if they remain undefeated they could also have a 13th win to point to in the MAC championship.
How will the College Football Playoff Committee rank these two? Great question. There has been a lot of coverage on how they’ll look at the playoff contenders, but I haven’t seen a specific rundown for identifying the highest ranked G5 team. Speculating with Massey’s composite of 75 rankings doesn’t clarify things for me. Undefeated Marshall is actually comfortably ahead of East Carolina in the comparison, and ranks as high as #4 in two systems!
That composite also doesn’t give me much insight beyond the two front runners. Boise State was probably on a lot of minds when this format was identified. With two losses, they are lumped with one-loss Colorado State and two-loss Utah State at #44, #46 & #47. Those Mountain West contenders are still ahead of Marshall’s or East Carolina’s conference challengers. The MAC and Sun Belt are even farther back.
When the first College Football Playoff Committee rankings are released in two weeks, there will still be a lot of football to be played. But there may be as much or more insight into how the committee ranks the Group of Five champions as there is into the top four selection.
At least the famous clambake should be good for headlines – one of the top two newspapers in Hampton Roads claims “The league’s annual Newport, R.I., clambake towers above all media days.” But somehow peanuts in your cold drink at ACC days might have generated even more buzz at the college football food nexus. (Y’all Yankees really didn’t know about that?). Still, the clambake got some pretty good coverage from the new members of the conference (including the rehashing of prior crustacean-related coverage).
In the year before Navy’s move, my interest in the event was limited to the important things:
It would have been understandable had there been NO mention of Navy at all – plenty of work to do to build buzz for the coming season. After all, three new teams joined this month. However, I found it notable that right after welcoming those new members, Commissioner Mike Aresco talked about Navy.
As you know, Navy joins us in 2015, giving us 12 teams, and I want to recognize and thank Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk for his efforts in positioning Navy to join our conference and for his active involvement and support as we have built this league. I want to thank Vice Admiral Mike Miller, who recently retired as the superintendent of the Naval Academy. He is an outstanding gentleman who was instrumental in our league’s development and I will always treasure my warm friendship with him.
He would later bring Navy into the conversation again, when his narrative was establishing the American’s bona fides in beating so-called “Power Five” conferences. He rattled off 37 teams that have been beaten in the last five years by the 12 American members for 2015 – by my count Navy has four of those scalps. He went on to say “And that does not include multiple wins over Notre Dame.” I would have liked to watch UConn coach Bob Diaco’s face at that second.
Clearly Navy is important to Aresco’s and the American’s plans from 2015 forward.
Navy does have one 2014 opponent from the American – we play Temple on 6 September for those of you who haven’t looked beyond game planning for Ohio State. With Army-Navy in Baltimore, playing Temple at the Linc allows Navy coaches to tell recruits about playing in four NFL stadia in 2014 (M&T, FEDEX, the Linc, and Qualcomm should we win 6 and go Poinsettia Bowling again). Temple was picked to finish eighth in the conference by the media. Not too surprising, given the Owls’ 2-10 (1-7) record in 2013. However, there are some marquee players: QB P.J. Walker ranked third in the conference in efficiency behind Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles as a true freshman, and Linebacker Tyler Matakevich is on some pre-season watchlists.
2015 AMERICAN WEST
I also tried to listen in on our future West Division foes. Houston looks like the team to beat there – joining ’15 East teams Cincy, UCF, and ECU in the top four. Next, our Gansz Trophy rivals from SMU at fifth. Tulane may have been picked to tie for ninth with UConn, but I will give them two sentences here because coach Curtis Johnson’s entire transcript is posted here for your reading pleasure. Every coach is brimming with optimism in July, but it is certainly nice to see the new arrival, potential cellar-dweller sound like the Commissioner does.
As for Aresco – let me reiterate what I said in my previous post – the senior leaders of the American are intent on being a top conference in college football and in college sports. Twelve months from now, Navy will join the American. It is good to know that the leadership is moving forward.
Oh – and there will be a clambake.