The 2014 season was the second full season for the American Athletic Conference since rebranding from the shambles of the final days of the Big East, yet it saw more changes in conference make-up. Rutgers left the conference to begin competing in the Rutgers, but East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane all joined the fold to bring the membership to 11. The conference will welcome one more new member this season (Navy) and begin playing a conference championship game in hopes of getting its champion into the New Years Six bowl line-up in January. Before taking a look forward at the 2015 season, let’s begin by taking a look back at the year that was in the American Athletic Conference.
ECU busts en route to New Years Six
The previous season saw UCF represent the American in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the final time the conference would enjoy an automatic bowl tie-in to one of the premiere bowl games under the BCS system. With the new College Football Playoff model in play, the American had to earn a spot in the New Years Six line-up. For a good stretch, it looked as though East Carolina was going to take advantage of that opportunity.The Pirates grabbed a hold of the Group of Five pole position in September despite losing a tough road game at South Carolina. East Carolina benefited from Virginia Tech’s upset win at Ohio State, and the instant reaction the Hokies received as a result of winning in Columbus. A week after Virginia Tech upset Ohio State, the Hokies jumped to No.1 7 in the AP poll and were promptly defeated by East Carolina in Blacksburg the following week. That helped give the Pirates the look of a legitimate New Years Six contender, especially since other
The Pirates grabbed a hold of the Group of Five pole position in September despite losing a tough road game at South Carolina. East Carolina benefited from Virginia Tech’s upset win at Ohio State, and the instant reaction the Hokies received as a result of winning in Columbus. A week after Virginia Tech upset Ohio State, the Hokies jumped to No.1 7 in the AP poll and were promptly defeated by East Carolina in Blacksburg the following week. That helped give the Pirates, with quarterback Shane Carden putting up solid numbers and wide receiver Justin Hardy making big plays happen, the look of a legitimate New Years Six contender, especially since other Group of Five contenders seem to stumble in their early spotlight opportunities (including UCF losing to Penn State and Boise State losing to Ole Miss). It was East Carolina’s to lose, and lose it they did.
Entering November with a top 25 ranking and a record of 6-1, East Carolina was upset in Philadelphia by Temple. The 20-10 setback was enough to drop East Carolina in the New Years Six race, but additional losses to Cincinnati and UCF removed them from contention for the conference championship. Until the post-bowl rankings were released, ECU was the only team in the conference to crack the AP top 25 until Memphis rounded out the top 25 at the end of the year.
Memphis made a push for consideration in the New Years Six, but ultimately needed just a little too much help out of the Mountain West Conference and, perhaps in Conference USA.
Biggest Win: East Carolina 28, No. 17 Virginia Tech 21
As just mentioned, the road win at Virginia Tech the week after the Hokies upset Ohio State helped put East Carolina on the map for the 2014 season. It was the only win during the regular season any member of the conference recorded, although Virginia Tech’s stock dropped in a hurry as the season played out.
Most Respectable Loss: No. 11 UCLA 42, Memphis 35
UCLA entered the season with plenty of high praise and lofty expectations. The Bruins looked to be off to a shaky start to the season, but in retrospect more credit shoudl be given to Memphis for pushing UCLA to the limit until the very end.
Record: 2-3 (Full conference bowl records)
The American Athletic Conference missed out on sending a team to the New Years Six (that honor went to Boise State out of the Mountain West Conference), and the postseason was not quite the best showing for the conference. East Carolina ended the year with a loss against a mediocre Florida Gators team in the Birmingham Bowl, Cincinnati disappointed in a double-digit Military Bowl loss to Virginia Tech and UCF came up short against North Carolina State in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl. Three losses against power conference programs is what can hurt the conference’s pedigree, but the American did manage to score one win against a power conference, and it was quite a frenzy.
Houston put together a wild rally in the Armed Forces Bowl to edge Pittsburgh, 35-34. The Cougars, down 34-6 early in the fourth quarter, put together the largest comeback in bowl history in most improbable fashion, with a pair of recovered onside kicks in the final six minutes of the game. The fourth-quarter rally also included a pair of touchdown drives over 80 yards in length. Even more amazing, there was not a single turnover in the game.
Despite the theatrics put on by Houston, the most memorable bowl ending will belong to Memphis, for a much different reason. Memphis took on BYU in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl, but it will forever be remembered as the Miami Beach Brawl. It’s a shame it had to end with players from Memphis and BYU exchanging punches instead of handshakes, because the game was quite entertaining. Memphis and BYU went back and forth from start to finish, with four lead changes and plenty of offense and double overtime. Memphis sealed the game with an interception, and then the bodies hit the floor.
Houston and SMU made some very interesting coaching changes this offseason, and each figures to have a positive outlook in the years to come. Houston replaced Tony Levine with Ohio State quarterbacks coach Tom Herman. Herman may not be bringing one of his three Ohio State wonders with him, but he should have Houston taking to the air just fine this season. SMU saw June Jones step down from his post very early in the season, and replaced him with Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Morris has his work cut out for him at SMU, but maybe, just maybe, this will be the coach that helps make SMU football mean something again, at least in conference play.
Tulsa also made a coaching change by firing Bill Blankenship after a 2-10 season (5-19 over past two seasons). In comes Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, as he looks to transform Tulsa into a similar style he worked with at Baylor. Between all three coaching changes, expect plenty more offense in the conference in the next few years.
What About Navy?
We certainly should not look past what Navy did last season. The Midshipmen are joining the conference this season, putting behind them over a century of independence as a football program. Ken Niumatalolo led Navy through another challenging season that included giving Ohio State a run until the Buckeyes managed to pull away late in Baltimore and ended with yet another victory — that’s 12 straight — over Army in the Army-Navy Game and a victory over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Along the way Keenan Reynolds broke the FBS career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback record previously held by Colin Kaepernick and single-season rushing TDs by a QB record previously held by Navy’s own Ricky Dobbs and Collin Klein of Kansas State. All in all, it was a solid season for Navy with a record of 8-5. Now the fun begins as Navy joins the American Athletic Conference.
What Did We Learn?
There is some reason to be optimistic about the state of the American Athletic Conference. It has some work to do but it looks to be firmly in second in the Group of Five pecking order behind the Mountain West Conference, and the gap may not be that wide. Programs like UCF, Cincinnati and now Memphis appear to be in pretty good hands. Temple finished last season with enough wins to qualify for a bowl invite but were left without one. Still, the Owls have given head coach Matt Rhule a contract extension and Temple could be a fun team to watch in the conference this season. And the future looks bright at programs like Houston, SMU and Tulsa with new head coaches in place. With the addition of Navy, things are going to be very interesting to watch in the American Athletic Conference this season, and the thought of getting its conference champion into the New Years Six is not a far-fetched one at all.