Updated: Aug 7
Ever since the first wave of conference realignment about 10 years ago, there has been an arbitrary dividing line between the 10 FBS conferences. The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC have been labeled as the “Power 5,” while the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt make up the “Group of 5.” While the only explicit difference of P5 and G5 conferences is the distribution of revenue each conference receives from the College Football Playoff, Group of 5 teams have to overcome the overwhelming bias towards the power conferences in revenue, media coverage, recruiting, rankings, fan support, and job prestige for coaches. Because of this, a G5 team ever making a 4 team CFP seems extremely far-fetched. However, that didn’t stop one G5 conference from aggressively trying to shed the narrative that they don’t deserve to be considered alongside the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC.
To fix the league’s perception as a highly inferior conference in the hierarchy of college football, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) developed a marketing plan to get itself out of the Group of 5. Beginning in 2017, the conference launched its “Power 6” campaign to signal that it should be considered as equals to the rest of the power leagues. Ever since, “P6” logos have been shown on the conference’s advertisements, stadium banners, and even helmet stickers. Mike Aresco, the commissioner of the conference, stressed that AAC teams should be included in the conversation for College Football Playoff bids. While the CFP committee always says it takes the four best and deserving teams regardless of conference, it’s clear that Power 5 teams have a clear advantage. In 2020, Cincinnati went a perfect 9-0 in the regular season in the AAC but finished 8th in the final CFP rankings while 2 loss Oklahoma and 3 loss Florida finished ahead of them. However, earlier this Summer, there was a brief glimmer of hope that seemed to provide a clearer path to the Playoff for the conference.
In late June, The College Football Playoff Board of Managers approved a feasibility study of expanding the CFP field to 12 teams, tripling its size from its current 4 team format. In the proposal, the 6 highest ranked conference champions would be automatically admitted into the Playoff. Therefore, if the American Conference champion was ranked higher than at least one of the champions from the Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt, or MAC (or even a P5 league), they would be admitted into the CFP. While the format didn’t inherently favor any one Group of Five league over another, the AAC would’ve been in the best position to take the added 6th automatic bid. Since 2014, the AAC has produced the highest ranked G5 team in the final CFP rankings 5 of the 7 years, including each of the last 4 seasons. With programs like UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati finishing in the Top 10 at least once over the past decade, and a collection of competitive programs to boot, there’s reason to believe that the American would get a team in the CFP on a consistent basis. Mike Aresco had finally gotten what he’d been after for several years of pleading: Access.
However, just a few weeks later, all that hope was abruptly halted. With the news that Texas and Oklahoma were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, the college sports world was thrown into chaos. Without its two flagship institutions, the Big 12 was desperate to stay afloat amid rumors that the rest of its members were seeking out other conferences. As it turned out, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby was able to keep the remaining member institutions on board and sought to bring in competitive athletic programs to help fill the vacancies left by Texas and OU. In order to do that, he picked four of the premier non P5 schools: Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF from the aforementioned AAC as well as Independent BYU. While there is no replacement for the brands of Texas and Oklahoma, Bowlsby did a great job to find adequate replacements. All four of those athletic departments have competitive teams in many sports, especially football. But the American Conference, seemingly in a great position just weeks earlier, lost three of its best programs. With those schools set to join the Big 12 in 2023 or shortly after, all of the AAC’s progress to CFP access was thrown for a loop. While teams like Memphis, SMU, Tulane, and Navy all field competitive teams, the loss of the three powers in Cincy, UH, and UCF weakens the league dramatically.
While Playoff expansion talks have been slowed by conference realignment concerns since the Texas and Oklahoma news, there still is a small sliver of hope for the AAC. If the CFP does end up expanding and contains an automatic bid for at least one G5 league, the AAC could easily grab that spot on occasion. Mike Aresco is seeking to replace the vacant spots left behind, and could bring in competitive programs to fill the void. But similar to the Big 12 losing Texas and Oklahoma, the departures of Cincinnatii, Houston, and UCF hurt the American badly in the college football hierarchy. Mike Aresco and the AAC finally had what they had been after for so many years, but anyone who watches college football knows that success can be so fleeting in an ever changing landscape.