If there was a more entertaining game in college football this season than Friday’s ‘War on I-4’ between undefeated UCF and rival USF, you’d be hard-pressed to find one. The game had it all from an intensity, passion, energy, skill and athleticism standpoint. For a conference deserving of respect nationally, the 3:30PM timeslot on ABC paved the way for the opportunity to obtain just that and the game did not disappoint.
“We clearly had a terrific national audience,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said on Monday’s conference call previewing this week’s championship game. “I saw a whole range of tweets from Tony Dungy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Geraldo Rivera of all people, about what a great game it was. I’m thrilled to hear that and it was a really good rating. It just shows the strength of the conference brand and now we should have a good audience for the Championship Game. I wouldn’t doubt it with a really good Memphis team, playing in a re-match. Throw out the first score as you know how those games go and how intense this game is going to be. This is going to be both Memphis and UCF playing at a high level, on ABC and I expect it to be another great showcase for the league. I’m not surprised though. People obviously enjoyed the game.”
On Tuesday evening, it was clear that despite the entertainment factor, somehow the committee was not impressed with the product that they witnessed. One week after a three-loss Mississippi State team was ranked ahead of unbeaten UCF, a three-loss Stanford has vaulted nine spots ahead of the Knights, despite the UCF win over a one-loss USF, who was ranked in the top 20 in the other polls. The move guarantees the Pac-12 Champion on Friday night will finish ranked ahead of the winner of the AAC, so one could say mission accomplished by the committee. Congratulations. Reality however and the eye test says something much different. UCF, USF and Memphis are all teams that have the ability to take it to a team like Stanford. More on that later.
This week, there are concerns for the fans of both UCF and Memphis, as their programs have performed at such a high level, that there are some big-time programs sniffing around at both schools on the coaching front. It’s clear that UCF’s Scott Frost, a former Cornhusker and quarterback of the 1997 National Champions is tied to the Nebraska opening. Nebraska isn’t just his alma-mater, he was born and raised in Wood River, just an hour west on I-80. There’s also Mike Norvell, who took over for Justin Fuente and has brought the Tigers program to even higher heights. There may be an opportunity for him elsewhere as well. Aresco, rightfully so, does not want that to be the storyline on Saturday.
“It’s frustrating,” he confirmed on Monday morning. “On the one hand, it’s a credit to the coaches and to the league that they are in demand and the P-5 schools want to hire them. That’s a real positive as you want to have coaches like that in your league. The downside of that, of course, it does take away from the game and from what our tremendous players and students athletes are doing on the field with all that speculation. It’s unfortunate because when you have a successful coach, you don’t want it to always be speculation of where that coach is going, that’s not a great thing. On the other hand, as I said, it shows the strength of our league and the strength of our coaching. I was very pleased and send kudos to the ABC group on Friday, they did not talk about this at length, they didn’t belabor it. They mentioned it because it was a news item, but it was not the focus of the broadcast. The commentators and color analyst did a tremendous job with the game and they did not overdue it on the coaching theme, which was great for the telecast and the focus was on the teams, on what a great game it was and what their prospects are for the postseason.”
“It’s a double-edged sword, no question about it,” Aresco continued. “One of the reasons you can’t get too upset about it is it’s a constant. It’s going to happen until we become a P-6, until we generate revenue with the TV deal and can pay our coaches a bit more. We’ll have a tough time keeping them when these P-5 schools come calling, but it doesn’t mean we can’t keep them and doesn’t mean we don’t have great jobs. I think Scott Frost has talked about what a great job UCF is and Mike Norvell has seen the transformation at Memphis. You also have administrations at those schools that are incredibly aggressive and capable. Consequently, we have had a real upgrade in our coaching, but we also know that our coaches are going to be in high-demand. By the way, there are openings all over the place.”
Oregon State, Arizona State, UCLA, Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas A&M, some of which are the preeminent brands in college football are just some of the current openings, with more expected to arise.
“A lot of coaches in the P-6, they are being talked about for various P-5 jobs, so there is a lot of volatility even amongst the so-called P-5 in terms of coaching,” Aresco said. “A lot of bowl games are going to be the focus of which coaches are going where this year. We are seeing more and more upheaval in coaching. Coaches don’t get as long a tenure as they once did in terms of being able to prove themselves, that’s just the world we live in right now. It’s something we have to deal with and we will.”
Whether Frost does indeed move on from his current spot in Orlando and head to Lincoln remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, he’s overseen the development of a program at UCF who can play with anyone in the country. Aresco truly believes that this UCF team, if undefeated, one of just two current unbeatens in all of college football, deserves one of the four spots in this years playoff.
“Oh sure, I do,” Aresco said. “I know it’s probably unlikely given the ranking and how many spots they would have to jump. What I did [last week] was express my concern that the strength of our league isn’t being accounted for. There were a lot of sensational headlines that came out of this that were a lot of nonsense, there was no attack on the committee. It was simply that we are disappointed that they aren’t higher because we believe they should be higher. I think that our league’s strength is sometimes overlooked and that’s been a concern for the last several years. I thought Houston a few years ago should’ve been ranked higher, they proved out by ending up in the top ten and beating a ninth ranked Florida State team pretty decisively. Everybody saw what UCF did to Baylor back in 2014 in the Fiesta Bowl and what Houston did to Oklahoma and Louisville last year, that should count for something. When you go to Navy and win, they had won 17-straight games at home, that’d be a tough game for anyone in the P-5, period. Navy beat Notre Dame last year and went to South Bend and played them tougher than almost any team that has gone there this year.”
“Based on how I looked at this, if USF had lost at home to Arizona in a close game, they may have gotten more credit for it because that’s a P-5 team,” Aresco said, referencing the Bulls only other loss this season was to Houston in Tampa. “That’s wrong because Houston beat Arizona on the road.”
Aresco was optimistic heading into this evenings release of the rankings, but given how things shaked out, further frustration likely has set in.
“I don’t know what the rankings will be this week,” he said on Monday. “UCF may move up. I hope USF gets ranked only because you saw what they did on Friday and there should be a tremendous amount of credit for what they did. It will reflect how great a team they have been and I think Quinton Flowers is as well. We’ll see what happens. I have a tremendous amount of respect for that committee, they have a hard job, it’s not easy, but I do think we are drawing attention to the strength of this league and I think Friday was probably the greatest showcase we’ve ever had. We’ve had a few, Ole Miss losing to Memphis a few years ago, Memphis beating UCLA, all the great Houston wins, seven straight against the P-5 and East Carolina, five straight over the ACC. It’s not like we haven’t had showcase games, but Friday was something totally unique and I expect the conference to benefit to some extent from it.”
No matter how the rest of the year plays out and regardless if an undefeated UCF manages to break into the top ten this year, Aresco doesn’t believe it will be impossible in the future for a team from the American to make the playoffs as they are currently constructed.
“I don’t believe that,” he said. “As I said in one of the articles, it probably got overlooked, last year Houston would have been the ideal test case because they beat two teams that were ranked number three at the time and they beat them decisively. They beat the Big XII champion decisively, they beat Louisville, who was ranked third at the time and gave Clemson all it wanted at Clemson. If they had taken care of business in our conference last season, which had top 25 teams and had gone undefeated, I think there would be a case for them to be in the playoff and I suspect the committee would have had them ranked pretty highly. It’s not impossible, it’s hard, I think I used the term ‘minor miracle’ because in fact, our strength of schedule in our conference does seem to be held against us. The chair did talk about that, I think we’re the only conference where that’s been talked about. I think our teams are better than they are given credit for. It’s not easy to get through our conference and consequently it’s going to be hard. It seems pretty evident that if you aren’t undefeated in our conference, you probably won’t have a realistic chance at being in the top four. I understand that.”
“College football has been dominated by blue blood programs, programs that play in leagues that are P-5 leagues that get a lot of exposure and that will always be a challenge for us,” he continued. “My point has been that over the last five years, we have proven that our best teams can play with anyone. It gets overlooked based on who we are. Let’s face it, this P5-G5 divide is a big issue for all of us. I’ll throw a bouquet to Boise [State], they beat Arizona in their bowl game several years ago when they made the New Year’s Six. Western Michigan played very credibly against a good Wisconsin team last year. We’ve won our two big games. Any time these teams end up in the big games, they play really well.”
Even if things don’t shake out better for UCF if they do win on Saturday, the Knights will still be able to prove they belong, on the field, in this year’s New Year’s Six game against a legit power, likely from the Big Ten (Ohio State?) or SEC (Alabama?). To Aresco, a good performance there will just be further verification and proof that what has happened in recent years, hasn’t been a fluke.
“I’ve been frustrated over the last few years because I don’t know that some of the great things we have done have been fully appreciated,” he said. “When you see what Houston did in the Oklahoma and Louisville games last year. Baker Mayfield is a great player and Lamar Jackson is a great player. No one in two years has really stopped those two except one team and that team is from the American Athletic Conference and that team is Houston. They stopped them both and they beat them both. Ten sacks on Lamar Jackson. Baker Mayfield was stopped in a game that really could have been 40-17 if there hadn’t been a bit of a flub on a handoff at the goal line at the end of the game in what was a decisive win. That kind of thing I would like to be appreciated more not only among the committee, but among the media. I think fans are beginning to appreciate it. I’m not a tweeter, but I do look at some of that stuff. Social media, our guys here in the conference keep me updated on what’s happening and I think fans are really giving us a real look and are appreciating what we do as a conference. Our players are scattered all over the NFL and I think that speaks to the strength of our conference. We had fifteen draft picks last year, the Big XII had fourteen. We’ve had first round draft picks every year, Blake Bortles was the number three pick in the entire draft and you have players all over the place. That speaks to the quality of the player we have in the conference.”
The AAC commissioner also believes the depth in his league is equal to, or better than anywhere else in the country.
“Every conference has a bottom,” Aresco said. “There are several conferences with 0 and 1-loss teams, our conference has a few teams that are struggling, but top to bottom they are getting better. I think we deserve a little more consideration in that regard. It’s unfortunate the way things shake out, that you only have a four-team playoff. I realize how tough it is. It’s frustrating for us to see two and sometimes three-loss teams ranked ahead of an undefeated team as good as UCF. I think if UCF is in a playoff, had Houston been in a playoff last year, I think they could play with anyone. I think you saw on Friday a level of athleticism that could match anything I saw from the P-5 over the weekend. You saw quarterback play that can match quarterback play from anywhere across the country. You saw wide receivers and running backs making great plays. That was just a real advertisement for the athleticism in this conference, great plays the whole game and great coaching. Our top teams have always acquitted themselves really well and I expect a great championship game. It just did a lot for our conference.”
MATT SCHONVISKY / SITE CREATOR