Breaking a 3-way tie for the AAC West… and why it matters

With Navy thumping Memphis on Saturday, there are some serious doubts as to which team will come out on top in the American Athletic Conference. League championships obviously matter to the teams who win them, and they bring important bragging rights, but why should The American champion be relevant on a national level?

Let’s quickly get two important points out of the way. First of all, The American champion isn’t going to the Playoff. Memphis might have had a chance if Ole Miss won the SEC and the Tigers ran the table in impressive fashion, but that’s over with now. Houston might run the table and be one of the best teams in the country, but the Cougars just don’t have a strong enough resume or strength of schedule to really be considered.

Second, the AAC champion will be the Group of 5 representative in a New Year’s 6 bowl. With Toledo’s loss this past week, there is no question. Barring an armageddon scenario in which Temple loses the East and UConn proceeds to win the AAC Championship Game in an upset, we will see an AAC team playing in an NY6 bowl. No other G-5 team, not even a surging Boise State, will have a resume even close to good enough (more on that later).

Now that we have established this, we have to figure out who can win the AAC.

Temple basically has the East wrapped up. The West, though, has all kinds of crazy scenarios that can happen. Let’s stick with the most basic–and the most likely–cases that still require our analysis to make sense of. Obviously, if Navy or Houston wins out, they win the division, but what happens if they don’t?

There is one important thing we have to point out at the start. Memphis will play Temple this year (on November 21) while Navy and Houston don’t. The Tigers will have an added tough test. Even if they beat Houston to get back into contention, they will have to beat Temple as well.

So, the topic of the day is how the AAC West will break a potential three-way tie among Houston, Navy, and Memphis. We only really need to see three results for this to happen. If Memphis beats Houston and Houston beats Navy, then the trio will be tied in-division. As long as Memphis can also beat Temple, we will see all three of them finish at 7-1 in-conference.

Let us point out that while these ideas are fun and need to be thought about, they rarely actually occur. This potential was a big topic in the Big Ten, but all of a sudden it is now moot with Michigan State’s loss to Nebraska. When there are three clear division leaders, it’s always fun to worry about what happens if they beat each other but otherwise run the table. Of course, it rarely happens, but with so few games left this late in the season, it seems to be a serious possibility for the AAC West.

So, let’s set the stage in terms of scenarios.

Memphis beats Houston this coming week. Memphis then beats Temple the following week. Then, on the final weekend of the regular season, Houston beats Navy. There would then be three teams at 7-1 on top of the AAC West, barring any other upsets involving those three teams. This would appear to leave us with our standard “A beat B beat C beat A” tie, which most conferences now break via the CFP rankings. However, The American has one more tiebreaking step, one which could make all the difference.

Tiebreaker 2.3.3 (you can download the tiebreaking procedures by clicking “tie breakers” on the right hand side here) states that, before going to the CFP rankings, the AAC uses overall winning percentage as a tiebreaker. This is presumably meant to remove a team from the tiebreaking procedures if it did not perform as well in nonconference play. Navy lost to Notre Dame, but that’s a case in which Navy scheduled a difficult road game.

Wait a minute, did I say Navy?

We all know by now that the Army-Navy Game is saved for the weekend after the conference championship games are played. This game is a classic rivalry and has been given its own television slot by CBS. It has been tremendous for CBS’ ratings that weekend and for the exposure these two military academies receive.

Two points need to be made: First, Navy’s loss to Notre Dame might actually steer the AAC clear of an explosive controversy. Second, the fact that an explosive controversy could have occurred under different circumstances begs for a remedy just the same.

Here’s the explanation.

Coming into conference championship weekend, if all three are tied, Navy will be 9-2, while Memphis and Houston would be 11-1. So if all three are tied at 7-1 in conference play, Navy would be eliminated and Memphis would be the division champion based on the head-to-head with Houston. That’s simple.

However, let’s consider what would have been the case if Navy had beaten Notre Dame. The Midshipmen, at 10-1 under this hypothetical, would have owned the best resume of the three teams. Yet, because Navy wouldn’t have played its 12th game, the team would have been half a game behind Memphis and Houston (both at 11-1 compared to Navy’s 10-1 mark). Narrowly, technically, the rules would have said Navy’s out.

Of course, this would be extremely unfair to Navy. I do not know what the school could do about it, though. There is no way that CBS would let Navy move the game up, even if the conference could somehow get ESPN to agree to push back the conference championship game. Unless Navy could somehow appeal to the conference to just ignore that step in the tiebreaker, there is not a lot the conference can do, though one avenue might exist (more on that shortly). Even if that step is skipped, the final tiebreaker would be to use “a composite of selected computer rankings,” something I am sure no one in the conference office wants to have to explain to fans and the teams that get left out.

In essence, if Memphis wins out, the Houston-Navy game will determine the division champion. If Navy wins, they will play in the AAC Championship Game, presumably in Temple. If Houston beats the Midshipmen, though, the Memphis Tigers (if 7-1 in the league) will host Temple in the conference championship game.


How might Navy and The American arrive at a compromise, in order to avoid the controversy in a three-team divisional tiebreaker mentioned above (even though they’ll avoid that mess this year)? Nothing specific has been publicly mentioned by Mike Aresco or anyone else at the AAC, which perpetuates a climate of uncertainty, but the next few paragraphs might contain the solution:

This Navy-Army game could throw a potential wrench into the national bowl picture. If Navy is under consideration–but not guaranteed–for the G-5 spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, then the potentially affected bowls will not be announced until after the Midshipmen play Army. Now, there really is no other Group of 5 team that will have a resume that could compare to 11-2 Navy, even with a loss to Army. Therefore, I do not think there will be a need to delay; Navy will go into its rivalry game with Army knowing it will play in the NY6, most likely in the Peach Bowl.

However, if Toledo, or maybe even Boise State or Bowling Green, wins out from here, we could see the committee take that extra week anyway just to make sure, which could mean a delay in finding out the pairings for both the Peach and Fiesta Bowls.

This delay on the part of the committee could be a way to either circumvent or confront AAC football tiebreaker 2.3.3, referring to overall conference record. Navy will continue to play Army in the middle of December, after the AAC title game. That’s an unchanging annual reality. The idea that Navy could perpetually suffer in a conference tiebreaker due to this logistical arrangement would therefore represent a massive embarrassment for the league. The AAC doesn’t have a wide range of options, but before 2016, it can certainly revise its procedure (provisionally, if not structurally) or ask the committee to make its rankings after week 13 (Thanksgiving) determine the AAC West champion in the event of a three-team tie.

About Yesh Ginsburg

Yesh has been a fan and student of college football since before he can remember. He spent years mastering the intricacies of the BCS and now keeps an eye on the national picture as teams jockey for College Football Playoff positioning.