I am not at all a fan of judging conferences based on bowl results, and certainly not based on only one season.
There aren’t enough bowl games (I’m serious) to get a proper read on conference strength. The bowl games are about individual matchups and teams. With enough of those, we can get a bit of a reading, but even if every team played one bowl, that wouldn’t quite be enough to tell you about a conference as a whole.
If we had multiple rounds of bowl games, maybe it would be enough to make wholesale judgments on conferences. I think non-conference play tells you a lot more about conferences than bowl season does, if only by dint of the fact that there are more games.
That being said, we live in a “what have you done for me lately” world. Because of the weight we place on bowl games, they are what we look at most when we pre-judge teams for next year. For all that we rail against preseason polls and want to judge teams by their accomplishments on the field, the fact remains that our preseason assumptions matter–especially when it comes to conferences. We are much more hesitant to rethink our ideas about conference strength than we are about team strength. For better or worse, bowl season is what informs our opinions on conference strength much more than anything else.
Therefore, this has been a decidedly bad bowl season for the American Athletic Conference. The AAC, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, was campaigning for inclusion with the Power 5 in national perception. The conference had four ranked teams at one point or another this year, including a Memphis team that dominated Ole Miss–the same Ole Miss team who beat Alabama. As we saw the resurgence of Navy and Temple, people may have even been willing to entertain the idea. The notion that the AAC was only a small step behind the other power conferences gained weight throughout the season.
And then the bowls happened.
As I mentioned above, a lot of bowl season is just about matchups, and the lower AAC teams that qualified for bowls were given very unfavorable ones. USF is a decent team, but the Bulls were matched up against Western Kentucky, one of the best Group of 5 teams in the country. UConn was overmatched against Marhsall but still made a game of it. Tulsa could have definitely won a bowl game against a decent Group of 5 team, but the Golden Hurricane were given Virginia Tech in Frank Beamer’s last game.
None of that changes the fact that the conference went 1-6 on the whole heading into the New Year’s Six, which really does not look good. What hurts the conference even more is that two of its four premier teams did not look good. Temple was beaten by Toledo in just about every phase of the game. Toledo is a good team, but people expect ranked teams to beat MAC teams, even when those expectations are unfair. Memphis, the hero of the conference after beating Ole Miss, was manhandled by Auburn to the tune of 31-10. The explosive offense led by Paxton Lynch was downright anemic all game. The only Memphis touchdown came via a pick-six.
The lone bright spot of the AAC bowl season before the New Year’s Six was Navy. The Midshipmen dominated Pittsburgh for almost the entire game. A weird fumble return and good fight by Pittsburgh kept this game closer than it could have been, but Navy won without too much trouble. The Midshipmen capped a great season in style, and will finish the season ranked. Yet, what could have been a banner year for the conference–and what was a banner year until bowl season started–fell apart when the bowls rolled around.
None of that mattered, though, when Houston took the field against Florida State.
The Cougars are a good team, and many observers knew they would represent the conference well. Even if they had been blown out by a more talented Florida State team, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. It would certainly have set back the conference’s desire to be viewed as on par with the power conferences, but the rest of bowl season already ended any real hopes of that happening within the next few years.
Houston at least wanted to show that the top AAC teams can compete with good teams from the power conferences. Houston would have put the AAC in the same place Boise State put the WAC during the second half of the last decade. The conference as a whole would be considered irrelevant, but the champion would be respected.
What Houston did do, however, was to provide the exact panacea the AAC needed after this abysmal bowl season. Yes, the 2-6 overall record will still not look good, the worst bowl record among all ten FBS conferences. None of that matters, though. Houston won the game against a top-10 team, which brings instant respectability to both the team and the conference. More importantly, this will keep Houston and the AAC in the national conversation going into the offseason and beyond.
Houston’s season-opening game against Oklahoma in eight months will be a game of national interest. The Cougars will have Greg Ward Jr back at quarterback and Tom Herman leading the team again. A nonconference game late in the season against Louisville, who is expected to be a factor in the ACC race, could keep Houston in that conversation throughout the season.
The AAC as a conference took a step back this bowl season; that much cannot be disputed. However, Houston took a step forward with this win and will bring the entire conference along. As long as Houston can stay in the national conversation, the teams the Cougars play in the conference will stay in that conversation as well. Houston being in the spotlight is what this conference needed for now. The win by the Cougars gave the AAC exactly that.