Just over a month ago, the American Athletic Conference released a plan called its “Power 6 initiative,” including a detailed strategy for what needs to be done in order to bring the AAC’s reputation in line with the Power 5 conferences.

The AAC very clearly remembers that it was not too long ago that the Power 5 was a Power Six. The Big East was an automatic qualifier back in the days of the BCS, before it was raided so much that it finally ceased to exist as a football conference. Still, a full half of the Big East’s 2012 lineup formed the AAC in 2013, and the AAC was itself an AQ conference in the final year of the BCS. When the powers-that-be formed the College Football Playoff starting in 2014, the AAC was left behind as no longer being a power conference. The AAC certainly remembers that it has only spent three seasons as a second-class conference–the seniors on eight AAC rosters played for a BCS berth. That’s not a long time ago.

Also, the AAC certainly remembers the drama that the Mountain West Conference forced the BCS into almost a decade ago. It didn’t get so much attention in the mainstream college football world–mostly because no one really took it seriously–but the BCS had serious concerns about a potential antitrust lawsuit. Therefore, the BCS set up a series of requirements that would allow a non-AQ conference to become an AQ conference. If, over the course of four years of play, the Mountain West could have proven themselves to be a top six conference in the country, it could have become a seventh AQ conference.

The MWC’s dreams never came to fruition, partially due to the defections of Utah and BYU, and partially due to the bottom of the conference just never quite being good enough. Still, that memory has to be present in the minds of AAC commissioner Michael Aresco and the power brokers of the Power 5 conferences.

As a purely legal issue, there are certainly no antitrust issues with the CFP that the BCS potentially could have had. The BCS granted access to the best bowls to certain conferences. There were concerns that letting a high-ranking non-AQ conference champion get access wasn’t enough to counteract that. Now, though, the Power 5 have no particular deal tying them to the CFP. The Power 5 get their increased money and access directly due to their contracts with the bowls. The Power 5 don’t have their status due to being the best five conferences; their status (technically) comes from them being contracted into three of the major NY6 bowls (Pac 12 and Big Ten–Rose; SEC and Big 12–Sugar; ACC–Orange). Nevertheless, the precedent still stands that a conference, through impressive results on the field, can turn the conversation to the point of, “Why aren’t these guys also a power conference?”

Ultimately, that has to be the AAC’s goal. It’s why this campaign is worded the way it is. The AAC wants the college football world to think of it as another power conference. After all, right now the only meaningful part of being a Power 5 conference is that the Power 5 each earn a heck of a lot more money from the CFP than the Group of 5 conferences do. Even so, though, that money is only a drop in the bucket compared to what the power conferences get from TV deals. Ultimately, a lucrative TV deal is what the AAC wants and needs.

Let’s be honest: There is no Power 6 right now. There is a Power 5. The AAC, right now, is certainly a few steps ahead of the Group of 5 (though the Mountain West is not as far behind the AAC as the AAC would like to believe). That doesn’t make it a power conference, though. The gap between the Power 5 and the AAC is still far wider than the gap between the AAC and the other Group of 5 conferences. The AAC has put forward an excellent set of goals that, if met, will bridge the gap to the Power 5. But the gap is still there, and it won’t disappear overnight.

The AAC needs to shift public perception of it to that of a power conference. In today’s college football world, that probably means putting a team in the Playoff in one of the next few years. The CFP selection committee has shown a willingness to respect AAC teams on multiple occasions in the past few years. The goal of reaching the Playoff is not unreasonable. But, no matter what else the conference does to meet the plans it has laid out, if it can’t be in the Playoff conversation in November, then the AAC won’t be taken seriously by college football fans.

At the end of the day, what will determine whether or not the AAC is a power conference is the fans. If fans will watch AAC games in droves–the same way fans watch games of ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12, and SEC teams, regardless of whether the team playing is one of the top teams in the country–then everything else will follow. If AAC games get high enough ratings, the big TV deals will come. And once those TV deals come, everything else–better facilities, air time, exposure, and bowl contracts–will follow. But it all starts with winning games and being in the Playoff picture late in the season. That’s what makes a conference relevant to so many fans, and that’s what will bring the attention and the eyeballs that are needed to start the entire Power 6 conversation.

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.

2 thoughts on “The AAC wants to brand itself as part of the ‘Power 6,’ but is it really?

  1. MWC Top 25 finishes in the past four years: 1 AAC Top 25 finishers in the past four years: 6. I’d say the AAC is more than a few steps ahead of the MWC. This doesn’t count the NY6 Bowls in which the AAC has been in three.

    And you quote about getting into the CFP for a Group of 5 team not being unreasonable? A group of 5 HAS to go undefeated to even have a shot and even then it’s not guaranteed as the CFP committee would never allow that to happen.

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