While Memphis Coach Mike Norvell and his players tried to focus on moving beyond their upset over UCLA and star quarterback Josh Rosen last weekend, those at the American Athletic Conference offices allowed themselves to revel in the implications for quite a bit longer.
The Tigers' 48-45 win — their third victory over a ranked opponent in as many years — hardly could have come at a better time. Over the summer, the conference rolled out a "Power 6" initiative to separate itself from the lesser-regarded leagues of major college football and move alongside the power conferences of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern.
Billboards emblazoned with "P6" sprung up around the resort town of Newport, R.I., site of the AAC's preseason media day. Conference staff members played golf with "P6" logos on the balls. The hashtag #AmericanPow6r was born.
Now the conference has a high-profile win to back up the marketing.
"We talked all week to our team that one game was not going to define our season but one game could be remembered," Norvell said Monday. "That was a big game because it was a showcase game."
Not just for Memphis but for the AAC as a whole.
The AAC is 18-10 against nonconference opponents this season, and three of those losses have been against top-10 teams. South Florida, ranked 21st in the Associated Press poll and 4-0 after Thursday night's 43-7 home victory against Temple, has the early inside track to gaining entry to one of the six major New Year's Day bowl games otherwise reserved for Power Five teams. Houston, coached by Major Applewhite and having already picked off Arizona, is a 6½ -point favorite to beat Texas Tech on Saturday. Navy, expected to undergo something of a rebuilding season, is 2-0 heading into its home game against Cincinnati and 22-7 overall since it joined the league in 2015.
"Happy? Why yes I am," AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We've been very competitive, and . . . that just shows, I think, that we've separated ourselves and we're going full steam ahead with the P6 campaign. Which really wasn't invented so much as a marketing campaign, it was a campaign to show people what we've done in case they didn't realize what we've accomplished. It isn't built on fluff and just words. It's built on real achievement."
Talk of a "Power 6" campaign first started around league offices in Providence, R.I., in 2015, a breakthrough season for the league. Houston went 13-1, blasted Florida State in the Peach Bowl and finished the season ranked eighth in the country. Navy set a program record with 11 victories and finished No. 18. Memphis upset Mississippi on the way to nine wins, and former laughingstock Temple won 10 games and basked in the national spotlight of hosting ESPN's "College GameDay" before a marquee night game against Notre Dame.
Aresco promises the conference is not naive when it talks about being elevated to the Power Five level — massive broadcast-rights deals and measures of autonomy from the NCAA granted to those conferences keep them on another level. Instead, he argues that the AAC's recent success has moved it a notch above Conference USA and the Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt, its brethren in the more lightly regarded Group of Five.
That same success, however, also heightens the AAC's vulnerability to poaching by college football's power leagues: Tellingly, the AAC delayed launching its "Power 6" campaign last year while the conference waited to see whether the Big 12 might pluck one or more of its members for expansion.
Coaches are another example. Hiring young, bright minds such as Norvell, who is in his second season at Memphis and at 35 is the second-youngest coach in major college football, is part of the AAC's formula. But those young, affordable coaches move up to bigger and higher-paying jobs, as Justin Fuente (Memphis to Virginia Tech), Tom Herman (Houston to Texas), Willie Taggart (South Florida to Oregon) and Matt Rhule (Temple to Baylor) have done in the past two years.
At the very least, Aresco hopes that elevating the conference's reputation will help the AAC champion receive the benefit of the doubt in filling a spot in the New Year's Six bowls designated for the top-ranked Group of Five team. Additionally, positioning the AAC as above the rest of the Group of Five only will help when the conference starts renegotiating its TV deal.
"We're looking at all the media out there now, all the over-the-top streaming, there are a lot of platforms that need product," Aresco said. "And we're a wonderful combination of extensive product — that's our depth — and quality product, and we're the only ones, that I can see right now, who will be available for several years."
For now, Aresco simply needs his teams to continue their strong starts.
Pulling off big-name upsets, showing dominance over struggling power programs (as South Florida did against Illinois last week) and garnering attention with nationally televised games will continue to raise the conference's profile. Aresco knows becoming a power conference in the mind of the public will be a slow process.
"The issue for us is there's so much focus on the P5," Aresco said. "College football, for many decades, has been about the blue bloods much more than basketball, where you have year-to-year Cinderellas and there's so many more teams that can be competitive. Somebody once said if you have a few good players, you can reenergize a basketball program, but in football, it's like a corporation.
"We just have to keep at it. It's not going to be easy; when you have an exclusive club, they typically don't want to let in new members. I understand all that. We're not naive. That's the last thing we are. But we really think we've got a shot because of our achievement."
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