Scott Frost, who has taken Central Flordia from 0-12 to the top 25 in less than two years, has been listed as a possible coaching candidate at Nebraska. (John Minchillo/AP)

When No. 25 Navy faces Memphis on Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Coach Ken Niumatalolo will be matching wits with a buzzy young college football coach, relatively new to the conference, who is frequently mentioned as a candidate to move into whatever flashy job opens up next at a power-conference program.

The same goes for the week after, when Navy will host Central Florida. And again three weeks after that, against SMU.

The pattern isn't an accident, nor is it anything revolutionary in the American Athletic Conference.

Mike Norvell of Memphis, Scott Frost of Central Florida and Chad Morris of SMU represent the new normal in the AAC, a conference that in five seasons of existence has made a name for itself as a proving ground for rising coaching talents and as a pipeline to some of the country's most distinguished programs. Last season, AAC coaches filled slots at Texas, Oregon and Baylor. In 2015, Justin Fuente left a Memphis program he turned around in two years for Frank Beamer's job at Virginia Tech.

This year, Frost and Norvell could be ripe for the picking. The 42-year-old Frost, who took over a program that went 0-12 before his arrival last season and led the Knights to a bowl game followed by a 4-0 start and the No. 22 ranking this year, has been listed repeatedly as a potential candidate at Nebraska. Norvell, 36, who is 12-6 overall as Fuente's successor at Memphis, started garnering buzz when the Tigers upset UCLA this season. And Morris, who has SMU off to its best start since 2011 at 4-2, could be next. All are first-time head coaches.


Mike Norvell has kept Memphis on a winning path after Justin Fuente left for Virginia Tech. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

"You see the guys that have come from this league that have gone on to other big-time schools, and it's a testament," Niumatalolo said. ". . . There's a lot of really good, young coaches now. It's a really good league. It shows that our conference ADs are smart; they're hiring up-and-coming coaches."

But those smart hires create a high level of turnover in the AAC. Navy's remaining conference schedule is evidence of that.

Of the five remaining AAC head coaches Niumatalolo will face, Morris, 48, is the most experienced. He has two full seasons under his belt at SMU. Everyone else is in his first or second year helming a program.

In the AAC, Niumatalolo's 10 years leading the Midshipmen make him an extreme outlier.

"I don't know if it's sad or depressing to be called one of the older guys in coaching," Niumatalolo joked on a recent conference call, "but I guess it's also flattering because you're still in the profession."

The conference seems to have created a cycle consistent with its self-branded identity as a "Power Six" league: full of enough attractive jobs to lure young talent but not quite prominent enough to compete directly with the sport's traditional powers.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco doesn't mind that the league is looked at as a steppingstone. To him, the league's history of sending coaches to jobs in the Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern — only makes the AAC more attractive to the country's best young football minds.

That the conference is able to hire the Norvells and Frosts of the world sets the AAC on a different level from its second-tier "Group of Five" brethren, the Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA and Sun Belt. That's what matters to Aresco.

"We've been able to hire some of the finest young coaches in the country, the top assistants," Aresco said. "We're only hiring the top people . . . and we can pick up an occasional veteran coach like [South Florida's] Charlie Strong. We have a certain level of coaching, and the coaches' salaries — we're paying coaches that are far higher than any other school that's in the Group of Five."

Indeed, according to USA Today's coaches' salaries database, AAC coaches are compensated, on the whole, better than other coaches from Group of Five schools. At Houston, Tom Herman was the 35th-highest-paid coach in the country in 2016, earning $3 million, before he left for Texas. Of Group of Five coaches ranked on the list, the top seven were from the AAC.

The money isn't a defense against poaching — the conference simply can't compete with what Power Five schools can offer. Before Fuente went to Virginia Tech, Memphis reportedly offered him a deal that would have made him the highest-paid football coach outside of a Power Five conference, something that compared favorably with Herman's salary.

Fuente left anyway and earned $3.2 million in his first year in Blacksburg. He signed a two-year extension in April.

Still, relatively higher salaries do help attract bright young coaching minds. That's part of how the AAC has become a springboard to the Power Five, along with the location of its schools in competitive hotbeds such as Florida, Texas, Ohio and Louisiana and a general willingness by the AAC's athletic directors to hand the reins to young assistant coaches.

Fuente noted that the AAC has "programs in and around some really hot places for high school football talent, and I think they've got some administrators that are doing their best with their limited means to make football important and give those coaches as many things as they can give them. I know when we were at Memphis, we knew we didn't have an unlimited budget, but we also knew we had an administration that was going to do whatever they could do to try and help us out."

Frost, who was a highly regarded offensive coordinator at Oregon before making the move to Central Florida, seconded that notion. "The university right here in Orlando, the second-largest university in the country with a ton of football talent around it, made this job really attractive to me and something worth leaving where I was to come try to take this program over," he said.

"I think there's a lot of those situations in this conference. I don't think there's any accident that there's such good coaching in the American."