The new American Athletic Conference kicks off Thursday night and nine of the league’s 10 teams play this weekend. ESPN will televise two of the games, other ESPN networks will carry another six games, and NBC will televise Temple at Notre Dame. It’s a high-exposure start for the league formerly known as the Big East.
“We’ve got great media markets in this league,” Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni said, adding, “In Memphis, there’s a tremendous passion for football.”
The University of Memphis is the lone school not playing in week one, opening its season at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 7 against Duke at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
“It’s a little different,” second-year Tigers coach Justin Fuente said of having a bye the first week. “But I like the fact we get to go to school for two weeks before we actually play. I also like the fact we play three games and then have (another) bye week.
“I look forward to getting to sit around and watch games,” Fuente said of the upcoming weekend. “Let somebody else sweat third and eight.”
Widespread conference realignment led to this year’s version of the American Athletic Conference. Left over from the Big East: UConn, Cincinnati, Louisville, Rutgers and South Florida. Temple comes in from the Mid-American and Memphis is joined by former Conference USA members Central Florida, SMU and Houston. But Rutgers and Louisville are short-timers, departing after this year. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa join next year and Navy comes aboard in 2015.
Louisville is ranked No. 9 in the AP preseason poll and is the favorite to gain the league’s Bowl Championship berth in this, the last year of the BCS system. And Cardinals coach Charlie Strong said, “I don’t see any drop-off at all” from the Big East. Only time and the playing of the games will determine if he’s right, but for teams that left Conference USA for the American there is no question that the games are about to get tougher.
“There are better teams, more athletic teams,” said Southern Methodist coach June Jones. “I thought UCF was one of the more talented teams in Conference USA and every team in the American looks like UCF on film. They’ve got a lot of athletes.”
Said Fuente: “June’s right. There’s a marked difference head to toe.”
The league also has a lot of experienced head coaches, from Jones and Pasqualoni to UCF’s George O’Leary and Cincinnati’s Tommy Tuberville.
“You’re gonna find some old-fashioned football in this conference, which is not bad,” said Tuberville, who has coached at Auburn and Ole Miss. “I’m anxious to go play against all those coaches.”
Tuberville said he knows it may take awhile for the conference name to gain recognition, but he believes the league’s spread-out geography ultimately will help recruiting.
“We cover a lot of states,” he said. “It’s going to be an attractive conference for a lot of athletes.”
And from the very first weekend, recruits can see conference teams playing against schools from the Big Ten (Cincinnati plays Purdue) and the Big 12 (SMU plays Texas Tech), not to mention Temple’s trip to Notre Dame.
“We’re playing three teams ranked in the final AP Top Ten: Notre Dame, Texas A&M and South Carolina,” said American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco. “We obviously have an opportunity to make a statement, to have some signature wins. Which is the way we want it. Things should be decided on the field.”