2016 was a pretty rough year for most of us but no one in college football took it on the chin in the last month of the year quite like the American Athletic Conference. The AAC’s impressive coaching talent was mercilessly poached in December as Willie Taggert, Tom Herman and Matt Rhule all accepted head coaching positions at Power Five programs. The conference wasn’t able to shake off the disappointing news during the bowl season either as the conference went a whopping 2-5 in post-season play, delivering a big hit to conference commissioner Mike Aresco’s “Power Six” campaign. Let’s take a quick look at each bowl game the conference played in this season.
Las Vegas Bowl - San Diego State 34, Houston 10
The AAC’s bowl season started off on the wrong foot as the Houston Cougars failed to show up in their first game under new head coach Major Applewhite. Even before kickoff momentum wasn’t trending the Cougars’ way after senior Chance Allen failed to meet curfew, causing him to miss his last game of his collegiate career. Despite wins over Oklahoma and Louisville, Houston fell to 9-4 on the season in Herman’s last year in the Bayou City. After the Cougars jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter the Aztecs roared back with 34 unanswered points. To quote Houston tight end Tyler McCloskey “they beat the crap out of us. We didn't show up. We didn’t execute the way we needed to.”
AutoNation Cure Bowl - Arkansas State 31, UCF 13
As far as bowl losses go it’s hard to do worse than losing to a Sun Belt team that lost to Central Arkansas in September. Scott Frost has UCF back on track but it’s hard to excuse the Knights’ performance in the Cure Bowl. The Red Wolves drew first blood on a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown which provided a clear example of the sloppy play that cursed the Knights on December 17th. UCF was penalized 11 times for 82 yards while rushing for just 12 yards on 30 attempts, an average of just 0.4 yards per carry. The six sacks UCF allowed played a major part in their inability to get the offense in motion.
Miami Beach Bowl - Tulsa 55, Central Michigan 10
Finally some good news. Tulsa flew under the radar in a stacked AAC West division this year but Philip Montgomery’s squad served us all with another reminder of their strength after destroying Central Michigan 55-10. Quarterback Dane Evans ended his collegiate career in style, passing for 304 yards and five touchdowns as the Golden Hurricanes earned their 10th win of the season. Tulsa also rushed for 261 yards while picking off the Chippewas three times with one of those being a 66 yard pick six from Jesse Brubaker.
Boca Raton Bowl - Western Kentucky 51, Memphis 31
Despite the Hilltoppers’ loss of head coach Jeff Brohm before the bowl game, the Memphis Tigers ran into a buzzsaw in Boca. WKU’s offense was as explosive as it’s been all season and Memphis struggled to move the ball with the consistency of the Hilltoppers. Memphis’ defense allowed 598 yards as WKU running back Anthony Wales turned in a record-breaking performance with 245 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries.
Armed Forces Bowl - Louisiana Tech 48, Navy 45
Coming into the game with a top 25 ranking, Navy was expected to handle Louisiana Tech despite the loss of quarterback Will Worth. Zach Abey earned the start in his place and did a solid job, passing for 159 yards and a touchdown while going 7-12 through the air without an interception. He showed sound discipline orchestrating Navy’s triple option rushing attack, totaling 114 yards and two touchdowns of his own on keepers. Despite Abey’s admirable duty in a spot start, the Midshipmen fell to the Bulldogs due to their inability to stop Ryan Higgins’s connections with his top two receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson. Louisiana Tech drilled a field goal from 32 yards out to secure the win as the clock hit zero.
Military Bowl - Wake Forest 34, Temple 26
Temple was presented with a huge opportunity to earn a post-season win over a Power Five program in the Military Bowl but they let it slip by in frustrating fashion. The Owls completed just one of their 12 attempts to convert on third down. They rushed for -20 yards and committed two turnovers. It’s a little bit of a surprise the final score of the game was this close because Temple looked completely unprepared to play football without Matt Rhule leading the charge from the sideline. On the bright side receivers Adonis Jennings and Ventell Bryant both surpassed the 150 yard mark and will return in 2016.
Birmingham Bowl - South Florida 46, South Carolina 39
Thankfully bowl season ended on a positive note for the conference after Quinton Flowers did what Quinton Flowers does and led the Bulls to a huge overtime win over an SEC opponent. The two teams were extremely well matched, providing one of the most exciting games of the bowl season. The Bulls were able to capitalize off five Gamecock turnovers as Flowers found the end zone five times while totaling 366 yards. USF’s bowl win capped off the program’s best season in history as they reached the 11 win mark for the first time since launching a football program in 1997.
There’s no denying that the bowl season was unkind to the American but conferences are judged on much more than just their bowl performances. There’s still no denying that the American is the premier Group of Five conference and is currently best equipped to challenge the modern P5/G5 power schism. If the conference is to take the next step then they’ll need their new coaching hires to find success and their administrators to work to retain coaching talent as long as possible.