By Andrea Adelson | ESPN.com
When the calendar turns to July 1 on Monday, the American Athletic Conference officially begins operations.
It has been a turmoil-filled two years for the league no longer known as the Big East. But with a measure of stability seeming to take hold across college football, commissioner Mike Aresco is optimistic about the future of his league — despite being on the outside of the “power five” conference structure.
Aresco has embraced the “challenger conference” mantra and has done his best to extol the virtues of his rebranded league, repeatedly focusing on all the positives each member institution brings not only to football but to all other sports. He has been an exhaustive cheerleader, something the league has desperately needed in its leader.
So now that the American is nearly set for its debut, I had a chance to catch up with Aresco and talk about some of the biggest priorities moving forward.
1. Bowls. The league is working hard to finalize its bowl lineup, which will look different beginning in 2014. The league will no longer have tie-ins to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Belk Bowl or Russell Athletic Bowl. Aresco said that the league is working on continuing its tie-ins with the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., and the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. He also added that the league has been in discussions about a bowl game in Texas, New Orleans, perhaps the Military Bowl in Washington, D.C., and occasionally in Hawaii (that bowl has a tie-in with Conference USA that ends this season).
As for opponents, Aresco expects to continue to play the SEC in Birmingham. The Liberty could feature the Big 12, as could the Texas Bowl game. The league wants to keep playing the ACC as well. Aresco also mentioned there have been preliminary discussions about playing the Pac-12 in the new South Florida bowl game the American wants to create, and to play in Marlins Park.
Aresco hopes to have more bowl tie-ins than the current five, though he also acknowledged the league may be in a good position to receive at-large bids, too. He hopes to have some announcements in the next two to four weeks.
“We’ll end up fine,” Aresco said. “We’ll have a chance to challenge. The key thing, too, is we do have access to the college football playoff system. If our champion is the highest-ranked team of the five conferences, we would be playing on New Year’s Day. That’s what we hope our champion is doing a good part of the time. We feel we have a good opportunity there.”
2. Scheduling. There is no question the American is going to have to beef up its nonconference scheduling in order to get teams to either compete for a spot in the playoff or get the coveted spot in a New Year’s Day game that goes to the highest finisher among itself, the Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and Mid-American. But Aresco says the league has not made any policy forbidding games against FCS opponents.
What he said he wants to see is balance in the schedule — a few tough games, with a few less-challenging ones to allow league teams a chance to win. He also said league teams are working hard to ensure these tougher games against the premier programs in the country are home-and-home series. Perhaps teams would settle on a 2-for-1 or a single road game, but Aresco does not want this to be the norm.
There is also no doubting the exposure added by games against premier programs. Aresco mentioned UCF’s game against Penn State in Dublin for 2014 as one example.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us to show what we can do against those teams,” Aresco said. “We’ve had some success in the past, but we need that opportunity. We know we’re a challenger. We know that we have programs that have history, that have had success, that have been in BCS conferences over the years, and we know what it takes. But we have to get an identity for the league, and we have to make sure people know who we are.”
3. Building rivalries. One other key area Aresco mentioned is building rivalries within the league, now that the biggest ones in the former Big East are gone. He recognizes the potential in heavily promoting the UCF-USF rivalry as perhaps the headliner. That game is scheduled for end of the season this year, but he did not rule out possibly moving it to the beginning of the season.
“We definitely think that is a marquee rivalry that will develop,” he said. “These are big, important schools that have good programs. Whether we play at the end or the beginning, it’s still up in the air. Some people would say maybe you want to play in the beginning because it’s the old saying, well, a loss early in the season doesn’t hurt you as much late. Miami and Florida State had the philosophy for a number of years. Also, early in the season you can get a great deal of attention for certain games. But right now, I think the plan is to keep it as a late-season rivalry game.”
Others with potential that he mentioned include Houston-SMU, East Carolina-Navy and Tulsa-Memphis.