Well, it’s happening. In a widely expected move, commissioner Mike Aresco said on Tuesday that the AAC will be eliminating divisions next season due to the imminent departure of UConn. It looks like the days of having to face off against ECU and Temple every year are done for UCF.
It’s unclear exactly what the conference slate will look like now, but Aresco said that there will still be a championship game, and it will now pit the two best squads in the 11-team conference against each other. He didn’t say whether “best” refers to highest-ranked or best conference record, but I think it’s safe to assume that the league will go by record since there’s not even a guarantee that two AAC teams will be ranked each year.
So how will this change the top of the conference? There’s no denying that it’s in the league’s best interest to offer a quality win to its most successful programs. After all, UCF had little to gain from playing 8-4 Memphis for a second time this past season. So, to get a better sense of what this system might look like, let’s rewrite history a bit and take a look at what the previous conference championship matchups would have been under this system.
A couple things to note: these teams’ records obviously came during a time when the league was divided into divisions. But since each school will still play eight of 10 potential opponents each year, that shouldn’t impact results too much. Also, while the AAC began play in 2013, it didn’t add a conference championship game until 2015.
Actual Matchup: No. 20 Houston (11-1) vs No. 20 Temple (10-2)
Result: Houston wins 24-13
Matchup Under New System: No. 20 Houston (11-1) vs No. 20 Temple (10-2)
Explanation: So in Year 1, nothing changes at all. Houston, Temple and Navy were the only teams to post a 7-1 conference record, with Houston having a win over Navy and Temple being ranked higher. So no big changes to conference history so far.
Actual Matchup: No. 20 Navy (9-2) vs Temple (9-3)
Result: Temple wins 34-10
Matchup Under New System: USF (10-2) vs Temple (9-3)
Explanation: So this is a really weird year, especially since the only ranked team in the conference is left out of the championship. But Navy, Temple and USF all went 7-1. Temple beat USF and didn’t play Navy, who dropped a game to the Bulls. So, the Midshipmen may be No. 20, but the tiebreaker goes to USF. Crazy how switching to a system that pits the “best teams” can actually leave out the best team.
Actual Matchup: No. 12 UCF (11-0) vs No. 16 Memphis (10-1)
Result: UCF wins 62-55
Matchup Under New System: No. 12 UCF (11-0) vs No. 16 Memphis (10-1)
Explanation: Not a lot to figure out here. This was one of those rare years where two teams stood alone with the best conference records. UCF went 8-0 with Memphis going 7-1. The next closest team was USF, which went 6-2.
Actual Matchup: No. 7 UCF (11-0) vs Memphis (8-4)
Result: UCF wins 56-41
Matchup Under New System: No. 7 UCF (11-0) vs Temple (8-4)
Explanation: Well this one is different… but I can’t really say it’s better. Temple went an impressive 7-1 in conference, with the one loss coming to UCF. But the Owls dropped games to a MAC team and an FCS team in out-of-conference play, and this matchup would certainly have been less intriguing and exciting than another chapter in the budding rivalry between the Knights and Tigers.
I don’t know what the options really are here for the AAC, but let’s look at the three types of results we got from applying this format to previous seasons:
- The matchup stayed the same
- The matchup left out the conference’s best team
- The matchup subbed in an equally unimpressive team
Maybe the AAC should keep looking for ways to make an 11-team system work before settling on this.