The American Athletic Conference held its football media day Wednesday and it was a different occasion compared to when the league office was in Providence, RI, before anyone had experienced a pandemic.
The AAC is now headquartered in Irving, TX, near the epicenter of the college game as commissioner Mike Aresco terms it. The AAC is actually on a floor below the offices of the College Football Playoff. The old office location was a carryover from the AAC’s Big East heritage.
The American has developed its own successful identity and Aresco supported that fact with numbers — like 27 players who went on to play in the NFL from the league’s first championship game (Houston 24, Temple 13) in 2015.
Before the sweeping adjustments due to COVID last year, the AAC media day meant golf in Newport, RI, a clambake on Narragansett Bay and in-person interviews with players and coaches.
Media day resumed without all the frills. It was done virtually, but Aresco remained in the leadoff role with his remarks — and he had a lot to share.
In going 3-6 overall and 3-5 in the AAC last season, East Carolina played all of its league games. Three nonconference games at the start of 2020 were scratched due to coronavirus issues.
Aresco said Wednesday that the league is advocating vaccinations and that games will not be rescheduled this season.
“If a team cannot play because of COVID, it will be considered a forfeit,” he said. “That is our current position. However, we continue to monitor the CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidance and will react accordingly.”
ECU coach Mike Houston said that 99 percent of his team had been vaccinated.
Aresco addressed the proposal to expand the College Football Playoff from four to 12 teams.
“It’s very important to our conference,” said the commissioner. “We are pleased with the CFP expansion recommendation. … We are currently socializing this plan with our student-athletes, our coaches, our faculty athletic reps and others. … We’re polling each school and we’re going to deliver the results to the CFP in mid- August. I think we are going to find that our conference is supportive. …
“It’s all FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) and we’re going to work to dissolve this Group of Five (non-Power Five conferences).”
Aresco noted that television ratings were lower for the CFP (Ohio State-Alabama) championship game than in years past and speculated that fans may be tired of seeing the same teams in the CFP. He also noted the perception that some deserving teams are omitted.
‘Elephant in the room’
The pending move of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference has possible implications for the AAC.
“It’s the elephant in the room at the moment,” Aresco said. “College football has historically been down this path. … As we witness changes, possible changes and even projected changes, we as a conference are in the strongest position we’ve ever been in. We will consider capitalizing on every opportunity.”
Aresco declined to comment when asked if any remaining Big 12 schools had approached the AAC about membership.
“We are not looking at realignment and we are not out there looking to take teams,” he said.
Big 12 allegations
Aresco responded to allegations by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby that the AAC and ESPN were working to lure teams from the diminished Big 12 to the American.
“Our conference has never strategically aligned or plotted with ESPN to influence conference structures,” Aresco said. “We wouldn’t do that, ESPN has never done that and would not do it. We do consult with our television and business partners on issues related to our conference. Everyone does, of course.
“But any suggestions or statements that we colluded with ESPN with regard to the structure of any other conference is a completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation.”
Houston on D-Line
Houston was asked about the area that he is most concerned about figuring out during preseason camp, which opened Wednesday.
“It’s probably still the defensive front,” said the third-year Pirates coach. “I don’t say that because I don’t know what we have. I say that because they are so young. We played a lot of freshmen up front last year. The good thing is they’re not freshmen anymore. They have a year of experience under their belt, but they’re still young players.
“You look at the offensive line, I feel really good about that group because you have a mix of young guys and you have some older guys who are experienced. Our lines were probably the weak point in the program when I got here.
“I think we’ve strengthened that greatly, but I think just seeing if we can play at a high level consistently on the defensive front will be a big indicator early on of what kind of success we can have.”
ECU and Navy were picked in a tie for eighth among 11 teams in the AAC preseason poll which came out Wednesday. Defending champion Cincinnati was picked as the favorite, followed by Central Florida.
“It’s definitely motivation to me to keep working harder,” said sophomore cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian. “I want to be at the top of the list. I don’t want to be tied with anyone. I want to be No. 1.”
The Pirates have been labeled as a possible surprise team.
“We’ve always been looked over,” said junior quarterback Holton Ahlers. “We might be a surprise team to other teams. We aren’t going to be a surprise team to ourselves. We hold ourselves very accountable in what we do and we take everything personal. … I don’t think any of us try to finish eighth, so we’ll see how that is at the end of the year.”