American Athletic Conference Strives for Power Conference Respect
The American Athletic Conference has worked hard to establish a reputation as a “Power Six” conference. That’s mostly for marketing purposes in football used to attempt to get the league’s champion into the College Football Playoff, but it fits fairly well in baseball, too.
Jargon aside, from a baseball standpoint, what is the American Athletic Conference? Not unlike its place in the world of college football, it almost seems like a conference on an island.
It’s still a step or two behind the true power conferences, most notably the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference, at least in terms of producing teams that can compete for a national title.
The SEC has sent a team to the College World Series every year since 1993. The ACC’s streak isn’t quite as impressive but still goes back to 2006. The American has had one team get to Omaha, but it was Louisville, which is no longer a member, and it happened in 2014, the first year the American Athletic Conference existed and the one season the Cardinals were members before jetting off to the ACC.
The raw number of postseason teams doesn’t stack up, either. In the conference’s current iteration, which has mostly existed since after the 2014 season—when Louisville and Rutgers departed, Temple dropped baseball, and East Carolina and Tulane joined—the league has put three or four teams into regionals each season.
All of that is not to say that it isn’t one of the best leagues in the country, because on the diamond, it’s clearly a cut above the leagues that can rightfully be called mid-majors, and that includes conferences like Conference USA, the Sun Belt and the Big West. The American is a strong league with great metrics to back that up, and that’s something it has in common with the best conferences in college baseball.
“It’s one of the best conferences in the country,” said East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin. “It’s historically been anywhere from three to five (in) RPI since I’ve been the head coach at East Carolina, which was the first year that East Carolina was in the American. That puts you in the upper echelon of college baseball.”
The league’s origins can mostly be traced to the splintering of the Big East Conference, with the basketball schools continuing to use that name and the football-playing members looking for a new home.
But the spiritual predecessor to the AAC in baseball is undoubtedly Conference USA, a league that was good enough at its peak that it was considered by many to be a major conference in the sport alongside the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12, at a time before the Big Ten became the competitive baseball conference it is today.
If that sounds like a bit of a stretch, consider that Conference USA got a team to the College World Series every year between 2005 and 2009, with Tulane going in 2005 (after a previous trip in 2001), Rice going from 2006-2008 and Southern Mississippi breaking through in 2009.
The AAC is a young league, and its entire history is still a small sample size in the grand scheme of things, but it has some hurdles to clear if it wants to be what Conference USA was in college baseball before realignment. Specifically, the AAC needs a team in Omaha.
“It’s huge,” South Florida coach Billy Mohl said of putting a team into the CWS. “Same thing when I was at Tulane when we were in Conference USA. I mean, you get your team to Omaha, that’s huge for the entire conference. We’ve got teams that are knocking on it, everybody has a chance to get there.”
Mohl also points out that an important first step is having teams from the American host an NCAA regional. Three current members have advanced to super regionals, Houston in 2014, and East Carolina in 2016 and 2019. Combined with Louisville in 2014, three of those four teams hosted regionals, although only Louisville hosted a super regional.
“The key for us is to host a regional,” Mohl said. “Anytime you can host a regional and a super regional, you like your chances to get to Omaha. But it would be big. We need a couple of us to break through to kind of put that exclamation point on how strong our conference really is.”
It feels like an eventuality that ECU will get to the College World Series. The program is simply too consistent not to, but it can’t just be one team doing heavy lifting. The Pirates making an Omaha trip or two in the near future would elevate the conference, but what the American aspires to be, and can be, is a league that boasts multiple CWS contenders in any given year.
There are certainly other programs in the conference capable of getting there, and a few stand out. Houston has been in super regionals a number of times in program history, including in 2014, and it has the facilities and recruiting base to get it done. Tulane is the current member that has been to Omaha most recently and has many of the same advantages as Houston. Central Florida might have been in the process of having that type of season in 2020 when the season was shut down.
If nothing else, perhaps more stable membership moving forward and the benefit of time will help the American get where it wants to go, because it’s worth noting that Conference USA was hampered in its early years by its unwieldy size and geography, but it really hit its stride in the mid-2000s.
Tulane was the No. 1 team in the country for much of the 2005 season and ended the year in Omaha. Rice joined the conference as part of a round of realignment for the 2006 season, helping C-USA continue its streak of sending teams to Omaha through 2009.
College Podcast: Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor Looks Ahead To 2021
Virginia is off and running toward the 2021 season, one in which the Cavaliers will be among the favorites to win the national title.
Like all conferences, there was a natural ebb and flow, but the level of competition stayed extremely high, ironically, right up until the American Athletic Conference poached most of the best programs in the league, leaving behind a version of Conference USA that is still trying to find its footing and identity as a baseball-playing league six years later.
But that leads us right to the biggest threat still facing the AAC—realignment. It happened in the conference early on, with Louisville and Rutgers leaving after just one year when better options came along quickly. New rounds of conference re-shuffling at some point also seem somewhat inevitable.
Connecticut, in a move designed to raise the profile of its basketball program, is already heading back to the Big East. The last time the Big 12 toyed with the idea of expanding, Cincinnati and Houston were reported to be among the favorites.
To be clear, with the way college football currently awards national championships and with the television money being thrown around for the rights to the biggest games in the revenue sports, any school given the chance to join up with one of the traditional power conferences would be silly not to do so, and that’s just the reality of the situation.
Losing teams in this conference would be a shame from a baseball standpoint, if for no other reason than what the current iteration of the AAC has going for it is that there are precious few soft spots in the league. Every current member of the conference except Memphis and Wichita State has been to a regional as a member, and the Shockers have only been a part of the conference for two full seasons.
And although the conference has yet to put more than four teams into regionals in any one season, it’s not uncommon for there to be as many as six teams very much in the postseason at-large mix as the regular season enters its final stages.
While that can mean that the league’s membership beats up on each other some, it mostly means that the conference schedule is a crucible that produces teams ready to take on anyone come postseason play.
“You can’t go into a weekend, as in most good conferences, and play bad and win, and sometimes you play pretty good and lose,” Godwin said.
Mohl also sees this as the place where the comparison between today’s AAC and previous iterations of Conference USA falls apart a little bit.
“It’s very similar, (but) I would say back in the old Conference USA days, there were a lot more built-in wins in the conference,” Mohl said. “There were certain teams in our conference back in Conference USA where you knew if you just played well, you were going to win.”
When you look at the American, you see a lot of historically good college baseball programs, but the lack of high-end success, namely College World Series appearances, leaves one wanting.
But those Omaha trips are likely to come in due time, and to fixate on that single shortcoming, as important as it may be, is to miss what the AAC provides. It’s as lean and mean a college baseball conference as any that doesn’t have that football Power Five designation, and that’s more than enough.