NOTE: As we get into the conferences that I actually want to write more about, I’m going to divide them up into divisions instead. It makes it a little more manageable for me to write and for you to read. Enjoy!
Way back when, during the BCS era, we had six power conferences. The Big East, even though generally considered the worst of the auto-bid conferences, fielded some REALLY fun teams in the 2000’s. The original run Bobby Petrino-led Louisville Cardinals, the ridiculous West Virginia offenses with Pat White and Steve Slaton, even that Rutgers team that was ranked #3 in 2006...
If you notice something, none of those teams are in the Big East anymore. During the major conference realignment years in the early 2010’s, the Big East saw a total rebranding. While several of the conference’s premier members (and Rutgers? got Power conference invites, it’s basketball-only members took over the conference to become the basketball-only Big East; and thus, the American Athletic Conference was born out of the remnants. While the AAC is no longer a power conference, it is far and away the best non-power conference. It took a few years for a few programs to find their footing, but now, the AAC has a bunch of teams (and coaches) that are really solid.
First, we’ll take a look at the AAC West. There are storylines for each and every one of these teams that I’ll be keeping an eye on, but I’ll do my best to point out the most Auburn-centric ones.
If you’ll remember allllll the way back to Gus Malzahn’s first recruiting class at Auburn, you’ll remember he pulled in quite the class. Headlined by Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams, and supplemented by guys like Rudy Ford, Nick Marshall, Cameron-Artis Payne, Peyton Barber, and 2017 Heisman-candidate Daniel Carlson, Gus only brought in two offensive linemen. The higher rated of the two was Deon Mix, a 3* guard out of Mississippi. Mix was never able to crack the starting rotation at Auburn, but he provided quality depth in the interior of the line. However, Mix graduated this year and decided to take his talents to Houston with new coach Major Applewhite. While I hate to have Mix leave, props to him for getting his degree, and I wish him the best of luck at Houston this season. He also provided some great reaction videos on Twitter during Auburn’s softball games the last few years.
Memphis has been a fun team in years past, even though we don’t really seem to cross paths with our Tiger cousins. Wait... You’re saying we played them in a bowl game? After the 2015 season? In Birmingham? Yeah, right. Like we would ever have to play a game at Legion Field in this day and age...
Anyways, the Tigers open with lightweight ULM this season, a team Auburn plays in November. I would imagine the Tigers, who seem to have hit another home run with the hire of 35 year old Mike Norvell, should have little issue with ULM. In fact, there’s a chance they could be favored in 10 games this year. Pretty good for a guy who was just a grad assistant in 2008 under some crazy offense coordinator named Gus Malzahn.
So, I don’t think there’s a ton of connections between these two squads, sans the fact that almost every google result for “Auburn Navy Football” returns a link to buy Auburn’s home jersey. So let’s talk about Navy football in general real quick.
Have you watched any of their games the last few years? They’re stupid fun. Remember how I said any option team is fun to watch? Navy has perfected the triple-option, to the point where I’m not sure it matters much who is on the team or is playing quarterback. Keenan Reynolds set the all-time FBS touchdown record in 2015, graduated, and then the Navy offense actually got better last year. Did I mention they lost their starting QB in the first game, and then another during the conference championship? Sure, they lost to Army for the first time since 2001, but it was bound to happen eventually for a resurging Army team. I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to play a home and home with Navy, but at the same time, it would be terrifying to watch.
SMU coach Chad Morris will soon be on the short list for power five jobs. He’s got the same pedigree (successful high-school coach, Tulsa OC, P5 team OC, G5 head coach) of someone else we know, and he’s considered one of the offensive geniuses of college football today. He’s breathed life into an SMU that has struggled for a few decades now, and if he can get the Mustangs bowling, it would be just their fifth trip since 1984 and first since 2012. Funnily enough, Morris actually considers Gus to be one of the big reasons he’s gotten where he is today. The two have known each other since their high school coaching days, and Morris considers Gus one of his good friends in the coaching world. Here’s to hoping he can keep the Ponies on the up and up this season.
Tulane Green Wave
If you know you’re early college football history, you’ll know that Tulane used to be an SEC member. A founding member, in fact. So, as you would expect, Auburn and Tulane have a bit of history together, and I regret to inform you, Tulane has the series lead with a 17-14-6 record. However, they are back on the docket in 2019, so look for Auburn to inch a little closer to settling that score.
Meanwhile, in 2017, Tulane has a three game stretch which, while certainly not the most DIFFICULT in the country, is likely the most miserable. In consecutive weeks, the Green Wave go TO Navy, TO Oklahoma, and then “finally” get to host a decent Army team. Two triple option teams sandwiched by one of the top ten teams in the country? Yeah, I’m sure DC Jack Curtis is none too pleased about that.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
A podcast called Hardcore History (check it out, trust me), hosted by Dan Carlin, has a great series of podcasts on the Mongolian Empire. In it, and in several other podcasts, he calls the Altai mountains in western modern-day Mongolia one of a handful of “cradles of civilizations” in world history. He says that from here emerged great civilizations such as the Scythians, the Huns, and the Mongols (among many many others), and each time a new group cropped up, they would push the preceding tribe out onto the steppe and into the rest of the world, where they would make contact with settled society.
Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit here, but I’ve come to think of Tulsa as one of the “cradles of coaching” in college football over the last 10-15 years. In 2003, Tulsa brought in Steve Kragthorpe, who turned the program into conference champions by 2005. Kragthorpe would go on to take the Louisville head coaching job in 2007. Although he had little success there, he was still getting a power conference head coaching gig at a school that was at an all-time high (at the time). As his replacement, Tulsa would hire former defensive coordinator Todd Graham away from Rice, who got them three bowl wins in four years before he was hired away in 2010 to Pitt (and Arizona State soon after that). At Tulsa, Graham employed both Gus Malzahn and Herb Hand, who as you know have gone on to pretty successful careers elsewhere (ahem... Auburn). Four years with former Tulsa quarterback (and wide receivers coach) Bill Blankenship yielded a C-USA championship, but times got tough and things didn’t work out. However, in 2015, Tulsa hired former Baylor OC Phillip Montgomery, who has helped Tulsa light the world on fire again offensively. After helping Tulsa’s offense achieve a first in college football history (a 3,000 yd passer, two 1,000 yd receivers, and two 1,000 yd rushers), you can bet Montgomery is going to be one of the hot names for head coaching gigs this offseason.