TAMPA — It's new and still largely unfamiliar. Its members already have lost games to the likes of Towson, McNeese State, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee, Buffalo, Fordham and Idaho. When you say “AAC'' people automatically hear “ACC'' and wonder what's up.
For the moment, it remains a challenging trivia question:
Can you name the 10 programs that comprise the American Athletic Conference?
Spoiler alert: Two of them will play tonight at Raymond James Stadium. In a marriage of inconvenience, the University of South Florida Bulls (0-4) face the Cincinnati Bearcats (3-1) in the American's opener.
When the Big East disintegrated, when the league's last-ditch coast-to-coast conference concept also went bye-bye as Boise State and San Diego State opted to stay put, when the ACC's bouncers closed off realignment's VIP line, the Bulls, Bearcats and others were forced to make the best out of a difficult situation.
It figures that the American's showcase program — No. 7-ranked Louisville (4-0) — is a one-year short-timer. The Cardinals jump to the ACC in 2014. But before college football's power structure alters, the American has inherited the Big East's automatic qualifier to a BCS bowl game for this season only.
“People look at where we are and look at the team we have and they say, 'OK, you guys have a good football team, but you're not playing anybody,' ” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. “I tell our team all the time, it's all about how we play, and we can't worry about what anyone else says.''
Louisville still garners respect because it defeated Florida in last season's Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals also have a Heisman Trophy-worthy quarterback in junior Teddy Bridgewater.
The Central Florida Knights, who were pulled up from Conference USA, have turned heads with a victory at Penn State and a narrow defeat against South Carolina.
Otherwise, the American has largely been a target of ridicule. USF hasn't helped the cause with losses against McNeese State and FAU. Overall, 11 winless teams remain in the FBS. Three — USF, Connecticut and Temple — are from the American.
“It's mixed,'' UCF coach George O'Leary said. “Some teams had good wins. Some teams had tough losses. I think it's going to be a very competitive conference. Maybe we don't have the players right now that some of the other schools have. But it's going to happen.''
The American features four permanent holdovers from the Big East — USF, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Temple. Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) are around for just this season. The other schools — UCF, Houston, Memphis and SMU — were lured from C-USA.
And more C-USA schools are on the way. Tulane, East Carolina and Tulsa join the American in 2014. Navy comes aboard in 2015, when the league's first championship game is planned.
“It's going to be a very good conference,'' Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said.
To be recognized as a powerful conference, though, the American must schedule and win some high-profile non-conference games.
“Strategic scheduling is vital,” American commissioner Mike Aresco said. “Then our teams must come through. We have to prove it.''
Regardless of the non-conference failings, USF is presented with an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Its players have talked about contending for the American title, perhaps drawing a few raised eyebrows after dropping four games by a combined 93 points.
“Once it all settles down,” USF coach Willie Taggart said, “this league is going to grow and be something special, something that will be respected in college football.''
For USF, though, the time is now. The Bulls need a win — any win — and a conference victory would be especially sweet.
“I don't think anything changes now that we're in conference play,'' USF senior defensive end Julius Forte said. “But we understand the value of a conference game. The games prior, they were all important. But this dictates what happens the rest of the season.''
“For us, the intensity will go up, because the goals we have set are still intact,'' USF junior wide receiver Andre Davis said. “It's a chance for us to turn the season around. We can still go to a bowl game — a BCS bowl game, actually, if we win the conference. But we've got to get it done on the field.''
It's true for all teams in the American. The proof is in the results. Tonight, the Bulls have an opportunity to change everyone's perception.
CINCINNATI AT SOUTH FLORIDA
Where/when: Raymond James Stadium, 7 p.m.
Radio: 98.7 FM, 1010 AM.
Records: Cincinnati (3-1), USF (0-4).
3 Keys to Victory for USF
Saw that one coming, didn’t you? Well, we’ll keep repeating it each week — mostly because USF also keeps repeating its game-losing trend. Opposing defenses have scored six touchdowns, matching the output of USF’s offense. On the positive side, USF’s defense already has eight takeaways, one off last season’s paltry total. But vast improvement there has been offset by USF’s disturbing penchant for giveaways.
RIDE THE PLAYMAKERS
USF’s brightest spot this season — by far — has been senior RB Marcus Shaw, who ranks 10th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with a 131.3-yard rushing average. He already has three 100-yard games and went for 94 yards in the other contest. Meanwhile, junior WR Andre Davis has 14 receptions for 191 yards and needs two catches to become USF’s ninth all-time leading receiver. He can also set a USF record tonight by catching a pass in his 23rd consecutive game. Getting the ball to Shaw and Davis seems like the safest route to success.
USF coach Willie Taggart, looking for any positives, hopes to build on last week’s fourth quarter, when the Bulls scored two touchdowns in a 49-21 loss against Miami. OK, then. One way to do that is to win tonight’s ? <begin italics> ? first ? <end italtics> ? quarter and take control of the game. USF’s pattern has been losing control of its games during the first half, then being forced to rally. It hasn’t led in the second half all season. To win a game, USF must start much faster and it will be a difficult task against Cincinnati’s fifth-ranked defense.
Cincinnati running game vs. USF front seven
The Bearcats, led by Hosey Williams (308 yards, 6.0-yard average) and Ralph Abernathy IV (271 yards, 4.5-yard average), rank 29th in FBS rushing. USF, ranked 69th in rushing defense, has done a poor job of setting the tone. The Bulls surrendered 110 first-quarter rushing yards to Miami, while allowing 89 to McNeese State and 85 to Michigan State in the opening frame.
Taggart described Cincinnati as a “team that knows how to win.’’ So true. Cincinnati won or tied for the lead in four of the final five Big East Conference football championships. It is 60-22 since the 2007 season and is one of four schools from major conferences (along with Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon) to win at least 10 games in five of the past six seasons. Meanwhile, USF has become a team that doesn’t know how to win. The Bulls have dropped 13 of their past 14 games, along with eight of their past nine conference games at home. USF needs everything to go right in order to defeat Cincinnati and we don’t see sufficient evidence of improvement to forecast a victory. Closer, maybe, but not close enough.