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The AAC really, really wants you to think of the Power 5 as a Power 6

The tweener league knows what it is, but also knows what it wants to be.

The media backdrop during American Athletic Conference media days.
Richard Johnson / SB Nation

NEWPORT, R.I. — If major college football has a middle class, the American Athletic Conference is in it all by itself, more or less.

Financially and competitively, the Power 5 (the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC) stand well above the Sun Belt, Conference USA, and the MAC. Sandwiched between the two groups in a purgatory of perception are the AAC and sometimes the Mountain West.

To fix it, the AAC developed a marketing plan to get itself out of the Group of 5 (the FBS non-power leagues’ term for themselves). The league says it’s not presenting itself as better than any other league. It’s just saying the Playoff era’s upper echelon should include it, just as the BCS era included the AAC’s stronger predecessor, the Big East, as a power.

It’s a delicate line to toe, but it’s a branding challenge the league is taking head on.

You may have seen the “P6” helmet decals pop up last season.

Commissioner Mike Aresco came up with the idea three or four years ago, in the wake of UCF’s win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl but before the league was what it is today.

“I said, you know, this is already a very promising, strong conference,” Aresco said. “We probably haven’t done enough to say we’re in the Power group, but the more I thought about it, there’s no admittance to this. No one admits you to it.

“It’s not like the [NCAA-legislated] autonomy group, where you’ve gotta get legislative support and you’ve gotta somehow find a way in, because it’s a qausi-official group in the NCAA. I said, ‘you know, this is gonna be up to the public and the media to determine whether they think we’re a Power 5.’ So a few years ago we thought about, why not Power 6?”

The branding is everywhere, from Aresco’s lapel pin to the backdrop he delivered his remarks in front of to the decal stickers on the hotel door.

Every media member attending AAC Media Days wore it around their necks.

Richard Johnson

And Aresco inserted it about as subtly as a slap in the face during his speech.

The thing about it is that the AAC has proved it can hang on the field.

While the P6 moniker is the party line for Media Days, the push isn’t built on something devoid of results. Including Notre Dame as a power, AAC teams have beaten 19 Power 5 teams in the last two seasons. They’ve done it on some big stages, like Houston’s wins over Oklahoma and Florida State.

There is still a gap between the AAC and the Power 5 leagues, however.

2016 average college football S&P+ ratings

Conference Avg. S&P+ Rk Avg. Off. S&P+ Rk Avg. Def. S&P+ Rk
Conference Avg. S&P+ Rk Avg. Off. S&P+ Rk Avg. Def. S&P+ Rk
SEC 8.91 1 32.6 3 24.0 3
ACC 8.70 2 32.4 4 23.7 2
Big Ten 6.22 3 28.8 6 22.7 1
Pac-12 5.85 4 33.5 2 27.7 4
Big 12 5.61 5 35.4 1 29.8 6
AAC -1.16 6 28.2 7 29.4 5
MWC -2.98 7 29.3 5 32.7 8
MAC -6.15 8 26.9 9 32.7 9
Conf USA -7.96 9 27.4 8 35.2 10
Sun Belt -8.29 10 23.5 10 31.5 7
Bill Connelly, SB Nation

Aresco is asking his teams to schedule aggressively, taking at least two games per season with Power 5 teams. If they can continue to win, they’ll become impossible to ignore.

Temple head coach Geoff Collins thinks that’s true.

“I think the big thing is the consistency of playing the other Power 6 schools,” Collins told by SB Nation when asked about the branding push. “Competing at a high level. Winning your fair share of games and then continue the dominance of the other conferences that are outside of that Power 6.”

The pocketbook is where perception can’t be reality.

Look no further than USA Today’s annual database of athletic department finances. You have to scroll past 52 public universities before you get to the first AAC team. UConn pulled in just over $79 million worth of athletic revenue last year, tops among non-P5 schools, but every other team in the rest of the conference brought in between $44 and $59 million.

NCAA Division I conferences, ranked by average public school 2015-2016 revenue

Rank Conference Average revenue Leader (overall)
Rank Conference Average revenue Leader (overall)
1 SEC $132,926,762 Texas A&M (1)
2 Big Ten $116,142,464 Ohio State (3)
- P5 conference $108,482,437 Texas A&M (1)
3 Big 12 $108,389,342 Texas (2)
4 ACC $98,188,650 FSU (18)
5 Pac-12 $86,764,968 Oregon (23)
- FBS conference $72,719,150 Texas A&M (1)
6 AAC $55,848,775 UConn (46)
- DI conference $42,470,494 Texas A&M (1)
7 MWC $40,825,795 San Diego State (56)
- G5 conference $36,955,863 UConn (46)
8 A-10 $32,363,603 UMass (70)
9 C-USA $31,594,925 Old Dominion (64)
10 MAC $30,353,849 WMU (72)
11 CAA $28,386,913 JMU (59)
12 Sun Belt $26,155,973 Arkansas State (68)
13 Big West $23,541,264 Hawaii (67)
14 MVC $22,804,854 Wichita State (101)
15 AEC $21,666,990 Stony Brook (90)
16 Big Sky $17,596,467 Sacramento State (110)
- Non-FBS conference $17,538,797 JMU (59)
17 Summit $16,100,568 North Dakota State (121)
18 SoCon $15,672,701 East Tennessee State (142)
19 A-SUN $15,232,208 Kennesaw State (123)
20 WAC $14,960,400 New Mexico State (114)
21 Big South $13,978,320 Coastal Carolina (112)
22 OVC $13,553,498 Eastern Kentucky (146)
23 Southland $13,415,616 Sam Houston State (129)
24 Horizon $13,373,953 Illinois-Chicago (143)
25 MEAC $9,545,606 Delaware State (173)
26 SWAC $8,587,791 Alabama State (163)
P5/FBS/DI/G5/Non-FBS averages based on overall conference averages, not individual school averages USA Today

They’re in the right markets, but often play second or third banana to bigger flagship schools. Cincinnati will never be Ohio State. Tulsa will never be Oklahoma. Houston will never be Texas A&M. UCF nor USF will ever be Miami, Florida, or Florida State.

That will come into play when the league sits down at the negotiation table in 2019. Currently, it’s meeting with media entities in the interest of due diligence. But the AAC’s media rights deal pays each school around $2 million. Those at Power 5 leagues are bringing in over $30 million.

There is also the question of the Playoff, and the AAC’s less-than-stellar lineup of bowl tie-ins.

There is only one post-Christmas bowl with an automatic AAC tie.

“That's a big issue for us, and it's a big challenge,” Aresco said. “We're going to try to do something with the Pac-12 or Big Ten or a conference like that to play a higher level bowl game in the next cycle, which is coming up in a couple of years.

“In terms of CFP, there’s nothing we can do now to get [an automatic bid to a New Year’s Six game, other than the entire Group of 5’s shared bid], at least for the time being. Down the road, I think we’ve got a shot. It’ll be sooner than you think, because in another four or five years, they’ll be thinking about extending that, renegotiating that. So we hope to have a contract bowl tie-in.”

NY6 rules mean the league likely has to produce a team with only one loss just to make a big bowl, let alone the Playoff. It’s doable — UCF and Houston proved it, and USF is the national favorite for the G5 bid this year — but the margin for error is not what it is for the Power 5 leagues. Last year, undefeated G5 rep WMU ranked behind four three-loss teams in the NY6.

“All that was negotiated when we created the Playoff, and people were very happy with the way the negotiations came out,” said Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock. “I don’t hear any talk about changing it among our board.”

That board is comprised of a rep from each of the 10 FBS conferences, and the Playoff’s contract still runs another nine seasons in its current form.

Hancock also said conference prestige is cyclical, and the American’s iron is hot. Will it stay that way?

Poachers circle, looking to take the AAC’s coaches and maybe even teams. Houston, USF, UCF, and Cincinnati were considered by the Big 12 during its expansion talks last fall. UH and Cincy were thought to be favorites.

When asked by SB Nation if the branding movement would have died had one of those schools made the Big 12 jump, Aresco said it would have been tweaked. He acknowledged that the push was delayed by all the realignment scuttlebutt.

If the Power 6 narrative is staked on what the league does on the field, it’s imperative that it continues to get better. Constantly losing top head coaches to wealthier schools means AAC members have to keep hitting on up-and-comers, further shrinking the margin for error.

The AAC’s story will not be told overnight.

When it began, the American was largely an amalgamation of Conference USA and Big East table scraps. Now it’s coalescing.

“There’s a dynamic: let’s raise all the boats,” Aresco said. “It’s everybody getting better. Watch Tulane with Willie Fritz. Watch the schools that haven’t done as well start going.

“It’s the first time in our short history that we’ve had USF and UCF be good at football. Either one or the other has been good before, but not both. That’s a dynamic combination. You know how powerful those brands can possibly be down the road. There’s no reason this conference can’t take its place. But it doesn’t have to be the Big Ten or the SEC.”

The first steps are there. The league does seem to be building something. It remains to be seen what that is, despite the name they’ve stamped upon it.