PHOENIX — The American Athletic Conference had five bowl teams, two that won 12 games and one big capper by Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s night.
As first seasons go, this was a pretty solid one for the conference formerly known as the Big East.
“It’s really validation for us,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said. “This was obviously an important night for us.”
Louisville was supposed to be the American’s best shot at a BCS bowl in the conference’s one-and-only season with an automatic berth.
The Cardinals were good behind quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and went on to win the Russell Athletic Bowl, but it was Central Florida that ended up with the conference title and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Knights were given almost no shot in that game, entering it as 17-point underdogs against Baylor, which led the nation in scoring and total offense.
Central Florida shrugged off the outside negativity and pulled off the biggest upset of the bowl season, outlasting the Bears 52-42 Wednesday night with a slew of big plays.
The American will have to work harder next year when college football ditches the BCS for a playoff, jockeying for position with the Mountain West, Sun Belt, Mid-American and Conference USA for one spot in the best bowl games.
But no matter what happens after this, the American has a BCS bowl victory, thanks to UCF, and an added dose of respect.
“This was enormous because you have a huge national TV audience that was expecting, perhaps, a different outcome, to put it mildly, and UCF goes in there and holds the flag high,” Aresco said. “It was very important.”
The American formed during the chaos of conference realignment, adding a few teams to the remnants of the Big East.
The conference took a hit when Boise State backed out of a 2011 agreement to join this season, but the American stayed together and was able to regain the automatic BCS berth the Big East once had.
And the conference isn’t done shuffling; Louisville is headed off to the ACC, Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina will join the American next season, and Navy is in for football in 2015.
“I’m glad it held together,” Aresco said. “We had a vision for a conference that could compete at the highest levels. We’re trying to be more like those five conferences. They have more resources, but we believe we have schools that can build programs.”
Now that the football season is over, the conference isn’t looking too bad in basketball. It has three teams in the Top 25: No. 14 Louisville, No. 17 UConn and No. 18 Memphis.