What Rivalries Will Work for the American Athletic Conference?

Dan Morrison over at Underdog Dynasty made the very salient point that when it comes to Rivalry Weekend, there are a number of well-watched games out there:

  • Egg Bowl
  • Iron Bowl
  • Battle for the Commonwealth
  • Apple Cup
  • Border War
  • Red River Shootout

There are others, but every game I listed, if you talk to a fan of either involved football program and simply say the name of the rivalry, they will immediately regale you with a story that excites them, gets their blood boiling, or both.

These are games that are well-attended and highly-watched whether both teams are undefeated, winless, or somewhere in between. While the AAC has risen to the top of the Group of Five conferences in national recognition, they could finish closing the gap with the bottom of the P5 with some meaningful rivalries to toss on Rivalry Weekend.

I’m here to take Dan’s idea another step. He said what needs to happen, but didn’t actually specifically talk about what would work. Let’s do that here.

Of note: it would be nice for every program to have a rivalry of its own, but not every school in the conference needs one, nor does every program has enough shared in-conference history to have one, so we’re merely aiming for the most rivalries possible and a good mix of options.

UCF vs USF – The War on I-4

We’ll start with the conference’s lone established true rivalry, where both teams and both fanbases absolutely can’t stand each other.

This is also the conference’s most logical rivalry for numerous reasons. These two schools are the newest to FBS of the current members, they’re geographically closer than any two other schools, and they’re closer to each other than to any other member.

It’s logical to maintain this rivalry considering the animus and drama it has already produced, but given their proximity and competitiveness, this rivalry was always bound to deepen and escalate once they were conference-mates.

Cincinnati vs Memphis

In a perfect rivalry, like the one above, you get to have the following: geographic proximity, competitive football, and a history that is either heated or lengthy, if not both. Otherwise, you pick your battles.

Cincinnati’s most played rivals are Tulsa, Memphis, and Houston in that order. They are geographically closest to Memphis, and while their histories with both Tulsa and Houston go back further chronologically, those histories have multiple decade-long gaps.

Memphis is closer to Tulsa geographically, and their histories with Cincinnati, Tulsa and Houston are equally deep, but again have the issue of multiple gaps. This rivalry is the most contiguous of the bunch.

Memphis has older rivalries with Southern Miss and Arkansas State, and Cincinnati has older rivalries with Miami (OH) and Ohio.

In terms of in-conference rivals, though, this is the one. The fact that both programs are recently on the rise both athletically and financially – in addition to their hardcourt animus – makes this a strong fit.

Houston vs Tulsa and Tulane vs SMU

Here is the conundrum. Tulane doesn’t necessarily have a particularly strong rivalry in the conference, so it’s fortunate that the other pairings eliminate any geographically weird matchups that might cause ConFLiCT. We don’t want rivalry for rivalry’s sake.

That being said, there’s still logic to be had. Houston is Tulsa’s oldest rival outside of Oklahoma State and Arkansas, while Tulsa is Houston’s oldest rival in all of FBS, so that pairing doesn’t have any particular animosity, but it has history and recency on it’s side.

Tulane and SMU aren’t exactly left in the lurch here. Tulane’s oldest rivalries are from way back early SEC days, so their deepest G5 rivalries are Rice, Memphis and Southern Miss (hello CUSA).

After that comes SMU, Houston and Navy. They’ve played SMU and Houston equally, but their games with SMU have been closer and the history goes back further. Navy is intriguing, but the Green Wave only played the Mids three times prior to 1991, then not at all from 2005-15.

So what about Navy, then?

The AAC is currently comfortable with 11 football programs, leaving an odd man out somewhere.

The Midshipmen are the one program that already has gobs of national cache, and that’s due to the fact that their non-conference schedule is already nothing but rivalries (Army, Air Force, and Notre Dame), the youngest of which goes back to the 1960s.

They’re also the one school that is a football-only member and therefore would have no chance to carry such a protected rivalry across any other sports.

With UConn leaving, an 11-team conference means that a minimum of one team has to go without an in-conference rival unless you’re about to start doing round-robin-style rivalries, which completely defeats the purpose. Navy is a logical team to be the first exception given the situation I just described.

You didn’t list East Carolina or Temple, either!

Temple and East Carolina are in the same boat. If you list out their FBS rivalries either by how many times they’ve played or how far back the rivalry goes, you don’t hit an AAC opponent anywhere in the top five.

UConn leaving the conference also takes away Temple’s most logical geographic rival and their oldest G5 rival that isn’t Cincinnati.

If you remove Cincinnati and Memphis – who we already paired with each other – then ECU is Temple’s most established Group of Five rival, and Temple is ECU’s second-best established rival, behind UCF (who we also already paired off.)

I think we let Temple and ECU decide. They can play their game as a protected rivalry to see if anything develops, and in the meantime, they can continue scheduling regional non-conference rivalry games so that their fans have rivalry games to attend whether something develops in the AAC or not.

——-

This is clearly not a perfect setup. Every rivalry has to start somewhere, and there are many current rivalries that really weren’t considered as such until some meaningful moment caused it to become competitive and/or contentious. The worst thing that could happen would be to allow the environment for such rivalries to develop by favoring existing geography and history as much as possible.

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