The 16-Team Western Athletic Conference was the AAC 1.0

Lately, one of the most interesting debates in college football is whether or not the American has the merits of a sixth power conference, attempting to fill the void the Big East left itself.

The American is arguably the preeminent Group of Five conference, distancing itself from the pack. It also helps that it’s the reincarnated Big East after absorbing UConn, Cincinnati, USF, and Temple from the old conference.

This debate is not new as the situation was very similar in 1996. The fall of the Southwest Conference left Division 1-A with one less power conference, and emerging from the situation was a new candidate; the Western Athletic Conference.

Aside from the Big 12, no conference benefited more from the fall of the Southwest Conference than the WAC, who gained SMU, TCU, and Rice from the SWC. Additionally, they gained UNLV, San Jose State, and Tulsa from the Big West and independence.

This made them a 16-team colossus and a geographical wonder that the age of Manifest Destiny would be proud of, stretching across four time zones, and 3,892 miles from Houston to Honolulu.

Naturally, such a vast conference struggled to keep everyone happy. After three years, the WAC was down to eight teams after half of its members split to create the Mountain West. It never recovered and abandoned football after the 2012 season.

The situations are similar in that the two conferences became geographically expansive and sought to take advantage of a fallen power conference in an attempt to fill a hole a dead conference left. It’s only natural to compare their cases to one another.

I decided to analyze the two conferences on measures indicative of power conference status: S&P+ rankings, win percentage versus power conferences, average S&P+ of power conference wins, and bowl results.

The results we came up with seem a bit surprising. While we will obviously use the three-year sample of the 16-team WAC, for the American our analysis will start in 2015 with the arrival of Navy completing their 12-team conference.

S&P Analysis

S&P+ is one of the deepest methods for analyzing college football teams, and while it is intended to be used as a predictive tool, it’s not devoid of value in hindsight, so it was my first method of comparing the WAC and American.

In the WAC’s three years, their average S&P+ was 66, topping out at an average of 65 in 1996, and bottoming out at 69 in 1997. That’s an astonishing amount of parity considering the variety that can occur across 16 teams.

When taking out the bottom four teams of each year to put it on equal footing with the American, the average S&P+ climbs to 56, with a high of 52 in 1996.

In terms of S&P+, the American was slightly weaker, with an average S&P+ of 72 from 2015-2019. Last year was their best at 61, with their worst year coming in 2018 at 78.

One factor that contributes to this lesser average is the increase in teams in FBS from the late-1990s to today. In 1998, after the 16-team WAC’s last season, Division 1-A had only 112 teams compared to the current total of 130.

Over the past five seasons, the American had seven sub-112 teams, skewing the data in favor of the WAC. However, dividing Division 1-A and FBS into quadrants addresses this problem. The WAC had six Quadrant Four teams in 1996 and 1997 and five such teams in 1998.

The American had a similar magnitude of bottom-swellers, with 1/3 of their teams in Quadrant Four in 2015, 2016, and 2018, and 1/4 of members in 2017 and 2019.

These figures show the conference had similar levels of parity, but the middle of the WAC was a little bit stronger to balance out the conference. While the WAC had more quad four teams, their size allowed them a better-developed core of competitive teams to lower the conference’s S&P.

Further showing the strong middle of the pack in both conferences is the lack of Quadrant One teams. The WAC peaked at two Quad One teams in 1996, and boasted only one apiece in 1997 and 1998. It was lonely at the top in the American too, as the conference only maxed out at two Quad One teams in 2017 and 2019.

Matchups Versus Power Conferences

When it comes to playing against the Power Five, the American holds the advantage here. From 2015 to 2019, the conference went 42-71 against the Power Five (.372), while the WAC went a putrid 26-74 (.260) against similar foes.

Despite having fewer wins, the WAC had more quality wins over power conferences with the average S&P+ of those wins being 51, compared to the 62 for The American.

Each conference also had its fair share of signature wins. The American has wins over eight top-25 ranked teams, including two against top-ten ranked teams and two against top-five teams.

The WAC had eight wins against the top-25 as well, with their best wins coming against a #9-ranked Notre Dame, #14 Kansas State, and #19 Iowa in 1996, and #19 Missouri in 1997.

The American was better than the WAC in pure win percentage, but the two were otherwise on equal footing in their overall aptitude against the “big boys”.

Bowl  Games

This category might have been one of the hardest to compare due to the incredibly different natures of the bowl season. In 1998, there were only 22 bowl games, with the WAC only having three tie-ins to spread across 16 teams. By 2019, there were 40 bowls, with the American having seven tie-ins for their 12 teams and not being able to fill every slot most years.

The WAC went 4-5 in nine bowls over three years. Most of the WAC’s bowls were against power conferences and they went an even 4-4 in those games.

The competition was strong in the WAC’s bowls as their opponents averaged an S&P+ of 29. The one non-power team they faced in a bowl was the legendary National Champion 1998 Tulane team who had an S&P+ of 25. Their highest ranking bowl win was BYU’s victory against #12 Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl.

The American has been mediocre in bowls going 14-21 from 2015-2019. The competition was also considerably worse with the conference playing against opponents with an average S&P+ rank of 56.

Despite this, the American did better against power conferences in bowls with a record of 9-8. The average S&P+ of the power conference teams they faced in bowls was 44.

The New Years’ Six

Another complication with this analysis was the increased access to major bowls for non-automatic qualifiers relative to the late 1990s. From 1996-1998, there was practically no way for a non-major conference to get into either the Bowl Alliance or BCS. Now, the New Years’ Six guarantees the Group of Five a single spot that has often gone to the AAC.

Despite going 13-1 in 1996 and ending the regular season at #5 in the AP Poll, the Bowl Alliance left BYU out, forcing them to settle for the Cotton Bowl against #14 Kansas State.

Instead, the Alliance chose #7 Penn State and #6 Nebraska as their two at-large schools, costing BYU a chance to play either #10 Big East champion Virginia Tech or #20 Big 12 champion Texas.

The Cotton Bowl was not a major bowl in 1996 like it is currently, but we’ll count it as such for these purposes. Still, this pales in comparison to the four New Years’ Six appearances the American claims.

The American has a 2-2 record in the New Years’ Six, with wins over #9 Florida State and #7 Auburn in 2015 and 2018, and losses to #11 LSU and #10 Penn State in 2018 and 2019.

Had the New Years’ Six existed the WAC could have had another team claim a spot in 1997 with conference champion Colorado State being the best non-power team by far. They would have likely replaced #10 Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl and faced the #14th ranked Big East champions, Syracuse, who finished the season 9-3. A quick simulation with Whatifsports.com has the Rams blowing out the Orange 34-3.

The analysis of bowls games is mostly inconclusive, with both conferences doing equally well against top teams. It hurts the WAC that they did not have many games on the biggest bowl stages.

The American’s inability to perform well against the rest of the Group of Five hurts the argument that they have distanced themselves from their counterparts. Yet, they have done well enough against the Power Five in bowls to make up for this.

It is hard to tell which conference is more of a power conference. The WAC, despite having BYU carry the conference’s reputation for years before their expansion, made for a well-balanced non-power conference. The WAC was ahead of its time, the American Conference of its day, overcoming geographical discrepancies to be the strongest non-power conference in FBS.

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