Navy football has always been an American tradition. Now it is an American Athletic Conference tradition. Today Navy’s addition to the American Athletic Conference became official, bringing the conference’s membership up to 12 members to open the door to a brand new conference championship game starting this fall.
“I am proud and delighted to take this opportunity to welcome the United States Naval Academy into the American Athletic Conference as a football-playing member,” said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco. “We extend a warm welcome to Admiral Ted Carter, Superintendent of the Naval Academy, athletic director Chet Gladchuk, head football coach Ken Niumatalolo, his team and all the Midshipmen and administrative personnel of the Naval Academy as well as to United States Naval and Marine Corps servicemen and women, friends and fans throughout the world. As I have said on many occasions, the Midshipmen represent the best this country has to offer. We are proud and grateful for the service they render to our country, and we are privileged to have them in our Conference. We all look forward to Navy’s inaugural Conference football game against familiar foe East Carolina on Sept. 19 and we know that Navy’s players and coaches will have a great experience competing in the American Athletic Conference.”
This will be the first time in Navy’s storied history the program will be a part of a conference in football, although as noted by Navy fan and blogger Michael James of The Bird Dog Blog, this is hardly the first time Navy has considered potential conference affiliation in football. It just so happened the timing was finally right for Navy to align in a conference. Navy is now locked into a conference schedule to keep some stability and certainty in Navy’s football schedule for years to come, while also being able to preserve historic rivalries with Notre Dame and Army. The American is also working things out with Navy to allow the Army-Navy Game to continue being played on the week after championship week, and the College Football Playoff has managed to figure out how to address any possible bowl selection scenarios involving Navy.
New AAC Divisions
With 12 members, the American Athletic Conference will split into two divisions. The East Division will include Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, South Florida and Temple. Geographically, Navy would have made more sense in the east, but the Midshipmen preferred the opportunity to play in the West Division, which will bring the Navy brand into the state of Texas and the south. The West Division includes Houston, Memphis, Navy, SMU, Tulane and Tulsa.
AAC Championship Game
The American Athletic Conference Championship Game will be played on Saturday, December 5, 2015 at noon eastern on either ABC or ESPN. The game will be played between the two division champions, with the division champ with the best conference record hosting the game. The winner will receive the conference’s top bowl bid, and potentially be in the running for the Group of Five New Years Six bowl invite from the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Bright Future for the AAC?
The American Athletic Conference has already come a long way from the final days of the Big East as a football conference. UCF is just two seasons removed from a Fiesta Bowl victory over Big 12 champion Baylor, and Memphis put together a breakout season last fall. Cincinnati may have come up short in its biggest games (Ohio State, Miami), but the Bearcats are situated in a decent position in the Group of Five conversation. There could be good years coming at Houston, SMU and Tulsa with new head coaches in place and programs like East Carolina and Temple potentially improving. The conference is getting deeper and finding its identity in the process. Now it just needs to start recording some good victories to continue to change the perception of the conference.
For now, the Mountain West Conference remains on top of the Group of Five totem pole, but the American is in a firm second place ahead of the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt. That should put the American championship game winner in a good position on a regular basis for the New Years Six.
What does this mean for Army?
Army tried competing in Conference USA and ultimately pulled out to return to being a football independent. At this time there is no suggestion Army will be interested in joining a conference even though the two other service academies at the FBS level, Navy and Air Force (Mountain West Conference), are in conferences.
To date, the American has shown no signs of interest in UMass as a member. UMass will play its final season as an associate member of the MAC this fall and is evaluating options for 2016 and beyond. Should UMass find a way to wiggle into the American, perhaps it would manage to bring Army as a partner to keep the conference’s membership even at 14. Or, if the wildest expansion rumors involving the Big 12, Cincinnati and UCF actually gain traction at some point, that could leave a door open for Army and UMass as well. But this is all pure speculation at this stage.