Two concurrent storylines in college athletics – the long-debated and finally approved expansion of the College Football Playoff and the every-decade shift in conference affiliation – are about to collide strangely: With the expansion of the game’s postseason field from four teams to 12 starting in 2026 (or earlier), programs where it was previously considered impossible to create a national title shot suddenly have a puncher’s chance of at least seeing the championship structure.
While the driving force behind playoff expansion and its ultimate beneficiaries will be the haves of this industry (namely the SEC and Big Ten), there’s a commonly held belief that schools from conferences we currently label as “Group of Five” will likely have a shot at one auto-bid per year, likely for a conference champion that’s ranked or rated the highest by whatever rubric is installed.
Despite a sudden surge in quality and finances from the Sun Belt, the American Athletic Conference remains the likeliest candidate for the lion’s share of those auto-bids, if you measure by the current CFP’s system for awarding a New Year’s Six auto-bid to the playoff’s highest-rated G5 program.
Leaders at these schools are paying attention, and as three major powers, including last year’s playoff entrant Cincinnati, are departing, the new-look AAC will be a land rush to see who will replace the Bearcats, UCF, and Houston as that perennial G5 giant.
There are only four schools with true head coaching security and certainty moving forward: Tulane, where Willie Fritz might have the Green Wave in an NY6 bowl after this season; East Carolina, as Mike Houston has the Pirates bowling again; SMU, as first-year head coach Rhett Lashlee is .500, and newcomer UTSA, boasting a long-term deal for Jeff Traylor after last year’s Cinderella run.
As we discussed last week, AAC newcomers Charlotte and UAB are actively searching, and neither is expected to retain their interim head coaches. Meanwhile, the rest of next year’s 14-team AAC doesn’t seem to be waiting around, and anxiety is high at schools that aren’t sure if their current leadership structure will be good enough to guide them to the top of the new-look league:
Tulsa: In Phil Montgomery’s eight seasons with the Golden Hurricane, Tulsa has seen one double-digit winning season in an otherwise unremarkable run from the former Broyles Award winner. But Tulsa is a private school and Montgomery is very well-liked, despite growing frustration at the program’s irrelevance. At 3-5 currently, it’s unlikely TU will finish the season bowling, but unless they bottom out in November there’s a belief Montgomery will get one more shot in ‘23.
North Texas: We’ve previously discussed the long marriage between the Mean Green and Seth Littrell wrapping up at the end of this season in as respectable a fashion as possible, and that still holds – unless UNT finishes its final three games against FIU, UAB, and Rice with a sweep. Losing to UTSA hurt Littrell, but this past weekend’s blowout of Western Kentucky was a huge mark in his favor.
Rice: Mike Bloomgren seemed to have the Owls poised for a breakout season (by Rice standards) until this past weekend’s inexcusable 56-23 blowout loss to lame-duck Charlotte. The Owls are now .500 with UTSA, North Texas and WKU still left. Will a flicker of competency be enough to keep Bloomgren? And what does the market for this job even look like moving forward?
Navy: Ken Niumatalolo is an institution at the Naval Academy, but the Midshipmen have been in steady decline since joining the AAC. In their first five seasons in the league Navy finished with a winning record (and in three of those they won nine or more games), but are on the cusp of their third straight losing season. And no one’s sure how A.D. Chet Gladchuck will address the program if there’s also a loss to Army this season.
Memphis: Ryan Silverfield has been a serviceable replacement for his old boss Mike Norvell (currently 18-14), but the Tigers are a far cry from their Cotton Bowl run. Memphis has lost three straight and the next four – UCF, Tulsa, North Alabama, and SMU – will likely seal Silverfield’s 2023 fate one way or the other. School leadership expects Memphis to plug right in as the logical replacement for UCF and Houston at the top of this league.
FAU: Willie Taggart was a no-brainer hire for the Owls after a tumultuous 9-12 stint at Florida State. Since that nasty break, Taggart hasn’t helped his cause – FAU is 14-16 and has struggled on offense, the one side of the ball thought to be a no-brainer on the heels of Lane Kiffin, and with the talent available in the area surrounding Boca Raton. Taggart initially signed a guaranteed five-year, $750,000 annual deal inside his substantial FSU buyout, so FAU would owe him at least $1.5 million on Dec. 1.
USF: Jeff Scott has preached patience and process, but the bill is coming due on his ground-up rebuilding of the Bulls’ program. USF believes it can be a top-end G5 program after watching UCF leave for the Big 12, and are anxious to get going. Scott is 4-25 since taking over USF and needs to show immediate, on-field proof of concept to retain support into the offseason.
Temple: It’s unfair to current head coach Stan Drayton, 2-6 in his debut season, but Temple is now realizing the magic it was able to sew together through Matt Rhule’s emergence and Geoff Collins’ quick run is all but gone after Rod Carey. Temple is still without an on-campus stadium and needs to recruit aggressively in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey area to retain relevance. Drayton took a job many candidates shied away from due to a mismanaged athletic department and a dim future.