PONTE VEDRA BEACH — As commissioner Mike Aresco spoke Monday to football coaches who will comprise the new American Athletic Conference, he sent a clear message that the best way for the league to brand itself nationally is with signature victories this fall.
The league has 15 games against teams in the "power five" conferences — teams such as Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Michigan and South Carolina — and each of those is a chance to change the perception of the American for the better.
"I think we all understand that, considering the new format for the college playoff, you have to play those games and then you have to beat them," USF coach Willie Taggart said. "Perception is pretty much everything nowadays, so you have to go out and win some of those ballgames, so nobody looks at you as any less than what they are already."
Taggart has two such games in his first month, Sept. 7 at Michigan State and Sept. 28 at home against Miami. Win either, and his Bulls would add to a tradition of significant nonconference wins — at Auburn in 2007, at Florida State in 2009, at Miami and against Clemson in 2010, and at Notre Dame in 2011.
"Our guys will take on pretty much all comers," Aresco said. "We'll schedule intelligently and strategically, but we want to play good teams. We want to be a factor in the … College Football Playoff System. … What we want to do is let people know how many teams we've defeated the last several years from the so-called power conferences."
The 10 teams that will comprise the American this fall went 7-13 against teams from the "power five" in 2012; by comparison, the 14 teams in this fall's ACC lineup went a combined 6-17. But take away Louisville and Rutgers, who leave for the ACC and Big Ten next summer, and the American went just 3-12 in such games in 2012, and the future ACC lineup went 9-15.
"It'll take a little time for this conference to make its mark, but I'm pretty confident it will," said UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni, whose team plays host to Michigan and Maryland. "For us, now, in this conference, how we do in those games will be pretty important as you move from 2014 forward."
Aresco is careful not to tout Louisville's accomplishments — a 2012 Big East title and bowl win against Florida — as part of the American's resume. The Cardinals and Scarlet Knights weren't invited to Ponte Vedra, and as the league looks to establish its new identity, it won't actively do so with programs that will soon be in other leagues.
"We know we're a challenger. We're not going to be viewed the same as the Big Ten and the SEC. We know that," Aresco said. "The point is, we know we can challenge. We know we're right there. We've got a good group."
USF has been as ambitious as any team in the American in pursuing and signing elite nonconference opponents, with home-and-home deals in the past month to face Wisconsin, Maryland and Florida State between now and 2018. Taggart, whose upstart Western Kentucky team made headlines with an upset win at Kentucky last fall, said he likes as many challenging opportunities for his teams as possible.
"I'm a big-time competitor. I want to play them all and beat them all," he said. "For our young program in order to go where I want our football team to go, you have to play those teams and beat them. … It's doable. I really believe the parity in college football is so close. You take away the conference, and any team can just go out and play anybody."
. FAST FACTS
USF's new league, the American Athletic Conference, has 15 games this season against teams from the "power five" conferences and Notre Dame, with an opportunity in those games to help brand a new identity nationally. Here are the games, all during the first five weekends of the season:
Aug. 30 SMU vs. Texas Tech
Aug. 31 Temple at Notre Dame
Aug. 31 Cincinnati vs. Purdue
Sept. 7 USF at Michigan State
Sept. 7 Cincinnati at Illinois
Sept. 7 Memphis vs. Duke
Sept. 14 Louisville at Kentucky
Sept. 14 Connecticut vs. Maryland
Sept. 14 UCF at Penn State
Sept. 21 Connecticut vs. Michigan
Sept. 21 Rutgers vs. Arkansas
Sept. 21 SMU at Texas A&M
Sept. 28 USF vs. Miami
Sept. 28 SMU at TCU
Sept. 28 UCF vs. South Carolina