NEWPORT, R.I. — For a few minutes Tuesday morning, USF coach Charlie Strong found himself in relative solitude at the American Athletic Conference's media day, seated at a round table speaking one-on-one with a reporter.
One on one. New England brought a new reality. In a previous life and media setting, Strong's pocket — if he even had one to begin with — would have closed instantly as Big 12 bloggers and beat reporters converged on the former Texas coach.
"It's not so much culture shock, it's just that you're in a different conference," Strong said with a laugh.
Yet that moment of isolation belied the buzz around Strong and the team he has inherited.
Only two years after being picked to finish last in the AAC's East Division, USF was an overwhelming choice (receiving 26 of 30 first-place votes) to win the conference in the AAC preseason media poll released Tuesday.
"It's very humbling, just because from where we came," Bulls senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. "When I first got to USF, we were in the rebuilding stages and many people wrote us off. I think what you're seeing now is a product of hard work, a lot of people coming together, and a senior-run team."
The poll represented a culmination of hype that has been building virtually the whole calendar year.
USF has been picked to win the conference by every significant preseason magazine, and senior quarterback Quinton Flowers — reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year — received 22 of 23 votes as the conference's top offensive player in a Tampa Bay Times poll of conference and national media conducted last week.
"He's an awesome player, he has an amazing motor," UCF senior linebacker (and Lakewood High alumnus) Shaquem Griffin said. "The longer you go, the longer he's gonna go."
For quarterback and coach, the Newport appearance represented a return engagement. Flowers — with Sanchez — also attended the 2016 media day, before Flowers embarked on the most prolific offensive season (4,337 total yards, 42 touchdowns) in USF history.
"He's incredibly athletic, super-shifty, and a guy you definitely have to game-plan around," Temple fullback Nick Sharga said.
"He's elusive," added Memphis linebacker Genard Avery, echoing sentiment that seemed to resonate around the Gurney's Resort and Marina conference rooms. "He's fast, man, and he's a very intelligent guy on the field."
Strong was making his first appearance since 2013, the last of his four highly-successful seasons at Louisville (and the Cardinals' only year in the AAC).
On Tuesday, peers said Strong's astounding transformation of the UL program (two top-15 finishes), followed by his three seasons as Texas coach, brings instant cachet to a league lobbying fervently — if not futilely — for recognition as a "power" conference.
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Case in point: The "P6" logo and #AMERICANPOW6R hashtags were emblazoned on seemingly every stationery item inside the hotel, from helmets to golf balls to glass doors. During his 23-minute state-of-the-AAC address, Commissioner Mike Aresco used the term "Power Six" or "P6" 16 times.
"Owing to television deals that were cut before we achieved prominence, we currently lack the financial resources of many of the other P6 universities," Aresco said. "But we have the will and we have the ability."
And so went Tuesday's dominant narratives: As the AAC tries to get there, Strong and the Bulls seemingly have arrived.
"To me, (Strong) is the guy that people should be talking to because he's done it," new Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said.
"I mean, some of us newer guys can say a lot of things, but we really haven't built a program or put it on the map and done the things he's done. … He's done everything that we're talking about doing with every program in this conference."
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.