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The American Preview: How did we get here anyway?

Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville figure to be the team to beat in their first, and final, year in The American. Photo: USA Today Sports

Crystal Ball Run will be previewing each conference for the 2013 season with week-by-week coverage. Today we officially kick off our 2013 conference previews with a look at The American Athletic Conference.

The American Conference is here. Yes, this year's college football season will include a brand new conference of sorts, a hybrid of the Big East and Conference USA. The Big East is no more as far as college football is concerned, one of the casualties to conference realignment, but the programs left over have teamed up with a handful of programs from Conference USA, and more will be on the way in 2014. What we have now is a conference that returns a BCS bowl victor looking to make a run at a BCS championship game appearance with a Heisman hopeful leading the offense. Will anyone be able to challenge them or is it clearly Louisville's conference to lose in 2013? We will dig a little deeper in to the conference as the week progresses, but for now let's recap just how we reached this point.

How did we get to The American?

As conference realignment was unfolding before our very eyes, we saw the Big East becoming a bit of a revolving door of sorts. Years after Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left the conference for the Big East, the conference was once again a pool of potential conference members elsewhere. West Virginia began life as a Big 12 member in 2012 after working out a buyout to leave as early as possible. Syracuse and Pittsburgh worked on their own exits from the conference for the ACC. TCU joined but left before ever playing a single game in the conference. The conference scrambled to keep some form of membership and branched out to the west and in to the Conference USA waters. Boise State and San Diego State announced a departure from the Mountain West to provide a western presence for the expanding Big East, but, like TCU, they turned back on their decisions and never played a game in the conference. Both will remain in the Mountain West Conference.

The Big East eventually worked out deals to add Tulsa, Central Florida, Houston, SMU, Memphis, Tulane and Navy over time, but the core of the conference not playing football, dubbed by many as the Catholic 7, were uneasy about the state of the conference. Big East basketball schools DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova came together to successfully break off from the conference to start their own league. As it would turn out the basketball schools were able to work out a deal to continue flying the Big East banner, with the current football conference having just one charter member remaining by the time the 2014 season begins (Connecticut; Rutgers will leave for the Big Ten).

So a new identity had to be formed by this new hybrid conference. It took some time to come together, but The American Athletic Conference was determined to be the new conference name. In short, it will be called The American.

Who is leaving?

Syracuse and Pittsburgh, founding members of the Big East, will join the ACC this season.

So wait, who is in this conference again?

The American membership in 2015. Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina join in 2014. Navy joins in 2015.

 

The schools leftover from the Big East's football contingent include Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers, Temple and South Florida. They are joined by former Conference USA members Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU. Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina join the conference in 2014, when Rutgers leaves for the Big Ten and Louisville leaves for the ACC. Navy is slated to join in 2015. Got it? Neither do we.

The Defending Champions, One and Done

Louisville will be the prohibitive favorite in the first year of The American. With Heisman Trophy hopeful Teddy Bridgewater leading the Cardinals on offense and Charlie Strong continuing to impress with his coaching, Louisville looks to be the most complete team heading in to the 2013 season. After winning the Big East championship in 2012, the Cardinals went on to smash the SEC's Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. Because of that, the expectations are even higher for this year's Louisville team, and they could have a path pretty much cleared for them to a BCS bid and perhaps an outside shot at a BCS Championship game appearance.

Last season the Cardinals were a fringe top 25 team to start the season and they rose as high as No. 11 during their 11-2 run. The Cardinals entered November with a 9-0 record, including wins over in-state rival Kentucky, ACC Coastal Division co-champion North Carolina and nail biters on the road at lowly Florida International and Southern Mississippi. Though the games were not pretty, Louisville showed an ability to gut out some tough wins when it mattered the most. But the Cardinals ran in to a buzz saw in the Carrier Dome when they were throttled by Syracuse, 45-26. The loss essentially derailed any dream of a BCS Championship game run for Louisville, and a home loss after the following bye week to Connecticut put the conference up for grabs heading in to the final weekend of Big East football. On a Thursday night at Rutgers it was all Scarlet Knights early but Bridgewater put on an impressive second-half show to lead the Cardinals to a memorable victory for the conference's automatic BCS berth. At the time it looked as though Louisville was heading to the Orange Bowl, but thanks to Northern Illinois sneaking in to the BCS picture the Cardinals instead traveled to New Orleans for the first Sugar Bowl appearance in program history.

Louisville was a decided underdog against the Florida Gators, who many felt had a legitimate argument to be in the BCS Championship game, but Louisville was not intimidated and they blew away the Gators, 32-14. Now, in 2013, Louisville looks to put together some sort of encore performance before packing up and taking their program to the ACC in 2014.

What about everybody else?

Louisville certainly is the main attraction, but let's not overlook what the threats could be in 2013. Cincinnati and Rutgers (and Syracuse) all had the same conference record as the Cardinals last year, so nobody should assume that Louisville is running away with the conference just yet. The Bearcats put together a 10-win season and Rutgers had one of the top defenses in the country. Not to be overlooked, but Connecticut also had one of the best defenses in the Big East last year as well and is the only team in the conference to have beaten the Cardinals last year. Connecticut still has some offensive issues to figure out to become a consistent threat in conference play, and Rutgers lost a lot of talent from the 2012 team to the NFL Draft. How will the Scarlet Knights refuel for their final run in the conference?

Can Blake Bortles help lead Central Florida to challenge Louisville in The American in 2013? Photo: USA Today Sports

New member Central Florida could also be a team to watch out for. The Golden Knights played for the Conference USA championship last season and two of their four losses came on the road at Tulsa (once in the regular season and the other in the Conference USA championship game played at Tulsa). Central Florida also played Ohio State tough before the Buckeyes managed to pull away in Columbus. Central Florida's only other loss came at the hands of Missouri.

The American In Bowl Games

The American will feature five bowl teams from the 2012 season, and they put together a combined record of 4-1. Louisville's Sugar Bowl victory highlighted the postseason for the new conference of course. Cincinnati defeated Duke in the Belk Bowl (48-34), Central Florida defeated Ball State in the Beef 'O Brady's Bowl (38-17), and SMU topped Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl (43-10). The one American team to come up short in the postseason was Rutgers, who lost to Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl (13-10).

Biggest win in 2012

No. 22 Louisville 33, No. 4 Florida 23 (Sugar Bowl): The game was really not even as close as the score would indicate. The Cardinals jumped all over the sleeping Gators in New Orleans from the start by taking a shocking lead just 15 seconds in to the game when Terell Floyd returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown just 15 seconds in to the game. Louisville took a 24-10 lead in to the half and held a 33-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter before the Gators tacked on some points to make it look like a closer contest.

Biggest Loss in 2012

No. 21 Cincinnati 23, Toledo 29: The Bearcats may have been caught looking ahead to a potential match-up of undefeated rivals when Toledo hosted them in mid-October. With Louisville coming to Cincinnati the following week, it looked as though we were going to get a  Big East battle of unbeatens, with the winner taking charge of the conference's potential BCS berth. Instead Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux tossed two interceptions and the visiting Bearcats were unable to take advantage with more total yards, more passing yards and more rushing yards against Toledo. The Rockets scored the upset by sealing it with a second interception late in the game to improve to 7-1. An in-state loss to a MAC team was unfortunate for Cincinnati, and took the steam out of the upcoming game against the Cardinals.

Kevin McGuire is the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Managing editor of Crystal Ball Run and contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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