The American Athletic Conference knew from its inception that it would be fighting an uphill battle for legitimacy.
In 2013, the first year of the conference's existence, five teams qualified for a bowl game but two of them--Louisville and Rutgers--were on their way out. The three bowl teams which would still be in the conference the following year posted a 1-2 record in their bowl games, with Central Florida's win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl serving as the saving grace.
2014 showed signs of improvement, as five teams qualified for a bowl game with a 2-3 record on the strength of wins over BYU and Pittsburgh. While nobody besides Mike Aresco was ready to anoint the conference as a power, progress was certainly being made.
2015 has been a breakout season for the conference, with 3-4 top-25 teams in most weeks, solid depth below those teams as well, and many highly-regarded coaches. This year eight teams qualified for a bowl game, which can only happen in a 12-team conference with a better showing in the non-conference schedule. Houston earned the "group of five" New Year bowl bid, where Tom Herman's Cougars will face off against traditional power Florida State.
The sheer number of AAC teams to qualify for a bowl game is a good sign of progress. Every single one will be playing with the conference reputation on the line.
There are three other "power five" matchups and even in the games which are against fellow "group of five" members, the opponents are among the top teams from the Sun Belt, MAC, C-USA and Mountain West. Even in UConn's matchup, for instance, against Marshall, it will have a chance to prove that a .500 record in the American is tougher than a 9-3 record in Conference USA.
Here is the full AAC bowl game schedule.
Miami Beach Bowl - Dec. 21
Marlins Park - Miami, Fla.
USF (8-4) vs. Western Kentucky (11-2), 2:30 p.m.
Series: USF leads, 4-2
Last Meeting: Sept. 25, 2010 - USF, 24-12
Marmot Boca Raton Bowl - Dec. 22
FAU Stadium - Boca Raton, Fla.
Temple (10-3) vs. Toledo (9-2), 7 p.m.
Series: Toledo leads, 7-3
Last Meeting: Oct. 1, 2011 - Toledo, 36-13
Hawai'i Bowl - Dec. 24
Aloha Stadium - Honolulu, Hawaii
Cincinnati (7-5) vs. San Diego State (10-3), 8 p.m.
Series: Cincinnati leads, 1-0
Last Meeting: Sept. 29, 2007 - Cincinnati, 52-23
St. Petersburg Bowl - Dec. 26
Tropicana Field - St. Petersburg, Fla.
UConn (6-6) vs. Marshall (9-3), 11 a.m.
Series: First meeting
Camping World Independence Bowl - Dec. 26
Independence Stadium - Shreveport, La.
Tulsa (6-6) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6), 5:45 p.m.
Series: Tulsa leads, 3-1
Last Meeting: Sept. 9, 1978 - Tulsa, 35-33
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman - Dec. 28
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium - Annapolis, Md.
Navy (9-2) vs. Pittsburgh (8-4), 2:30 p.m.
Series: Pittsburgh leads, 22-14-3
Last Meeting: Oct. 26, 2013 - Navy, 24-21
Birmingham Bowl - Dec. 30
Legion Field - Birmingham, Ala.
Memphis (9-3) vs. Auburn (6-6), Noon
Series: Memphis leads, 2-0
Last Meeting: Oct. 9, 1976 - Memphis, 28-27
Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl - Dec. 31
Georgia Dome - Atlanta, Ga.
Houston (12-1) vs. Florida State (10-2), Noon
Series: Houston, 12-2-2
Last Meeting: Sept. 30, 1978 - Houston, 27-21