There is no doubt UConn sits near the border between the haves and have-nots in the NCAA. But what the college sports world can't seem to agree on is which side of the line it belongs to despite having a strong overall athletic program and billing as a Top-20 public university in the country.
This is mostly because football drives the bus, and UConn's program is coming off its worst four-year stretch since joining the FBS ranks. But, even with the damage of the Paul Pasqualoni era and a rough start to Bob Diaco's tenure, UConn football has still shown enough to prove it can hang with the big boys.
In 2004, the Huskies joined the Big East on a timeline accelerated by a few stinging defections from the conference. UConn got to play in a BCS conference three years after moving from Division 1-AA to Division 1-A football (now known as FCS and FBS).
This was a large leap for a 1-AA program that wasn't particularly special. UConn could have fallen flat on its face, the way Temple did (they were eventually kicked out of the Big East). Most teams which make this jump have to go independent for a while before taking a life raft from the Sun Belt or MAC.
Many in the college sports community felt UConn's status was undeserved. Formed in 1992, Big East football had actually been a pretty strong conference. At one time or another it boasted numerous nationally relevant teams including the five-time national champion Miami Hurricanes.
Undeterred by what was clearly an uphill battle, Randy Edsall's Huskies matured quickly, reaching a consistently solid level. It felt almost boring at the time.
Over the past four years, however, we have learned it can get much, much worse.
Still, in 15 years, UConn's accomplishments are impressive: an 8-4 inaugural Big East season capped by a bowl win; two more bowl game wins; including one against an SEC opponent; two Big East co-championships; Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III calling Rentschler the loudest stadium he's played in after a three-year career in the Big 12; wins over "power" teams Notre Dame, Virginia, Duke (twice), Baylor, Vanderbilt and Maryland; a 2009 season which ended with the Huskies 29th in Football Outsiders' F+/- rankings; two first round NFL Draft picks, and a solid amount of NFL players - starters, All-Pro selections and special teams aces (GO BILLS!).
Though it was obviously a huge disappointment to be left out of the autonomy party, especially when lesser schools found their way in, the American Athletic Conference is a more appropriate place for a school with a football program in its teens than a BCS auto-qualifying conference was for a nascent program. For what UConn needs to accomplish in the next 5-10 years, being in the American is fine.
The income gap between the major and mid-major conferences persists, but that is a different story for a different day. For now it will have to suffice that every program in the American is making the necessary investments in their athletic department to play at a higher level than before.
For starters, the new head coaching hires at SMU, Tulsa and Houston are damn impressive.
Houston has already seen a very notable boost in recruiting after bringing in Tom Herman, the former star offensive coordinator from Ohio State. SMU grabbed Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, a longtime Texas high school football coach. Tulsa hired Philip Montgomery, the architect of Baylor's high-flying offense. Our AAC-West brethren are building offensive powers, which will make for interesting clashes with UConn's traditionally strong defense- a trend which should continue under Bob Diaco.
Not only are the teams now able to afford better coaches, but also better staff and facilities. Better players will follow, and better football games after that. Houston and Tulane have new football stadiums. Cincinnati renovated Nippert Stadium. Assistant pay is up, marketing teams are larger, the student body is more excited...
The administration in Storrs has played its part as well, bringing in the most qualified candidate to ever accept the role of UConn head football coach. The school offers an NFL caliber football facility, a great stadium and a community of rabid fans eager to back a winner.
On the field, the conference really is competitive, and adding Navy this year gives it a good boost. ECU, Cincinnati and UCF have the potential to be perennial Top-25 teams. If USF could ever get things together there's no reason they couldn't be in the mix as well. Whoever takes over for Willie Taggart will have a talented group of players to work with and could make a turnaround quickly.
Temple and Memphis have been solid as of late and are both on an upward trajectory. Justin Fuentes may not stay at Memphis for too long, but the school should be able to bring in a worthy replacement. Cincinnati has made a regular practice of bringing in head coaches, watching them succeed and leave, and finding another one without missing a beat.
The most important thing is that UConn Football needs to win. Here. Soon. Whether or not that will happen with Bob Diaco is up for debate. But with regards to whether or not the football program can advance in the American, the answer is yes. Moreover, if Huskies Football can become a leader in this conference, it will have shown enough to get an invite out whenever that opportunity may arise.
In the meantime, we have the Civil Conflict rivalry games to look forward to. Giddyup!