Inspiration sometimes can come from unexpected places. As the UCF Knights prepared to take on Marshall at the 2019 Gasparilla Bowl, members of the media socialize and one topic that came up in conversation was regarding rivalries in the American Athletic Conference, or the lack of them. The conversation about rivalries was very fitting due to the rivalry between UCF and Marshall that dated back to 2002. The rivalry was created and hammed up by ESPN, but exposure, combined with some good match-ups, made this an excellent rivalry until UCF left Conference USA for the American in 2013. The idea of trying to find ten rivalries within the AAC was presented as something to think about. Enjoying a good challenge, I decided to look into this and using a totally subjective ranking system, found ten rivalries within the AAC.
The makeup of the AAC can be described as a patch job. The then Big East was fracturing and to survive, the conference invited the top teams from Conference USA. They later sold the Big East name to the non football schools who broke away and formed their own conference. The American was born. Since the conference has only been in its current incarnation since 2013, there hasn't been much time for rivalries to develop, right? I'm here to tell you that's not the fact as there's plenty of history and bad blood between some of these schools.
My ranking criteria isn't scientific, but did consider a few factors.
- History - How long have these schools been playing each other?
- Results - How competitive has the series been?
- Hate - College sports is all about passion and the more passionate fans are against another team, the better.
- Trophies - Yes, this matters too. If a matchup between two schools matters enough to create a prize to play for, it's worth paying attention to.
With that said, here is the list:
Honorable Mention: UCF vs Connecticut - “The Civil ConFLiCT”
Series: 5-2 UCF
The Civil ConFLiCT. A case of trophies making games better. The story of the game has been better than the game itself and fits in at the bottom of the list as equal parts honorable mention and punchline. Then UConn coach Bob Diaco wanted to help create more rivalries in the young AAC. After a shocking victory over UCF in 2014, he created a trophy and the Civil ConFLiCT was born. The trophy was retroactive to the first meeting in 2013. The trophy aspect died when UCF defeated the Huskies in 2016 in East Hartford and completely ignored the trophy as they left. A disheartened Diaco “shelved the venture” and was fired at the end of the season. The original trophy was never seen again. A facsimile of the trophy was created and circulated around by fans who enjoy the spirit of the rivalry. This is the perfect example of a manufactured rivalry that didn’t stick, unlike the UCF/Marshall rivalry mentioned above. The Knights lead the series 5-2 with four wins in a row.
10. Tulane vs. Navy
Series: 12-11-1 Tulane
When one considers football rivalries, Tulane and Navy probably do not come to mind. They did play a few times in the decades to 1991 with Tulane going 4-0-1. However, from 1991 to 2005, the Green Wave and Midshipmen met 14 times on the football field with both teams splitting the series evenly. The series took a break and resumed when Navy’s football program joined the AAC in 2015. Since joining the American, Navy has had the hotter hand, winning four of five matchups to bring the series to 12-11-1 in favor of Tulane.
9. Navy vs. SMU - “Gansz Trophy”
Series: 13-8 Navy
Another case where trophy games make the match-up special. SMU and Navy play for Gansz Trophy, which started in 2009 and is named for Frank Gansz. Gansz graduated from the Naval Academy and served on the coaching staff of both Navy and SMU. The two started playing much earlier, dating back to 1930. They played sporadically with some series in the 1960s, 1990s and 2000s before becoming divisional rivals in the AAC West. SMU won six of the first seven match-ups through their 1993 match-up. Navy has gone 12-2 since.
8. UCF vs East Carolina
Series: 10-8 ECU
These two school first played four times in the 1990s before resuming when they became conference mates in Conference USA. The first three times these two teams met, UCF was still a I-AA school. ECU ultimately won eight out of the first nine match-ups. Since 2005, they’ve played every year with the exception of 2013. On multiple occasions, the result of UCF vs ECU determined the champion of the Conference USA East Division. UCF has won five out of the last six meetings, including clinching a conference co-championship on a Hail Mary pass as time expired in 2014. To Pirate fans, their hate of the UCF stems back to 1993, when QB Marcus Crandall suffered a gruesome broken leg and dislocated ankle against the I-AA Knights. That hate still exists today. To add to the connection, Ron Dowdy, for whom Dowdy-Ficklin Stadium is named for, is an Orlando resident and has given substantially to both schools.
7. Houston vs Tulsa
Sports: Football, Basketball
Series: Houston leads 24-19 in Football, tied 27-27 in Basketball
The first of the multi-sport rivalries in our ranking. Over the history of these two schools, it’s been surprisingly even, despite the schools themselves being vastly different. On one side, you have Houston, the metropolitan state school and on the other, Tulsa, the tiny private school, about 10% the size. Houston versus Tulsa started in 1950, when Houston joined Tulsa in the Missouri Valley Conference. For the 1950s, they were in the MVC together before Houston went independent in 1960. While they were no longer in a conference together anymore, they still continued to play football and basketball regularly. On the basketball side, they stopped playing after 1966 with a small two game series in the 1980s and 1990s before Tulsa joined Houston in Conference USA in 2005 and regular play resumed. In football, the two played pretty regularly until 1975. Like basketball, they had a small series in the 1980s and 1990s before the 2005 joining. The only blip was in 2013 where Houston left for the AAC and Tulsa joined the following year. Overall, Houston leads football 24-19 in a nearly even see-saw series, highlighted by a 100-6 destroying of the Golden Hurricane (and Dr. Phil) in 1968.
In basketball, the series is dead even at 27.
6. UCF vs Memphis
Sport: Football, Basketball
Series: 13-1 UCF in Football, 20-6 Memphis in Basketball
Two one-sided series, each going the opposite direction. On paper, this doesn’t look like a rivalry at all, but on the field, it’s far different. The intensity and stakes of the games themselves is what elevated this one-sided affair into rivalry territory. UCF has had Memphis’ number in football, winning the last 13 match-ups. In 2017 and 2018, UCF and Memphis met four times in football with UCF squeaking out unlikely victories in the last three match-ups, which helped propel the Knights to back-to-back AAC championships and two New Year’s Six bowl games, leaving Memphis at the altar. There is a lot of pent up emotion for Tigers fans as they await their next victory. Memphis leads in basketball 20-6. The Tigers have had a stronger program since they started playing in 2005, but the Knights have won five of the last seven meetings. The emotions on the basketball court was strong enough that Knights fans stormed the court when they defeated Memphis for the first time in 2012. Recently, the two schools reported their largest single athletic donation in each school’s history, both by the same family.
5. Tulsa vs SMU
Sport: Football, Basketball
Series: 15-11 SMU in Football, 29-21 Tulsa in Basketball
Tulsa and SMU is a rivalry that began in the 1990s when the Southwest Conference folded. The lucky schools helped create the Big XII. The less lucky schools scattered with a some going to the Western Athletic Conference. Both of these schools started playing basketball before 1920 and while they played a little in the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t until SMU joined the WAC that they became regular foes. The series has been rather streaky, going back and forth between the two schools. As of late, SMU has been the stronger program. On the football field, the two also became regular foes when SMU joined the WAC. SMU had more success while in the WAC while Tulsa was the more successful program in CUSA, winning a couple of conference titles. The series in both sports skipped a year in 2013 due to SMU joining the AAC in 2013 and Tulsa in 2014. SMU leads in football 15-11 while Tulsa leads SMU in basketball 29-21.
4. Houston vs SMU
Sport: Football, Basketball
Series: 21-13 Houston in Football, 52-32 Houston in Basketball
Houston joined SMU in the Southwest Conference in 1975 and the two intrastate schools played regularly until the conference dissolved in 1996. Other than a football game in 2000 and a pair of basketball games around the same time, it wasn’t until SMU joined Houston in Conference USA in 2005 that the series resumed. Both Houston and SMU’s football program each had runs as multiple year top 25 schools as Houston had a strong run when they first joined the SWC in the 1970s and SMU in their infamous 1980s run before the Mustangs’ football team received the NCAA death penalty. The Cougars have enjoyed more success since SMU had to shut down, but the Mustangs have won three of the last four matchups, including two upsets over a ranked Cougars squad. Houston still leads the football series 21-13. In basketball, Houston has also enjoyed far more success than SMU, especially during their Phi Slama Jama days in the 1980s. SMU had a ranked run from 2015-2017 and won five of six, but the Cougars struck gold with coach Kelvin Sampson and have won the last four meetings. Houston leads the basketball series 52-32.
3. Wichita State vs Tulsa
Sport: Football (formerly), Basketball
Series: 23-13-1 Tulsa in Football, 61-58 Wichita State in Basketball
Wichita State and Tulsa have played each other regularly in basketball since 1950 as long time conference members in the Missouri Valley Conference. Throughout their history, each school has had multiple year runs as a top 25 program. The Shockers had a run as a top 10 program in the 1960s while Tulsa had a long run as a top 20 team in the 1980s. A conference switch in the 1990s by Tulsa led to the series slowing down in playing regularity, but the two were reunited when Wichita State joined the AAC in 2017. Lately, Wichita State has had the upper edge, winning 12 of the last 13 games, including a recent run as a ranked team. Wichita State had a football program in the MVC until the end of the 1986 season and the two played each other all the way back to the 1940s. Tulsa leads that series 28-13-1, including winning eight of the last nine games before the Shockers shut down their football program. As close geographical opponents with long running programs, These two schools have the longest running series of any duo in the AAC.
2. Memphis vs. Cincinnati
Sport: Football, Basketball
Series: 23-13 Memphis in Football, 46-33 Cincinnati in Basketball
This rivalry is more known for basketball than football. Memphis and Cincinnati have met 79 times in basketball dating back to Memphis joining the Missouri Valley Conference in 1967 with the Bearcats owning a 46-33 advantage. During various eras, each school had multi-year runs where they were ranked in the top 25. On four of those occasions, both teams were ranked in the top 25. Being ranked though did not guarantee a win with five of those games being ranked upsets, including when Memphis defeated then fourth ranked Cincinnati in 1993. In 2019, the two did meet for the AAC conference championship in football, which Memphis won and received a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game as a result. Memphis has a 23-13 advantage in football. In both sports, the two schools were conference rivals throughout multiple leagues from 1967 until 2005 when the Bearcats moved from Conference USA to the Big East. In 2013, Memphis followed and they have since resumed regular match-ups.
1. UCF vs South Florida - “The War on I-4”
Sport: Football, Basketball
Series: 6-5 South Florida in Football, 17-14 South Florida in Basketball
The marquee rivalry of the AAC. Separated by less than 100 miles and plenty of history of fighting for resources, there is no love lost between these two schools in anything. The two schools have played for over 30 years almost exclusive as non-conference foes prior to 2013 with the Bulls holding a 17-14 lead in basketball. The Bulls won the first 13 out of 14 meetings, but the Knights have won 10 out of the last 11. On the football field, the Bulls dominated early in the highly anticipated matchup. Since becoming conference mates in the AAC, the Knights have won five out of the last seven meetings. In 2016, the two schools cemented their already strong rivalry with the “War on I-4” trophy. In football, the two compete for a trophy, but they also created an all-sports competition which also has its trophy. Since the advent of the trophies, UCF has won three of four football games and all three completed all-sports competitions.
There you have it. There are rivalries within the America Athletic Conference, full of history, passion, emotion, and championships. Do you agree with the list? Disagree? Would you re-rank the teams? There is definitely room for debate, but that’s part of the magic of college sports.