The Final Keg of Nails game could be the most important ever as we enter 2013.
Photo: USA Today Sports
It's a new era and a new makeup for the now former Big East football playing schools and for some it's their last go-round in their old home before Rutgers and Louisville are off to new homes in the Big Ten and ACC next season. There are also new members to the league, but as we look at the big games and the dangerous matchups ahead a theme of three teams emerges.
In 2013 the fate of The American and it's ability to be a bigger player than they have been in the past rests on the shoulders of Louisville (an expected preseason Top 5 team), Rutgers, and Cincinnati. Those three teams need to separate themselves and they'll all have chances to do so in the portion of the schedule that will really seal the fate of this conference, the non-conference schedule.
So, what are the biggest games out there? Let's explore the landscape of The American, shall we... Before we do that, we're combining danger and big games into one category because danger games for the conference are more like games that could trip up the three teams we've mentioned above.
10. Rutgers at SMU (Saturday, Oct. 5th): This one has trap game written all over it for the Scarlet Knights and it's SMU's first AAC game. SMU will know a lot about itself going into this one as they are coming off of matchups against Texas A&M and TCU. This is a dangerous game for Rutgers because it's the sandwich game between it's two biggest games of the season (Arkansas and Louisville). RU can't look ahead at all and perhaps the only saving grace is that there will be a bye week between the Hogs and Mustangs, but be on alert for this one to be a lot tougher than people are putting out there.
9. Michigan at UCONN (Saturday, Sept. 21st): O.k., this game on the surface seems like a complete mismatch, however this is a home game against a Big Ten team. If UCONN could pull off an upset here or even keep it close it's a win for the Huskies, a team that went 4-8 last season, but was able to win over Louisville and Maryland. If the Wolverines come in overconfident or aren't sharp on offense in it's transition to a complete pro-style system, an upset is certainly possible.
8. Louisville at Kentucky (Saturday, Sept. 21st): The Commonwealth battle should be an easy win on the surface for the Cardinals, but this isn't the Joker Phillips era anymore in Lexington and you better believe the Wildcats under Mark Stoops will be up for this game more than any this season. Winning the state of Kentucky is going to be important to Stoops' goal of making his UK team relevant. We also all know that you can throw records and perceptions out the window in rivalry games. Expect the unexpected in this one.
7. South Florida at UCF (Friday, Nov. 29th): Welcome to the battle of Florida in The American. Some have called this matchup the "War on 1-4" and it was played from 2005-2008, so it'll get renewed in a big way at the end of this season. If this conference is going to get any respect going forward one or both of these teams need to step up and be contenders each and every year going forward. The winner could likely see themselves finishing in the top 4 or 5 of the conference, a good starting point for either of these schools in a tough year to start play in this league for UCF and for USF to have a first year head coach.
6. Houston at Louisville (Saturday, Nov. 16th): This is another trap game for the Cardinals. We all know how difficult it can be to go undefeated and by this point it's likely the Cards are exactly that. Pressure will be mounting and the crazy high-powered offense of Houston will be coming to town to test that defense even more. This game has shootout written all over it and while Houston isn't in the same category as Louisville on paper, it's all about matchups and the Cougs provide a difficult one for any team they face. Expect this to be a lot closer than Cards fans want it to be, with potential to be upset city as well.
5. Purdue at Cincinnati (Saturday, Aug. 31st): Week one is a big week for these two teams. The Bearcats and Boilermakers are both under new leadership and getting off on the right foot is big time important for both. Having said that the Bearcats are at home and on paper are at least the equal if not the better team. They need a win, not just for themselves but to help legitimize the conference. Dropping games against mid-level foes from BCS conferences does no good when you are trying to make yourself relevant as a contender and a conference. This is a must win for Cincy.
4. Cincinnati at Rutgers (Saturday, Nov. 16th): There is a clear line between three contenders and everyone else in The American and two of them matchup here. Both could have a shot at the conference title on the line in this one and the winner will clearly separate themselves late in the season. If Rutgers comes in undefeated this game has their destiny in the balance. Cincy on the other hand will need this win to likely keep pace with either Rutgers or Louisville, whom they'll meet in just a few weeks time after this. Putting this game at this spot is only because it could end up being almost irrelevant if one side or the other doesn't come in undefeated or with just one loss to their names.
3. Rutgers at Louisville (Thursday, Oct 10th): This game will be a huge tone setter in the race for The American crown, no doubt about it. Louisville losses and their hopes for BCS and National title contention could go up in flames, win and the Cards are still on track. For Rutgers this could be yet another chance for the rest of the Big Ten to stand up and take notice that they aren't going to be taken lightly for the future and to the rest of the AAC that they're the big dogs in the race for the conference title. This was a great matchup last year and likely to be so again this year too.
2. Arkansas at Rutgers (Saturday, Sept. 21st): Why is this one so important? For Rutgers it will serve as a big time measuring stick and it's the first time ever that they've played host to an SEC team. Arkansas is also a winnable game for the Scarlet Knights and if they can pull this one off it'll vault them and The American to national relevance. Oh, and it'll show their future home that they won't be an easy win - like some fans seem to think (I don't subscribe to that train of thought as a Big Ten guy myself).
1. Louisville at Cincinnati (Thursday, Dec. 5th): The final Keg of Nails battle for quite some time also could be the biggest one ever as it may be for the conference title and a possible BCS birth for the winner. If Louisville gets to this point undefeated they could be looking at a high BCS seed and/or national title birth. Cincy on the other hand could vault themselves into a BCS position with a win, but for the conference they'll both need to navigate a more difficult schedule than most casual fans think to get there as undefeated teams.