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AAC football notes: Diaco still defending Civil ConFLiCT rivalry

Many football fans outside Connecticut and/or Florida never heard about the Civil ConFLiCT. Those who did just for the first time probably laughed and scratched their heads.

A football rivalry between UConn and UCF was a major unknown and simply didn’t exist until Huskies coach Bob Diaco thought it up and oversaw the construction of a trophy. Now, after two games – one win for each side – the ConFLiCT appears to be dead.

Think of the Hartford Whalers, their exodus from Connecticut and how so many try to keep their memory alive.

It hasn’t brought the Whalers back to The Nutmeg State.

And now the Knights of UCF, after defeating UConn 24-16 in East Hartford Saturday, ignored the trophy sitting on the field and did not take it home to Orlando with them. When the trophy idea first developed in Diaco’s intriguing mind, UCF wasn’t told and wasn’t asked to approve the concept. It popped up on Twitter, first generating dismay on the Internet and then triggering a chain of giggles all along the Atlantic coast – and yes, that includes the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But after UCF’s coaches and players ignored the trophy Saturday, it was up to a UConn staffer to cover the trophy and leave it “shrouded” until it was trucked back to Storrs with the rest of the football equipment.

Talk about a lack of dignity. Diaco tried to explain his thinking Tuesday at his weekly press conference and joked that the trophy could be used for a coat rack.

Think Paul Bunyan’s Axe or Floyd of Rosedale was ever treated that way?

Diaco spent 10 minutes on the rivalry Tuesday at a time when he should have been addressing the upcoming game against East Carolina. He said he was trying to “maintain my composure” but he wouldn’t get a very good grade on that. Read Mike Anthony’s story and view The Hartford Courant video here.

The tension surrounding the rivalry was first demonstrated during Diaco’s weekly media conference last week. Asked about the renewal, Diaco answered in a tone that lacked passion.

“We’re excited to play,” Diaco replied.

A follow-up question came, inquiring if the trophy would reside on the sideline again. Diaco snapped a bit: “I’ve had enough of that conversation, externally, so I’m not going to get into all of that business.”

Diaco wasn’t asked about the trophy after the game. But it was pretty obvious the winning team hadn’t given it a thought at any point. That’s no surprise. UCF’s First-year coach Scott Frost shouldn’t have any desire to become involved.

“It was just another ballgame for us,” UCF freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton told reporters. “We can’t get too caught up in that.”

Linebacker Errol Clarke said: “We just really care mostly about the win and trying to win the conference. That’s all we care about.”

The Civil ConFLiCT is still on Wikipedia’s list of NCAA football rivalry games with a start date of 2014 and no end date. You will find it between The Keg of Nails between Cincinnati and Louisville (1929-2013) and the Platypus Trophy, given to the winner of the Oregon-Oregon State game.

Next year? The two teams will play, but it doesn’t look good for the trophy. Order your commemorative T-shirt now. (Just kidding, of course.) But it seems something should be done to honor Diaco’s creative genius.

Week belongs to SMU, Pruitt

SMU’s 38-16 upset of No. 11 Houston Saturday brought unexpected attention to the Mustangs, the AAC and especially senior defensive end Jarvis Pruitt.

Not only did Pruitt receive the weekly Defensive Player of the Week from the AAC office, he also picked up the national recognition with the same title from The Walter Camp Football Foundation. That must have been especially gratifying for the Houston native who left home to play for the struggling Mustangs.

Pruitt had five tackles, three quarterback sacks and one fumble recovery. SMU’s defense held the formally powerful Houston offense to a season-low 303 yards of total offense. The Mustangs recorded seven sacks in their shocking win.

22 October 2016: SMU Mustangs defensive lineman Jarvis Pruitt (#34) celebrates after sacking Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (#1) during the American Athletic Conference college football game between the SMU Mustangs and the Houston Cougars at Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas, Texas. SMU won the game 38-16. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire)

22 October 2016: SMU Mustangs defensive lineman Jarvis Pruitt (#34) celebrates after sacking Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (#1) during the American Athletic Conference college football game between the SMU Mustangs and the Houston Cougars at Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas, Texas. SMU won the game 38-16. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire)

SMU quarterback Ben Hicks, a freshman who is having a fine season, was named to the AAC weekly honor roll after completing 16 of 31 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns against Houston.

“We were ready for the opportunity,” SMU coach Chad Morris said. “We’ve been so close all year against some top opponents and just unable to finish. We’ve got a bunch of young guys who needed game-speed reps and needed to get more mature.

“We knew there were going to be mistakes . . . but we felt good about it. While this win might have shocked a lot of people across the country, it didn’t shock our kids and didn’t shock our staff. We knew it was just a matter of time before our preparation paid off.”

Morris called Pruitt’s awards “huge” and added that the entire defensive line played “exceptionally well.” Morris said Hicks has “continued to grow up and get better.”

SMU (3-4, 1-2) plays at Tulane this Saturday.

“This was a turning point for this program,” said Morris, in his second season at SMU. “What we do with it moving forward is totally a response.”

Time for AAC to put plans into action

Now that the Big 12 has decided not to expand and the AAC membership knows it will be together – at least for a while – commissioner Mike Aresco can be relieved. But he also knows this would be a good time for his league to become the aggressor.

There was tremendous stress on the entire conference. Now, however, Aresco knows he won’t be losing Houston, Cincinnati, UConn, UCF or USF. But since the AAC got so much attention in the process, it has simply backed up the point he has been making for three or four years.

The AAC should be part of the football power structure. The AAC has what it takes to turn the Power 5 to the Power 6.

The American will release a strategic plan within the next month.

“It has got some real meat on it,” Aresco told The Hartford Courant. “It’s not just a series of bromides. It has got real goals and benchmarks.

“The first step in getting back to where the old Big East once was, in the BCS, the power constellation, is to convince the media and the public, competitively we belong there. Once that happens, there’s a critical mass and you try to create a fait accompli, so the powers-that-be says those fellows belong.”

Aresco has included that in many of his past speeches. Maybe outsiders will start to believe now. The league’s current football deal with ESPN ends in 2019; its basketball contract extends through 2010.

Quotable

“The trip to Dallas was a nightmare. . . . We have a bunch of pleasers and perfectionists on this team and I think I did not do a very good job of training them how to respond to adversity and respond to another team’s best shot.” – Houston coach Tom Herman, after losing to SMU.

“You get down there in the red zone and the game’s on the line, it’s like you are the pilot of the space shuttle and you’re re-entering the atmosphere. It’s a big deal. It’s a much greater challenge than flying a propeller plane at 10,000 feet. That’s the next step. Executing. Winning these games.” – UConn coach Bob Diaco, after losing to UCF.

“So many guys made plays, that is what makes this a huge win for me and it obviously gives us some control. But that can change in a week, in the blink of an eye, so they better stay focused.” – Temple coach Matt Rhule, after a 46-30 win over USF that give Temple (5-3, 3-1) control of the AAC East.

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