- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - The University of Tulsa often finds itself on a bit of an island in Oklahoma collegiate athletics. The Golden Hurricane, one of only three FBS-level college football programs in the state, also is the lone member of one of the so-called “Group of 5” conferences.

Tulsa athletic director Dr. Derrick Gragg, like most of his G5 counterparts, has no interest in anything that would further separate the G5 conference members from the so-called Power 5 (which encompasses the Big 12 in addition to the Big Ten, ACC, SEC and Pac-12). That includes the notion of a separate G5 playoff, outside of the current College Football Playoff structure.

“I think the term we used most often was ‘non-starter’ said Gragg, who just returned from a whirlwind few days of meetings that included a meeting of his fellow American Athletic Conference athletic directors and another meeting of FBS athletic directors.

“We (the AAC) have branded ourselves as a Power 6 and the key word is power,” said Gragg, now entering his fourth year at Tulsa.

“You look at our conference’s performance in the past couple of years, beating Baylor in a New Year’s bowl (UCF in 2014) and Houston defeating Oklahoma this past season, we feel we can compete well enough against the other P5. We want to be in a level of other P5 schools. Having a separate playoff is not a conversation anybody is willing to have.”

The matter of a separate playoff for G5 schools (which also includes members of the Mid-American Conference, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Conference USA) arose when Northern Illinois (a member of the MAC) athletic director Sean Frazier told ESPN he would be interested in a G5 playoff.

Nearly every other G5 athletic director or conference commissioner quickly distanced themselves from such a notion, including AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, who told ESPN, “We compete for national championships like anyone else in FBS, including the Power 5, and have no interest in any kind of separate championship.”

Gragg expressed a similar sentiment, but acknowledged there still is a separation in many peoples’ minds between the haves and have-nots.

“We feel we (Tulsa) can compete with anybody in the country and nobody was hotter than us at the end of the year.”

The Golden Hurricane finished the season 10-3, including a 55-10 win over Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl under second-year head coach Philip Montgomery. Tulsa won six of its last seven games and received votes in the final Associated Press and Coaches polls with only Birmingham Bowl champion South Florida, which defeated South Carolina 46-39, receiving more AP votes among AAC schools.

The AAC recorded seven wins this past season over P5 members, which fueled the feeling among its schools that it belonged in the “power” structure, which included placing “P6” stickers on its helmets, a decision that arose after the Big 12 decided not to expand, a process that saw several AAC schools under consideration.

Gragg saw that as an indication of the strength of the conference, as opposed to schools looking to simply abandon the conference.

“Many of those schools were being pursued,” Gragg said.

“It’s a compliment to the conference and to what kind of teams we have in the conference.” He said after the Big 12 made its decision and the AAC was going to remain intact, the helmet stickers demonstrated the AAC wanted “to be in the P6 conversation.”

While the conference had success in the regular season, the bowl season proved disappointing as it went 2-5.

Still, that doesn’t deter Gragg, or Tulsa, a school that has been used to swimming upstream for attention in its home state.

“It’s always been a little more difficult for Tulsa to get recognition in this area,” Gragg said. “But we have been to several bowls over the past 10 years and we have more conference championships than anybody in our conference. We are proud of that. We have a Rhodes Scholar this year (track and cross country student-athlete Kirk Smith).

“Maybe the program doesn’t get the credit it deserves here, but in our conference we get just tremendous respect.

“We have a much smaller alumni base, being surrounded by Big 12 institutions, so we have to be creative to get noticed.”

Tulsa has the smallest enrollment among all 128 FBS teams.

Gragg said he is confident about the conference staying together.

“I think our conference is widely considered the best of the Group of 5 and if there is a sixth (power conference), it would be ours,” he said.

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Information from: Enid News & Eagle, http://www.enidnews.com

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