Complete preview of the American Athletic Conference for 2018.
The American Athletic Conference is the top Group of 5 league and won’t lack for intrigue in 2018. UCF is back for another run at a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, as new coach Josh Heupel hopes to pick up where Scott Frost left off last fall. The Knights should win the league in the 2018 American Athletic Conference, with Temple and USF rounding out the next tier in the East Division. The top of the West Division isn’t as clear. There’s very little separation at the top between Memphis, Houston and Navy, with Tulane and SMU also poised to play a factor in which team wins the division title.
Head coach Josh Heupel inherits an enviable situation but also some of the biggest expectations coming off last year’s perfect season and self-proclaimed “National Championship.” That said, with all the returning talent, particularly on the offensive side, UCF should be the odds-on favorite to repeat as conference champions with a good shot at returning to a New Year’s Six bowl for the third time in six years.
Coach Charlie Strong’s first season at USF was a bumpy adjustment at times from Willie Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense. But now there’s more of a blank slate to implement Strong’s preferred style. The running game will have increased importance, especially while a new quarterback develops.
Overall, though, USF’s prosperity will be defined by continued improvement on defense. Don’t be surprised if the Bulls find themselves in another do-or-die showdown against UCF for an AAC Division title in the regular-season finale.
Former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins took over from good friend Matt Rhule, who left for Baylor after putting together back-to-back 10-win seasons — at a program that had one double-digit win season in its history. In Collins’ debut season as a head coach, he had to replace a four-year starting quarterback. In the first eight games, the Owls lost at Notre Dame, at South Florida, to Houston and in overtime at Army. Their only blemish the rest of the way was a loss to UCF. That’s something to build on. The Owls just can’t afford to lose any games that they probably shouldn’t, like they did last year against 3-9 Connecticut in South Philly. This is Collins’ team now. Expect Year 2 to be another step in the right direction.
With a shortage of stars, and a coaching staff in Year 2 of a rebuilding project, a .500 record might be the best the Bearcats can hope for this season. UC has gone 8-16 during the past two years, but things appear brighter for the long term. Multiple recruiting services rated the 2018 UC class No. 1 in the AAC and tops among Group of 5 schools. “It shows us that we’re recruiting in the right way,” coach Luke Fickell says. “You continue to take those swings and you see them pay off. They’ll pay off for the next three, four or five years.”
The thought is that UConn will be better, with so many first-year players debuting last season and now returning, but that doesn’t mean an improved record should be expected. The Huskies aren’t quite big enough, strong enough or fast enough on either side of the line, and players at skill positions remain very raw. Barring a big surprise, UConn appears headed for an eighth straight losing season.
Coach Scottie Montgomery has five new coaches on staff this year, but David Blackwell is the most important of those changes, charged with salvaging a defense that was often defenseless last year. There’s some young talent among the sophomores and redshirt freshmen that can up the ante — on both sides of the ball — for the Pirates, who might finally have some wind in their sails again.
Memphis’ upward trend continued in 2017. The Tigers won 10 games, played in the AAC title game and appeared in a bowl game for the fourth straight season – a first for the program. They were also ranked in the AP Top 25 every week beginning in mid-October. To maintain the momentum, Coach Mike Norvell must find the proper triggerman, since the Tigers will have an experienced offensive line and depth in the backfield to counter the loss of Anthony Miller and Phil Mayhue. Defensively, the Tigers must overcome some alarming numbers and continue to win the turnover battle after ranking third nationally in that category a year ago at plus-1.15 per game.
PR hit or not, the hiring of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles shows that the pressure is on to return to the top tier in the AAC West. Back-to-back non-conference games against Arizona and Texas Tech in September should tell us where the Cougars stand. Otherwise, the schedule is favorable with just three trips outside the state of Texas.
New coach Sonny Dykes is a proven offensive guru with a scheme that should ease the transition to the new staff. Defensive coordinator Kevin Kane’s back-to-basics renovation of the defense should at least reduce the number of back-breaking plays allowed. If the Mustangs can make a marked improvement on defense, stay healthy on the offensive line and develop some playmakers, they could find themselves in another bowl game.
After losing to archrival Army for the second straight year, Navy closed on a positive note by routing Virginia 49-7 in the Military Bowl to post a winning record for the 14th time in the last 15 seasons.
Navy’s offense became one-dimensional during the second half of the season since QB Zach Abey was strictly an inside runner. QB Malcom Perry provides the all-important perimeter element of the triple-option, and coach Ken Niumatalolo is confident the offense will be more effective with him at the controls.
Navy will travel an incredible 26,496 miles this season due to its six road and two neutral-site games. Niumatalolo is not thrilled about facing defending AAC West Division champ Memphis on the heels of traveling to Hawaii for the season opener. This year’s game against Notre Dame is in San Diego.
Perry figures to have a huge season if he stays healthy, and Navy’s triple-option attack should continue to confound AAC opponents enough to ensure another winning season.
QB Jonathan Banks is the catalyst. If he improves as expected, the offense will be much more formidable after scoring 21 or fewer points six times last season and finishing near the bottom of the league in third-down conversions. The defense will benefit by not having to be on the field as much.
In what could be a defining fourth year for coach Philip Montgomery, Tulsa needs to show significant progress at quarterback and on defense to avoid a second straight last-place finish in the AAC West. And with a non-conference slate that features visits to Texas and Arkansas, reaching bowl eligibility will likely be a challenge.