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.
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NCAA Football 2017 Season
AAC East Preview
USF comes in as the favorite to win the AAC in 2017. The Bulls have a good shot at an undefeated record. Defending AAC champion Temple and UCF are the top challengers to USF in the East Division. The new season of fantasy college football kicks off Saturday August 26 at FanPicks.
Fired from Texas, coach Charlie Strong quickly landed at South Florida after Willie Taggart bolted for Oregon. The Bulls, 11–2 last season and returning 16 starters, could be favored to win all of their games. Coming off the school’s first-ever season-ending top-20 national ranking and seeking the first league title in the program’s history, they are a consensus pick to capture the AAC championship.
If South Florida reaches its potential, lifts a conference-title trophy and plays in a major bowl game, it will have soared to heights that seemed unimaginable just a few seasons ago.
Attaining six wins and reaching a bowl game in head coach Scott Frost’s first season was a solid starting point — if not a bit ahead of schedule. With questions at several key positions, it’s likely too early to start thinking about a conference championship, but another bowl trip should be achievable if the offensive line takes the necessary steps forward and there isn’t too big of a drop-off on defense.
UCF will be tested early with a challenging first month that includes a Week 2 date against Memphis and non-conference matchups against Georgia Tech and Maryland.
Temple is coming off its best two-year run in program history. Previously, the Owls had won as many as 10 games in a season only once. Now they’ve done it three times. So what’s next? Former head coach Matt Rhule left for Baylor and was succeeded by his good friend Geoff Collins, who ran Florida’s defense the last two seasons. He’s the school’s fourth straight first-time head coach.
About the only thing the Owls haven’t done is finish a season strong. They lost their last two games in 2015 and their bowl last year (without Rhule), although they did win a conference title for the first time since 1967.
The Owls aren’t going to become irrelevant because Rhule is gone. But some things will be different. The schedule appears more difficult now that Houston, Navy and Tulsa are the cross-division games. And they have to visit East favorite South Florida in their AAC opener. There could be a few growing pains, particularly if the quarterback situation isn’t adequately resolved in a timely manner. The non-league slate starts at Notre Dame and later takes the Owls to Army, which won last year’s opener in South Philly.
While another double-digit win total is probably asking too much, another bowl game is well within the Owls’ reach.
Tommy Tuberville lost the fans last year and resigned as head coach shortly after the season ended with a 29–22 record at UC. Enter the 43-year-old Luke Fickell, a fireball of energy in his first full-time college head coaching job. Fickell worked under Jim Tressel and then Urban Meyer at Ohio State and is looking to re-energize a program that claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference championship just three seasons ago.
Any rays of hope the program showed under former head coach Bob Diaco at first were wiped away by an ugly 2016. By going back to Randy Edsall, who coached UConn through the transition from the Division I-AA level to an FBS independent to a member of the Big East, the Huskies are hoping to return to their winning ways.
Although there is a decent amount of experience returning, the AAC has grown into perhaps the best Group of 5 conference, and inching up that ladder will be difficult. There’s no way the offense can be worse, so marginal steps forward there can at least set the stage for greater improvement down the line.
East Carolina Pirates
The Pirates won their first two games, nearly upset South Carolina, and then the ship sank. It was the school’s worst season in 12 years, plagued by untimely turnovers, special teams snafus and a porous Pirates defense. The coaching staff attributed some of the issues to an overall lack of depth, and as with any coaching change, there were some players who weren’t buying in through the transition.
Now head coach Scottie Montgomery has all hands on deck, and he hopes that a new defensive scheme (4-2-5), more experience and a little more depth can shore up that side of the ball a bit. Offensively, quarterback Thomas Sirk — assuming he wins the job — has big cleats to fill, as does a receiving corps without Zay Jones, the FBS career receptions leader. There’s talent, though, and an attack that should be tailored to Sirk’s strengths.
Look for the Pirates’ prolific passing attack to be just fine, maybe even better if ECU can run the ball, too. There are questions on special teams, but overall Montgomery, who has earned props on the recruiting trail, is feeling goodwill in Greenville.
CFB Thursday Preview
Houston (2-0) vs Cincinnati (2-0)
No. 7 Houston will be back at full strength on offense when it tries to win at Cincinnati for the first time since 1971 on Thursday night. Heisman Trophy-candidate Greg Ward Jr. (shoulder) and running back Duke Catalon (ankle) were held out of last week’s dominating victory over Lamar so that they’d be ready for Thursday’s American Athletic Conference opener. Join this CFB game, play it here.
This game will be Cincinnati’s defense first real challenge this year. They were ranked 124th in turnover margin last year. The Bearcats scored 35 points off the 8 turnovers they’ve forced. They give their inexperienced offense much needed support. Coach Tom Herman called his D-squad the “backbone of his team” on Monday. Sophomore quarterback Hayden Moore (510 passing yards, five TDs, one INT, 71 rushing yards and two TDs) was responsible for five scores in a road win at Purdue last week. Nate Cole (12 catches, 145 yards, three TDs) and Devin Gray (nine catches, 167 yards) heads a new group of receivers after the Bearcats graduated six senior receivers. Linebacker Eric Wilson leads the AAC with 24 total tackles. Cincinnati ranks second in the league with 13.5 points allowed.
The Cougars are no slouch in defense either. They lead the AAC in total defense (233 yards), scoring defense (11.5 points), sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (20). Houston held their last four opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Greg Ward will return to the lineup after sitting out one game. In the team’s season opener against Oklahoma, he threw for 321 yards and two touchdowns. Duke Catalon added 88 rushing yards in that matchup. Kevrin Justice (111 yards, two TDs), Mulbah Car (109 yards, TD) and quarterback Kyle Postma (106 yards, two TDs) all rushed for more than 100 yards versus Lamar. Linebacker Steven Taylor leads the league with 3.5 sacks. Freshman lineman Ed Oliver collected 10 tackles, two sacks and 4.5 tackles. The Cougars have won 16 of their past 17 games.