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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Thursday Fanpicks Games of the Week
Begin the football weekend with Thursday Night Football game between the Raiders and Chiefs. Mix it in with NCAA gridiron action between Memphis and Houston and you get the Games of the Week contest. Check out both games preview below and come play FanPicks cross sports contest!!! >>>Click here to join the game<<<
Oakland Raiders vs Kansas City Chiefs
The Oakland Raiders were a trendy preseason choice to wind up in the conference championship game, but they are in desperate need of a victory to keep from falling out of contention in the AFC West. Riding a four-game losing streak, the struggling Raiders face a daunting task when they host the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night (8:25 p.m. ET on CBS).
Oakland plugged a void this week with the signing of four-time All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a tackling machine who moves across the Bay after he was released by the San Francisco 49ers on Friday.
Kansas City became the last team in the NFL to lose, dropping a 19-13 decision at home to Pittsburgh on Sunday, but it has won five in a row against the Raiders.
ABOUT THE CHIEFS (5-1)
Kansas City averaged nearly 33 points through its first five victories, but its offense was bottled up while its 27th-ranked run defense was shredded for 194 yards. Kareem Hunt rushed for a season-low 21 yards but had five receptions for 89 yards to become the first rookie in league history to amass at least 100 scrimmage yards in each of his team’s first six games. Multi-threat receiver Tyreek Hill injured his neck in Sunday’s game and it was feared he might have a concussion, but the team pronounced him good to go. Smith threw for 246 yards and a TD last week, failing to post a 100-plus passer rating for the first time.
ABOUT THE RAIDERS (2-4)
Derek Carr returned to the lineup after missing one game with a fractured bone in his back, but had another mediocre game and has four interceptions in his past three contests after tossing only six picks in the entire 2016 season. The vertical passing game has been a staple in Oakland since the franchise’s inception, but deep threat Amari Cooper has a combined nine receptions for 51 yards during the four-game skid. Marshawn Lynch has not provided the expect jolt to the ground game, rushing for two TDs and an averaging 42.8 yards rushing. Only three teams in the league have fewer than the Raiders’ 11 sacks.
Memphis Tigers vs Houston Cougars
A short week will only add to the drama when Memphis visits Houston on Thursday night( 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) for a key American Athletic Conference West Division game. The past three meetings have been decided by four points or fewer.
The Tigers can gain the upper hand in the division and become bowl eligible for the fourth straight season — a program first — with a win. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson has 10 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past two games while the Tigers have scored 100 points during that span.
The Cougars have won 11 straight conference home games, and six of the past seven against Memphis.
ABOUT MEMPHIS (5-1, 2-1 AAC)
Ferguson leads the conference with 1,814 passing yards and 19 touchdowns, including nine TD passes to Anthony Miller (45 catches, 606 yards). Darrell Henderson (542 rushing yards, three TDs) is averaging 8.1 yards per carry to lead the ground game while Tony Pollard (39.3 yards per return) has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. Sophomore Austin Hall leads the Tigers with 44 tackles and recorded three of the team’s five takeaways (two interceptions, fumble) in last week’s victory over Navy.
ABOUT HOUSTON (4-2, 2-1 AAC)
Quarterback Kyle Postma (805 yards, five interceptions, four touchdowns) has made three straight starts but had three turnovers in Saturday’s loss at Tulsa. Steven Dunbar (team-best 40 catches for 462 yards) is coming off his first 100-yard game of the season while Linell Bonner (37 catches, 344 yards, three TDs) had five catches for 44 yards in his return from a concussion. Matthew Adams and D’Juan Hines each have 57 tackles for a defense that has 10 sacks and 12 takeaways.
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NCAA Football 2017 Season
AAC West Preview
The race to win the AAC West Division is crowded at the top. Houston, Navy and Memphis each have a strong argument for the No. 1 spot, while Tulsa and SMU aren’t far behind. The new season of fantasy college football kicks off Saturday August 26 at FanPicks.
Head coach Mike Norvell picked up where Justin Fuente — who guided the Tigers to back-to-back bowl games before departing for Virginia Tech — left off. Memphis ranked 14th nationally in passing offense (304.4 ypg), 15th in scoring offense (38.8 ppg) and 28th in total offense (463.7 ypg) and played in a third straight bowl game.
The Tigers should set a school record by playing in a fourth straight postseason game. Norvell returns eight starters on offense with multiple weapons at running back and receiver. The defense will be a question mark, particularly with an overhaul in the secondary. Still, Memphis won 17 games over the past two years with a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the AAC.
Getting swept by service academy rivals Air Force and Army cast a dark shadow over an otherwise successful 2016 season. You can bet that coach Ken Niumatalolo has put increased emphasis on recapturing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
Navy’s defense, which was porous last season, is expected to be vastly improved. But they may need to win some games early while a young, inexperienced offense settles in. The Midshipmen have posted winning records in 13 of the last 14 seasons. There is no reason to believe that remarkable run of success won’t continue in 2017.
For two years the Houston program conducted business under constant speculation over the future of Tom Herman, who became the school’s third coach in the last nine years to leave for a more high-profile job. New head coach Major Applewhite, Herman’s offensive coordinator for the last two years, signed a five-year deal with the hopes that he can keep the Cougars relevant on the national scene.
The schedule is more manageable this year. The Cougars play three key AAC West Division rivals (SMU, Memphis and Navy) at home. A second league title in three years likely hinges on progress of the offense — namely Kyle Allen at quarterback and the development of a consistent running game.
Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
After winning six games in his first year, head coach Philip Montgomery overwhelmingly exceeded expectations in 2016 by delivering a 10–3 record and a second-place finish in the American Athletic Conference’s West Division, completing the turnaround from the 2–10 season that preceded his hiring.
To continue rebuilding the program and establishing the Hurricane as perennial contenders in the league, Montgomery will have to do his best coaching job given the high turnover, particularly from an offense that carried the team in the previous two seasons. If the defense can dramatically ramp up its performance despite relying heavily on youth, Montgomery will become only the second coach in program history to make bowl appearances in three consecutive seasons.
In his third season, head coach Chad Morris has SMU positioned for success. After going 2–10 in 2015, the Mustangs were on the verge of bowl eligibility at 5–5 last season, but they lost the final two games to South Florida and Navy.
Morris has made big inroads in changing the program’s culture with dramatic leaps in recruiting, depth and overall performance. Tweaks in the power spread scheme, including a faster pace, bolstered the offense, which ranked 55th nationally last year (427.3 ypg). Mobility at quarterback, or better protection for Ben Hicks — if he wins the job — will be needed. The defense also must take another step forward after ranking 103rd nationally a year ago.
Tulane Green Wave
Tulane should be more competitive now that head coach Willie Fritz and his players are familiar with each other. Simply getting his quarterbacks to know when to pitch or run on options proved challenging a year ago, when Tulane beat UConn in its finale to avoid its first winless conference season since it left the SEC in the 1960s.
Being more competitive, however, won’t necessarily translate into more wins. Not only do the Wave play in the far more difficult West Division of the AAC, but they must also face USF, the overwhelming favorite in the East. And don’t forget about a game at Oklahoma. Anything close to a .500 record would be a great accomplishment.
Boca Raton Bowl Preview
Memphis Tigers vs Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Like offense? The Boca Raton Bowl is your game (Enter Contest). WKU averages 45.3 points a game, while Memphis isn’t far behind at 39.5. This matchup was slated to feature Jeff Brohm (WKU) and Mike Norvell (Memphis), two rising stars in the head coaching ranks. However, Brohm accepted the head coaching position at Purdue. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt will lead the Hilltoppers in this game.
WKU closed the season on a seven-game winning streak and scored at least 44 points in every contest during that run. Quarterback Mike White successfully replaced Brandon Doughty this year, throwing for 4,027 yards and 34 scores. He’s supported by standout running back Anthony Wales and two dynamic receivers (Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris). Quarterback Riley Ferguson (3,326 yards and 28 TDs) frequently targets Anthony Miller (84 catches), and the Tigers have three players with at least 460 rushing yards. This is the first meeting between these two programs.
ABOUT MEMPHIS (8-4, 5-3 AAC)
The Tigers had a tough task replacing head coach Justin Fuente and quarterback Paxton Lynch after last season but barely missed a beat behind new coach Mike Norvell and quarterback Riley Ferguson. Memphis won three of the last four games to improve its bowl position, including knocking off then-No. 20 Houston 48-44 in the regular-season finale. The Tigers average 39.5 points and rolled up 555 yards of total offense in the win over the Cougars.
Ferguson saved his best performance for last, passing for 409 yards with four TDs and no interceptions against Houston to cap a 3,326-yard season. Ferguson’s campaign places him second on the school’s all-time single-season throwing yards’ list. He’s just behind Lynch’s total of 3,776 from last season. Tigers freshman Tony Pollard was named the AAC’s Special Teams Player of the Year after ranking third in the nation with 993 kickoff return yards. He’s tied for third with two kickoff return TDs.
ABOUT WESTERN KENTUCKY (10-3, 7-1 C-USA)
Western Kentucky closed out the season on a seven-game winning streak, capped by a 58-44 victory over Louisiana Tech in the C-USA championship game. The Hilltoppers are second among FBS teams with a scoring average of 45.1 points. They’ve bumped that number up to 52.1 over the last nine contests. Western Kentucky is aiming for its third straight bowl win after knocking off Central Michigan 49-48 in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl and beating South Florida 45-35 in the 2015 Miami Beach Bowl.
The Hilltoppers’ offense is led by quarterback Mike White, who passed for 4,027 yards, 34 touchdowns and six interceptions while averaging 10.43 yards per attempt. Making White’s job easier is senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor. Taylor logged in 1,586 yards and caught 16 of those TD passes, including two in the C-USA championship game. Western Kentucky’s defense held three of its last five opponents under 10 points. They’ve recorded as many sacks (five) as rushing yards allowed against Louisiana Tech.
Temple (3-2) vs Memphis (3-1)
Fresh off its first loss of the season, host Memphis aims to regroup Thursday against resurgent Temple when the Owls visit the Tigers in an American Athletic Conference game (Enter contest). Memphis outscored its opponents 155-27 during a 3-0 start, but struggled in a 20-point loss at Ole Miss last week in its final non-conference tune-up.
The Tigers’ defense allowed 624 yards while the team committed four turnovers and seven penalties against the Rebels. They’ve allowed a total of 10 points in their previous two games before surrendering 48 to Ole Miss, and now must contend with an Owls squad that has defeated them in two of the last three seasons. Memphis needs Riley Ferguson to have a bounce back game after the junior threw three interceptions without a touchdown pass last week, a stark contrast to his eight touchdowns and zero picks over the previous two outings. Wide receiver Anthony Miller had 157 total yards and a touchdown against the Rebels, while fellow junior Doroland Dorceus rushed for a score for the fourth straight game.
Memphis is averaging 45.8 points, which is sixth-best in the nation. Kicker Jake Elliott needs one point to tie DeAngelo Williams (362) for second place in school history and eight points to match Stephen Gostkowski (369) for top spot in the Tigers’ record books. The Tigers have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 233 consecutive games. It’s the longest active streak in the FBS.
The Owls faced plenty of issues themselves early in the season but have regrouped to win two straight behind 48- and 45-point performances. Although senior quarterback Philip Walker is looking to deliver a stronger effort this week, he went 7-of-18 for 124 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions last week against SMU.
Sophomore tailback Ryquell Armstead scored two touchdowns in his second straight game. He finished with 159 rushing yards against SMU. Senior Jahad Thomas also had a pair of rushing scores. It was his third straight game with two rushing TDs. He continues to work his way back from a hand injury that sidelined him for the first two games of the season. After recording a career-high 10 tackles against SMU, sophomore defensive back Delvon Randall will need a repeat performance versus the Tigers. Owls kicker Austin Jones is 8-for-8 in field goals (long of 45) and 21-for-21 on extra points this season.