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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Wichita State at Temple
Wichita State tries for its third straight victory when it visits Temple on Thursday and hopes its leading scorer breaks out of his shooting slump. Sophomore guard Landry Shamet is 5-for-27 from the field in his last three games – 1-for-18 from 3-point range, dropping his field goal percentage to 49.8 percent as the No. 16 Shockers try for their sixth victory in seven true road games this season.
“… In timeouts, I’ve told him if he ever doesn’t take a wide open shot that I am going to bring him out,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall told reporters about Shamet. “… The whole thing was just to let him know that we think he’s a heck of a player and a great shooter and keep shooting and — by God — make one. Let’s get this streak over with. Let’s go back to the 50-percent guy.” The Shockers have bounced back from a two-game losing streak with back-to-back 19 point victories, including 90-71 over Tulsa on Sunday. The Owls have won three of their last four games after an 85-57 win over Connecticut on Sunday – its largest margin of victory this season – behind 18 points from junior guard Shizz Alston Jr. “We felt like we had a poor performance against Cincinnati,” Alston told reporters about the 75-42 setback at No. 8 Cincinnati on Jan. 24 – their most-lopsided loss of the season. “We wanted to show people that we were a good team also. So we just needed to get that win back.”
TV: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
ABOUT WICHITA STATE (17-4, 7-2 AAC): Senior forward Shaquille Morris (12.8 points per game) is 20 points shy of becoming the 46th player in school history to reach 1,000 after totaling 39 in his last two games. Sophomore guard Austin Reaves (7.0 points) set a school record for 3-pointers in a half with seven Sunday en route to a career-high 23 points – all before intermission. Senior forward Rashard Kelly (team-high 7.7 rebounds) will try to become the first Shocker in more than 21 years to record four straight double-figure rebounding games after grabbing 31 in his last three contests.
ABOUT TEMPLE (11-10, 3-6): Sophomore guard Quinton Rose averages a team-high 14.2 points after scoring 17 versus Connecticut but only 12 in his previous two games combined while Alston averages 13.1 points. Senior forward Obi Enechionyia (11.3 points, club bests of 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks) recorded nine points and 10 rebounds Sunday and averaged 14.3 points and 7.5 boards in the four games prior to registering five points and one rebound against Cincinnati. Senior guard Josh Brown (8.0 points, team-most 3.4 assists) has scored eight points in three of his last four games, and is 7-for-24 from the field in his past three contests.
1. The Shockers are fourth nationally in rebounding margin at plus-10.5 while the Owls are an AAC-worst minus-3.6.
2. Temple, which has defeated a Top 25 team in each of the last 10 seasons, is 0-3 in such games this campaign. If it loses Thursday, its last chance will occur Feb. 15 at Wichita State.
3. The Shockers are third in the country in assists at 19.1 per game and their average of 21 in January games leads the nation.
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BAD BOY MOWERS GASPARILLA BOWL STORYLINES
1. Temple coach Geoff Collins will see a familiar uniform on the opposing sideline Dec. 21 in St. Petersburg, Fla. when the Owls take on Florida International in the Gasparilla Bowl. Collins was the defensive coordinator for the Golden Panthers in 2010, as FIU captured a conference title and went on to win the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. In his first season with the Owls, Collins guided the team to a 3-1 finish down the stretch to secure a fourth straight bowl berth for the team’s seniors, the winningest class in school history.
2. Neither Temple nor FIU is a particularly high-scoring team as the Owls rank 96th nationally in points while the Panthers are 75th. However, both teams closed with strong offensive performances as Temple scored a season-high 43 points in a regular season-ending win against Tulsa while FIU put up 104 points in its final two wins over Western Kentucky and Massachusetts. Frank Nutile gave the Owls a boost at quarterback over the final five weeks while counterpart Alex McGough was an improved player for the Panthers during the second half of the season.
3. Perhaps the key for Temple will be its ability to stop FIU inside the red zone. The Panthers led the nation in scoring percentage in the red zone with 39 scores in 40 trips while the Owls’ red-zone defense was far from great, holding their opponent scoreless on just 13 percent of red-zone trips. In addition to McGough, FIU has three running backs who carried the ball at least 70 times this season and have combined for more than 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns.
TV: 8 p.m. ET, ESPN.
ABOUT TEMPLE (6-6, 4-4 American Athletic): The Owls turned to Nutile in late October and, with the exception of one bad game against undefeated UCF, the junior quarterback finished with nine touchdowns and two interceptions down the stretch. Adonis Jennings and Keith Kirkwood each finished with 39 catches and seven touchdowns for Temple, while Isaiah Wright contributed 41 catches and three scores. Wright also averaged 8.4 yards per carry on 23 attempts, but David Hood and Ryquell Armstead – who combined for about 1,100 yards and eight scores – typically handle the bulk of the running duties for Temple.
ABOUT FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (8-4, 5-3 Conference USA): McGough threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns against UMass in the regular-season finale, helping FIU set a school record for total yards (674) while matching the mark for wins in a season (eight). The Panthers racked up 379 rushing yards and six TDs on the ground, with Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell each scoring twice and McGough adding 108 yards and a touchdown. Bryce Singleton, who entered the regular-season finale with 10 catches for 112 yards and no touchdowns, erupted for six receptions for 111 yards and three scores against the Minutemen.
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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.
Military Bowl Preview
Temple Owls vs Wake Forrest Demon Deacons
Less than a month after defeating Navy for the American Athletic Conference title, Temple will return to Annapolis to take on Wake Forest in the Military Bowl(Enter Contest).
Coach Matt Rhule has Temple trending up with 20 wins over the last two years. This means both sides of the ball will be a handful for the Demon Deacons. Wake Forrest quarterback Phillip Walker threw for 20 touchdowns in 2016. The Owls have two running backs (Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead) that reached 918 yards. Despite losing a couple of key defenders from last year’s group, Temple’s defense remains one of the best in the Group of 5 ranks. The Owls limit opponents to just 17.2 points per game and 4.6 yards a play.
Wake Forest took a big step forward in coach Dave Clawson’s third year, reaching 6-6 after back-to-back 3-9 campaigns. Clawson is a program builder and had a young roster through his first two seasons. However, the Demon Deacons turned a corner in 2016 and can lean on a defense that limits opponents to 21.8 points a game.
ABOUT TEMPLE (10-3, 7-1 American Athletic Conference)
After struggling a bit on defense during the middle of the season, the Owls were solid over the season’s final month. They’ve limited five opponents to a total of 33 points. Two more seniors from New Jersey (Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike) have been disruptive along the defensive line, totaling 31.5 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and six forced fumbles. Stephaun Marshall and Delvon Randall are the top tacklers for a unit that has surrendered only one rushing and three passing touchdowns over the past five games.
ABOUT WAKE FOREST (6-6, 3-5 ACC)
The Demon Deacons have several difference-makers on defense. Junior lineman Duke Ejiofor, senior linebacker Marquel Lee and freshman safety Jessie Bates III are among them. Ejiofor and Lee combined for 34 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks while Bates is second on the team in tackles to Lee and first in interceptions. Bates, who led all FBS freshmen in interceptions, interception return yards and interceptions returned for touchdowns, was named to the USA Today Freshman All-America Team.
Temple Owls vs Navy Midshipmen
Temple is riding a dominant defensive stretch and 20th-ranked Navy is running roughshod over opposing defenses. This should makes for an intriguing matchup in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference title game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (Enter Contest). The Owls have won six straight games. They held their last four opponents to a total of 23 points. Temple will look to rebound after losing to Houston in last year’s AAC championship.
Temple led the AAC in scoring defense (17.8 points) and total defense (273.4 yards, which is third in the country), while Navy ranked second in the conference in scoring (41.7) behind the nation’s second-ranked rushing attack (342 yards). The Midshipmen revolve around quarterback Will Worth, the nation’s leader with 25 rushing touchdowns, while the Owls ride a balanced offense behind senior quarterback Phillip Walker (2,700 yards, 18 touchdown passes). Walker is questionable with a foot issue but expects to play.
ABOUT TEMPLE (9-3, 7-1 AAC)
With Walker’s status uncertain, the squad must also be prepared to go to battle without the services of sophomore running back Ryquell Armstead. He’s one of two players with more than 800 yards on the ground. The absence of Armstead, who had two TDs in last week’s 37-10 win over East Carolina, will cede more carries to leading rusher Jahad Thomas (856 yards, 12 TDs). Walker’s top target, sophomore Ventell Bryant is expected to be ready despite an arm issue. He averaged 93.3 yards over his final six games. Defensive linesman Haason Reddick led the AAC in tackles-for-loss with 21.5 and ranked second in sacks with 9.5.
ABOUT NAVY (9-2, 7-1 AAC)
Worth needs six rushing TDs to tie former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds’ NCAA record of 31 in a season. He has topped 100 yards on the ground in seven consecutive contests and scored multiple rushing TDs in six straight. This offensive outburst is part of a stretch run that has seen the Midshipmen top the 40-point mark in six of the last seven outings. Navy’s triple-option attack has been rolling along at a historic rate. They have piled up 480 rushing yards against East Carolina two weeks ago and then 496 in last Saturday’s 75-31 drubbing of SMU. It was the 10th-most accumulated rushing yards in program history. The Midshipmen won homefield advantage by virtue of their entry into the College Football Playoff rankings. They will be trying to extend a 15-game home winning streak, tied for the longest in the country.
Temple Owls vs Connecticut Huskies
There was a time last month when Temple had to question if it would even gain bowl eligibility this season. However, three straight wins have the Owls flying high heading into Friday’s road date with Connecticut (Enter Contest). The Owls were 3-3 and trailed UCF 25-7 before rallying for an improbable last-second win. They followed up with that performance by getting the upset win over USF and holding a comfortable victory against Cincinnati last week. This gives them the momentum going into Friday. Temple has its eyes on an American Athletic Conference East Division title, but a loss to last-place UConn would just about end that dream. The Huskies have lost three straight games by a total of 61 points and have dropped four of the last five matchups in the series.
ABOUT TEMPLE (6-3, 4-1 AAC)
The Owls are led by running backs Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead, the only tandem in the nation with double-digit touchdowns. Thomas (nine rushing scores and three receiving TDs) had scored exactly two TDs in six straight games before getting blanked by Cincinnati, although he did rack up a season-high 151 yards on the ground. Armstead was limited to 61 yards on 18 attempts against the Bearcats but plunged into the end zone twice versus Cincinnati, giving him 11 rushing scores on the year. The sophomore running back collected a career-high 210 rushing yards one week prior. Owls quarterback Philip Walker has not thrown an interception in the last two games after tossing 10 picks in the first seven contests. Temple has outscored UConn 131-71 in the last five matchups.
ABOUT CONNECTICUT (3-6, 1-5 AAC)
The Huskies were embarrassed by an East Carolina team that entered with a 2-5 record, dropping last week’s contest 41-3. The Pirates’ Zay Jones had one more reception (19) than the entire UConn squad, although Huskies wideout Noel Thomas delivered a solid performance with seven catches for 135 yards. Huskies quarterback Bryant Shirreffs has not thrown a touchdown pass in his last two games and hasn’t completed more than 60 percent of his passes in a game since Week 2.
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.