The American East Division Preview

Gabriel Davis (USF) and Anthony Russo (Temple)

Cincinnati Bearcats

2018 record: 11-2 (6-2 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Josiah Deguara. A rock-solid blocking option who lacks for downfield speed and will be fighting for a Day 3 selection.

The case for: The Bearcats are coming off an impressive 11-2 season after ending 2017 with a 4-8 record. The incredible turnaround saw them average 34.9 points per game (23rd in the country) while only allowing 17.2 (9th in the country). This was all while using a number of young players in the starting lineup who shined. Almost all of them return, giving Bearcats enthusiasts plenty of hope for the upcoming season.

QB Desmond Ridder played exceptionally well as a freshman, completing 62.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt and posting a 20/5 TD/INT ratio. Even with last season’s top wideout out of the picture, the No. 2-No. 6 options all return. As long as one of them take a step forward, the receiving corps should be in pretty good shape. RB Michael Warren will likely be the centerpiece of the offense after rushing for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns on 244 carries. He was also utilized as a pass-catcher (25-232-1) and figures to remain the focal point of the offense.

The defense was stellar last season, ranking 36th in S&P+ while allowing the lowest completion rate in the country. They should be Cincinnati’s strongest unit again in 2019 after returning most of their best players in the secondary and linebacker group. Their defensive line will have a number of new faces but also return Kevin Mouhon after he suffered a season-ending injury in 2018. Cincinnati doesn’t have to play back-to-back road games at any point this season and has the benefit of playing four teams who rank outside the top-90 in S&P+.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cincinnati rip off another double-digit win season in 2019.

The case against: The offense finished just 74th in S&P+ last season and lost more pieces than most think. A lot of issues may stem from the offensive line where three new players will be thrust into the starting lineup. There’s a legitimate chance they don’t pan out which dampens both the running game and Ridder’s upside. He’ll also be without last season’s No. 1 option, Kahlil Lewis, who racked up 782 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 56 receptions. Is it smart to bank on improvement from a young quarterback who lost his No. 1 wideout and will likely have less time to throw? I’d lean with no.

The defense doesn’t lose much on the back end, but the defensive line may need to be reworked. They lost their top tackles in addition to defensive end Kimoni Fitz. They have a number of players who hypothetically should fill the void, but that’s not a guarantee. While the schedule doesn’t look too intimidating on paper, they have to travel to Ohio State and Memphis while drawing UCF at home. Beyond the four games against teams who rank outside the top-90 in Bill Connelly’s projected S&P+, every other contest is winnable for either side. This gives the Bearcats a fairly wide range of outcomes despite the 11-2 finish in 2018.


Temple Owls

2018 record: 8-5 (7-1 in conference) 

Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Anthony Russo. A pro-style thrower through and through, Russo couples smarts and an arm with a developing sense of the game. Stamp him as a sleeper behind the big boys.

The case for: Temple was expected to hire former Miami DC Manny Diaz as the team’s head coach – and technically did for about 18 days. Then Diaz bolted back to Miami after HC Mark Richt retired, leaving the Owls emptyhanded. Instead, they ended up with former NIU HC Rod Carey. Carey has been a much better defensive coach in his career as of late and specifically focuses on running the ball on offense.

They’ll likely turn to a combination of senior RB Jager Gardner and sophomore Jeremy Jennings. Neither has much experience but could thrive behind Temple’s offensive line which returns 4-of-5 starters from last season. The passing game could be more efficient this year with junior QB Anthony Russo having a full offseason to work as the starter. They return WR Branden Mack (44-601-5) and Randle Jones (23-445-4) who are expected to take on an even bigger role this year. Their offense ranked 76th in S&P+ last season and has a good shot of improving with plenty of talent returning.

The defense was their strongest unit, finishing the season ranked 42nd in S&P+. This is highlighted by their 7th ranked passing defense S&P+ finish. They lost a few starters but picked up a graduate transfer from Penn State in S Ayron Monroe who didn’t contribute much for the Nittany Lions but should make an impact for Temple. They also have a few players who saw some playing time in the secondary last season and should be able to step up and make an impact. Up front, Temple has two interesting defensive ends in Quincy Roche and Zack Mesday. They should make up a formidable pass-rush after combining for 10 sacks last season. The schedule is pretty favorable for the Owls who don’t have to play a single back-to-back road game and play against seven teams projected to rank 85th or worse in S&P+. If they win all the games they are expected to take care of and win a close one against Maryland, USF, or Cincinnati they can easily match last season’s 8-5 record.

The case against: Carey has been a run-first coordinator thus far in his career which may not be a great fit with the Owls’ personnel. They lost leading rusher Ryquell Armstead to the NFL this offseason. Their best returning running back is senior Jager Gardner who only had 253 rushing yards on 65 carries (3.9 yards per carry). Anthony Russo took over last season and was up-and-down. He completed just 57.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. He also threw exactly as many interceptions as touchdowns (14). He played fairly average and will need to step up if the running game isn’t clicking.

Unfortunately, a lot of the stellar defense had to do with Rock Ya-Sin who was selected with the No. 34 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. They also lost their top three safeties from last season. They have a few guys who are expected to competently fill in, but there’s almost no shot Temple approaches the top-10 of passing S&P+ defense. Given the turnover, there’s a good chance they aren’t even in the top-50. With the pass defense likely taking a step back the overall unit won’t be nearly as strong. The offense will need to make up for the declining defense if they want to take steps forward as a team.


UCF Knights

2018 record: 12-1 (8-0 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Gabriel Davis. At 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, Davis has the frame for red zone work and an intriguing athletic profile which could push him up boards with strong testing work in the spring.

The case for:  UCF completed their second-straight undefeated regular season in 2018 prior to the bowl game against a surging LSU team. While they had a better record than some of the college football playoff semifinalists, their strength of schedule gave them little chance of the committee giving them the thumbs up. Those same issues will ring true this year even if the Knights are able to string together another 12-0 regular season. While it’s easy to look at the team and say “no way they make another run,” they return plenty of exciting players on both sides of the ball.

QB McKenzie Milton won’t be available this year after last season’s disturbing injury at the end of the season. He’ll continue to rehab in hopes of a return in 2020. They aren’t completely out of luck at the position though with either Notre Dame grad transfer QB Brandon Wimbush likely at the helm. QB Darriel Mack was expected to compete with Wimbush but recently suffered a broken ankle and has no timetable for return. Even if Wimbush doesn’t take a personal step forward in accuracy, he’ll have a nice array of skill players around him. They return wideouts Gabriel Davis and Tre Nixon who were the Nos. 1 and 2 pass-catchers from last season. RB Adrian Killins is also a factor in the passing game, averaging 19.8 yards per reception to the tune of 377 yards on 19 receptions. His speed makes a legitimate difference for the offense. He and Greg McCrae return in the backfield after combining for over 2,300 yards from scrimmage last season. Part of the reason for their success was the offensive line which ranked No. 8 in “Line Yards.”

The defense figures to remain strong in the secondary after ranking 50th in passing defense S&P+ and returning their top two corners and safety. They have plenty of depth at linebacker and brought in a lot of players to address the defensive line. That includes two JUCO transfers and five freshmen. The defense has a chance to maintain top-50 efficiency if some of the newcomers make an instant impact up front. Playing in the AAC, their schedule is by no means difficult. Everything is relative though, and after two straight undefeated regular seasons the bar is set incredibly high. They should be favored in every single game this season and only have one set of back-to-back road games. Luckily for them, that comes with a bye week in between and is against two of the weaker AAC teams in Tulsa and Tulane.
 

The case against: Grad transfers normally present exciting options but in the case of Brandon Wimbush that couldn’t be further from the truth. At Notre Dame he completed 50.5% of passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. He didn’t even finish out 2018 as the starter and was unseated by replacement-level QB Ian Book. Wimbush leaves a lot on the table with accuracy, a massive difference from McKenzie Milton who completed 59.2 percent of his passes while averaging 9.2 yards per attempt. Maybe Wimbush struggled due to the strength of schedule and system, but it’s tough to bank on a major improvement. They also lost their No. 2 wideout and slot wide receiver Dredrick Snelson who accrued 688 yards and five touchdowns on 43 receptions. The offensive line likely won’t be able to post another top-10 season in “line yards” or a top-50 season in “sack rate” after losing two big-time starters. This could spell trouble for Wimbush and the Knights offense.
 

While the secondary should be solid, they lost two of their top three safeties. The defense line also figures to be in bad shape after losing nearly all of their starters and depth. There’s a slim chance they repeat the ranking of 47th in S&P+ run defense. Beyond DE Brendon Hayes (three sacks) they only return two defensive ends who don’t have much to show for in their careers. They also lost last year’s starting MLB in Pat Jasinski. While their schedule isn’t overly challenging there are a few roadblocks along the way. A home game against Stanford should be close and a road trip to Cincinnati won’t be a walk in the park. It seems unlikely they post another undefeated regular season.


USF Bulls

2018 record: 7-6 (3-5 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Mitchell Wilcox. A jack-of-all-trades tight end with sleeper potential but athleticism questions. In a thinner tight end class, has sleeper/riser potential.

The case for: Heading into the eighth game of the season against Houston last year, South Florida ranked No. 21 in the country and was 7-0. They had scored 20-or-more points in every game and 30-or-more in 4-of-7 contests. Everything changed after the 21-point loss to Houston as they tumbled to six-straight losses afterward. They scored less than 20 points in half of their games and allowed 27-or-more points in all of them. You couldn’t have imagined a worse ending for the Bulls. Luckily for HC Charlie Strong and company, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

They replaced their offensive coordinator with Kerwin Bell, a former Division 2 coach at Valdosta State. He’ll have plenty of weapons to create a formidable offense as QB Blake Barnett, RB Jordan Cronkrite, and WR Randall St. Felix all return.  Barnett is a former four-star prospect who spent time at Alabama and Arizona State before finding a home at USF.  He suffered a few minor injuries down the road and ended his season with a 61.1 completion percentage while averaging 7.7 yards per attempt.  St. Felix figures to be his top option after a stellar freshman season (33-679-4). Change-of-pace running back turned slot wide receiver Johnny Ford should replace a good bit of production lost by WR Tyre McCants and has been described as a “natural” in the slot. With Ford lined up as a wideout (115 carries last season), Cronkrite figures to take on an expanded role as the lead back after racking up 1,121 yards on just 184 carries (6.1 yards per carry) last season. The whole offense will be bolstered by the offensive line which returns seven players with some type of starting experience. This is made possible after injuries struck last year and forced multiple players into bigger roles. A bad turn of events last season will likely help them out this year.

The defense had its fair share of mishaps last year and will look to improve in 2019. They retain star linebacker Nico Sawtelle who was arguably their top defender in games he played (six). They also return a number of key players in the secondary – even if their depth isn’t great. As long as they stay healthy, they should be able to approach last seasons 51st-ranked Passing defense S&P+. The schedule gifts the Bulls with four games which should all be wins against teams ranked outside the top 110 in S&P+.

The case against: Barnett struggled down the stretch with the rest of the team and ended up with a 12/11 TD/INT ratio, something that will need to improve if the Bulls want to be a top-tier team within the AAC. It won’t help that he lost last season’s leading wideout Tyre McCants (59-617-3). There aren’t too many holes to poke in the offense other than maybe first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell not working out. While his offensive stats were good at the Division 2 level, he is inheriting a mid-level division one program with a number of difficult matchups.

While the offense should have some hope to play better, I’m not as optimistic about the defense. They ranked 90th in rush defense S&P+ last season and lost a number of starters including two of their top three tackles. They lost essentially all of their depth at linebacker and over half of their secondary is gone including corner Ronnie Hoggins. The defense is one or two injuries away from seeing the bottom fall out and taking a big tumble in overall efficiency. In addition to the potentially poor defense, the schedule isn’t very favorable. They have a back-to-back road game scenario against Navy and East Carolina during conference play. Both teams would normally be easier games but anything can happen on a long road trip. They also have to play against three teams projected to rank inside the top-30 and five teams inside the top-50 of projected S&P+. Playing that many games against tough teams severely limits their ceiling given their roster outlook.


East Carolina Pirates

2018 record: 3-9 (1-7 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: G D’Ante Smith. Nice movement skills for a 6-foot-4, 294-pound tackle. Will need polish and scrub if he is to stick on an NFL roster.

The case for: The Pirates started off the 2018 season in a weird fashion, losing to North Carolina A&T by five then following that up by thrashing North Carolina 41-19. They continued with a 13-20 loss to South Florida and a narrow 37-35 win over Old Dominion. Things got ugly afterward, losing 7-of-8 to close out the season. Head Coach Scottie Montgomery didn’t survive the end of the year and finished his stint at ECU with a 9-26 record.

They’ve now hired Mike Houston, a long-time Carolina coach who’s been at a High school, Division 3, and Division 2 program within the state of North Carolina. His last stop was as James Madison where he won an FCS title in his first season in 2016. ECU is hoping Houston’s strong track record at lower levels continues into the ranks of Division 1. A lot of work will need to be done in order for the Pirates to be relevant especially after their finish of 119th in S&P+. QB Holton Ahlers returns after seeing plenty of playing time last season and posting a 12/3 TD/INT ratio. He also added 592 yards and six touchdowns on 119 carries (5.0 yards per carry) on the ground. The Pirates return five of their top six wideouts, giving Ahlers a solid base of weapons. At least one of them will need to step up to replace former No. 1 wideout Trevon Brown’s production. The running game was abysmal last season with leading rusher RB Anthony Scott compiling 405 yards on 103 carries (3.9 yards per carry). The good news is, the offensive line should give it a boost this season. After multiple injuries to the offensive line last season, they return seven players with starting experience. Between the line improving and a number of suitable replacements who should all be an upgrade over RB Anthony Scott, we can pencil in some type of improvement.

The Pirates’ defense returns nearly everyone from a unit which improved dramatically since 2017. It’s fair to be worried about the loss of DE Nate Harvey but they return the rest of their starters in the front seven and brought in a three-star JUCO transfer. The secondary returns a good majority of their starters and could improve solely due to continuity. The schedule features two matchups against FCS opponents at home in Gardner-Webb and William & Mary early in the season as well as a road game against Navy in between. They play a total of five games against teams projected to rank 115th or lower in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections and don’t have to play back-to-back road games once all year.

The case against: Even though they beat North Carolina, the Pirates were not a very good team. The offense scored 10-or-fewer points in four games while the defense allowed 40-or-more points in five games. East Carolina has won three games each of their last three seasons but now has a new head coach. Whether Houston can improve upon Montgomery’s woes remains to be seen. QB Holton Ahlers figures to be the starter in 2019 but was an abysmal passer last season, completing just 48.3 of his passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. The Pirates top pass-catcher from last season, Trevon Brown (74-1,123-9), has also since departed. He more than doubled the next closes pass-catcher in receptions and more than tripled the next closest in receiving yards. His loss can’t be understated, especially when the quarterback is hoping to improve as a passer. The running game was a trainwreck last year, largely in part to a mosh-posh offensive line. They figure to have better luck on the injury front this year, but none of the starters were very good when they played. Even though they return a number of starters on offense, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue their struggle.

The defense lost its best player on this side of the ball in Nate Harvey. He racked up 14.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss as a senior and will be greatly missed by the Pirates defense.  Even with Harvey breathing down the necks of opposing passers, ECU still ranked 107th in passing defense S&P+. This could spell trouble in 2019 as ECU returns nearly all of their starters. Continuity is good unless the players aren’t very talented. The Pirates schedule looks pretty soft with five matchups against teams projected to rank outside the top-115 in S&P+. The issue is, outside of the two games against FCS opponents, the other three are all on the road. Both Navy and Old Dominion could give the Pirates fits on the road despite being some of their weakest opponents. Outside of those five games, the Pirates don’t have much of a chance to add to the win column. Every game except a matchup against Tulsa will be against a top-75 opponent or will be played on the road.


UConn Huskies

2018 record: 1-11 (0-8 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: T Matt Peart. Has shown progress each year in college, particularly in terms of developmental technique. UConn might not have much, but Peart ain’t nothing. Potential Day 3 dude.

The case for: I’ve noted this before, but “the case for” section should always be viewed relatively. The expectation for UConn is a lot different than UCF this season and needs to be understood as such. How exciting can a team that’s gone 3-9 and 1-11 the past two seasons really be? Some changes have been made and there is room for relative optimism.

After allowing 605 points last year, they rightfully fired their defensive coordinator. He’s been replaced by Lou Spanos, a former analyst for UCLA and Alabama. He legitimately can’t get worse in terms of S&P+ (130th). If we are going to look at this situation with rose-colored glasses, the defense was extremely young last season and returns a vast majority of starters and contributors. They also added Columbia grad transfer Mike Hinton and JUCO linebacker Dillon Harris who could play a role pretty quickly.

The offense was much better than the defense (99th in S&P+) with a few highlights. The running game was strong and returns leading rusher Kevin Mensah. He added 1,045 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 225 carries (4.6 yards per carry). With former starting QB David Pindell departed, there will be a two-way quarterback competition between Steven Krajewski and Division II transfer Mike Beaudry. Krajewski is a former three-star recruit who has hypothetical potential. There are a few spots on the schedule where UConn could snag a win. They should actually start the season with a winning record as Wagner is first up on the schedule. Wagner was 4-7 last season in the FCS and have to play at UConn.  The Huskies next winnable matchup comes against Massachusetts who is projected to rank 125th in S&P+. They then draw two home games against Navy (118th) and East Carolina (113th). If Connecticut takes even a slight step forward in some areas those games should be somewhat competitive. Four wins would be their best season during the Randy Edsall era, a relatively good year.

The case against: I could probably go on for quite a while in this section but I’ll try to keep it brief as I’m not a huge “kick em’ while their down” type of person. Randy Edsall remains the head coach after the team allowed the most points per game among all 130 teams (50.4) last season. They allowed fewer than 30 points just once and scored more than 30 points just twice. That’s not a very good recipe for success. Their only win came by seven against FCS program Rhode Island. The defense was so inexplicably bad that they ranked either 130th or 129th in all of Football Outsiders main metrics.

Their offense was significantly better but lost their starting quarterback. Pindell was a solid quarterback given their horrendous overall outlook and his rushing ability (1,139 yards) will be missed. Marvin Washington was last season’s backup quarterback and had an edge on the starting job but entered the transfer portal this offseason. This leaves just Steven Krajewski and Division II transfer Mike Beaudry. Neither are very appealing as starters on paper but maybe one of them surprises. The receiving corps is just as dreadful with redshirt junior WR Keyion Dixon in the transfer portal. Only one of their top eight pass-catchers from last year returns. They’ll need a nice influx of talent in order for their passing game to be even remotely close to last season’s. A 2.5 win total is honestly generous for a team that’s this bad.  The only game I think we can pencil in a win is against a bad FCS team in Wagner. Their next easiest game is at Massachusetts where they will likely be touchdown underdogs. With the defense likely to remain in the cellar and the offense taking a step back with a new starting quarterback, it’s hard to imagine them winning more than one or two games in 2019.

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