Do you remember the Big East? Yes, it still exists in basketball, but the original Big East was a fringe power in football. At one point, it was the home for teams like Miami, Boston College, Syracuse, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh – all of which played in New Year’s Day bowls at one point during the conference’s history. Over the years, conference realignment wreaked havoc on the Big East’s membership rolls, as all of those teams defected to other conferences (primarily the ACC). The bones of the Big East paired up with a host of teams from Conference USA to form the American Athletic Conference. But the result, nor is the level of play, quite the same.
Granted, the Big East wasn’t really the same toward the end either. It barely held on to its place in the Bowl Championship Series, though most observers knew that the Big East simply was not nearly as good as the other five major football conferences. Now that we have the AAC, at least the illusion no longer exists. We know for certain that the AAC is a step (or two or three) behind the Power Five. But don’t read that to mean that the American doesn’t have some great football, nor that it doesn’t have the potential to edge closer to the Power Five.
Houston, primarily, has the possibility of becoming an actual football power if it can put together a couple more great seasons – and especially if it can knock off Oklahoma at the beginning of this season. Other team like USF, Navy and Memphis also play big-time teams from major conferences, and could pose upset threats in those games. Over time, the AAC has the greatest likelihood of breaking into the Power Five, but for now, it must content itself with being the best of the rest and hoping that one or more of its teams has a breakthrough win.
- Temple (11-2). 2016 is a critical year for coach Matt Rhule and the Temple Owls. In three seasons, Rhule has elevated an Owls squad that was starting to decline, and has taken them from 2-10 in 2013 to 10-4 last year. Temple isn’t known for football greatness. The converse is actually true, as the Owls won a single game – or no games – nine times between 1980 and 2006. During that time, Temple had just two winning seasons. Compare that to the past seven seasons, which saw the Owls gather four winning records, plus one year where they ended 6-6. It’s clear that Temple has an expectation of winning these days, and this season should set the program up for a potential run at winning the AAC. A whopping 16 starters are back from last season’s campaign, including all but two on offense (one WR and one OL). Temple was unspectacular, but effective, at moving the ball last season. This year should see a significant improvement with leading rushing Jahad Thomas returning at RB, in addition to QB P.J. Walker and most of his receivers. With an improved line, an increase in yards and points should be on the way. The defense is similarly loaded, and might even improve on last year’s No. 17 national ranking in scoring (20.1 ppg). Praise Martin-Oguike and Hasson Reddick are probably the best DE tandem in the conference, and CB Sean Chandler makes our preseason All-AAC list (though he has reportedly been moved to safety this fall). The schedule is set up for a 10 or more wins, assuming the Owls don’t suffer a letdown. The Oct. 21 game against USF will likely decide the East Division.
- USF (10-2). It’s amazing to consider that the South Florida football program is only entering its 20th season. Starting in 1997, USF competed for four years at the FCS level, and has since been an FBS team. In that time, the Bulls have posted 13 winning records and played in seven bowl games. That may seem small compared to more established programs, but it’s an amazing achievement to do that in an era where most fledgling programs are cannon-fodder. The one thing that USF has lacked thus far is a conference championship. This season is probably it’s best chance to date to do that. The Bulls have preseason All-AAC candidates at QB, RB and WR in Quinton Flowers, Marlon Mack and Rodney Adams. Last season’s offense picked up 33.6 ppg and should improve on that, but will definitely need to shore up a somewhat inexperienced line. On defense, the Bulls’ linebacking corps and secondary will be among the best in the AAC. MLB Auggie Sanchez is a candidate for Defensive POY, and CB Deatrick Nichols and “striker” Nate Godwin will anchor a secondary that should shut down most opposing passers. USF should see improvement on both sides of the ball, where they scored 33.6 ppg and allowed 22.9 ppg. If that belief comes to pass, and if they clear three big road tests at Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis, the Bulls could flirt with the Top 25, the Eastern Division title, a spot in the conference championship and a major bowl game.
- Cincinnati (8-4). In the past decade, Cincinnati has developed a decent winning tradition that has seen the Bearcats go bowling every year but one, and end five of those seasons with 1o or more wins. The coaching job has also been a major stepping stone. Each of the three previous coaches has elevated to major jobs after success at Cincinnati. (Mark Dantonio to Michigan State; Brian Kelly to Notre Dame; Butch Jones to Tennessee.) Tommy Tuberville must be hoping for a similar situation. Now in his fourth season with the Bearcats, Tuberville has guided the team to three straight winning seasons, including a share of the league title in 2014. If his team manages to win the East this year, he might just get his wish. The Bearcats return heralded QB Gunner Kiel, but there are questions of whether he’ll even be the starter on Sept. 1 when Cincy plays Tennessee-Martin. Gone are the team’s five leading receivers, though the Bearcats do bring back a solid committee of running backs. The interior line is intact and should be very good, but both tackles will be new starters. The defense will be in much better shape, and needs to be. Last year, the Bearcats surrendered 31.2 ppg – 91st in the nation. In eight games, Cincinnati gave up more than 30 points, including in all six losses. OLB Eric Wilson is one of the AAC’s better players at his position, and FS Zach Edwards probably is the league’s best safety. An improvement in experience may not be enough unless the Bearcats can get stronger and faster. The schedule affords Cincy no excuses; aside from Oct. 29 at Temple, the road games are easily winnable, and the team’s other major conference games – Houston, USF and Memphis – will all be played at Nippert Stadium.
- East Carolina (4-8). East Carolina clearly expects to win. After bowls in four of five seasons, the Pirates last year dropped to 5-7 … and promptly fired head coach Ruffin McNeil. In his place is former Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery. The move could be either foolishness or genius. Montgomery has only been coaching for 10 years, and East Carolina is his fifth position, and first as a head coach. If Montgomery is successful, he certainly won’t be at ECU very long. If he’s not, the program could languish for years. His first season will have its share of challenges. Only nine starters return (four on offense, five on defense), and every unit on both sides of the ball will be at least partially rebuilt. QB Phillip Nelson will likely be the new offensive leader, and will have the league’s best receiver, Zay Jones, as a prime target. However, the running game will have big struggles with no defined leader, and the offensive line could be a season-long project. The defense will have similar woes. While DT Demetri McGill and FS Travon Simmons have all-conference potential, the Pirates are otherwise inexperienced and lacking in depth. The front seven should struggle to get pressure and/or stop the run, and as a result, the secondary will get burned far too often. The early non-conference schedule will be rough, with a matchup at home against N.C. State, and games on the road at South Carolina and Virginia Tech. After the opening week, it’s unlikely that the Pirates will even flirt with a winning record.
- Connecticut (3-9). The history of successes at UConn boil down to two names – Skip Holtz and Randy Edsall. Holtz built the Huskies up until they won 10 games at the FCS level, and Edsall took over for 12 years, guiding the team to six winning seasons in his last eight years. Since then, the best that UConn has managed is its 6-7 output a year ago that included a loss in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Third-year coach Bob Diaco has a retooling project on his hands in Year Three, especially on the offensive line, were four of five starters must be replaced. That’s troubling, since the Huskies only managed 17.2 ppg last season (121st in FBS), and had an anemic rushing output of 124.8 ypg. RB Arkeel Newsome is very good, but his success in 2016 depends on how well that line comes together. The passing game is only marginally better (185.5 ypg), but should benefit from returning QB Bryant Shireffs, all three WRs and all-conference hopeful TE Tommy Myers. The defense was the team’s saving grace a year ago, ranking 15th nationally with 19.5 ppg. Maintaining that number won’t be easy with only five returning starters. The upshot is that four of those five are preseason All-AAC performers, led by DE Luke Carrezola (6 sacks), DT Folorunso Fatukasi (8 sacks), CB Jammar Summers (8 ints.) and Obi Melifonwu (88 tackles). Still, with so many holes on defense, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Huskies can hold the average opponent under 20 ppg.
- UCF (2-10). Q: What the heck happened to UCF last year? A: Nothing good. An off-season filled with a host of tumult resulted in a meltdown on the field. The team that won 31 games the previous three seasons failed to win even one game in 2015. The winless season ws the third in program history, but came just two years after back-to-back conference champions, including an victory over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl in 2013. The season saw the program’s winningest coach, George O’Leary, resign midseason, and finish the year ranked 125th in scoring offense (13.9 ppg) and 117th in scoring defense (37.7 ppg). Trying to find good points to discuss from last season would be like trying to find pure maidens at the Chicken Ranch. There simply weren’t any. New head coach Scott Frost brings with him fresh enthusiasm, but will have to overcome the misery of a culture of losing that developed in the program last season. So much improvement is needed on both sides of the ball that its impossible to imagine that UCF could completely reverse course in Frost’s inaugural campign. Still, on offense he has a lot of returning pieces to help the process. The bulk of UCF’s skill players come back, including QB Justin Holman and all of his leading rushers and receivers. Four of five starting offensive linemen are also back, including OG Chavis Dickey. On defense, the Knights will have a deep and experienced secondary, but the front seven will have five new starters and could struggle to slow both running and passing attacks. CB Shaquille Griffith is the lone standout on a defense that is a year or two away from even being average. The season opens against South Carolina State. The following week, UCF travels to Michigan. How the team looks against those two drastically different teams should give tons of clues about how UCF will perform against its other 10 opponents.
- Houston (12-1). Like Cincinnati, successful Houston coaches have found that winning with the Cougars usually equals a promotion to a bigger and more prominent job. Conversely, less successful Houston coaches quickly learn that teams in Texas don’t put up with losing or even not winning enough. Winning at Houston earned promotions for coaches Jack Pardee (Houston Oilers), Art Briles (Baylor) and Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M). Two years ago, Tony Levine learned that back-to-back 8-5 seasons wouldn’t be enough to keep the job. Last year’s coach, Tom Herman, has to know that major programs across the country are eyeing him after his 13-1 finish in 2015, which included a huge win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. His promotion may well come after this season, as the Cougars are almost everyone’s pick to repeat in the AAC and potentially play in another major bowl. The pieces certainly are in place. All-AAC and Heisman hopeful QB Greg Ward is the one of the best dual-threat passers in the game, and should eclipse 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing this season. Texas transfer RB Duke Catalon is expected to be a huge force in Houston’s backfield, and the receiving corps is deep and should provide ample targets. The one big question mark is the line, which will might feature three underclassmen among its four new starters. The one returning lineman – C Will Noble – has all-conference potential. The defense will have six new starters, and was hit hard by graduation in the secondary (three of four starters gone). OLB Steven Taylor is the best defensive player in the AAC and should help the unit gel. DT B.J. Singleton should also stand out for the Cougars. Hitting last season’s mark of 40.4 ppg on offense may be possible, but the defensive total of 20.4 ppg will be a challenge with Houston’s inexperience on that side of the ball. Still, the Cougars’ level of talent is such that it should still be the class of the AAC. If Houston hangs with Oklahoma on opening day, the Cougars should be a sizeable favorite in the rest of their games.
- Navy (8-4). A few numbers to pay attention to – 10, 13, 10, 12 and 1. Since 2006, Navy has 10 victories over Air Force; 13 victories over Army; 10 Commander’s-in-Chief Trophies; 12 winning seasons; and one huge victory over Houston in 2015 that was the Cougars’ sole loss of the season. Navy is clearly the class of the military academies, and after one season in the AAC, it’s clear that the Midshipmen are going to be competitive in their new conference. Ken Niumatalolo is an exception coach who has managed to take intelligent, undersized players and field very good football teams. He should have another good unit this year, but will have his hands full, especially on offense. Navy will field one of the least experienced teams in the country, with just eight returning starters – and only one on offense. WR Jamir Tillman is the lone returning player – but remember, Navy runs more than 75 percent of the time. Senior QB Tago Smith will take the reins of Navy’s flexbone, and will have a fresh trio of senior running backs who will receive his pitches. The entire offensive line will feature new starters, but will be heavy on upperclassmen. Defensively, the Midshipmen should be able to step up with seven returning starters, five of which are seniors. The unit played with a lot of aggression last season, and might be able to do even better than that team’s 21.8 ppg allowed. The Midshipmen get Houston and Memphis and Notre Dame at home, but have to travel to Air Force and South Florida. Don’t be surprised if they hit eight wins and claim another COC trophy (though we favor Air Force to reclaim it this season).
- Memphis (6-6). Memphis may well be in mourning this season after losing arguably the best quarterback in school history, Paxton Lynch, who will play for the Denver Broncos this fall. Gone also will be the team’s best chance for another winning season, as the Tigers will have very few potent offensive weapons. Memphis will have a decent running back, but no one who can be termed a playmaker. At receiver there will also be significant contributors, but no playmakers. And at quarterback, Riley Ferguson comes in from Butler Community College in Kansas, but is not likely to easily fill Lynch’s shoes. (We don’t know what size those shoes are, but at 6’7″ and 245 pounds, Lynch’s feet were undoubtedly huge.) As a result, we expect a big dropoff from last season’s output of 40.2 ppg. That could pose a big problem, because Memphis’ strength was not its defense. The Tigers gave up more than 30 points six times, but managed to win three of those with its raw offensive output. Fortunately, the Tigers do bring back seven players on defense, including all-conference hopeful CB Arthur Maulet. Improvements should take place in each unit of the defense, especially in the front six, where four starters return. We seriously doubt that another 9- or 10-win season is possible, but if the Tigers win just five of their seven home games (not including Houston and South Florida), they’ll need just one win on the road to reach another bowl. (Oct. 14 at Tulane or Nov. 5 at SMU should do the trick.)
- Tulsa (6-6). When Tulsa announced it would be leaving Conference USA for the newly formed AAC, it did so as the reining C-USA champion, following an 11-3 season. Since then, the Golden Hurricane hasn’t had a winning season, though they did go bowling last season with a 6-6 record. Second-year head coach Philip Montgomery may well be in the midst of a program turnaround, but until Tulsa can prove that it can compete from day-to-day, week-to-week and season-to-season in the AAC, we’ll remain a bit skeptical. The biggest reason for our skepticism is Tulsa’s massive disparity between its offense and its defense. In 2015, Tulsa was prolific on offense, passing for more than 330 ypg, and scoring 37.2 ppg. With 507.4 ypg, the Golden Hurricane ranked 13th in the nation. Meanwhile, Tulsa’s defense was a mirror image of the offense, surrendering 39.8 ppg and 536.6 ypg. That placed Tulsa at 125th in the nation. There are enough pieces coming back on both sides of the ball to think that Tulsa may improve. There are also enough pieces missing to suspect they’ll do no better than last season, and potentially do worse. On the plus side, QB Dane Evans returns from a terrific season, and will be aided by his starting running back and top receiver – Josh Atkinson, who is one of the AAC’s best. Also back is Keevan Lucas, who was Tulsa’s best in 2014, but missed half of last season with a knee injury. The line returns three starters, but both guards must be replaced. On defense, the line was decimated by graduation, but the lone returner – DE Jeremy Smith – is a good one. The problem for Tulsa is that the defensive talent on the field wasn’t good enough by a mile last year. To improve on last season, they’ll need to be good enough at least by a half mile. Road contests at Houston, Memphis and Navy will make attaining a winning season very difficult.
- Tulane (5-7). 1998 was a magical year for the Tulane Green Wave. A program that had never hit double digits in victories found itself undefeated at the end of the season, including a bowl win and a No. 7 finish in bowl major polls. Tulane fans should cherish that season, because a return to it is highly unlikely in the near future. Since then, Tulane has managed only three winning seasons, and has finished on the losing end in 12 of the past 13 years. This year, it’s hoping that a fresh approach from new head coach Willie Fritz will elevate the Green Wave to a new level. Fritz has three previous stops on his head coaching resume, and has been a success at each one – particularly Sam Houston State, where he guided the Bearkats to two FCS title games. He inherits a team that returns only nine starters, but still has an outside shot at six wins and a bowl game. Fritz will employ the pistol offense, which thrived at both Sam Houston State and Georgia Southern. This offense can succeed with either the run or the pass, but since Tulane’s most potent offensive players are rushers, it’s likely that the Green Wave will be run-heavy. Its success will largely depend on how well the new starting QB – likely Glen Cuiellette – executes the system. Fritz needs to improve on last year’s dismal 19.7 ppg, but we have our doubts at this time. The defense is more likely to improve behind its six returning starters, particularly DT Tanzel Smart and OLB Nico Marley. The secondary has potential, but needs to step up from a lackluster 2015. The schedule may be a help, as Tulane should enter several games as the favorite. We think the season finale at UConn will give Tulane a chance – albeit a difficult one – at win No. 6.
- SMU (2-10). Just a few years ago, SMU was the closest that it’s ever been to coming back from the devastating “death penalty” handed down in 1987. Coach June Jones had guided the Mustangs to four straight bowl games, and the program seemed on the way up. However, there were grumblings that Jones wasn’t sufficiently recruiting and didn’t really care about the program. The next season, SMU went 5-7, and after just two games in 2014, Jones resigned. That season ended at 1-11, and the Mustangs have since been in a bit of tailspin. First-year head coach Chad Morris doubled that total in 2015, but while the SMU offense seemed to improve a bit, its defense was the third-worst in the nation. A 63-0 loss to Memphis punctuated the season. Improvement on both sides is likely, but don’t expect a vast difference. QB Matt Davis is perhaps good, but definitely not great. RB Xavier Jones and WR Courtland Sutton should help Davis move the ball, though the right side of the line can be exploited. On defense, it will be hard to give up more points than the 45.7 ppg the Mustangs surrendered in 2015. SMU kept opponents under 40 points just three times, and gave up 50 or more four times. Even without any bona fide stars, the Mustangs get a big boost in experience, especially in the secondary. Three weeks into the season, SMU might very well match last season’s win total with potential victories over North Texas and Liberty. Exceeding that number will depend on how well the Mustangs’ young roster grows up and buys into Morris’ system.
Bowl teams: Houston, Temple, USF, Cincinnati, Navy, Memphis, Tulsa.
Offensive player of the year: Greg Hill, QB, Houston
Defensive player of the year: Steven Taylor, LB, Houston
Coach of the year: Willie Taggart, South Florida
Tomorrow: 2016 Pac-12 preview
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt