2015 brings changes to the American Athletic Conference. Navy joins the league, giving the AAC 12 teams, and with 12, you get a championship game. The league has now been divided into divisions with Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, South Florida, and Temple placed in the East, and Houston, Memphis, Navy, SMU, Tulane, and Tulsa placed in the West.
Last year, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Central Florida tied for first with East Carolina, Houston, and Temple finishing bowl eligible. Only Temple failed to earn a bowl bid. This year, as many as eight teams could wind up bowl eligible, but the league will probably just send seven teams to bowls. Not having the planned Austin Bowl this year will be a major bummer to one possible 6-6 team.
The clear-cut media favorite in the East Division is Cincinnati. Coach Tommy Tuberville’s first two Bearcat teams ended with identical 9-4 records, which followed consecutive 10-3 records by his predecessor Butch Jones. Tuberville welcomes back the vagabond quarterback Gunner Kiel, who when he finally settled on Nippert Stadium as his home field, instantly became the top passer in the league last year. Kiel helped Cinti top 300 passing yards per game in 2014, and 2015 should be more of the same, as the top six receivers are back in the fold. The Bearcats must rebuild in the defensive front seven, but they have a seasoned and talented secondary, so don’t expect much falloff on this side of the ball.
Temple began to turn the corner last year under Coach Matt Rhule, as the Owls finished 6-6 after going 2-10 the year before. Rhule welcomes back a league high 19 starters as well as better than 80% of the letterwinners from 2014, and this TU team is talented enough to edge out Cincinnati for the East Division title. The Owls must play the Bearcats in the Queen City, and that game will take place early in the season on September 12. Temple must play Penn State the week before, while UC gets a patsy in Alabama A&M. If the Temple front seven can stay healthy in week one, the Owls can slow down Cinti’s offense and have a chance to get the upper hand in the division race.
The drop from number two to number three in the East is steep. Central Florida must rebuild on both sides of the ball, as Coach George O’Leary lost all of his key pass catchers on offense and all of his starting secondary and his top five tacklers from last year. There is enough talent remaining for UCF to post a winning record, but the Knights will be fighting off East Carolina for third and not the top two contenders.
Speaking of East Carolina, the Pirates also face a minor rebuilding reclamation. Shane Carden graduated as the top passer in school history and Justin Hardy left as the top receiver in school history, and it will be impossible to replace their contributions. A better than average offensive line will make it a bit easier for new skill position players to have some success, but the offensive points per game is going to take a hit. Defensively, ECU is thin on the front line, so the rushing defense could weaken as the season wears on.
Willie Taggart maybe has one more season to resurrect the South Florida program. Coach T doubled the wins from two to four in year two, but Bulls fans believe this team should dominate the league, and they may look to make changes if USF doesn’t double the win total again this year. That is not going to happen, as the Bulls must start anew on the offensive end. Taggart is switching to a faster-paced offense, and breaking in a new quarterback with a new offense is a recipe for many mistakes, mistakes which lead to losses. The USF defense should be improved, but the offense may not give the stop troops a lot of rest.
Connecticut has not enjoyed a good season since 2010, when former coach Randy Edsall took the Huskies to the Fiesta Bowl. Second year coach Bob Diaco went 2-10 in his first year in Storrs, and this year’s team is more talented. However, more talented may only lead to closer losses, as both sides of the interior line are not yet up to AAC standards.
The race in the West Division should be a three-team affair. Memphis, Houston, and Navy all have the horses to take the division crown, while Tulane, Tulsa, and SMU should fight for fourth.
Memphis was the big surprise in the league last year. Coach Justin Fuente began his coaching career with 4-8 and 3-9 records, and the Tigers were not expected to do any better in 2014. After beginning the season 2-2 with expected wins over Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee with competitive losses to UCLA and Ole Miss, Memphis blew Cincinnati off the Liberty Bowl field. Following a close loss to Houston, the Tigers then ran the table to finish 10-3, including a bowl win over BYU.
This year, Memphis has the bulk of its offense returning, and the Tigers could threaten to average 40 points per game. They are going to need those points, because the defense was decimated by graduation losses. Only one starter from the back seven returns, and the pass defense will get a Baptism under fire with early games against pass happy Bowling Green, Cincinnati, and Ole Miss.
Houston welcomes a new coach after firing a coach that went 8-5 in back-to-back seasons. There are many examples in the past where schools got too stingy and replaced a better than average coach with what they thought was an even better coach, only to experience many disappointing seasons. Can Tom Herman bring the Urban Meyer magic to Houston? Herman was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, but Herman couldn’t bring along Cardale Jones, J. T. Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott, or Braxton Miller. He’ll have to make do with better than average Greg Ward at quarterback, talented Kenneth Farrow at running back, and a group of credible but not flashy wide receivers. His offensive line won’t remind him of the Buckeye line he had last year. Defensively, the Cougars return the bulk of the two deep secondary, and this will be the best pass defense in the league.
Navy brings the spread option offense to the league, and because none of their conference foes faced this offense last year, the Midshipmen will benefit from the lack of experience facing the regular and triple option. Coach Ken Niumatalolo typically starts as many seniors as he can, so every year, Navy must break in a batch of new starters. However, one player that returns to his spot is quarterback Keenan Reynolds. An experienced option quarterback is like a Major League baseball team having three 20-game winners in its starting rotation. Reynolds should leave Navy as the all-time leading rusher, and he is going to set a mark for career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback that may not be topped for decades.
Tulane represents the best of the rest in the West. The Green Wave should be much improved over last year’s 3-9 mark, and it would not surprise us if Coach Curtis Johnson guides TU back to bowl eligibility. Last year’s offense actually outgained the 2013 offense in yardage but scored eight fewer points per game. Look for TU to return to the 2013 scoring rate. The Green Wave defense is not strong enough to stop the top teams in the league, so fourth is the best this team can hope for in the division.
There was a time when Tulsa would have dominated the West Division if not the entire league. In 2008, the Golden Hurricane offense led the nation with 47.2 points per game and 570 total yards per game. In 2012, TU won the Conference USA championship and then knocked off Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl. Since then, TU has won just five of 24 games, and that has brought a coaching change. Enter Phillip Montgomery, the former Baylor assistant who mentored RGIII and Bryce Petty. There is good news and bad news for TU fans this year. The good news: expect Montgomery’s air show to light up the scoreboards and bring a lot of excitement to Champan Stadium. With 10 starters returning, including a fine quarterback in Dane Evans and a potential NFL receiver in Keevan Lucas, the Hurricane should top 30 points per game and maybe even 35 with the new wide open passing game. The bad news: the defense is going to give up points just as quickly as the offense and maybe even a bit quicker. It adds up to a season where there won’t be a lot of kicks on Route 66 down in T-Town.
SMU is almost back in the same position as they were when they returned from the Death Penalty in the 1980’s. Following a 1-11 season where the Mustangs played like more like Shetland Ponies, the school has made sweeping changes. Gone is Coach June Jones and his run and shoot offense. Enter former Clemson offensive guru Chad Morris and his spread offense. Morris is highly connected in the Lonestar State, and he will eventually bring enough talent to return SMU to some of its former glory, but it isn’t going to happen in year one. SMU can hope to double its win total this year, but 2-10 is not much to get excited over. There is a long way to go to return to respectability.
Here are the AAC Media’s preseason predictions.
|American Athletic Conference Media Poll|
|Cincinnati 22, Memphis 5, Houston 2, UCF 1|
The media did not select a preseason All-AAC team, so we are posting our own preseason team based on highest individual PiRate Ratings, the basic component for our PiRate and Bias team ratings and a key component of the Mean Rating.
|Conference USA Preseason All-Conference Team|
|Running Back||Marlon Mack||South Florida|
|Running Back||Kenneth Farrow||Houston|
|Wide Receiver||Keevan Lucas||Tulsa|
|Wide Receiver||Mekale McKay||Cincinnati|
|Tight End||Alan Cross||Memphis|
|Offensive Line||Kyle Friend||Temple|
|Offensive Line||J. T. Boyd||East Carolina|
|Offensive Line||Ike Harris||East Carolina|
|Offensive Line||Parker Ehringer||Cincinnati|
|Offensive Line||Garrett Stafford||Tulsa|
|Defensive Line||Silverberry Mouhon||Cincinnati|
|Defensive Line||Thomas Niles||Central Florida|
|Defensive Line||Praise Martin-Oguike||Temple|
|Defensive Line||Royce Lafrance||Tulane|
|Linebacker||Zeek Bigger||East Carolina|
|Linebacker||Nigel Harris||South Florida|
|Defensive Back||William Jackson||Houston|
|Defensive Back||Adrian McDonald||Houston|
|Defensive Back||Josh Hawkins||East Carolina|
|Defensive Back||Zach Edwards||Cincinnati|
|Return Specialist||Shaq Washington||Cincinnati|
Here are the preseason PiRate, Mean, and Bias Ratings and average of the three.
|American Athletic Conference|
And, here are our won-loss predictions and bowl projections.
|PiRate Ratings Predicted Records|
|3||Central Florida||5-3||7-5||Miami Beach|
|4||East Carolina||5-3||6-6||St. Petersburg|
|*||Wins Title Game|
|^||Loses Title Game|
Coming Later Today: The FBS Independents (what’s left of them).