The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 15, 2018

2018 American Athletic Conference Preview

Note: The preseason ratings you see in the previews may not be the same as the ratings you see for the first game. We update every team’s rating based on player injuries, changes to the depth charts, and other factors that may change during preseason practice.

Some of our Group of 5 Conference won-loss predictions were figured before the beginning of August preseason practices. Thus, it could be that a player or players on some teams have already suffered season-ending or multiple game injuries or have left their teams, and these won-loss predictions no longer accurately reflect our ratings. We hope that by the time we preview the Power 5 conferences, we will know who is not going to be available (players and head coaches).

This American Athletic Conference believes the number one team in the nation played within its jurisdiction last year. No, Alabama did not have some type of adjunct relationship with the league. Central Florida was the lone unbeaten team in the nation in 2017. In addition, the Knights did something Alabama was unable to do–beat Auburn.
The PiRate Ratings not only said that UCF was not the top team in the nation, we believed there were four better teams last year. UCF’s running the table reminded us a lot of Penn State in 1968, when the Nittany Lions went 11-0 and beat Kansas in the Orange Bowl. So what did that Penn State team do for an encore in 1969? They merely went 11-0 again with one of the most aggressive defenses and special teams in college football history.
UCF just might run the table again this year, just like that great Penn State team.

However, they will have an extra impediment that Penn State did not have in 1969. Coach Scott Frost took his marbles and went home to alma mater Nebraska. The Knights will try to become the first team since Toledo in 1970 and 1971 to go undefeated in back-to-back seasons with different head coaches. That Toledo team actually ran the table for three consecutive years.
UCF returns a talented quarterback in McKenzie Milton, two talented running backs in Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson, and two highly-skilled receivers Dredrick Snelson and Gabriel Davis that helped team up for 530+ yards and 48+ points per game. The Knights should continue to pile up yards and points again this year, and if the defense can hold serve and put up similar numbers to last year, UCF has a chance to repeat at 13-0. The toughest roadblocks will be road games with North Carolina and Memphis and a home game with Pittsburgh. The regular season finale at South Florida could be a trap game.

Speaking of South Florida, the Bulls are not quite up to UCF’s talent level, and they undergo a slight rebuilding project this year. A splendid offensive team in 2017, USF must break in a new quarterback, a new running back or backs to replace two highly talented backs, and their leading receiver. Things are not all that rosy on the defensive side of the ball, but the Bulls had a lot of talented depth and should be okay on this side of the ball, especially with a defensive mastermind like Charlie Strong as head coach.

Temple continued to win with new coach Geoff Collins taking over for Matt Rhule last year. Collins might have a hard time topping last year’s seven wins, but the rest of the division is not ready to move up, so the Owls might have a shot at another bowl-eligible season. Temple has some stars on both sides of the ball, foremost being rush end Quincy Roche, who recorded seven sacks as a freshman. He’ll join the finest trio of linebackers in the league, and Temple should hold opponents to 21 to 24 points per game this year. If the offense can take a small move forward, Temple can contend with South Florida for second in the division.

The bottom three teams in the East Division fall far short of the top three. Cincinnati appears to be nearing the end of the Luke Fickell era. After a 4-8 season in 2017, the Bearcats look like a team that will find it hard to even equal that mark this year. Pass defense will be a major issue, and even if the pass rush improves this year, UC may take a backward turn against the run. The result should be another year where opponents average north of 30 points per game.

East Carolina and Connecticut face major rebuilding projects and should both win fewer games than a year ago. That’s not an easy task, as they both won just three times in 2017.

Memphis lost just twice in the regular season last year, but both times, it was to Central Florida. The Tigers host UCF in the middle of the season, and the game could match a pair of ranked and undefeated teams. The only reason why Memphis may not top the Knights is the breaking in of a new quarterback. David Moore can run and pass with talent, but he lacks the experience that Milton has at UCF. The Tigers should have a better defense this year with most of the key players back, but the offense is going to backtrack, and with it will go the Tigers’ conference championship hopes in 2018.

When Major Applewhite became Houston’s head coach last year, he heard an edict from the school’s president that 8-4 will get a coach fired there. Applewhite only mustered seven wins in his first year, and 8-4 may be about what to expect in year two. The question is: will 8-4 be good enough in year two? The Cougars lost too much talent on both sides of the ball to make a legitimate move forward. Every full-time starting skill position player at one set position on offense must be replaced. The one exception is D’Eriq King, who began the season as one of the leading receivers on the team and then moved to quarterback in the second half.

Navy has been to 14 bowls in the last 15 years, and with an experienced quarterback returning to run the double slot option offense, the Midshipmen will make it 15 in 16 years. Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s teams usually improve by a couple of games when his quarterback returns, so look for Navy to challenge for double-digit wins this year.

Unlike the East, the bottom three teams in the West could all contend for bowl eligibility this year. Tulane and SMU played a bowl-qualifier in the regular season’s final week last year. Tulane appeared to have the game won at the end, but an incorrect referee’s call gave the game and the Frisco Bowl bid to the Mustangs. The PiRate Ratings don’t call for it, but we believe Coach Willie Fritz will build on this near-miss and push Tulane to bowl eligibility. Expect quarterback Jonathan Banks to increase the Green Wave’s passing efficiency, especially since his starting receiving corps returns in full. While at Georgia Southern, Fritz’s offenses averaged better than 425 yards and 35 points per game, and if TU can match that amount this year, Fritz will be coaching in December.

SMU must start all over with a new coach and new offensive system. The Mustangs should be okay on offense, but their defense is still a mess, and the new offense may force it to stay on the field a tad more this year. It may take 40 points per game for the Mustangs to win six games and make a bowl game again.

Tulsa has the least chance of the three bottom-half teams to make a bowl this year, and a reduction in their athletic budget could signal some lean times in the near future. Last year, the Golden Hurricane could not move the football through the air, and it led to a sub 30 points per game output, and a year after winning 10 games, Tulsa lost 10 games.

Here is how the American Athletic Conference Media voted in the preseason poll.

American Athletic
East 1st Place Points
1. Central Florida 25 175
2. South Florida 5 140
3. Temple 0 132
4. Cincinnati 0 91
5. Connecticut 0 51
6. East Carolina 0 41
West 1st Place Points
1. Memphis 23 171
2. Houston 4 146
3. Navy 3 129
4. SMU 0 72
5. Tulane 0 68
6. Tulsa 0 44
Championship Game Winner Points
Central Florida 19
Memphis 7
South Florida 3
Houston 1

The PiRate Ratings agree almost completely with the media experts with the exception of flip-flopping Tulane and SMU

American Athletic Conference
East Division
Team AAC Overall PiRate Mean Bias Average
Central Florida 0-0 0-0 110.8 110.4 110.7 110.6
South Florida 0-0 0-0 96.0 99.3 96.9 97.4
Temple 0-0 0-0 95.8 95.8 96.2 95.9
Cincinnati 0-0 0-0 87.1 88.5 86.5 87.3
Connecticut 0-0 0-0 84.1 84.4 82.8 83.8
East Carolina 0-0 0-0 83.1 82.2 82.0 82.4
West Division
Team AAC Overall PiRate Mean Bias Average
Memphis 0-0 0-0 104.2 106.3 105.7 105.4
Houston 0-0 0-0 99.9 101.4 101.0 100.8
Navy 0-0 0-0 98.7 101.7 98.5 99.7
Tulane 0-0 0-0 94.4 94.6 94.0 94.3
SMU 0-0 0-0 95.1 93.8 94.0 94.3
Tulsa 0-0 0-0 91.8 90.3 92.3 91.5
AAC Averages 95.1 95.7 95.1 95.3

New Coaches
The biggest coaching change in all of Group of 5 football is at Central Florida, where former Oklahoma passing phenom Josh Heupel takes over for former Nebraska star Scott Frost. Heupel comes from the spread passing philosophy of Bob Stoops and Mike Leach. Heupel most recently served as offensive coordinator at Missouri, where Drew Lock routinely topped 300 yards passing. What a lot of fans might not know is that Heupel’s Missouri offense also finished in the top half of the SEC’s rushing statistics. UCF will most likely continue to average more than 40 points and 500 yards per game.

SMU welcomes former Louisiana Tech and California head coach Sonny Dykes, as he too brings the same offense to Dallas that Heupel will bring to Orlando. Dykes was a special offensive assistant at TCU last year, and the Horned Frogs averaged 33.6 points and 419 yards per game.

Predicted Won-Loss Records
Note: These predicted won-loss records are strictly mechanical based on the initial PiRate Ratings. No upsets are factored in these predictions. Additionally, our PiRate Ratings are only useful for the next week of games and cannot really be used to forecast past that point. Part of our weekly adjustment to our ratings includes a factor where depth issues or non-issues have been pre-set. In other words, a team without talented second stringers may lose ratings points as the season progresses even if they win games by the predicted margin, whereas a team with exceptional depth (like Alabama) will improve during the season and see its rating rise even if they win games by a little less than the predicted margin. What we’re saying is: don’t take these numbers with anything more than a grain of salt.

Team Conference Overall
East
Central Florida 8-0 13-0 *
South Florida 5-3 8-4
Temple 5-3 7-5
Cincinnati 2-6 3-9
East Carolina 1-7 2-10
Connecticut 0-8 1-11
West Conference Overall
Memphis 7-1 10-3
Navy 6-2 10-3
Houston 6-2 8-4
Tulsa 3-5 5-7
Tulane 3-5 4-8
SMU 2-6 3-9
* Central Florida picked to win AAC Champ. Game

Bowl Tie-ins
The American Athletic Conference has contracts to fill seven bowls with no set pecking order.

Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, TX
Bahamas Bowl in Nassau, Bahamas
Birmingham Bowl in Birmingham, AL
Cure Bowl in Orlando, FL
Frisco Bowl in Frisco, TX (The Home Soccer Stadium for FC Dallas of the MLS).
Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, FL
Military Bowl in Annapolis, MD

Coming Tomorrow–We begin previewing the Power 5 Conferences. First up is the Big 12.

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