The American becomes a 12-team conference this season and will end the season with a title game. In the last four years, the AAC has undergone more changes than any other conference. Only Cincinnati, Connecticut and South Florida remain from when this was the Big East. Plus, for the first time in over a century of football, Navy will play for a conference championship. The unique part of the AAC this year is that both divisions have a logjam at the top and some historic also rans are finally seeing some success.
The Bearcats will finally return to their historic home in 2015. After spending all of last season at Paul Brown Stadium as guests of the Bengals, Cinci gets to come home. Also returning is the AAC’s best quarterback, Gunnar Keil. Keli comes back after a 3rd-team All-AAC year that saw him throw for 3,254 yards and a ratio of 31-13 in 13 games. Now, as the unquestioned starter and with a veteran receiving corps (6 seniors in the 2-deep, 8 of 9 top receivers back), he has a wealth of targets. He should be one of the best in the nation. The rush game should improve just by being healthy, as two of the top 3 RBs were out for the season with injuries. The defense isn’t bad by any means, with tons of depth on the line and in the secondary. Look for junior Eric Wilson to take a big step up at WLB. The non-conference schedule is manageable, but they do have their toughest conference games (Houston, Memphis, East Carolina) on the road. I think double-digit wins aren’t out of the question here.
It’s been a while since I’ve felt confident putting Temple in the top half of a division. I remember their time in the MAC, as they were the UMass of the conference while they were here. But things have turned around under Matt Rhule. I his first two seasons here, the Owls went from just 2 wins to 6 and I expect that upward trend to continue. Everyone should improve on an offense that was near the bottom of the conference in every statistical category. QB PJ Walker should be healed up and ready to return to the form that made him a dual threat in 2013. There is a ton of depth at running back with former UCLA commit TJ Simmons the likely starter. The strength of this squad is on the defensive side of the ball. They return 19 of their top 20 tacklers from a year ago. The line is anchored by two All-AAC performers in Praise Martin-Oguike and Matt Ioannidis. Oh, and stud linebacker Tyler Matakevich (1st Team All-AAC 117 tkl, 9 tfl) is back as the captain of the D. They miss Houston and Navy out of the west and have to go to Cincinnati early, but the Owls should head back to a bowl for the first time in 3 seasons.
3. East Carolina
I was hesitant to push the Pirates into the upper half of the division, strictly based on the fact that they have to replace their all-time leading passer Shane Carden. There is still a four-way competition to replace him, although sophomore Kurt Benkert should emerge the favorite. He’s got the strongest arm and will have plenty of talent at receiver to throw to. Despite losing 2 1,000 yard receivers in Justin Hardy and Cam Worthy, there is plenty of depth on the edges. Watch for senior TE Bryce Williams to have a breakout season and jump up draft boards. The linebacking duo of Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton are one of the best LB pairs in the conference and with 208 tackles and 12 tfls combined last year, they could be even better this year. The schedule is pretty favorable as they miss Houston and Memphis out of the West, and host Cinci, Temple and Virginia Tech. The Pirates are pretty much the wild card in the division. They could come together and be as strong as the 2013 squad or they could be a middling team.
4. Central Florida
It doesn’t look good for the Knights. With only 9 starters back, you could see how UCF could take a step backwards. However, there’s plenty of potential. 1st Team All-AAC RB William Stanback returns and will hopefully get a full injury-free season to show off his explosiveness. The cupboard is pretty bare at receiver with 6 of the top 7 pass catchers from a year ago gone. The defense is also pretty young, outside of the defensive line. Anchored by 2nd-team All-AAC DE Thomas Niles, three of four starters are back from a unit that allowed a conference-best 84 rush yards a game. This unit may not match last year’s 15 points a game allowed, but they should come close. The schedule does them no favors with trips to Temple, Cincinnati and South Carolina and having to face East Carolina on a short week with the Pirates coming off a bye. The planets could align, and this team should make a bowl, but another nine wins is a mountain that might be too high to climb this season.
Four years ago, this team won a Big East title and went to the Fiesta Bowl. Last season, the Huskies were just bad. But there are some bright spots. First, 14 starters return. Second, an open QB competition has got sophomore Bryant Shirreffs in solid possession of the starting job and ready to improve the worst passing offense in the AAC last year. The defense will be the strong suite, due to the depth. The pass defense was decent and should also improve with all four starters returning. They do draw Houston and Navy out of the West, and have to visit Cinci, Temple, and UCF. UConn should win more games than last year, but they’ll need to pull an upset or two to break the three-win barrier.
6. South Florida
It’ll be another year on the struggle for the Bulls. There are new coordinators on both sides of the ball, so they’ll be working in a new offense with last year’s starting QB Mike White gone after transferring in the spring. That may not be a bad thing, as new OCs Danny Hope and David Reaves have installed a more up-tempo playbook. Sophomore Quinton Flowers is the best quarterback on the roster to run the new offense and the job should be his all year. 1st-Team All-AAC RB Marlon Mack returns after his 1,000 yard season and he should have more room to operate in the new offense. The defense returns 7 of the top ten tacklers with linebackers Jamie Byrd, Nigel Harris and Auggie Sanchez leading the way. USF gets to host Cincinnati and Temple, but has to hit to road against Navy, ECU and UCF on a short week. There is more talent here than last year’s team, it just may take a year to get situated under the new systems. I’d think matching last year’s four wins is realistic here.
Like the East, this is a division that could be won by a number of teams and on top of the heap is Houston. The main reason why is the arrival of head coach Tom Herman. Fresh off a national championship with THE Ohio State Buckeyes. Herman and OC Major Applewhite have brought in a system that should help QB Greg Ward shine. I’m not calling him the second coming of Case Keenu,, but he’s got the skill to break out this year. Along with 1,000 yard rusher and 1st Team All-AAC TB Kenneth Farrow, the offense has more than enough punch for Herman’s schemes. The defense will be one of the top units in the conference. The Cougars unquestionably have the best secondary in the American, led by 1st Team All-AAC SS Adrian MacDonald and FS Trevon Stewart who was a freshman All-American in 2012. They’ll need to bring along talent at receiver quickly, but having a multi-faceted offense backed up by a strong defense has me giving them the edge over Navy and Memphis for a division title.
The Tigers return 11 starters from a team then won 10 games last year and return the QB that lead the top scoring offense in the AAC (34.9 ppg). 2nd Team All-AAC QB Paxton Lynch loses his top RB and WR, but still has plenty of weapons around him and will pass for 3,000+ yards again this season. Look for senior Tevin Jones to have a breakout season and command a lot balls to be thrown his way. The offensive line is deep with 4 of 5 starters returning and that final spot will be taken by Louisville transfer Ryan Mack. The major question, and the reason I put Houston ahead of them, is the defense. Only 3 starters return, and while this was an elite unit last season, they have to replace a ton of talent. Six of the top 15 tacklers return leaving plenty of room for guys to step up. Look for linebacker Jackson Dillon to become the leader of the D. The schedule isn’t terrible but it all comes down to three weeks in November with back-to-back road trips to Houston and Temple with a home game against Navy thrown in for fun. I don’t think 10 wins is possible again but with an upset or two, the Tigers can find themselves in the inaugural American title game.
It is extremely strange to have Navy playing football in a conference, but they start their career in the American with 10 starters returning. Just 4 of those are on offense, but there is still a ton of depth at slot back and wide out. One of those returners is QB Keenan Reynolds, who should see a ton of improvement with a healthy year. I can easily see him throwing for 1,000 yards and rushing for another 1,000. The offensive line loses three multi-year starters but is still talented enough and deep enough to keep opening holes up. There is a lot of talent to replace on defense, but there are a number of upperclassmen ready to step into starting roles. The d-line loses starters but will improve on last year’s 210 rush yards allowed a game from a year ago. Most importantly, Navy has not lost to Army since 2001 and I don’t see that streak ending this year. I’m not ready to call them to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy from Air Force, but a winning season a 4th straight bowl are in the cards for the Midshipmen.
The Green Wave are coming off a year where they were incredibly young and now return 16 starters. After an up and down year, QB Tanner Lee is in position to take a huge step forward. Head coach Curtis Johnson intends on asking a lot of his young signal caller, but if Lee can just bring down the interceptions (14 on 12 TDs) he’ll do fine. The top 3 running backs return and this unit is underrated. The defense will once again be stout with the line returning 6 of their top 8 from a unit that allowed just 133 rush yards a game. They are also very experienced at linebacker and in the secondary. They draw Temple out of the East but go on a tough run in October, playing Houston, at Navy and at Memphis in consecutive weeks. Despite that, they should double last year’s win total and I have them on the bubble for a bowl bid.
The Mustangs fell off the cliff last year, losing 11 straight and only managing a come from behind win in the last game of the season at UConn. This year should be much different. First, they shouldn’t lost 16 players to season ending injuries. Second, they should be able to have one QB healthy for the entire year. Texas A&M transfer Matt Davis is the likely starter, as his mobility makes him the best fit for new OC Chad Morris’ system. The entire offensive line returns and with healthy running backs, the rushing game should improve from 128 rush yards a game. The defense needs to improve drastically. They were dead last in virtually every category last season, and this team goes as far as this defense can carry them. They face the top 3 teams in the division on the road, while hosting Temple and ECU out of the East. There will be improvements in Dallas, but the schedule and defense won’t allow for a return to a bowl this year.
The Golden Hurricane are in a very similar boat with SMU: a solid offense (10 starters return) with a defense that leaked like a sieve. QB Dane Evans is a 3-year starter whose shown improvement every season. There is a ton of talent on the ground with the top eight rushers back, lead by 2nd Team All-AAC RB Zack Langer leading the way (801 yds, 4 TD). Eight of the top nine receivers also return with 1st Team All-AAC WR Keevan Lucas (1,219 yds, 11 TD) leading the way. With all this firepower on offense, you would think they should be able to get out of the basement. But the defense works against them. DE Derrick Alexander should have another stellar year (42 tkls, 7.5 sks, 4.5 tfl, 2nd Team All-AAC) but he’s the bright spot on a defense that allowed 36.3 points a game in conference play. Only SMU was worse and only by a half point. Add in the toughest schedule in the American and another ten-loss season could be in the cards for Tulsa.
Conference Title Game: Cincinnati over Houston
Cincinnati, Houston, Temple, Navy, East Carolina, Memphis, UCF
On the Bubble: Tulane