Will the defense of the Michigan Wolverines be able to slow down Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley?
Y-South Florida Bulls 12-1 (8-1)
In four years as the head football coach of the South Florida Bulls, Willie Taggart took the program to heights that it had previously never been to. In just four years Taggart was able to transform South Florida from a 2-10 squad to a 10-2 team. Taggart’s success led to him becoming the head football coach of the Oregon Ducks. And for anyone who thinks that South Florida is ready to take a step back now that Taggart has moved on, think again.
Charlie Strong is set to replace Taggart as South Florida’s head football coach. Prior to taking over at South Florida, Strong was the head football coach of the Louisville Cardinals and Texas Longhorns as he had a combined record of 53-36. Strong enjoyed tremendous success at Louisville as in four years there he compiled a record of 37-15 which included winning the final Big East Conference Championship in 2012. However Strong’s tenure at Texas would not be as memorable as in three years there his record was only 16-21. Strong never had a winning season at Texas which led to the school dismissing him last year. There are those who felt that the big stage at Texas may have been too big for Strong, while he also never received the full support from everyone who is affiliated with the Longhorns program. But Strong has been welcomed with open arms at South Florida, and that along with the fact that he knows how to successfully recruit within the State of Florida from his time as the defensive coordinator of the Florida Gators as well as his tenure at Louisville, the Bulls could be ready to win many games with him leading the way.
Taggart left Strong a good team to work with which includes senior quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers enters this college football season as the reigning American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year as he is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Last year Flowers accounted for 4,342 total yards along with 42 touchdowns and he should get some consideration for the Heisman Trophy this year as well.
Running back D’Ernest Johnson has spent the last few years as the backup to Marlon Mack. But with Mack now pursuing a career in the National Football League, Johnson will be the featured back for South Florida. Strong is a coach that loves to run the football which means that you can expect Johnson to tote the rock anywhere between 200-250 times this season.
Defensive football is supposed to be the best asset that Strong can bring to a football team. But last year under Strong, the Longhorns were 94th in the nation in total defense. South Florida was even worse as they were 120th which included giving up at least 40 points three times. However one key contributor to look at on the defensive side of the football for the Bulls is senior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez. Sanchez was second-team All-Defense in the American Athletic Conference last year as he led the Bulls in tackles with 117. Sanchez has solid range which will be need to be put to the test if the Bulls are going to win the AAC.
Everything is set up for 2017 to be another strong campaign on the gridiron for South Florida; it is simply just a matter of them living up to the expectations.
X-Central Florida Knights 7-5 (5-3)
When Scott Frost became the head football coach of the Central Florida Knights, the sky was the limit for him. Frost inherited a Central Florida team that went 0-12 in 2015, but in his first season in Orlando he was able to get them to a bowl game. The Knights were able to sneak up on some opponents in 2016, but how will 2017 fare for them?
There is not anything flashy about Central Florida, but they have embodied the mindset of their head coach which means that they fight, scrap, and claw on each play. Senior outside linebacker Shaquem Griffin enters the upcoming season as the reigning American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Last season Griffen registered 92 tackles along with 11.5 sacks, and he’ll once again be a force this season.
After Central Florida ended 2016 on a three-game losing streak, I expect Frost to use this as additional motivation for his team heading into the new season.
X-Cincinnati Bearcats 6-6 (4-4)
The start of the 2017 college football season brings with it a new era for the Cincinnati Bearcats. After four years at the helm at Cincinnati, Tommy Tuberville was relieved of his duties last December as the Barcats head football coach and he would be replaced by Luke Fickell. Fickell spent parts of the last 15 years as an assistant coach with the Ohio State Buckeyes which included him being the interim head coach at the school for 2011. Fickell is a native of Columbus, while he also played his collegiately at Ohio State. And now Fickell gets the opportunity to lead his own program on a full-time basis in the Buckeye State.
For the Bearcats to become players in the American Athletic Conference, they will need to become more efficient on offense. Last year Cincy was only 99th in the nation in total offense. And this was highlighted by the fact that the Bearcats were only able to convert 38% of their third down conversions.
A couple of bright spots on offense for Cincinnati will be senior wide receiver Devin Gray and their experienced offensive line. Gray has the speed to separate and become one of the best pass catchers in the American Athletic Conference, while led by center David Niehaus, Cincinnati’s offensive line will feature four seniors in the starting lineup.
Defensively the Bearcats lost a wealth of talent from last year’s team which means that Fickell is going to have his work cut out for him in order to maintain this unit that carried the team at times last season.
Fickell inherits a team that will hover around .500 all year, but if he finds a way to motivate the Bearcats enough, this team could be headed to its sixth bowl appearance in the last seven years.
X-Temple Owls 6-6 (4-4)
2017 will be bittersweet for the Temple Owls as they will be starting over. After four years as the head football coach at Temple and compiling a record of 28-23, Matt Rhule left Philadelphia for a bigger payday as he became the head football coach of the Baylor Bears in the Big 12 Conference. Rhule has been replaced at Temple by Geoff Collins.
This will the first time around the floor as a head coach for Collins. Collins is known for his work on the defensive side of the football which included him being the defensive coordinator of the Florida Gators for the last two years. At Florida, Collins oversaw one of the top defenses in the nation which helped the Gators reach the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in both of his years in Gainesville. Now Collins will be tasked with attempting to build off of what Rhule was able to establish at Temple, while not allowing the program to take a step backwards.
Collins won’t have the same talent to work with that Rhule had last year, but he does inherit an experienced offensive line with three senior starters which includes left tackle Cole Boozer. Senior running back Ryquell Armstead has the potential to be one of the better ball carriers in the American Athletic Conference, while senior wide receiver Keith Kirkwood could be a sleeper as far as being one of the better pass catchers in the conference.
Collins does inherit a defense which was third in the nation last year in total defense, however most of the key players from that unit are no longer with the team. But one defensive player to keep an eye on will be junior strong safety Delvon Randall who has solid range, along with a nose for the football which will keep quarterbacks thinking twice in regards to testing him.
2017 will be a year of transition for Temple, and although that it will be a long shot for them to repeat as American Athletic Conference Champions, they should be able to reach a bowl game for the third consecutive year.
Connecticut Huskies 4-8 (3-5)
In a shocking move last December, the Connecticut Huskies decided to part ways with Bob Diaco as their head football coach. In three years with UConn, Diaco complied a record of 11-26 which included reaching a bowl game in 2015. However when the Huskies went 3-9 last season which included losing their last six games, school officials in Storrs decided to move on from him. Connecticut would find solace by bringing back a familiar face in Randy Edsall to lead their football program.
From 1999-2010, Edsall was Connecticut’s head football coach which included guiding the Huskies from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. And from 2007-2010, Edsall led UConn to four consecutive bowl appearances which included making the Fiesta Bowl during the 2010 college football season.
But when the Maryland Terrapins offered Edsall more money, he could not refuse. From 2011-2015, Edsall was the head football coach at Maryland. During Edsall’s time in College Park, he oversaw the Terrapins transition from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten. Over time Edsall’s Maryland program improved which included making consecutive bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014, However with unrealistic expectations that were thrust on Edsall by alumni and boosters, he was fired in 2015 as his record there was 22-34. And now Edsall’s career has a chance to come full circle at Connecticut as he returns to a program that he understands and he can once again make them respectable.
The Huskies will need to find an identity on offense as they were 122nd in the nation last season in total offense which included being held to 20 points or less eight times. But led by a pair of seniors in inside linebacker Junior Joseph and outside linebacker Vontae Diggs, there is some potential for Connecticut to be solid on defense, however I do not see it being enough to get them to a bowl game.
The folks in Storrs are happy to have Edsall back, and even though that the results might not be there for UConn in 2017, they’ll be patient with him as he looks to rebuild.
East Carolina Pirates 2-10 (1-7)
The Scottie Montgomery era as the head football coach of the East Carolina Pirates began on a strong note as the Pirates won their first two games in 2016, but it quickly turned sour. East Carolina would only win one more game on the season for their second consecutive losing season. And of those nine losses, only two were by less than 16 points as the Pirates failed to compete. The American Athletic Conference is a league that teams can get lost in the shuffle very quickly, and as a new season is set to begin, the Pirates must find a way to toughen up against their competition.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk began his collegiate career for the Duke Blue Devils, and in 2015, he helped them reach their fourth consecutive bowl game. But whereas Sirk appeared ready to build off of that in 2016, he decided to transfer. And after sitting out last year per NCAA transfer rules, Sirk is ready to finish his collegiate career at East Carolina. At 6’4″, 216 lbs., Sirk provides the Pirates with good size at the quarterback position along with his leadership as a senior which should come in handy as East Carolina looks to turn things around.
Last year the Pirates were 100th in the nation in total defense as they surrendered 30 points or more nine times which cannot be repeated in 2017 if they want to turn things around. But with a lack of play makers on defense, East Carolina will have their hands full in regards to getting things turned around in 2017.
Even with a veteran signal caller in Sirk added to the mix, it is going to be very tough for East Carolina to turn it around as the talent is simply not there to compete in the American Athletic Conference.
X-Memphis Tigers 9-4 (5-4)
From 2014-2015, Justin Fuente led the Memphis Tigers to 19 victories. And in the process Fuente’s success would lead to him becoming the head football coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies last year. And although that Fuente was no longer at Memphis, the Tigers didn’t slow down. Memphis went 8-5 last season under head football coach Mike Norvell which was good enough for a third place finish in the Western Division of the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers should once again be a viable team, but will they have enough to win the AAC for first time in school history?
Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson has the potential to be the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Last year Ferguson threw 32 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions. And at 6’4″, Ferguson has the ability to scan the field which compliments his ability to spread the football around.
Aside from being one of the best pass catchers in the American Athletic Conference, senior wide receiver Anthony Miller should get some recognition in regards to winning the Belitnikoff Award as the nations top wide receiver. Miller torched defenses last year in the AAC last year to the tune of 95 receptions for 1,434 and 14 receiving touchdowns. And as Memphis has one of the best passing offenses in the nation, Miller will once again be tough to defend with his speed along with ability to move the chains on third down.
The Tigers won’t be recognized in regards to having the best defensive unit in the American Athletic Conference, but one player to keep an eye on will be senior outside linebacker Genard Avery. Avery is a versatile linebacker that can be effective in both run and pass coverage which will be important if Memphis wants to be a title contender in the AAC.
Within the American Athletic Conference, the Tigers have a very manageable schedule, while a home game versus the UCLA Bruins of the Pac-12 Conference on September 16 could do wonders to raise the profile of the conference. And when it is all said and done the Tigers could be in line to win their first conference title at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
X-Houston Cougars 8-4 (5-3)
The last two years were the best in the history of the Houston Cougars. The Cougars won a combined 22 games and they became the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference. This success of Houston led to their head football coach Tom Herman becoming the head football coach of the Texas Longhorns which left the Cougars with another void to fill. Houston would promote offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to become their seventh head football coach since 2007. Applewhite is very familiar with the football scene in the State of Texas from his time as a quarterback for the Longhorns and now he will look to add to what Herman had already established in regards to making the Cougars one of the top teams in the AAC.
Quarterback Kyle Allen began his collegiate career with the Texas A&M Aggies where he won six games as a starter in 2015. But that season also saw A&M go through multiple quarterbacks, and Allen sought out a fresh start with Houston. The presence of senior wide receiver Linell Bonner will make the transition easier for Allen as he is one of better pass catchers in the American Athletic Conference. Bonner snagged 98 receptions last year and although that he’ll see his fair share of double coverage, he will have a big impact for this offense.
From 2011-2015, Mark D’Onofrio was the defensive coordinator of the Miami Hurricanes and now he is joining Houston in the same capacity. D’Onofrio inherits a defense that features the likes of senior inside linebacker Matthew Adams and sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver. As a true freshman last year Oliver was able to wreak havoc on the Cougars defensive as he managed to record 5 quarterback sacks. Oliver should be able build off of that as he will be a problem for opposing offensive lines. Adams is a solid player and as a senior, he gives Houston a leader on that side of the football.
The fact that Applewhite has been with Houston for the last two years will cushion the loss of Herman, while the Cougars will be in the mix to reach the American Athletic Conference Championship Game for the third time in the last four years. However three of the Cougars last five games will see them face the Memphis Tigers, South Florida Bulls, and Navy Midshipmen in contest that will go a long way in determining if they’ll win the AAC West.
X-Navy Midshipmen 7-5 (5-3)
For Navy Midshipmen head football coach Ken Niumatalolo, he has built one of the most respected college football programs in the nation. Since Niumatalolo has been running the ship at Navy, the Midshipmen have only had one losing season. And Niumatalolo has done this in spite of the fact the he is coaching at a service academy where players must give at least two years to the United States Navy upon graduating. 2016 also marked Navy’s first year in the American Athletic Conference and they held their own as they won the Western Division. But even though that Navy ended the year on a three-game losing streak which included losing to the Army Black Knights for the first time since 2001, they should once again be a force to be reckoned heading into the new college football season in the AAC.
This marks the third consecutive year that Navy will have a different starting quarterback. Junior Zach Abey will be the Midshipmen’s starting quarterback as he will look to excel in Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack. Navy’s triple-option begins and ends with the quarterback as he goes, so does the rest of the offense.
The Midshipmen did struggle on defense in 2016 as they were 84th in the nation in total defense. But the return of key players such as senior linebackers Micah Thomas and D.J. Palmore who are each solid players in the front seven should allow Navy to improve on that side of the football.
In 2016, the Midshipmen benefited from having the top teams in the American Athletic Conference make the trek to Annapolis. However this season Navy will be on the road for key games versus the Memphis Tigers, Temple Owls, and Houston Cougars as it will be very difficult for the Midshipmen to get back to the conference title game.
X-Southern Methodist Mustangs 7-5 (4-4)
In 2015, Chad Morris was given a tough task as the new head football coach of the Southern Methodist Mustangs. SMU was coming off of only winning one game in 2014, while their facilities didn’t make the program a hotbed for the top recruits. The Mustangs went 2-10 under Morris in his first season, but by 2016 they were able to win five games. Last year SMU only needed to win one of their final two games in order to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2012, but they fell short. However SMU could use their improvement in 2016 as a springboard for better things this season.
Last year as a redshirt freshman, Ben Hicks took his lumps as the starting quarterback for the Mustangs. Morris was only able to complete 55% of his passes while he also threw an interception in seven of Southern Methodist’s twelve games. But Hicks does have a big arm, along with some upside, and the fact that he hung in there as a freshman showed his toughness as he showed that he could be ready to take his game to the next level this year.
The Mustangs do have one of the best ball carriers in the American Athletic Conference in the form of junior running back Brandon West. Last year West was able to exceed 200 carries, and even for a smaller running back that is still a lot. West is a dependable ball carrier who is always just a step away from breaking off a big run, while he provides the perfect compliment to Hicks and SMU’s passing game.
Junior wide receiver Courtland Sutton will be in the mix to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver. Last season Sutton tallied 76 receptions for 1,246 and 10 receiving touchdowns. At 6’4″, 218 lbs., Sutton is a matchup nightmare, and if he is able to put up similar numbers as compared to what he did last season, he could be one of the first wide receivers selected in next year’s National Football League Draft. But if SMU opponents want to focus on stopping Sutton, junior wide receiver James Proche could burn them as it is a classic case of pick your poison.
Led by center Evan Brown, the Mustangs have three seniors on their offensive line which will give them an advantage in the American Athletic Conference as this experienced unit can anchor an offense that is possessed with potential.
However the SMU offense will have to make up for a defensive unit that was 103rd in the nation in total defense last season. As a unit the Mustangs were not sharp, but one player to keep an eye on will be junior cornerback Jordan Wyatt who has a nose for the football.
Morris is building something at SMU, and a bowl berth this season would be a huge shot in the arm for both he and his program.
X-Tulsa Golden Hurricane 6-6 (4-4)
2016 was one of the strongest campaigns in the history of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes football. Tulsa won 10 games for the first time since 2012 and two road losses by a combined 9 points prevented them from playing for the American Athletic Conference Title. But for Tulsa head football coach Philip Montgomery, he lost an immense amount of talent from that team as he’ll have his work cut out for him in order for the Golden Hurricane to make a bowl game in the third consecutive year.
Quarterback Dane Evans and running back James Flanders, along with wide receivers Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson have all graduated and with them they took a combined 50 touchdowns which must now be replaced.
Last year quarterback Luke Skipper redshirted as he sat out what would have been his freshman campaign. But now Skipper will get his first crack to be the guy for Tulsa. Last year running back D’Angelo Brewer gained 1,425 yards on the ground in spite of the fact that he split carries with in the Golden Hurricane’s backfield with Flanders. But now it will be Brewer who’ll get the bulk of the carries this year. In 2016, wide receiver Justin Hobbs took a backseat to Lucas and Atkinson, but now he’ll be looked at to be the go-to-guy in Tulsa’s passing game. And at 6’4″, 218 lbs., Hobbs definitely has the physical presence to be a problem for opposing defenses.
Without any play makers on the defensive side of the football, it will be up to the offense to carry Tulsa in 2017. And as this season will be a rebuilding campaign for the Golden Hurricane, there will be plenty of ups and downs this year.
Tulane Green Wave 1-11 (0-8)
Since the American American Conference went to a two-division format in 2015, the Tulane Green Wave has finished in the basement of the AAC West in both seasons. In three years in the AAC, the Green Wave have only managed to win four conference games as the parade of success has passed them by. Willie Fritz is set to begin his second season as Tulane’s head football coach and as the deck is stacked against him, will he be able to make the Green Wave into a contender?
If Tulane is going to make a splash this year in the American Athletic Conference, senior running back Dontrell Hilliard will need to have a big season. Hilliard has never gained 1,000 yards rushing during his collegiate career, but this could be the year that it finally happens. Aside from Hilliard, another impact player for the Green Wave could be senior cornerback Parry Nickerson who has some of the best coverage skills in the conference.
But being that Tulane is fighting an uphill battle and Fritz is still attempting to chance the culture around his program, don’t expect any miracles for the Green Wave this season.
American Athletic Conference Championship Game: Memphis vs. South Florida
Conference Champion: South Florida
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com
For months there has been speculation about the Big 12 Conference in regards to expansion. In regards to the Power Five Conferences, the Big 12 is the only one that doesn’t have a conference title game as they only have 10 members, whereas the Pac-12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, and Big Ten Conferences all have at least 12 members which grants them access to a conference title game.
Once upon a time the Big 12 did have 12 members, but in 2011, the Colorado Buffaloes left for the Pac-12 and the Nebraska Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten. 2012 would see the Missouri Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies join the Southeastern Conference which left the Big 12 on life support with just eight schools. The Big 12 was then able to lure the West Virginia Mountaineers and TCU Horned Frogs to leave the Big East Conference, but they were still fighting an uphill battle to the other Power Five Conferences; especially since they’ve been unable to get out of their own way.
In 2014, both the Baylor Bears and TCU went 11-1 in the regular season, with identical 8-1 conference records. In head-to-head competition, Baylor would get the best of TCU, but Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby instead opted to not name a conference champion in favor of allowing the College Football Playoff Committee to select its team from the conference for the field of four. However the committee would bypass both Big 12 teams in favor of the Ohio State Buckeyes out of the Big Ten who would win their conference title game. This would infuriate the Big 12 as they soon believed that a conference title game would enhance their chances of placing a team into the College Football Playoff.
For nearly a year the Big 12 has looked into expansion as they were courting numerous schools for either two or four spots. And if the Big 12 decided to expand, the American Athletic Conference was set to take the biggest hit.
The American Athletic Conference was formed in 2013 as they were formed of some schools that had migrated to the conference from Conference USA, along with some of the leftovers from the Big East. The AAC is comprised of 12 members that understand that they aren’t among the elite of college football, but it hasn’t prevented them from putting a quality product on the field.
Some American Athletic schools have quality wins on their resume. In 2013, the Central Florida Knights went 12-1 en route to upsetting Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. In 2015, the Memphis Tigers scored a 37-24 victory over the Ole Miss Rebels of the Southeastern Conference en route to a 9-4 campaign. The Houston Cougars would go 13-1 last season, and they served notice when they upset the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference in the Peach Bowl. And now as the Big 12 has balked at conference expansion, the AAC could really benefit.
Houston appeared to be a logical fit for the Big 12 with their close proximity to the Southwest region that comprises most of the conference’s schools. And an invitation to the Big 12 for Houston would have meant renewing rivalries with former Southwest Conference members such as the Texas Longhorns. Houston also went as far as making upgrades to their football facilities. However some Big 12 schools outside of the State of Texas were opposed to the Cougars joining the conference due to the fact that it would have meant having another school from the Lone State State to compete with as far as recruiting goes in the college football hotbed.
Memphis doesn’t have a long and storied college football history, but they do have deep pockets. FedEx is based in Memphis, Tennessee and their CEO Frederick Smith was willing to provide the Big 12 with sponsorship for a conference title game which was ultimately shot down. But like Houston, Memphis can now focus on building their brand in the American Athletic Conference.
After consecutive upset victories over Houston and Memphis, the Navy Midshipmen are the only American Athletic Conference team that is ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. Navy is in their second season in the AAC as the conference reached out to them several years ago to be a football-only member which would give them the ability to have a conference title game. In nearly two seasons in the AAC, Navy is 16-3 and there is a strong possibility that they could win the conference crown. Unlike some of the schools in the AAC, Navy has a football history which gives the conference credibility. And once you factor in the resurgence of Central Florida under first-year head football coach Scott Frost, along with the emergence of the Temple Owls, and the consistency of the Cincinnati Bearcats, the AAC could be ready to make an impact on the college football scene.
In order for a conference to work, all members within the conference must be on the same page. The inability to function as a unit has seen the demise of conferences such as the Big East and Southwest, which could be the fate that the Big 12 might have sealed due to their inability to expand and protect their brand; in spite of the fact that the NCAA will allow them to have a conference title game in spite of not having 12 members. But as the Big 12 could be in trouble, the American Athletic Conference could be ready to shine if everyone is on the same page.
The American Athletic Conference provides its fans with some excitement on the gridiron and if they can continue to pull of upsets over Power Five schools, along with the ability to maintain their head coaches such as Houston’s Tom Herman, UCF’s Frost and Ken Niumatalolo of Navy, the conference could begin to chip away and although that it’s a long shot, possibly create for themselves a seat as far as being a player in the College Football Playoff.
People laughed when Michael Aresco became the American Athletic Conference’s first commissioner when the conference was formed in 2013. Aresco had a past history as a television executive which has helped the AAC in negotiations for television deals which was can help all of the members going forward. Aresco’s ability to negotiate has given the AAC stability as all of its members appear to be happy. And in this era of college football, that is what it’s all about which gives the AAC more than just a fighting chance to survive.