Tag Archives: South Florida Bulls

2017 American Athletic Conference Football Projections

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East

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.

D’Ernest Johnson

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.

Randy Edsall

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.

West

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?

Riley Ferguson

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)

Ken Niumatalolo

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.

Ben Hicks

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

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-Conference Champion

Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com

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2017 College Football Top 25

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1. Alabama Crimson Tide

The 2016 college football season saw the Alabama Crimson Tide fall just short of winning their second consecutive national championship, but don’t expect this team to be falling off of the map anytime soon. The Tide must replace seven starters from a defense that was the top ranked unit in the nation as they only allowed 13 points per game. But when you have a head football coach like Alabama does in Nick Saban who has a pipeline to the National Football League, there are always plenty of reinforcements that are waiting in the wings looking to make a name for themselves.

Minkah Fitzpatrick

The Crimson Tide defense had 16 interceptions last year with 6 of them going to the house. Junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team in 2016 with 6 interceptions and you can expect to hear his name in the conversation as far as winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

After an up and down marriage between Saban and former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin who is now the head football coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls, another former USC Trojans head football coach in Steve Sarkisian appeared ready to call the offensive plays for Saban at Alabama. However after calling the offensive plays for Alabama during their national championship game loss to the Clemson Tigers, Sarkisian jumped at the chance to become offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons in the National Football League.

Nick Saban

Saban will seek to have some stability at the offensive coordinator position as he has pegged Brian Daboll to call plays for the Crimson Tide this season. Daboll has spent the last three years as the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots, and after learning from one of the all-time head coaches in the National Football League in Bill Belichick, he now has an opportunity to learn from one of the best in college football history in Saban while he’ll call plays on offense for the Crimson Tide.

Daboll will have the opportunity to work with a quarterback who is built like a running back in sophomore Jalen Hurts. At this point of Hurts’ career, he is more dangerous with his legs than he is with his arm, but if he is able to get some consistency from the offensive coordinator, he could be one of the better quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference.

The injury to running back Bo Scarbrough changed the dynamics of the national championship game for Alabama as Clemson never had an answer for him. Last year Scarbrough averaged 6.5 yards per carry as he was only a part-time ball carrier. And at 6’2″, 235 lbs., Scarbrough is a big physical running back in the form of former Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Scarbrough will once again split carries coming out of the Alabama backfield with junior running back Damien Harris as they’ll give the Crimson Tide a thunder and lightning tandem in Tuscaloosa.

Under Saban, the Tide have been the best team in college football in regards to playing in big games and they’ll get another one to start the season when the take on the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. And when Southeastern Conference play begins, the Crimson Tide will get the LSU Tigers at home, while they’ll be on the road to meet the Auburn Tigers as these two games will go a long way in deciding whether or not that ‘Bama will be able to play for the national title for a third consecutive year.

2. Florida State Seminoles

The 2016 college football season saw the Florida State Seminoles have a very quiet 10-3 campaign as they lost three games within the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the Seminoles still managed to win the Orange Bowl while finishing ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the seventh consecutive year. In seven years as the head football coach at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher has compiled a record of 78-17 along with a national championship. And here in 2017 he once again has a team that will be in national title contention.

For nearly four decades the Florida State program has been a pipeline to the National Football League and this year is no different as they lost running back Dalvin Cook to the pro game. But this is another one of those programs that doesn’t rebuild as they instead opt to reload.

Deondre Francois

Last year as a freshman, quarterback Deondre Francois was unfazed as he started the entire season for Fisher. And after Francois was able to be named as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Freshman of the Year, which included him throwing 20 touchdowns, he should be more comfortable this season.

The ‘Noles will miss the contributions of Cook, but they have another power back in sophomore Jacques Patrick. Like Cook, Patrick is a big and physical runner who also possesses speed. I still anticipate Fisher using a heavy dose of the running game which should allow Francois to be efficient via play action passing.

However the offensive line could be an issue early on for Florida State as they will employ a pair of redshirt freshmen, along with a sophomore in the starting lineup. But as the season progresses I do see this unit being able to solidify.

Last year saw defensive end DeMarcus Walker lead the Seminoles in sacks with 16. And although that Walker is now in the National Football League, don’t expect Florida State’s pass rush to fall off. Sophomore defensive end Brian Burns and junior defensive end Josh Sweat are arguably the best combo of bookend pass rushers in the nation. And good luck to opposing offenses that want to game plan on slowing down one player as the other can quickly be in an opponent’s backfield wreaking havoc.

Tarvarus McFadden

After snagging 8 interceptions last year, junior cornerback Tarvarus McAFadden will head into this season as one of the favorites to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. I don’t see McFadden being able to tally as many interceptions this year due to the fact that opposing offenses will be more conscious of testing him.

Florida State begins their season by meeting the Alabama Crimson Tide in Atlanta on September 2, and it would not surprise me to see them meet again in the College Football Playoff as outside of hosting the Louisville Cardinals on October 21, the Seminoles should be able to dominate the Atlantic Coast Conference.

3. Penn State Nittany Lions

The 2016 college football season was a clear indication that the Penn State Nittany Lions are back. The Nittany Lions were able to navigate through the very tough Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference to take home the conference crown. Penn State would go on to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl where they put on a show before falling to the USC Trojans. But now the huge test for Penn State head football coach James Franklin will be that his squad is no longer able to sneak up on anyone.

Trace McSorley

However the Nittany Lions still have one of the better backfield tandems in the nation. At times junior quarterback Trace McSorley can look like Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch in the pocket, but he knows a thing or two about improvising in order to keep a play going. Junior running back Saquon Barkley is coming off of a season where he rushed for 1,496 yards and scored 18 touchdowns on the ground. At 5’11”, 233 lbs., Barkley is a load as his thick lower body allows him to easily shed tacklers.

And whereas Barkley should get some consideration in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy, senior tight end Mike Gesecki could be in line for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Gesecki is extremely versatile as he can also be used as an H-back, while his 6’6″ frame is always an advantage for Penn State in the red zone.

Defensively the Nittany Lions had a bend but don’t break style on defense last year, however with six seniors projected to be in their starting lineup which includes middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, the Lions should once again be a very tough team.

With road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans, it will be tough for Penn State to repeat as Big Ten Champs, but it is not out of the question to see them in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

4. USC Trojans

If you were to eliminate the first month of the 2016 college football season, then you would have seen the USC Trojans in the College Football Playoff. The Trojans began with a record of 1-3 before they reeled off nine consecutive victories to end the season which included getting the best of the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Rose Bowl.

Sam Darnold

USC’s turnaround began when head football coach Clay Helton inserted quarterback Sam Darnold into the starting lineup. After Darnold lost his first start, he was locked in as he completed more than 67% of his passes. Darnold became the leader the USC needed at quarterback, and now he has people considering him to win the Heisman Trophy this season.

As good as Darnold is, you cannot think about the USC offense and not think about “student body right”. The Trojans will have one of the best running games in the Pac-12 Conference with the speedster in junior running back Ronald Jones II leading the charge. Jones will be rushing behind an experienced offensive line that includes senior center Nico Falah.

Cameron Smith

Junior middle linebacker Cameron Smith has the potential to be the next great USC linebacker, while junior cornerback Iman Marshall could use this season to pad his National Football League resume.

The Trojans will be the team to beat in the Pac-12 this year, and after they got to the Rose Bowl last season, a trip there this time around would signal that the Men of Troy are in the College Football Playoff as Pasadena will play host to one of the national semifinals.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

Although that the 2016 college football season didn’t end on a positive note for the Ohio State Buckeyes, this team will be right back in the mix for 2017. The Buckeyes entered the College Football Playoff in spite of not winning the Big Ten Conference and they got smoked by the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl. But at Ohio State, head football coach Urban Meyer doesn’t rebuild as he merely reloads, and thus the Buckeyes will once again be in the mix to win it all.

The Buckeyes were 12th in the nation last year in rushing and they’ll enter with two of the best athletes in the country in their backfield. Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten Conference, and his athletic ability will keep him in the mix as far as the Heisman Trophy conversation goes. Aside from Barrett, the Buckeyes have a dynamic running back in sophomore Mike Weber who will put a ton of pressure on the defenses in the Big Ten.

Mike Weber

Barrett and Weber have the privilege of being protected by an offensive line that is returning four starters from 2016 which includes senior offensive tackle Jemarco Jones who could be the anchor of the unit.

The Buckeyes must replace a ton of talent from a defense which was ranked sixth in the nation in total defense last season, but the return of sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa is a huge positive.

Ohio State will once again be one of the top teams in the Big Ten Conference and if they are able to survive a pair of November road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan Wolverines respectively, they could be heading to the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive year.

6. Washington Huskies

It hasn’t taken the Washington Huskies that long to once again become a power under head football coach Chris Petersen. It took Petersen just three years at Washington to lead the Huskies to their first Pac-12 Championship since 2000, and under his watch they don’t appear ready to fade.

Jake Browning

Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Jake Browning lit up the Pac-12 Conference to the tune of 3,430 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. Browning is also one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and another strong season on his part will definitely draw the eyes of scouts from the National Football League.

Along with Browning, junior running back Myles Gaskin will also receive some serious consideration from the National Football League. Gaskin has proven himself to be a durable ball carrier as he toted the rock 237 times last season. Peterson will once again give Gaskin every opportunity to be the featured running back for the Huskies as he is the best running back in the Pac-12 Conference.

At first when you think of Peterson, defensive football doesn’t come to mind as his defenses tend to be overshadowed by his high powered offenses. However the Huskies were 12th in the nation in total defense last season and it was a total team effort as it was a unit that didn’t solely rely on stars. But one player to keep an eye on this season defensively for Washington will be sophomore free safety Taylor Rapp who possesses some of the best ball skills of a defensive back in the Pac-12.

On September 23, the Huskies will travel to face the Colorado Buffaloes in a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 Title Game, while a November 10 road affair with the Stanford Cardinal will go a long way in determining if Washington will be able to get back to Santa Clara for the conference title game.

7. Michigan Wolverines

It hasn’t taken head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to return the Michigan Wolverines to a national power as they’ve gone 10-3 in each of his first two seasons there. And after Michigan barely missed making the College Football Playoff last year, this could be the season in which they make the dubious field of four.

Wilton Speight

Junior quarterback Wilton Speight could be a dark horse in the race to be the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year as he has continued to progress under Harbaugh. And Michigan will need Speight more than ever since they lost seven starters from last year’s team on offense.

Defensively the Wolverines were ranked second in total defense as only four opponents scored more than 20 points against them. But in that Michigan must replace their top eight tacklers from last season along with their best pass rusher in defensive end Taco Charlton. Harbaugh will be rolling the dice at the start of the upcoming season due to the fact that including defensive end Rashan Gary, there are six freshman scheduled to start this season for the Wolverines.

Michigan begins their season on September 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas versus the Florida Gators of the Southeastern Conference. Michigan has never lost to Florida which included Harbaugh leading the Wolverines to a commanding 41-7 victory in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines will travel to face the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 21, while their regular season will conclude with a road meeting with the Wisconsin Badgers on November 18 before they host the Ohio State Buckeyes on November as these three games within the Big Ten will determine whether or not that the Wolverines will make the College Football Playoff.

8. Louisville Cardinals

Heading into the 2017 college football season, unfinished business will be the motto for the Louisville Cardinals. The Cards began 2016 with a record of 9-1 as they appeared to be on the verge of securing a spot in the College Football Playoff. But unfortunately for the Cardinals, they would not win another game as the final three games saw them lose by a combined 49 points. However hope springs eternal and for Louisville head football coach Bobby Petrino, he once again has a team that is set to contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Lamar Jackson

Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Lamar Jackson was a one-man wrecking crew. Jackson accounted for 5114 and 51 touchdowns en route to becoming the first Louisville player to win the Heisman Trophy. And now as a junior, Jackson will look to do it again even though that defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference will be gunning to stop him. But led by senior guard Skylar Lacy, the Cardinals will be returning four starters on their offensive line to protect Jackson.

Last year Louisville was 14th in the nation in total defense and under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the Cards have some talented play makers in junior defensive back Jaire Alexander and senior linebacker Stacy Thomas.

If the Cards want to get to the College Football Playoff this year, the games that they must circle on the calendar are on September 16 when they host the Clemson Tigers, October 21 when they travel to face the Florida State Seminoles, and November 25 when they’ll be on the road to face the Kentucky Wildcats as they went 1-2 versus these teams last season.

9. Auburn Tigers

The Auburn Tigers are coming off of their third consecutive season in which they lost at least five games, but there is some optimism on the plains for War Eagle heading into the 2017 college football season. Three of Auburn’s five losses last year were against conference champions which included the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide who played for the national championship. Gus Malzahn is set to begin his fifth season as the head football coach at Auburn, and although that he has been unable to recapture the success that the Tigers had under him in 2013, his squad could be a sleeper in the Southeastern Conference this year.

In 2015, Jarrett Stidham saw limited action as the starting quarterback for the Baylor Bears. Stidham would transfer to Auburn which forced him to sit out in 2016. Stidham might not be the runner that Malzahn typically incorporates at the quarterback position, but he arguably possesses the best arm for an Auburn quarterback since Cam Newton.

Under Malzahn, Auburn’s strength on offense is rushing the football as they were sixth in the nation in that category last season. Junior running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson are coming off of a season in which they combined for more than 2,100 yards on the ground. Auburn’s running game is the equivalent to fast break basketball and the speed and elusiveness of Pettway as well as Johnson will test the patience along with the endurance of their opponents this year.

It will also help Auburn’s case to be one of the top teams in the nation this season being that they’ll have three seniors on their starting offensive line which included left tackle Darius James.

Kevin Steele is set to begin his second year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator. Auburn doesn’t have a star player on defense coming into this season, but they play fast, aggressive, and physical on that side of the football which always keeps them in a game.

Auburn has a chance to make a statement in their second game of the season when they travel to face Clemson, while they will also have to survive the gauntlet of the Southeastern Conference which includes consecutive road games versus the LSU Tigers, Arkansas Razorbacks, and Texas A&M Aggies.

10. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Three of the last four years have seen the Oklahoma State Cowboys go 10-3, and there is once again some optimism in Stillwater around this team. Mike Gundy is set to begin his thirteenth season as the head football coach at Oklahoma State and his team has the potential to not only win the Big 12 Conference, but to also get a berth into the College Football Playoff.

Mason Rudolph

The past two years have seen quarterback Mason Rudolph have his way with the defenses of the Big 12 to the tune of a combined 7,861 passing yards and 49 touchdown passes. Last season Rudolph was only picked off 4 times, while he completed 63.4% of his passes. And as Rudolph is set to begin his senior campaign, there is definitely be a buzz around him in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy.

Rudolph will be throwing the football to a talented group of wide receivers which is led by senior wide receiver James Washington. Last year Washington tallied 71 receptions for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns, and if he is able to come close to that level of production once more, he could take home the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver.

Under Gundy, the Cowboys have specialized in recruiting speedy, undersized running backs for his uptempo offense. Last year as a freshman, running back Justice Hill ran for 1,142 yards and he averaged 5.5 yards per carry as his ability to run the football is the perfect compliment to the passing ability of Rudolph.

Senior left tackle Aaron Cochran leads an experienced offensive line that could be the best in the Big 12, while he will be charged with protecting Rudolph’s blind side. And this unit is also the key to Oklahoma State potentially averaging 40 points per game this season.

Mike Gundy

Under Gundy, the Cowboys don’t have a strong reputation in regards to defensive football, but if players such as senior free safety Ramon Richards will be able to hold up their end of the bargain, this unit could be able to do just enough to offset their high powered offense.

With Bob Stoops stepping down at Oklahoma, it has opened the door for the Cowboys to win the Big 12 this year. But Oklahoma State will have a tough road ahead of them which includes away games against the Texas Longhorns and West Virginia Mountaineers, while they’ll get Oklahoma at home this season.

11. Oklahoma Sooners

When Bob Stoops became the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners in 1999, he was attempting to make the program respectable once again, but he has done that and then some. The Sooners have gone 190-48 under Stoops and they’ve never had a losing season while also claiming a national championship. After making the College Football Playoff in 2015, Oklahoma was poised to get back there last year. However a pair of non-conference losses to the Houston Cougars and Ohio State Buckeyes would change that. Oklahoma was still able to win the Big 12 Conference and after they knocked off the Auburn Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, it capped off an 11-2 campaign which saw them win their last 10 contests. By January, Oklahoma was one of the hottest teams in college football and Stoops appeared to have another dominant season coming around the bend in Norman.

However things would change on June 7 when Stoops would shock the college football world by deciding to retire. The timing was shocking, but it did not completely hurt Oklahoma as it was during an unofficial “dead period” in college football as the roster and coaching staff was set.

Lincoln Riley spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, but now he will be the man who will succeed Stoops at the school. Stoops feels that Riley has been groomed for this position, but only time will tell if he’ll be able to keep the success at Oklahoma going.

Baker Mayfield

After being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy last year, quarterback Baker Mayfield has returned to Oklahoma for his senior year. In two years as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Mayfield has thrown 76 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions while he can also make plays happen with his legs.

But after Mayfield, the Sooners will have to replace of talent at the skill position, and once you factor that in with a new head coach in Riley, will Oklahoma’s offense that was second in the nation last season take a step back?

Although that Bob Stoops is no longer running the show at Oklahoma, his brother Mark is set to begin his 11th year as the defensive coordinator in Norman. The Sooners have a reputation of having solid defensive players which has also meant having a pipeline to the National Football League. And one player to watch out for this season is senior outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo who will be in the running to be the Big 12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.

It will be weird to not see Stoops lead the Sooners out onto the field this year, but Riley inherits a team that will still be an elite unit in the Big 12.

12. LSU Tigers

The 2016 college football season was a tough one for LSU Tigers, but after surviving it they are looking to get back on track and returning to being one of the nation’s elite programs. Four games into the season Les Miles was fired as LSU’s head football coach and replaced by defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron was only the interim head coach as LSU was seeking to hire then Houston Cougars head football coach Tom Herman. But after it appeared that Herman and LSU had an agreement in place, he decided to take over the Texas Longhorns football program which left LSU in a bind. LSU would ultimately decide to remove the interim tag from Orgeron who had compiled a 6-2 record which included a victory over the Louisville Cardinals in the Citrus Bowl. And now that this is all behind LSU, let’s see what they’ll be able to on the gridiron in 2017.

The past few years have seen the Bayou Bengals have their fair share of issues at the quarterback position, but it appears that Orgeron is ready to stick with senior Danny Etling. Unlike Miles, Orgeron is seeking to open things up more in the passing game which makes Etling their best option. But even with Orgeron seeking open the offense up more in 2017, the Tigers can still get it done on the ground with the best of them.

Coming into the 2016 college football season, all of the talk on offense was around running back Leonard Fournette as he was in the conversation to win the Heisman Trophy. But as injuries slowed Fournette down, it gave running back Derrius Guice the opportunity to shine. Last year as a sophomore, Guice rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns which included 252 yards against the Arkansas Razorbacks, and 285 versus the Texas A&M Aggies. And with Fournette now in the National Football League, Guice will be the feature tailback for LSU.

Arden Key

Junior outside linebacker Arden Key is attempting to work his way back from shoulder surgery and he’ll be vital to the success of the Bayou Bengals defense which was tenth in the nation last year in total defense.

LSU will get their season started by taking on the BYU Cougars in Houston, while their Southeastern Conference schedule includes road games against the Florida Gators, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Tennessee Volunteers.

13. Colorado Buffaloes

After a magical run in 2016, the Colorado Buffaloes are seeking to return to being on the national scene in college football. Last year Colorado was able to secure its first bowl appearance since 2007 and their first winning season since 2005. And whereas the Buffs won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year, will they have enough in their arsenal to reach the College Football Playoff?

Steven Montez

Quarterback Steven Montez saw limited action last year for the Buffaloes, but he was responsible for a pair of victories. And now with the graduation of Sefo Liufau, Montez will be the full-time starter for Colorado as he is ready to show what he can do in this his sophomore campaign.

Senior running back Phillip Lindsay is coming off of a season in which he totaled 244 carries. Lindsay proved to be durable for Colorado and if he gets the rock in his hands at least 200 times this year, it should symbolize another solid season for the Buffaloes.

Shay Fields

Senior wide receiver Shay Fields is a burner as he is one of the fastest wide receivers in the Pac-12 Conference, while the Buffs will also have an experienced offensive line that includes three seniors which features left tackle Jeromy Irwin.

The Buffaloes will have six seniors starting on defense this year, but the player to keep an eye on will be junior middle linebacker Rick Gamboa who is a solid tackler as well as a leader.

Colorado will begin the season with their annual showdown with the Colorado State Rams in Denver, while their first Pac-12 game will be a rematch of last year’s conference title tilt when they host the Washington Huskies. And on November 11, the Buffaloes will host the USC Trojans in a meeting that could determine who will win the Pac-12 South and ultimately get to Santa Clara for the conference title game.

14. Georgia Bulldogs

Kirby Smart enjoyed a solid first year as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia went 8-5 last season which included appearing in their 20th consecutive bowl game. The Bulldogs have been one of the most consistent teams in the nation in regards to winning and that trend should continue in 2017.

Jacob Eason

Smart turned to a true freshman last year at quarterback in Jacob Eason and he did not disappoint. Eason appeared in all 13 games for the Bulldogs as he threw 16 touchdown passes to 8 interceptions and that experience as a freshman should be very valuable for both he and the Dawgs. At 6’5″, 235 lbs., Eason has the size needed for the pros, while he could also be in the running to be the Southeastern Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Running back Nick Chubb had an opportunity to go to the National Football League, but he spurned it for one more year at Georgia. Chubb averaged 5 yards per carry last year as he runs very angry and looks for contact. But Georgia opponents cannot solely focus on slowing down Chubb and he has his tag-team partner in senior running back Sony Michel who is just as explosive as he is with the ball in his hands.

Defensively the Dawgs have a ton of talent returning which includes a pair of junior inside linebackers in Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick as well a senior safety Dominick Sanders who is a game changer in the secondary.

On September 9, the Bulldogs will make a rare venture to South Bend, Indiana to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. And when Southeastern Conference play begins, the Bulldogs will avoid having to face the Alabama Crimson Tide, but they’ll have road meetings with the Tennessee Volunteers and Auburn Tigers as well as their annual showdown in Jacksonville with the Florida Gators.

15. Miami Hurricanes

Mark Richt

It’s safe to say that the Miami Hurricanes are back on the track to success under head football coach Mark Richt. In Richt’s first year at Miami, the Hurricanes won 9 games and finished the season ranked for the first time since 2009. In 16 years as a head football coach which included 15 with the Georgia Bulldogs, Richt has taken his team to a bowl game in each season. And after Miami’s strong showing in 2016, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that this team could win the Atlantic Coast Conference Title this season.

The ‘Canes will definitely miss the contributions of quarterback Brad Kaaya who is now in the National Football League as it will now be up to junior quarterback Malik Rosier under center. But whereas Rosier won’t begin the season with a ton of experience to his credit, he’ll be able to rely on junior running back Mark Walton to shoulder the load. Last season Walton rushed for 1,117 and 14 touchdowns and this time around he could be the best ball carrier in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Last year as a freshman, wide receiver Ahmmon Richards averaged 19.1 yards per reception as he was the go-to-guy for Kaaya. And with a new signal caller in Rosier set to take over, it will be important for he and Richards to get some cohesion heading into the season.

Defensively Miami held eight opponents to 20 points or less last season as they were 20th in the nation in total defense. Manny Diaz is entering his second year as the defensive coordinator for the ‘Canes as he has an attacking unit. Middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and defensive end Joseph Jackson became impact players last year as true freshman for the Hurricanes and they could become two of the best defensive players in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year.

Miami has a chance to make a statement on September 16 when they travel to face the Florida State Seminoles who are favored to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. And a conference title run would be just what the doctor ordered for Miami to put them back on the national stage.

16. Stanford Cardinal

Each year the Stanford Cardinal are a team that flies under the radar at the beginning of the college football season, but before you know it they are one of the top teams in the country. In five of the last six years the Cardinal have won at least 10 games which included them going 10-3 last season. And for head football coach David Shaw, his Stanford squad will once again be a force to be reckoned with here in 2017.

Keller Chryst

Senior quarterback Keller Chryst is in the category of a game manager which is okay at Stanford due to the program’s commitment to the running game. Chryst only threw 10 touchdown passes last season which was due to the fact that he wasn’t asked to throw the football a ton. But heading into Chryst’s senior season he should be more comfortable which means that the Cardinal could have more balance on offense.

The dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey has moved on to the National Football League, but the productivity at tailback will continue at Stanford as the next good back could be junior Bryce Love. Love has spent the past couple of seasons in the shadow of McCaffrey, but he appears ready to emerge which was highlighted by him gaining at least 100 yards on the ground in both of Stanford’s final two games in 2016.

Since 2010, Stanford has built a reputation as far as producing quality offensive linemen, and they should once again have one of the better units in the nation as this year they’ll be led by senior center Jesse Burkett up front.

As the years go by the Cardinal continue to have a defense which is difficult to score on. Led by senior nose tackle Harrison Phillips, Stanford will have eight senior starters on defense. Lance Anderson is entering his fourth year as Stanford’s defensive coordinator and once again he’ll have a unit that doesn’t make too many mistakes, while they also know how to fly around the football as their specialty is gang tackling.

The Cardinal will begin the season in Australia versus the Rice Owls, and after a bye week they will be in Los Angeles to face the USC Trojans who are favored to win the Pac-12 Conference. But in a seven-day span in early November, Stanford will face both the Washington State Cougars and Washington Huskies in two games that will more than likely determine who’ll win the Pac-12 North.

17. South Florida Bulls

2016 saw the South Florida Bulls breakthrough for their best year in program history, and now they must find a way to keep the momentum going. Willie Taggart’s success as South Florida’s head football coach led to him being named as the new coach of the Oregon Ducks last December. But South Florida didn’t cry over spilled milk as they hired Charlie Strong to replace Taggart. South Florida needs the Strong who went 37-15 in four seasons as the head football coach of the Louisville Cardinals, and not the Strong who went 16-21 in the last three years as the head football coach of the Texas Longhorns. But if Strong is on point, the Bulls could be ready to have a solid 2017 campaign.

The Bulls have lost their dynamic running back in Marlon Mack to the National Football League, but they still have senior quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation as he totaled 4,342 all-purpose yards last season, and he should be in the running to be the American Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year. And Flowers will be protected by an offensive line that has two seniors in the starting lineup including center Cameron Ruff.

Senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez is one of the leaders on South Florida’s defense as he will tackle anything that moves which makes him one of the best linebackers in the conference, while putting him in the conversation to be the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.

South Florida will once again be one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference. And a strong 2017 campaign by the Bulls could put them into the conversation for a New Year’s Six bowl bid.

18. Texas A&M Aggies

Kevin Sumlin

In five years as the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, Kevin Sumlin has compiled a record of 44-21, but his hot seat is rather warm heading into the 2017 college football season. The Aggies have gone 8-5 in each of the last three years, which includes last season’s disappointing 2-5 finish after a 6-0 start. After a strong showing in their initial year in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, A&M has never finished higher than fourth in the SEC West, and Sumlin must find a way to get the most out of his team and then some this year.

One thing that has hurt A&M over the last few years has been their inconsistency at the quarterback position. In the last three years, Texas A&M has used five different quarterbacks and constant change at this position is never a good recipe. Senior quarterback Jake Hubernak started three games for the Aggies last year. But for Hubernak to help A&M succeed, he must find a way to improve his completion percentage which was at 58% last season.

Trayveon Williams

Sophomore running back Trayveon Williams is looking to build off the solid freshman campaign that he had where he had 1,057 yards on the ground. But after Williams was able to rush for 217 yards against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 8, his productivity rapidly declined, and heading into the new season, Sumlin needs him to be able to answer the bell each Saturday.

During Christian Kirk’s time with the Aggies, he has been a dependable wide receiver as he led the team in receptions in each of the last two years. And with this being Kirk’s senior season, you can expect that trend to continue as he looks to polish up his resume for the National Football League scouts.

John Chavis is set to begin his third season as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Chavis has a veteran laden group which includes six seniors as starters and that experience will be needed in order for the Aggies to navigate life in the Southeastern Conference.

A&M will face one of the toughest schedules in the country which includes road games with the UCLA Bruins, Florida Gators, and LSU Tigers, while they will be welcoming the Alabama Crimson Tide to College Station, Texas. And if the Aggies are unable to take the next step, Sumlin might be forced to pack his bags.

19. Boise State Broncos

The head coaches might change as well as the names that are on the back of the jerseys for the Boise State Broncos, but there is no denying that they possess one of the best programs in college football. In spite of not finishing either of the last two college football seasons ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll, Boise State won a combined 19 games. And even though that the Broncos saw some key talent go the National Football League, they will once again be a force to be reckoned with.

Brett Rypien

Junior quarterback Brett Rypien tends to get lost in the shuffle being that Boise State is not in a Power Five Conference, but he can play. In the last two years Rypien has thrown 44 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions. Rypien has a solid arm, while he has completed 62.7% of his passes, and he has the potential to be the Mountain West Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Rypien has one of his top targets in the passing game returning in senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson who will put pressure on opposing defensive backs in the Mountain West Conference who will cover him. Boise State will miss the contributions of running back Jeremy McNichols who is now in the National Football League as he rushed for 1,709 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns last year, but now it is time for sophomore running back Alexander Mattison to show what he can do. At 5’11”, 206 lbs., Mattison is a burner and he should benefit from running behind an offensive line that has three seniors which includes left tackle Archie Lewis.

The Broncos offense will have to carry the load early on as the defense will be very green after the departures of some key players. But junior defensive end David Moa led Boise State in sacks last year with 8.5 and his presence could once again loom big for the Broncos.

This year’s schedule will be tougher for Boise State head football coach Bryan Harsin and his team. The Broncos will travel to face the Washington State Huskies of the Pac-12 Conference on September 9, while they’ll also have a road date with the BYU Cougars on October 6. Boise will also have road meetings in the Mountain West against the San Diego State Aztecs and Utah State Aggies. However going on the road and getting wins has been a specialty for Boise State for quite some time now.

20. West Virginia Mountaineers

It has taken the West Virginia Mountaineers some time to get acclimated to life in the Big 12 Conference, but they could be ready to re-emerge on the national scene. The Mountaineers went 10-3 last season which matched their best season since 2011 when they were still in the Big East Conference as head football coach Dana Holgorsen has developed one of the best offenses in the nation.

Last year the Mountaineers were 17th in the nation in total offense and they have the potential to be just as good if not better this year. In 2015, Will Grier emerged from a muddled race to become the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators. But as soon as Grier appeared to be guy for Florida, he was suspended for one year by the NCAA due to the fact that he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Grier would then look for a fresh start which led to him transferring to West Virginia and as his junior year is set to begin, he will find himself in contention to be the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.

The Mountaineers will have one of the fastest offenses in the Big 12 which includes senior running back Justin Crawford who is coming off of a season in which he averaged 7.3 yards per carry. And if Grier is able to get on the same page with wide receivers such as junior Gary Jennings, West Virginia could be very tough to stop on offense.

The Mountaineers don’t have any players who stand out on defense, but for defensive coordinator Tony Gibson his unit has a “bend, but don’t break” mentality which will allow them to hang around in the Big 12 Title race.

The Mountaineers will have a tough road in front of them in order to win the Big 12 as their schedule includes road games against the TCU Horned Frogs, Baylor Bears, Kansas State Wildcats, and Oklahoma Sooners.

21. Florida Gators

Jim McElwain

In the two years that Jim McElwain has been at the helm as the head football coach of the Florida Gators, his team has gone 19-8 and finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. The Gators have also gone to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in each year under McElwain. But some followers of the Gators aren’t satisfied as they feel that McElwain could be doing more. However to the surprise of those pessimistic Florida followers, the Gators have the potential to be a top-25 team for the entire 2017 college football season.

The frustration with some Florida fans in regards to the Gators has been the struggles of the offense under McElwain. Last season the Gators were 116th in the nation in total offense which is a far cry from the explosiveness that they’ve been accustomed to seeing in Gainesville. Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Luke Del Rio showed occasional flashes of being the guy under center for McElwain. But what McElwain and the Gators need is a guy that can consistently get it done from the pocket, and will Del Rio be that guy?

Junior running back Jordan Scarlett has the potential to be a 1,000-yard back for the Gators in spite of the fact that he’ll be running behind an offensive line that won’t have any seniors. But for the Gators to take that next step and once again become a top-10 team, they are going to need more from their passing game.

Last year Florida was 79th in the nation in passing offense and their offense has already taken a step back as junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway has had several off-the-field issues. And regardless of who is on offense for the Gators, they need to find more explosiveness in their passing game in order to keep opposing defenses honest.

McElwain has plenty of talent to replace on the defensive side of the football as the Gators were ranked fifth in the nation last year in total defense, but at Florida there is always talent that is waiting in the wings.

Last year as a freshman, Chauncey Gardner was second on the team in interceptions, while defensive end Jabari Zuniga led the team in sacks with 5. But as Gardner and Zuniga are each ready for their sophomore campaigns, I expect them to take the next step and become anchors for Florida.

September 2 will provide a rarity for the Gators as they will begin their season versus a national power when they’ll travel to AT&T Stadium in Arlington,Texas to face the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference. With the exception of Florida’s annual regular season finale against the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference, this is a program that tends to take it light in their non-conference slate which won’t be the case here in 2017 with the showdown with Michigan right around the corner. Florida will then open Southeastern Conference play against the Tennessee Volunteers, while they’ll also have conference home games against the LSU Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies, along with their annual tilt with the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville, Florida.

I expect the Gators to be a team that could in and out of the top 25 this year, but they should improve as the season goes along.

22. Virginia Tech Hokies

Under first-year head football coach Justin Fuente, the bar of expectations weren’t that high for the Virginia Tech Hokies. However what the Hokies were able to do on the gridiron far exceeded expectations as they won the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Hokies went 10-4 to finish the season ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 2011. And although that the Hokies won’t be able to sneak up on anyone in 2017, they should once again be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC.

Josh Jackson

Quarterback Josh Jackson redshirted last season and now he will take the field for his first go around the field in college football. And it could be a rough start to the beginning of Jackson’s career since Virginia Tech must replace a wealth of talent from last year’s team.

But what the Hokies do have is defensive coordinator Bud Foster who is in his 31st season at the school. Foster’s defenses at Virginia Tech are generally rock solid and they should once again be stout. Senior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka who is a tackling machine will be in the running to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. And aside from Motuapuaka, the Hokies have a very strong linebacking core which includes junior inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.

Virginia Tech always has a knack for forcing turnovers and after they snagged 16 interceptions last year, they should once be one of the best defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Hokies will begin their season by facing a familiar foe as they’ll take on the West Virginia Mountaineers. From 1991-2003, West Virginia and Virginia Tech were rivals in the Big East Conference as they have not met on the gridiron since then. The Hokies will have their shot at revenge on September 30 when they host the Clemson Tigers who got the best of them in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game last December. And consecutive road games in November versus the Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will show strong that the Hokies will be here in 2017.

23. Washington State Cougars

Under the football coach Mike Leach, the Washington State Cougars have won 17 games over the last two years which has been the best stretch for the program since 2003. But heading into the 2017 college football season, will the Cougars be able to finish ranked for the first time since 2003, while also contending in the tough Pac-12 Conference?

Leach’s offenses are always wide open which means that his starting quarterbacks tend to put up big numbers. The last two years have seen Washington State quarterback Luke Falk combine to pass for more than 9,000 yards. And as Falk is set to begin his senior season, I don’t expect Leach’s air-raid offense to slow down.

The Cougars had the third best passing offense in the nation last season, and even though that two of their top wide receivers from 2016 are no longer with the program, don’t expect them to slow down. Junior wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. should become more of the feature guy for Falk this season as he brings speed to the table. And it will be important for the Cougars passing game to be on point as they struggle to run the football which includes them being 114 in the nation in the category last season.

Falk will operate behind an experienced offensive line which includes senior left guard Cody O’Connell as this unit will be the key to any potential success that the Cougars will have in 2017.

Peyton Pelluer

One player who stands out defensively for the Cougars is senior middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer who knows how to set the tone. And the intensity that Pelluer brings to the table will be important as Washington State will look to slow down the high octane offenses of the Pac-12 Conference.

We’ll see how good that Washington State can be when they host the USC Trojans on September 29, while they’ll be on the road to face the Arizona Wildcats, Utah Utes, and Washington Huskies. The Cougars were close to winning the Pac-12 North last year and it will be interesting to see if they can take the next step.

24. Wisconsin Badgers

The past 25 years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers become one of the most successful college football programs in the nation and head football coach Paul Chryst has kept that tradition going. In two years under Chryst, the Badgers are 21-6 which includes a berth in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game last year as well as the school’s first appearance and victory in the Cotton Bowl.

Alex Hornibrook

Last year was a learning process for quarterback Alex Hornibrook as a redshirt freshman. Hornibrook was limited in the passing game. but being that Chryst has a reputation in regards to being a quarterback guru, I anticipate him opening up the passing game some more this year. The Wisconsin offense will grow with Hornibrook as there are only three seniors projected to be in the starting lineup which includes wide receiver Jazz Peavy.

Defensively the Badgers were seventh in the nation last season in total defense. Wisconsin lost their defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox who is now the head football coach of the California Golden Bears, but a familiar face in Jim Leonard will replace him. Leonard was a defensive back for Wisconsin who would go on to play in the National Football League for seven different teams And after Leonard spent 2016 as the Badgers defensive backs coach, he will now be calling the shots on that side of the football.

One defensive player to keep an eye on will be junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards who flies around the football. The Badgers have long had a reputation in regards to having hard nosed defensive players and Edwards will add to that reputation here in 2017.

The Badgers will be a dark horse in regards to winning the Big Ten, however if they’ll be able to survive their final three games of the season as they will face the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, and Minnesota Golden Gophers, Wisconsin could find themselves in the conference title game along with getting a potential Rose Bowl bid.

25. Arkansas Razorbacks

There will be some adversity that’ll be awaiting the Arkansas Razorbacks when the 2017 college football season begins. But for Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema, don’t expect him to want people to feel sorry for his squad.

Bret Bielema

Since Bielema joined Arkansas in 2014, the Razorbacks have had a commitment to rushing the football in spite of a dip in production. Last year the Hogs were tied for 77th in the nation in rushing after they were 34th in 2015. And after running back Rawleigh Williams III was expected to be the featured ball carrier for his junior season, he decided to retire due to injuries.

Sophomore Devwah Whaley will now be the feature running back for the Hogs this year and he’ll get every opportunity to prove himself as he’ll get at least 200 carries this season. But with senior quarterback Austin Allen under center for Arkansas, I do expect Bielema to open the offense up more than he has in the past which means that we’ll see more of a vertical game in Fayetteville.

Former Iowa State Cyclones head football coach Paul Rhoads is set to begin his first season as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator and he must find a way to get this unit to compete more than they did in 2016. Arkansas was 75th in the nation in total defense last year which included surrendering 40 points or more in a game four times.

The Razorbacks schedule won’t be a cakewalk as they have consecutive road games versus the South Carolina Gamecocks and Alabama Crimson Tide in October, while they will also be on the road to face the LSU Tigers.

Top 25 By Conference:

Southeastern Conference (7)

Pac-12 Conference (5)

Big Ten Conference (4)

Atlantic Coast Conference (4)

Big 12 Conference (3)

Mountain West Conference (1)

American Athletic Conference (1)

Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com

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2016 Key Games For Week 9 In College Football

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Quarterback Deondre Francois can become a household name if he can lead the Florida State Seminoles to an upset victory over the Clemson Tigers.

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2016 American Athletic Conference Football Projections

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East

Temple Owls 12-1 (8-0)

It isn’t that often that you’ll hear the term potential conference champion put into the same sentence with Temple Owls Football, but it is indeed a new day for college football in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Owls are coming off of their first 10-win season since 1979, and after head football coach Matt Rhule turned down offers from bigger college football programs, Temple is looking to once again be a force in the American Athletic Conference.

Senior quarterback P.J. Walker has improved as a passer in each of his first three years at Temple. And now as a senior, Walker should get some consideration as far as being the American Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year. Senior left tackle Dion Dawkins is one of two returning starters on the offensive line that will look to open holes for running back Jahad Thomas who has the potential to gain at least 1,500 yards on the ground this season.

The Owls were 20th in total defense in the nation last season and even though that six starters must be replaced from last year’s team, this still has the potential to be one of the top units in the American Athletic Conference as they’ll be led by senior middle linebacker Jarred Alwan who was second on the team in tackles in 2015 with 74.

Temple’s non-conference schedule includes a road game against the Penn State Nittany Lions whom they upset last year while their home game in late October against the Cincinnati Bearcats could determine who represents the Eastern Division in the American Athletic Conference Title Game.

Cincinnati Bearcats 10-2 (6-2)

Last year the Cincinnati Bearcats were expected to contend for the Eastern Division Title in the American Athletic Conference, but instead they had to settle for a third place finish to go along with their 7-6 record. But for Cincinnati head football coach Tommy Tuberville, hope springs eternal as he and his team are seeking a trip to the AAC Title Game.

Gunner Kiel

After a solid 2014 campaign, quarterback Gunner Kiel had to battle through injuries that limited him and Cincinnati in 2015. But as Kiel is set to embark on his senior campaign for the Bearcats, he is looking to put it all together and help Cincy win the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats have three starters returning on their offensive line as they will look to open holes for junior running back Mike Boone and senior running back Tion Green. Last year Boone and Green combined to rush for 1,478 yards, but in 2016, each player will have his sights set on gaining at least 1,000 yards.

Defensively the Bearcats took it on the chin last year as they were 78th in total defense. But for Tuberville and his co-defensive coordinators in Robert Prunty and Steve Clinkscale, things are looking up as they will have nine returning starters on the side of the ball for the upcoming season.

The Bearcats will open up their conference schedule at home against the Houston Cougars and along with road games within the American Athletic Conference against the Temple Owls and Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Cincy holds their destiny in their hands as far as winning the conference crown.

Connecticut Huskies 7-5 (4-4)

Bob Diaco

Bob Diaco is coming off of his second year as the head football coach of the Connecticut Huskies and he is building a program that is taking solid strides in the American Athletic Conference. Although that the Huskies will enter the 2016 college football season fresh off of their fifth consecutive losing season, Diaco has something to build off of due to a bowl appearance last season.

Junior quarterback Bryant Shireffs is developing into a solid college quarterback, and if he can shed the label of a game manager, it could mean a solid season for the Huskies in 2016. Diaco has been finding high school talent within the State of Connecticut and junior running back Arkeel Newsome could be ready to put together a 1,000-yard season on the ground. Led by senior left tackle Richard Levy, the Huskies are returning four starters on the offensive line as they could spell trouble for opposing defenses within the American Athletic Conference.

Connecticut will return six defensive starters from a unit that was ranked 33rd in the nation in total defense last season. And led by junior middle linebacker Junior Joseph, the Huskies defense could be a top-20 unit in 2016.

If Connecticut is able to score a pair of non-conference wins against the Atlantic Coast Conference as they’ll host the Virginia Cavaliers and Syracuse Orange, it could set the tempo for a solid season for them within the American Athletic Conference.

East Carolina Pirates 6-6 (4-4)

The Ruffin McNeill era is over as the head football coach of the East Carolina Pirates as he was fired and replaced by Scottie Montgomery.  Like McNeill, Montgomery didn’t have any previous head coaching experience prior to coming to East Carolina. But Montgomery is hopeful to build off of his experience over the last two years as the offensive coordinator of the Duke Blue Devils along with his four-year playing career in the National Football League.

Blake Kemp

Led by senior quarterback Blake Kemp, the Pirates are returning some talent on offense as they’ll look to be a player in the American Athletic Conference. Along with Kemp, the Pirates are returning their top pass catcher in senior wide receiver Isaiah Jones along with three offensive lineman.

And even though that East Carolina was ranked 66th in total defense last year, they are returning seven starters from last year’s unit as they could become a bit pesky.

If East Carolina is able to become bowl eligible in their first year under Montgomery, it would be big for him as he looks to establish him in Greenville.

 

South Florida Bulls 6-6 (4-4)

It has taken South Florida Bulls head football coach Willie Taggart as few years to establish his program in Tampa, but South Florida is coming off of their best season since 2010 as they are seeking their first conference title in 2016.

Junior quarterback Quinton Flowers is a dual-threat as a passer and runner that can give defenses in the American Athletic Conference fits with his play making ability while junior running back Marlon Mack can no longer fly under the radar as a dynamic back. But as good as Flowers and Mack can be, they cannot do it by themselves as South Florida will need to replace four starters on their offensive line.

Auggie Sanchez

Defensively the Bulls were a middle of the pack unit last year. But as South Florida will return six starters on the side of the ball, they’ll be led by junior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez who led the team in 2015 in tackles with 115.

South Florida’s schedule won’t be an easy one as they’ll take on the Northern Illinois Huskies of the Mid-American Conference, along with the Florida State Seminoles and Syracuse Orange of the Atlantic Coast Conference before their American Athletic Conference schedule kicks off which includes road games against the Cincinnati Bearcats and Memphis Tigers.

Central Florida Knights 3-9 (1-7)

Scott Frost

After going 0-12 last year, the only way for the Central Florida Knights to go is up. Central Florida went to the Pacific Northwest to find their new head football coach in Scott Frost. Frost spent the last three years as the offensive coordinator of the Oregon Ducks. Prior to that Frost enjoyed a spectacular playing career as an option quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers before embarking on a professional playing career in the National Football League with the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now Frost is looking to make the most of his opportunity to lead a football team.

What the Knights have to do in 2016 is to find a way to be physical at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. The Knights only averaged 2.7 yards per carry on the ground which isn’t going to get it done at any level of football, but with four starters on the offensive line returning including center Jason Rae, things could be better this fall in Orlando. Even in the midst of a winless campaign, wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith showed promise that he can be an impact player which might include him being an All-American Athletic Conference performer in 2016 as a sophomore.

Central Florida was 114th in total defense last year, but with eight starters returning including three seniors in defensive end Luke Adams, free safety Drico Johnson, and Jeremy Boykins, the Knights should be able to show some improvement.

Frost is laying the foundation for a successful team, and it should be interesting to see how Central Florida will improve as the season goes along.

West

Houston Cougars 10-3 (7-1)

After going 13-1 last year, the Houston Cougars won’t enter the 2016 college football season searching for respect. The Cougars capped off their stellar season with an upset victory over the Florida State Seminoles in the Peach Bowl. And for Houston head football coach Tom Herman, he has a team that is capable of crashing the College Football Playoff party.

Greg Ward Jr.

Senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., is the heart and soul of the Cougars team as he can put Houston’s offense on his back which is why there is a good possibility that he’ll named as the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. With the departure of wide receiver Demarcus Ayers, senior wide receiver Chance Allen should become Ward Jr.’s go-to wide receiver. And at 6’2″, Allen is a matchup problem for defenders in the conference. The Cougars also return three starters on the offensive line as this is a veteran bunch that will definitely have a say in Houston’s chances of winning the American Athletic Conference.

The Cougars will return six starters of the defensive side of the football, but they must replace three of their top four tacklers from last season. However senior linebackers Tyus Bowser and Steven Taylor, along with junior linebacker Matthew Adams are capable of stepping up to fill any void.

The Cougars will have their hands full to begin the season as they’ll take on the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference at NRG Stadium in Houston before opening conference play on the road against the Cincinnati Bearcats. But this is a Houston team that won’t back down from a challenge and this should be an interesting college football season for them.

Navy Midshipmen 8-4 (6-2)

Ken Niumatalolo

There’s definitely a winning tradition for Navy Midshipmen under head football coach Ken Niumatalolo. And under Niumatalolo, the Naval Academy is 68-37 with just one losing season. Navy is coming off of their first 11-win season in school history and they dodged a bullet when Niumatalolo turned down an offer to become the head football coach of the Brigham Young University Cougars in order to return to Annapolis which will once again give the Midshipmen a shot at the American Athletic Conference Title.

2015 marked Navy’s first year in the American Athletic Conference and they were one victory shy of playing in the conference title game. But for Navy to get back to that level of success, they must find a way to replace 10 starters on the offensive side of the football, along with Keenan Reynolds who was one the most dynamic players in the history of the program as he contributed to a Midshipmen rushing game that was tied for second in the nation last year. Navy must also replace three starters on defense as together this senior class helped to account for 36 wins over the last four years.

Tago Smith has spent the last three years as the backup to Reynolds and now he will have his opportunity to lead Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack.

Niumatalolo will have to plug in new players on offense, but as the season progresses for Navy, they will be a team to nobody wants to face.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane 8-4 (5-3)

After rebounding from 2-10 record in the previous college football season, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane were able to become eligible last year for the first time since 2012. And although that Tulsa only finished with a record of 6-7 in 2015, they could have a hand in who wins the American Athletic Conference in 2016.

What was able to get Tulsa into contention last year and what they’ll need ride to any potential success in 2016 is their passing offense. Last year the Golden Hurricane had the 11th best passing offense in the nation under first-year head coach Philip Montgomery who brought the pass-happy attack with him from his time as the offensive coordinator of the Baylor Bears where the football hardly touched the ground.

Dane Evans

Senior quarterback Dane Evans can sling the football around as good as anyone in that nation. And in the past two years, Evans has passed for 7,434 yards while also throwing 48 touchdowns over that stretch. Evans will have a reliable wide receiver to throw the football to in senior wide receiver Joshua Atkinson who is a prime candidate to get at least 90 receptions this year. And Evans should once again enjoy some solid pass protection in front of his as four of the “big uglies” on the offensive line are back which includes junior left tackle Evan Plagg who will be charged with protecting Evans’ blindside.

But for Tulsa to become a serious title contender in the American Athletic Conference, they must improve defensively as they finished 2015 ranked 126th out of 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense which included giving up at least 40 points in each of their last four contests. Co-defensive coordinators Brian Norwood and Bill Young will have their work cut out as they look to improve this unit, but they have to be optimistic with seven starters returning.

Outside of a road game against the Ohio State Buckeyes from the Big Ten Conference, the Golden Hurricane’s non-conference schedule is extremely favorable. But in order for Tulsa to be a player in the American Athletic Conference, they are going to have to get it done on the road with games against the Houston Cougars, Memphis Tigers, and Navy Midshipmen.

Memphis Tigers 7-5 (4-4)

The Memphis Tigers are coming off of their best two-year stretch in school history and they are looking to avoid taking a huge step backwards in 2016. As the head football coach at Memphis, Justin Fuente took the program to new heights which saw him become a hot commodity as he is the new head football coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies. As Memphis was searching for a new head football coach to replace Fuente, they would travel to the desert where they would find Mike Norvell who spent the last four years as the offensive coordinator of the Arizona State Sun Devils where he helped them have the 20th ranked passing offense in the nation last season.

But unlike Fuente, Norvell won’t have the luxury of quarterback Paxton Lynch who decided to leave school early in favor of the National Football League. And along with Lynch, Memphis must replace five offensive starters from last year’s team. As of right now the starting quarterback position appears to be Clay Holgorsen’s to lose. Last season Holgorsen saw some mop up duty behind Lynch, and you have to wonder if he is ready to be the guy at Memphis; especially in a new offense, and under a new head coach. However Holgorsen does come from a solid football family as he is the nephew of current West Virginia Mountaineers head football coach Dana Holgorsen.

Whomever that Norvell will put under center to begin the season will have the luxury of playing behind an offensive line that will return four starters which includes senior guard Chris Roberson as the unit could be the best in the American Athletic Conference.

Norvell also inherits seven returning starters on defense, but this was a Tigers unit that was ranked 77th in the nation last year in total defense as they had seven contests in which they surrendered at least 30 points. And it wasn’t a surprise that Memphis was 3-4 in those games.

Memphis will enjoy a favorable non-conference schedule, but when American Athletic Conference play begins, the Tigers will be faced with games against the Temple Owls, Navy Midshipmen, Cincinnati Bearcats, and Houston Cougars where wins won’t be easy to come by.

SMU Mustangs 5-7 (3-5)

As the Southern Methodist Mustangs are set to embark on their second year under head football coach Chad Morris, they must find a way to become more competitive. SMU went 2-10 last season and in those losses, eight were by at least 19 points. Morris has been attempting to recruit within the football crazy State of Texas as he is hopeful to make the Mustangs competitive in the American Athletic Conference, but will it all come to fruition in 2016?

Matt Davis

Senior quarterback Matt Davis is arguably SMU’s best athlete as he led the team in both passing yards and rushing yards last season and he’ll be vital to any success that the Mustangs want to have in 2016. SMU must find a way to have more consistency on offense while they were 76th in the nation in total offense while also being 119th in total defense.

 

 

Morris is attempting to lay his foundation in Dallas which would be a huge step if Southern Methodist is able to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2012.

Tulane Green Wave 1-11 (0-8)

With only three winning seasons since 2000, the Tulane Green Wave are an afterthought on the college football scene. After leading the Georgia Southern Eagles to a 17-7 record over the last two years, Willie Fritz was hired to be the new head football coach at Tulane and hopefully get this team to compete in the American Athletic Conference as they lost six games last season by at least 28 points. But Fritz has his work cut out for him as Tulane was 80th in the nation in total offense and 120th in total defense.

If the Green Wave are able to get a few wins under their belt in 2016, it would give Fritz the ammunition that he needs to turn this program around.

AAC Championship Game: Houston vs. Temple

Conference Champion: Temple

Coach of the Year: Matt Rhule-Temple

Offensive Player of the Year: Greg Ward Jr.-Quarterback-Houston

Defensive Player of the Year: Jarred Alwan-Linebacker-Temple

Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com

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2015 American Athletic Conference Football Projections

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East

Cincinnati Bearcats 9-4 (6-3)

The Cincinnati Bearcats football program is all about transition. Since 2003, the Bearcats have had five different head football coaches as folks have tended to leave Cincinnati in order to pursue more money at bigger schools. Cincinnati’s current head football coach is Tommy Tuberville who has been there and done that as far as being in charge of a big time college football program. Tuberville has previously been the head football coach at Ole Miss, Auburn, and Texas Tech and he is fitting like a glove at Cincinnati. In two years at Cincy, Tuberville’s record is 18-8 and they’re coming off of winning a share of the American Athletic Conference Title in 2014. As the 2015 college football season is set to begin, the Bearcats have a good shot at participating in the inaugural AAC Title Game.

Gunner Kiel

Gunner Kiel was a highly sought after high school quarterback and after spurning both LSU and Notre Dame, he has settled in with the Bearcats. At 6’4″, 208 lbs., Kiel has good size for a quarterback and there isn’t a throw that he cannot make as he’ll be in the discussion to be the AAC Offensive Player of the Year.

On Halloween, Cincinnati will host the Central Florida Knights in a game that will more than likely decide the winner of the Eastern Division of the AAC.

Central Florida Knights 8-4 (6-2)

George O’Leary

It doesn’t matter which conference that the Central Florida Knights are in under head football coach George O’Leary as they are able compete and be one of the top teams in that league. Central Florida will once again be one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference in 2015 as they’ll be led by junior quarterback Justin Holman who is one of the conference’s better signal callers.

Central Florida will face a brutal schedule in 2015 as they’ll meet the Stanford Cardinal of the Pac-12 Conference and the South Carolina Gamecocks of the Southeastern Conference in non-conference tilts along with road games in the AAC against the Cincinnati Bearcats and Tulsa Golden Hurricane, but O’Leary’s teams are always battle tested.

East Carolina Pirates 6-6 (5-3)

Ruffin McNeill

Under head football coach Ruffin McNeill, the East Carolina Pirates have had one of the top offenses in the nation. Last year the Pirates were ranked fifth in the nation in total offense and they had five games where they scored at least 40 points. But with most of those explosive players having graduated at East Carolina, it will be back to the drawing board this season for the Pirates. And if the Pirates are going to once again be able to find their groove on offense, junior wide receiver Isaiah Jones will have to step up and be one of the top pass catchers in the American Athletic Conference this season.

East Carolina will more than likely fly under the radar for the majority of the 2015 college football season, but in the end they should still be one of the top teams in the AAC.

Temple Owls 6-6 (4-4)

The Temple Owls enter the 2015 college football season looking to build off of the fact that they are coming off of their first non-losing season since 2011. The Owls went 6-6 in 2014, but they weren’t pegged for a bowl game and the only way for them to change that is to improve their record in 2015 under head football coach Matt Rhule. Any chances for Temple this year in the American Athletic Conference will hinge on the play of junior quarterback P.J. Walker. Walker was able to show flashes last year, but Rhule and Temple will need him to put it all together for a full season in 2015.

Right out of the chute it will be tough for Temple as they’ll host the Penn State Nittany Lions of the Big Ten Conference which will be followed by their first conference game of the season against the Cincinnati Bearcats. After that things will slow down somewhat for Temple as they look for consecutive non-losing seasons for the first time since 2011.

South Florida Bulls 3-9 (2-6)

From 2000-2010, the South Florida Bulls only had one losing season. But since then the Bulls have failed to secure a winning campaign. Willie Taggart is entering his third year as the head football coach at South Florida and he’s fighting an uphill battle in the American Athletic Conference.

For South Florida to contend in the AAC this season, their offense which was ranked 121st in the nation last year must improve drastically. And the Bulls only building block offensively this season is sophomore running back Marlon Mack who will need to gain at least 1,500 yards on the ground for South Florida to have a shot at bowl eligibility.

The Bulls football program is headed in the wrong direction and it won’t get any better in 2015.

Connecticut Huskies 3-9 (1-7)

Ever since Randy Edsall resigned as the head football coach of the Connecticut Huskies in 2010, the program hasn’t been able to stand up on its own. In Edsall’s last two years at UConn, the Huskies won 16 games, but since they’ve only won 15. Bob Diaco is in his second year as the head football coach at Connecticut, but he has been unable to land some of the top high school football talent from the New England area as he’s been overshadowed by schools from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big Ten Conference. And until Diaco is able to establish himself as a recruiter in the New England area, the Huskies will continue to falter in the American Athletic Conference.

West

Navy Midshipmen 10-3 (7-2)

Things will be different for the Navy Midshipmen football program in 2015. For the first time in the 122-year history of Navy’s football program, they will be in a football conference. Navy agreed to join the American Athletic Conference as a football-only member and they could find themselves in the conference’s inaugural title game. Ken Niumatalolo in entering his eighth full season as the head football coach at Navy and he’s only had one losing season there. Due to the service commitment to the United States Military that cadets must give once their eligibility is done, Navy doesn’t get the blue-chip talent coming to Annapolis, Maryland. But the Midshipmen run a triple-option attack on offense that will test their opponent’s endurance and it should once again be tough with senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds leading the way.

It won’t take the Midshipmen that long to get indoctrinated into the American Athletic Conference as they’ll host the East Carolina Pirates in their second game of the season in what could become a good rivalry for the conference due to the proximity between the two schools.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane 8-4 (4-4)

Bill Blankenship

The Tulsa Golden Hurricane were only able to go 2-10 in 2014 for head football coach Bill Blakenship, but there is reason to believe that they’ll be able to turn things around in 2015. The Golden Hurricane had six games last season where they scored at least 30 points and they return some talent on offense for 2015 in the form of junior quarterback Dane Evans, senior running back Zack Langer, and junior wide receiver Keevan Lucas as all three players have the ability to be amongst the best at their respective positions this season in the American Athletic Conference. And a favorable schedule will play a big part in the potential turnaround this year for Tulsa.

Houston Cougars 7-5 (4-4)

Unfortunately for the Houston Cougars, they were unable to live up to expectations of winning the American Athletic Conference in 2014. The Cougars  were able to record their second consecutive eight-win season which they’re hopeful will propel them to bigger things in 2015. And for Houston head football coach Tony Levine, any chance that his team will have this season will come down to the right arm of junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and the legs of senior running back Kenneth Farrow.

The Cougars don’t have too many layups in their schedule as it will be tough for them to win the Western Division of the AAC and get to the conference title game.

Memphis Tigers 7-5 (4-4)

The Memphis Tigers saw a huge improvement in 2014 as they saw their win total increase by seven games from the previous year and they also finished ranked in the top 25 poll of the Associated Press for the first time in school history. Now Memphis head football coach Justin Fuente is looking to lead the Tigers to consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2005.

The Tigers emergence can be attributed to the improved play of quarterback Paxton Lynch. And now as a junior, Lynch is ready to once again lead Memphis in 2015.

The Tigers find themselves with a relatively easy non-conference schedule, but their first conference game will find them hosting the Cincinnati Bearcats which could give them the confidence to contend for the Western Division Title in the American Athletic Conference.

SMU Mustangs 2-10 (1-7)

After a brief glimpse of success, the losing has once again set in around the football program of the Southern Methodist University Mustangs. The Mustangs have only won six games in the last two years and they are hopeful that new head football coach Chad Morris will be able to get things turned around as he is going to have to build this program from the ground up. But luckily for Morris and SMU, the school is in Dallas and the State of Texas is loaded with high school football talent as he looks to build a contender. As Morris attempts to turn SMU into a contender, he can only hope that his squad will be competitive in 2015.

Tulane Green Wave 4-8 (1-7)

The Tulane Green Wave’s football program has been around for 111 years, but they have failed to maintain any consistent success since their days in the Southern Conference and then in the Southeastern Conference as Tulane hasn’t has consecutive winning seasons since 1998. Curtis Johnson is set to begin his fourth season as the head football coach of the Green Wave and he’ll need his team to compete more in 2015 as they lost six games last season by at least 17 points. But Johnson and Tulane will once again be fighting an uphill battle in the American Athletic Conference in 2015.

AAC Title Game: Cincinnati vs. Navy

Conference Champion: Navy

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2014 American Athletic Conference Projections

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Houston Cougars 11-1 (8-0)

In their first year in the American Athletic Conference, the Houston Cougars won 8 games. Now in 2014, the Cougars are looking to win their first conference championship since 2006 and they have a squad that can do it.

John O’Korn

Houston sophomore quarterback John O’Korn is coming off of a year in which he threw 28 touchdown passes and he begins the 2014 season as a favorite to be named as the AAC Player of the Year. O’Korn will have the luxury of throwing junior wide receiver Deontay Greenberry and senior wide receiver Daniel Spencer who are two of the best in the conference.

The season begins tonight for the Cougars when they UTSA. But you can circle December 6 on your calender as that will be the day when Houston will travel to meet Cincinnati in a game that could decide the AAC Champion.

East Carolina Pirates 9-3 (7-1)

Ruffin McNeill

After 17 years in Conference USA, the East Carolina Pirates are beginning a new chapter in the American Athletic Conference and in 2014 they should be a major player there. Ruffin McNeil is entering his fifth season as the head football coach at East Carolina and his Pirates have one of the most explosive offenses in the nation.

Last year East Carolina was 25th in the country in total offense and you can expect more of the same in 2014 with senior quarterback Shane Carden leading the way. Carden passed for more than 4,000 yards last season and three 33 touchdown passes and he will be in the running to the AAC’s Player of the Year for the upcoming season. You can also expect Carden to be connecting with senior wide receiver Justin Hardy on many occasions as Hardy should be a first-team All-AAC performer in 2014.

The Pirates have a tough non-conference schedule that includes road games against South Carolina and Virginia Tech. But East Carolina does not play Houston this season and they could be a surprise winner of the AAC.

Cincinnati Bearcats 8-4 (6-2)

The last three head football coaches of the Cincinnati Bearcats are currently running big time college football programs. Current Cincinnati head football coach Tommy Tuberville has been there and done that as he was previously at Ole Miss, Auburn, and Texas Tech. The pressure at Cincy is nothing near what it is in the Southeastern and Big 12 Conferences respectively and Tuberville is relishing that. Last year in Tuberville’s first season at Cincinnati he led the school to 9 wins; so what can he do for an encore this year?

Six different players threw passes for the Bearcats in 2013, but it is senior Munchie Legaux’s job to lose in 2014. A knee injury prematurely ended Legaux’s 2013 college football season, but he is back to do some damage in 2014 as he is can be a dangerous dual-threat quarterback. If the Bearcats passing game is going to be successful this season then you can expect speedy senior wide receiver Shaq Washington to have a hand in it.

Non-conference road games against Miami and Ohio State will be tough for the Bearcats and their regular season finale against Houston could decide the winner of the American Athletic Conference.

Central Florida Knights 6-6 (5-3)

It wasn’t a fluke that the University of Central Florida Knights went 12-1 last year and won the Fiesta Bowl. Since 2004, Central Florida head football coach George O’Leary has turned the Knights into a team that will contend for conference titles. But Central Florida’s dreams of contending for the American Athletic Conference Title in 2014 will be very tough.

The Knights lost some talent to the NFL in quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, but Central Florida still has a trio of dangerous wide receivers in seniors Rannell Hall and J.J. Worton along with junior Breshad Perriman.

A tough non-conference slate with games against Penn State, Missouri, and BYU along with conference road games against Houston and East Carolina will make this difficult for O’Leary and his bunch in 2014.

Southern Methodist Mustangs 5-7 (4-4)

The first year in the AAC for the Southern Methodist University Mustangs did not go according to the plan as they had their first losing season since 2008. But will the Mustangs be able to improve in 2014? Under head football coach June Jones, SMU is beginning to build a winning tradition that was destroyed during the “death penalty” in the 1980’s. But Jones and SMU will have their work cut out for them this season. In three of their first four games SMU will take on some of their former Southwestern Conference foes in Baylor, Texas A&M, and TCU while he must also replacing players that the school lost to graduation.

Temple Owls 4-8 (3-5)

Now with the likes of Al Golden and Steve Addazio no longer serving as the head football coach of the Temple Owls, the school is going back to the days of simply being an afterthought in the realm of college football. Matt Rhule is entering his second year in Philadelphia as Temple’s head coach and he is looking to improve off of a 2-10 campaign.

For Temple and Rhule, sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker is a building block, but he alone will not be enough for the Owls to navigate through the American Athletic Conference.

Tulane Green Wave 4-8 (3-5)

Fresh off of their first winning season since 2002, the Tulane Green Wave are looking to write a new chapter in the AAC. Tulane senior quarterback Nick Montana is not going to remind people of his Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, but maybe he will be able to put it all together in his final year in college.

2014 won’t be easy for Montana and the Green Wave as they are staring down the barrel of a road slate that features games against Duke, Houston, and East Carolina.

Memphis Tigers 4-8 (3-5)

The success of the Memphis Tigers men’s basketball program has not carried over to the school’s football team who have been unable to secure a winning record since 2007. Memphis head football coach Justin Fuente is entering his third season with the Tigers and it will be a long one. This year Memphis will have road games against UCLA, Ole Miss, and Cincinnati that could put them behind the 8-ball.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane 3-9 (2-6)

After an 11-win season in 2012, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane took a nosedive last year. Last year the Golden Hurricane were only 3-9 you can expect more of the same in 2014 as they simply do not have the talent to compete in the American Athletic Conference.

South Florida Bulls 2-10 (1-7)

After being a force in the Big East Conference, the South Florida Bulls have not been as lucky in the AAC as they are coming off a 10-loss campaign and for head football coach Willie Taggart he should expect another long season in 2014.

UCONN Huskies 1-11 (0-8)

The Connecticut Huskies football program has not had a winning year since 2010 and with another bad football season on the horizon, the fans in Storrs will have to look forward to Midnight Madness in mid-October to symbolize the beginning of college basketball.

Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com

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