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.
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 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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