Y-Central Florida Knights 12-1 (8-1)
The Central Florida Knights are in the midst of a tremendous turnaround. In 2015, the Knights went 0-12 which marked the end of the George O’Leary era as their head football coach. In 2016, Scott Frost would get his chance to turn things around for Central Florida as their head football coach, and he did so by leading them to a bowl game. But what Frost was able to do in 2017 was legendary as he led UCF to their first undefeated season in the program’s history which included winning the American Athletic Conference and defeating the Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference in the Peach Bowl.
Central Florida’s improbable season would lead to Frost getting national attention which led to him leaving to become the head football coach at his alma mater with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. And in replacing Frost, Central Florida would find themselves another quarterback who succeeded in the Big 12 Conference to keep the assembly line rolling in Orlando.
In 2000, Josh Heupel helped the Oklahoma Sooners win a national championship as their starting quarterback. Heupel enjoyed a brief career in the National Football League before returning to the collegiate ranks as an assistant coach. Now after biding his time, Heupel will get the chance to lead his own program, and he inherits a team which is more than capable of winning the American Athletic Conference for the second consecutive year.
Last year saw quarterback McKenzie Milton play like a man possessed. Milton threw 37 touchdowns, while completing 67% of his passes en route to being named as the American Athletic Conferece’s Offensive Player of the Year. Milton was a cool customer all season long that did whatever it took to give his team a chance to win. A shining example came in UCF’s win over Auburn where Milton didn’t have a big passing day, but he made up for it by rushing for 116 yards. And heading into the new season, it will be scary for Central Florida opponents that Milton will actually improve as a quarterback being that he is now being tutored by a quarterback guru in Heupel.
Another impact player for Central Florida this year will be junior running back Adrian Killins. Killins showed his potential at times last season as a dependable ball carrier, but he will need to display that potential each time that he touches the rock.
UCF lost several key players from last year’s defense, but this unit will still be exciting. The Knights have a new defensive coordinator in former Miami Hurricanes head football coach Randy Shannon who’s attacking defense will make Central Florida a force to be reckoned with. Senior middle linebacker Pat Jasinski will be a sleeper in the race to be the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, while senior free safety Kyle Gibson will be in the mix to be a part of the AAC’s first-team defense.
The Knights also have a weapon on offense in senior kicker Matthew Wright. Last year Wright connected on 66% of his kicks from beyond 40 yards, and his strong leg will definitely give UCF the edge in close games.
Central Florida is once again the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference, and if everything comes together for them once more, another trip to a New Year’s Six Bowl Game will be in the works.
X-Temple Owls 8-4 (5-3)
The 2017 college football season was a year of transition for the Temple Owls, and they showed that the future is still bright for them in Philadelphia. Under first-year head coach Geoff Collins, Temple was able to finish with a winning record which included winning a bowl game. Collins was able to do this as he had big shoes to fill in order to replace his predecessor Matt Rhule who left to become the head football coach of the Baylor Bears. The Temple players responded to Collins, and it’s all systems go as he looks to establish his program there.
Last year Frank Nutile was Temple’s starting quarterback in their final six games, and in that stretch he helped the Owls win four of those contests. Nutile is an accurate quarterback as he completed 61.3% of his passes from last season. And if Nutile is able to maintain that level of completion percentage, if not improve on it, Temple’s offense will be steady in this his senior year.
Andrew Thacker is set to begin his first year as Temple’s defensive coordinator, and he has some players on this unit who could be among the best at their respective positions in the American Athletic Conference. Last year as a sophomore, middle linebacker Shaun Bradley led the Owls in tackles as he knows how to punish any ball carrier in his vicinity. Sophomore defensive end Quincy Roche is a dark horse to be the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year, while senior strong safety Delvon Randall is an intimidator in the secondary.
Temple will have their work cut out for them in the American Athletic Conference with road games against the Navy Midshipmen, Houston Cougars, and Central Florida Knights, but this team will not be an easy out all season long.
X-South Florida Bulls 6-6 (4-4)
When Charlie Strong took over as the head football coach of the South Florida Bulls last year, he inherited one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference. Under Strong, the Bulls were able to live up to that hype as they won at least 10 games for the second consecutive year. The only thing that prevented South Florida from reaching the conference championship game was their nemesis in Orlando as they fell to the Central Florida Knights. And as a new college football season is set to begin, the Bulls are the only team capable of knocking off the Knights in the AAC East, but will they be able to do it?
The biggest issue facing South Florida as they head into a new college football season is them finding a way to replace the contributions of quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers was one of the best players in South Florida’s history, and as he is now pursuing a career in the National Football League, Strong will turn to junior Brett Kean to be the Bulls starting quarterback.
Kean saw limited action last year as he backed up Flowers which means that the jury will be out on him heading into the new season. Kean is not the only new face on offense for South Florida as junior running back Jordan Kronkrite will look to be the guy after the Bulls lost their top three runners from last year’s team as this offense will be a work in progress throughout the year.
The Bulls must also replace a wealth of talent on defense, but one player to keep an eye on will be senior cornerback Mazzi Wilkins. Wilkins is a solid cover corner who’ll be one of the best players at his position in the conference.
It will be an up and down year for South Florida as there are many holes to fill on this team.
Cincinnati Bearcats 5-7 (3-5)
The 2017 college football season didn’t get started on the right foot for the Cincinnati Bearcats. The Bearcats started 2-6 which was a rut that they couldn’t recover from en route to their second consecutive losing season. It was also Luke Fickell’s first year as Cincinnati’s head football coach, and at times his team struggled to compete. The Bearcats lost four games by at least 20 points, while they were only able to win two games in the American Athletic Conference. And if the Cats want to be more competitive here in 2018, it will begin with them being able to take care of their business with the AAC.
One player who will need to have a bigger impact for Cincy will be senior quarterback Hayden Moore. Moore started in all 12 games for the Bearcats last year, and he had his ups and downs. Moore threw 20 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, but he was only able to complete 56.4% of his passes. And if the Bearcats are going to improve here in 2018, Moore will need to have more consistency when throwing the football.
Cincinnati will have their work cut out for them in order to improve from last season. In 2017, the Bearcats were 95th in the nation in total defense as they gave up at least 40 points in three contests. One player who can help Cincy improve on defense will be senior outside linebacker Perry Young. Young was the Bearcats second leading tackler with 101, and his ability to fly to the ball carrier will be imperative for this defense to make an impact this year.
As the Bearcats won’t be faced with an overly difficult schedule, they have a chance to be just good enough to earn a bowl bid this year.
East Carolina Pirates 3-9 (1-7)
It has been a tough go for Scottie Montgomery in his two years as the head football coach of the East Carolina Pirates. In Montgomery’s two years at ECU, the Pirates are 6-18, while they’ve only won three games within the American Athletic Conference. Heading into a new season the biggest thing that East Carolina must improve upon is their ability to compete as last year saw them lose eight games by 20 points or more which included surrendering 70 points in the regular season finale versus the Memphis Tigers. And if the Tigers cannot show some improvement and compete in the AAC, Montgomery’s tenure in Greenville could be coming to an end sooner rather than later.
The one bright spot on offense for East Carolina is senior wide receiver Trevon Brown, but the biggest question is who will get him the football?
Quarterback Gardner Minshew who was East Carolina’s leading passer last season has transferred to Washington State, while their second leading signal caller Thomas Sirk has graduated. Montgomery will have to go with sophomore Reid Herring at quarterback who will be rather green heading into the new season as he only attempted one pass in 2017.
Defensively there is only one way for the Pirates to go as they were 130th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in regards to total defense. ECU’s struggles included giving up at least 50 points six times. And after you go through a season where you surrender that many points, it is tough to find an impact player for the unit heading into the new season.
One ace in the hole for East Carolina will be the powerful leg of junior kicker Jake Verity. Last year Verity was able to connect on 7 field goals from beyond 40 yards, and if nothing else, he will be in the mix to win the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top placekicker.
It’s going to be another long fall in Greenville as the Pirates will once again be fighting an uphill battle in the American Athletic Conference.
Connecticut Huskies 2-10 (0-8)
Just like it was for Randy Edsall’s first run as the head football coach of the Connecticut Huskies, things have gotten off to a slow start. 2017 marked the beginning of Edsall’s second run at Connecticut and his Huskies struggled mightily as they finished the campaign with a record of 3-9. It also marked the Huskies seventh consecutive losing season as this streak began in 2011 when Edsall originally left the school to become the head football coach of the Maryland Terrapins. Edsall is attempting to make UConn a competitor in the American Athletic Conference, but only time will tell if he will be able to get it done.
Senior quarterback David Pindell saw limited action in 2017, but he did start in the final three games for Connecticut, and hopefully that seasoning will carry over to 2018 as he’ll need to propel this offense.
Under second-year defensive coordinator Billy Crocker, there is only one direction that this unit can go which is up. Last year the Huskies were 127th in the nation in total defense which included surrendering 40 points or more in a contest five times. But with no standout playmakers on this team heading into the new season, UConn will once again have their fair share of struggles on the defensive side of the football.
Right out of the chute Connecticut will host the Central Florida Knights who were the only Football Bowl Subdivision program that went undefeated in 2017 which will be followed by a road trip to face the Boise State Broncos of the Mountain West Conference. These two games will be tone setters for what could be another long football campaign in Storrs.
X-SMU Mustangs 9-4 (7-2)
The Southern Methodist Mustangs will begin the upcoming college football season in the familiar position of starting over. The Mustangs will have their fourth different head coach since 2014 as Sonny Dykes will replace Chad Morris who left to become the head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. But Dykes comes to Dallas with a wealth of experience which includes a recent your-stint as the head football coach of the California Golden Bears. In four years at California, Dykes compiled a record of 19-30 which is misleading since he took over a program that had become a bottom feeder in the Pac-12 Conference. Dykes has always been known to produce offenses that can light up the scoreboard, and he’ll inherit one at SMU.
Last year quarterback Ben Hicks threw 33 touchdowns, while he also had five games in which he passed for at least 300 yards. And under Dykes, Hicks will get every opportunity to build off of those numbers as he’ll be in the mix to be the American Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in this his senior season. Senior running back Xavier Jones is a speed demon who excels with the football in space. Jones averaged 5.9 yards per carry, and I expect Dykes to use creative ways to get this play maker the football as much as possible. Last year wide receiver James Proche benefited from playing alongside Courtland Sutton. But with Sutton now in the National Football League, Proche will be the go-to-guy for the Mustangs in the passing game. At 5’11” 185 lbs., Proche is a shifty and elusive pass catcher who should excel in Dykes’ offensive system.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Kane, SMU’s defense will be a work in progress. Southern Methodist was 122nd in the nation in total defense last season which included surrendering at least 40 points in a contests four times. But two players to keep an eye on will be senior outside linebacker Kyran Mitchell and senior cornerback Justin Wyatt. Wyatt has solid hands in the secondary which resulted in him leading the team in interceptions with 4. Mitchell is a good linebacker, but in order for SMU to improve as a unit, he will need to play like a man possessed.
There aren’t to many soft spots in Southern Methodist’s schedule as their non-conference slate will feature games against an old Southwest Conference foe in the TCU Horned Frogs who are now in the Big 12 Conference, as well as a meeting with the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference. And when American Athletic Conference play begins, contests in November against the Houston Cougars and Memphis Tigers will more than likely determine if these team will have what it takes to reach the conference title game.
X-Houston Cougars 8-4 (5-3)
Things are looking up for the Houston Cougars in the American Athletic Conference. Since joining the AAC in 2013, Houston has never posted a losing record, while their five consecutive bowl appearances have tied a school record. The Cougars have done this in spite of the fact that they have had four different head coaches over this stretch. Major Applewhite is Houston’s current head football coach and he has one year under his belt in regards to calling the shots. Under Applewhite, the Cougars maintained their winning ways, and a loss to the Memphis Tigers is all that prevented them from getting to the AAC Title Game for the second time in three years. And here in 2018, Houston will once again be one of the top squads in the AAC, but will they be the last team standing?
Last year Houston had three different quarterbacks take considerable reps, but Applewhite may have found his go-to-guy in junior D’Eriq King. In five starts last year, King was 3-2, while throwing 6 touchdowns to 2 picks. King is a mobile quarterback who knows how to take off and make something happen with his legs which will be important as the Cougars look to win the conference.
Houston lost plenty of talent from last year’s defense, but one player that they’ll once again be able to count on will be junior defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Oliver is the reigning American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year as not only is he a one-man wrecking crew, but his presence makes those around him better due to the attention that he receives. Oliver will once again be in the mix to be the conference’s defensive player of the year for the havoc that he creates in regards to rushing the passer and playing the run, while you can also expect him to get plenty of attention from the National Football League.
During Houston’s non-conference portion of their schedule, they will renew some old rivalries from their days in the Southwest Conference when they clash with the Rice Owls from Conference USA and the Texas Tech Red Raiders of the Big 12 Conference, while conference road games versus the Navy Midshipmen, SMU Mustangs, and Memphis will determine whether or not that this team will be the last team standing in the conference come December.
X-Memphis Tigers 8-4 (5-3)
The Memphis Tigers continue to strive in the American Athletic Conference. Last season saw the Tigers go 10-3 with two of those losses coming against the Central Florida Knights which is what prevented Memphis from winning their first outright AAC Title. Memphis head football coach Jay Norvell has built off of what his predecessor at the school Justin Fuente had started in regards to the Tigers having a high-octane offense. The Tigers will once again be a fun team to watch, but will they have enough to win the AAC?
Last year the Memphis offense belonged to quarterback Riley Ferguson who was lighting up the scoreboard en route to being drafted by the National Football League. Ferguson’s stellar year led to David Moore hardly seeing the field as he only attempted 10 passes. But as Moore is readying for his sophomore season, he will attempt to fill the shoes of Ferguson for this Memphis offense.
As Moore gets his feet wet, he will have the luxury to hand the football off to a solid ball carrier in junior running back Patrick Taylor Jr., while he will also be protected by one of the best offensive lines in the American Athletic Conference. Led by left tackle Trevon Tate, the Tigers will have three seniors on their starting offensive line as this could be the best unit in the conference.
But as good as things are for Memphis’ offense is how difficult that it can be for them on defense. Last year the Tigers were 117th in the nation in total defense which included giving up at least 40 points in four games. But for Memphis defensive coordinator Chris Ball, he has several players that have potential on this unit. Last year as a freshman, cornerback T.J. Carter led the team in interceptions with 5, and he’ll look to build off of that this year as he seeks to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump”. Senior outside linebacker Curtis Akins led Memphis in tackles with 88, and if he can build off of that, the Tigers should be able to improve somewhat on defense.
Memhis is not as loaded like they were last year, but they could still be a formidable team in the American Athletic Conference.
X-Navy Midshipmen 7-6 (4-4)
The best way to sum up the era of Ken Niumatalolo as the head football coach of the Navy Midshipmen is legendary. Under Niumatalolo, Navy has only had one losing season, while his 84 victories are the most in the program’s history. Navy was able to finish 2017 with a winning record, but it was a tale of two seasons for them. The Midshipmen began the year with a record of 5-0, but they struggled during the second half of their campaign when the schedule got tougher. However hope springs eternal for the Midshipmen who are not only looking to become bowl eligible for the 16th time in the last 17 years, but to also be a force in the American Athletic Conference.
Junior Malcolm Perry was used primarily as running back in 2017, but now he will the guy who is controlling Navy’s triple-option attack. Perry gained 1,182 yards on the ground while he averaged 8.6 per carry. And his ability as a runner will be important for this Navy squad as they look to contend in the American Athletic Conference.
The running game is the backbone of Navy’s team and they will have some good cohesion up front with an experienced offensive line. The Midshipmen will have three seniors up front which includes left tackle Jake Hawk, and two juniors which includes center Ford Higgins as this experience will be important for Navy.
The Midshipmen don’t have any standout players on defense heading into the new season, but we have never seen a year where Navy doesn’t play hard on that side on the football, and 2018 will be no different.
Navy will have their work cut out for them in order to win the American Athletic Conference, but they will once again be an exciting team to watch.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane 3-9 (2-6)
In 2016, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane were one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference as they finished with a record of 10-3. However 2017 would be a completely different tale as the Golden Hurricane were the ones in the eye of the storm as they finished with a record of 2-10 which included losing their last five games. Football is truly a game of momentum swings as a break here or there could make the difference in how a season goes. And as Tulsa and head football coach Philip Montgomery were never able to capture that momentum in 2017, will they be able to find a way to reverse the tide this year?
On offense, the positives that Tulsa has to build off are that they have a veteran offensive line which three seniors which includes center Chandler Miller, and senior wide receiver Justin Hobbs. At 6’4′, 230 lbs., Hobbs is stud who will be one of the top pass catchers this year in the American Athletic Conference.
Surprisingly Tulsa didn’t have the worst defense in the nation last year in spite of the fact that they gave up 40 points or more in six games as they were 128th. But even with Tulsa’s struggles on defenses from a season ago, two players to keep an eye on heading into the new campaign will be a pair of juniors in middle linebacker Cooper Edmiston and outside linebacker Diamon Cannon. Both Edmiston and Cannon are solid tacklers, but will it be enough to help this unit improve?
As Tulsa looks to rebound here in 2018, it won’t be easy as their schedule is littered with games versus conference heavyweights such as the Houston Cougars, Memphis Tigers, Navy Midshipmen, and South Florida Bulls will make it difficult for them to get back on track.
Tulane Green Wave 4-8 (2-6)
Head football coach Willie Fritz is building his foundation with the Tulane Green Wave, and he is very close to a break through. Last year the Green Wave entered the final week of the regular season needing a win to earn their first bowl bid since 2013. But unfortunately for Tulane, they came up just short as a three-point loss to the SMU Mustangs ended their season at 5-7. Fritz has shown that he can make Tulane compete, but will his team be able to make the necessary adjustments to become bowl eligible this time around?
Quarterback Jonathan Banks has one year under his belt as Tulane’s starting quarterback, and although that the had his ups and downs in 2017, there is optimism that he can make solid strides going into his senior campaign.
Defensively senior cornerback Donnie Lewis Jr. was second on the Green Wave last year in interceptions with 3, and he will need to improve off of that in order to help Tulane take the next step.
Tulane will definitely be game here in 2018, but they will need some breaks if they are going to end their bowl drought.
AAC Championship Game: SMU vs. UCF
Conference Champion: UCF
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com