AAC Schedule Outlook
July 22, 2013
By Joe Nelson
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With big changes in the off-season and more on the way in the coming years, the former Big East has added several teams from Conference USA this season to fill a 10-team league, now branded the American Athletic Conference. With Louisville winning the Sugar Bowl last season, there is some credibility in the group, although this will certainly be viewed as the weakest of the six BCS automatic-qualifier conferences and a conference that has a shaky future ahead. Here is a look at the 10 teams and a glance at the key games on the schedule.
Central Florida Knights: Central Florida will be a threat in the AAC despite making the leap from Conference USA. The Knights catch a scheduling break as they do not play Cincinnati, but the defense may not hold up quite as well in a tougher overall conference and after great defensive numbers in 2010 and 2011, the unit did regress last season despite a 10-win campaign. Having to play two major conference foes in non-conference action could take a toll on the overall record, but a fourth bowl trip in the last five years seems likely.
Conference Miss: Cincinnati
Toughest Back-to-Back: While UCF gets a bye week to prepare for the biggest game of its conference season, playing a Friday night primetime game at Louisville will be a stiff challenge. Whatever the result of that big game is, the follow-up game hosting Connecticut could be a problematic flat spot.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: The Knights will play at Penn State in the third week of the season in a big early test. Last season, UCF played commendably at Ohio State in a 31-16 loss and they will be up for the opportunity.
Cincinnati Bearcats: Tommy Tuberville made a surprise jump to Cincinnati in the offseason and he inherits two experienced QBs and a veteran offensive line from a team that has gone 10-3 each of the last two years while also winning bowl games. The schedule is favorable for the Bearcats in league play, so another 10-win season is possible for a program that has flown under the radar despite double-digit wins in five of the last six seasons. Louisville will get the most attention in the AAC, but Cincinnati is certainly capable of running the table and they host the Cardinals in the finale.
Conference Miss: Central Florida
Toughest Back-to-Back: While there are a couple of tough stretches in conference play, the opportunity for Cincinnati to make a bit of noise nationally we be there to start off the season. Cincinnati hosts Purdue in the first week and then will play at Illinois in Week 2. While the Bearcats will likely be favored in both of those games, beating two Big Ten teams to start the season would help to maintain the status of this often overlooked program and provide a big early boost for Tuberville being that he is the fourth coach in 10 years at Cincinnati.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: The opener with Purdue will be huge for Cincinnati to set the tone for the season. Purdue is going through a coaching transition as well and while the Bearcats have more to lose with a loss than they have to gain with a win, it will be a big statement opportunity to set the course for the season and could spark a great season with this schedule.
Connecticut Huskies: After a pretty successful run for Randy Edsall at Connecticut, the Huskies have been kept out of the bowl picture the past two seasons under Paul Pasqualoni. Going 5-7 each of the last two seasons has meant that the Huskies have not been far off from the postseason and this is a team that has been involved with a great deal of close games the last two seasons. The defense had excellent numbers last year, but the offense has struggled since the coaching change and this will be a big season in Storrs as some positive progress should be expected.
Conference Miss: Houston
Toughest Back-to-Back: While the Huskies have a tough non-conference set with home games against Maryland and Michigan in consecutive weeks, the most important stretch will likely come in October with three big conference games in consecutive weeks. A homecoming date with South Florida follows up a bye week and opens the conference season and then big road games at Cincinnati and at Central Florida will dictate the path of the season.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: While Michigan would certainly be the biggest non-conference game on the schedule for most teams, the previous week's game with Maryland might be a bigger deal for the players as many were recruited by Maryland's coach. Connecticut beat Maryland, 24-21 last season in College Park, but it was an ugly offensive display with only 223 yards of offense.
Houston Cougars: After nearly producing a perfect season in 2011, Houston fell to 5-7 last season, including a couple of ugly embarrassing losses in the first season as a head coach for Tony Levine. After starting 0-3, Houston did show some signs of progress but ultimately had too much trouble on defense, allowing 483 yards per game. Ten starters return on offense and the Cougars could fit in well in the AAC despite coming from Conference USA. Houston has some difficult road games ahead but with a light non-conference schedule a bowl trip looks likely.
Conference Miss: Connecticut
Toughest Back-to-Back: Houston will face long travel in the AAC schedule and they have arguably the two toughest games of the season back-to-back on the road late in the year, playing at UCF and then at Louisville. The Cougars might be capable of an upset this season, but they are likely to fade in the second half of the season with a much more difficult schedule as it would not be a shock to see this team start 5-0.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: While hosting BYU will be a big game in October, the biggest game of the non-conference season will come against former conference foe Rice in a rivalry game between the Houston area schools. Playing at Reliant Stadium is a big draw for the players and Houston will have two weeks to prepare with a bye week prior to the game.
Louisville Cardinals: The Cardinals will be highly ranked and considered a candidate to go undefeated with a very light non-conference slate. This team won six games by seven points or less last season and while Teddy Bridgewater will post big numbers, running the table seems unlikely as this team has lost at home to an unranked team eight times in three years under Coach Strong. The Louisville defense has also regressed the last two seasons and there are some challenging road games ahead.
Conference Miss: SMU
Toughest Back-to-Back: As many have suggested, Louisville has a very weak schedule which has allowed many to project an undefeated season. The toughest stretch might come in late October as they host Central Florida on a Friday night primetime game and then will face a trip to Tampa to play South Florida the next week. While the Bulls are not expected to be a contender, that could be a tricky spot on the schedule after back-to-back national TV weekday games.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: Playing at Kentucky will be a tough spot on the schedule due to the rivalry between the schools and the energy behind a rejuvenated Wildcats program with a chance to take out a highly ranked team. Louisville won, 32-14 last season, but the prior three meetings were all decided by seven points or less. Winning in a SEC venue won't be easy, even if it is just Kentucky.
Memphis Tigers: Memphis has one of the more experienced teams in the conference and there will be opportunities for wins this season, but the defense will need to improve after allowing over 30 points per game last season. The Tigers play a relatively weak non-conference schedule, which could provide an opportunity for a win or two and the best opportunities for wins in conference play do come at home.
Conference Miss: Rutgers
Toughest Back-to-Back: In November, Memphis will play road games at South Florida and then at Louisville in consecutive weeks. Hosting Tennessee-Martin should provide a win in early November, but those next two road games will take a toll and the Tigers will need to stay focused with winnable games in the final two contests.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: Memphis does not play the opening weekend and then will host Duke in a prominent home game. At Duke last season, Memphis lost badly, outgained 500-152, so the Tigers will be looking for a much better performance and the Blue Devils could get caught looking past Memphis.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Rutgers has quietly produced back-to-back nine-win seasons, but significant player turnover could lead to a rocky 2013 season. The schedule features five tough road games and some long trips with the new make-up of the conference. Coach Kyle Flood proved himself last season with a 9-4 mark to exceed expectations and that record included three-point losses to both Virginia Tech and Louisville, so this team should not be overlooked but the Knights appear to have one of the toughest schedules in the conference.
Conference Miss: Memphis
Toughest Back-to-Back: The most difficult stretch for Rutgers could come late in the year with a back-to-back road game set starting on a Thursday night at Central Florida, just five days after a big home game with Cincinnati. To make matters worse, Rutgers will be on the road in potentially chilly weather the following week at Connecticut.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: The opener at Fresno State will certainly be a game that gets some attention, but hosting Arkansas in late September will be a huge game as well. Rutgers won at Arkansas last season as a solid underdog, incredibly posting 525 yards of offense. Even at home this time around, the Knights figure to be solid underdogs, but the opportunity to host a SEC team will be a big deal in New Brunswick.
SMU Mustangs: SMU has been a bowl team in four straight seasons, but the Mustangs have lost at least five games in each of those years, failing to break through with a great campaign. They did close last season with a stunning Hawaii Bowl win beating Fresno State, 43-10 as a double-digit underdog to take some momentum into 2013. With a brutally tough non-conference slate, an improvement in record seems unlikely, especially with the move to a tougher conference as well, even with the favorable pass on Louisville this year.
Conference Miss: Louisville
Toughest Back-to-Back: A tough back-to-back on any team's schedule would be the brutal gauntlet of facing Texas A&M and TCU in back-to-back weeks on the road and that is the task for the Mustangs in late September. Both of those teams could be highly ranked national players and it could spell a rough start to the season for SMU.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: Hosting Texas Tech in the opening week of the season will be a big opportunity for SMU. The Mustangs played competitively with the Red Raiders to open the season in 2010 and with Texas Tech in a coaching transition, this is a realistic upset opportunity for the Mustangs even though this is not an overly experienced group.
South Florida Bulls: With expectations at a low point, South Florida might surprise this season, but there are a lot of key pieces to replace. After going 3-9, the Bulls should improve and Willie Taggart was a turnaround artist at Western Kentucky. The schedule does feature two very tough non-conference games and overall the home slate is very challenging.
Conference Miss: Temple
Toughest Back-to-Back: The Bulls have been a disappointing late-season team in several recent seasons and another late slide is possible. The final two games of the season will be difficult road games, playing at UCF in a Friday night primetime game and then taking a long trip north to play at Rutgers in December temperatures that should make the South Florida kids uncomfortable.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: Hosting Miami in late September will be a marquee game for South Florida. Last season, USF lost, 40-9 in the matchup, but in 2011 it was just 6-3 and the Bulls beat the Hurricanes at Miami in 2010. The game falls in a spot where Miami could get caught overlooking the Bulls.
Temple Owls: Temple fell to just 4-7 last season after a couple of successful seasons in a row and another coaching change occurred with Steve Addazio leaving for Boston College. Moving from the MAC to the AAC will be a huge jump in competition for Temple and a difficult season could lie ahead even though there is some experience on the team and three of the four non-conference games look promising for wins.
Conference Miss: South Florida
Toughest Back-to-Back: Temple will play SMU and Rutgers on the road in back-to-back weeks and while those are not the toughest teams on the schedule overall it will be a tough place for a long road trip. Homecoming is the previous game for the Owls and difficult taxing games with Louisville and Cincinnati will precede that as the road game at Rutgers will be in the sixth consecutive week with a game.
Biggest Non-Conference Game: An opening game at Notre Dame will be a huge deal for the Temple players and while the Owls should be overmatched, the Irish played plenty of close games with lesser teams last season. Temple has competed well with several major conference teams in recent years and the Owls will be excited for the opportunity.