2014 AAC Preview
June 5, 2014
By Marc Lawrence
2014 American Athletic Conference Football Preview
Feels Like The First Time
The American Athletic Conference existed as the Big East Conference from 1979 through 2013. The league formally changed its name as of July 1, 2013.
UCF, which went 8-0 in conference play in 2013, was the winner of the first American Athletic Conference title. Central Florida made their first appearance in a Bowl Championship Series game, beating Big 12 champion Baylor 54-42. The Knights, who went 0-11 in George O’Leary’s first season in 2004, have won 10 games or more four times in the last seven years.
Drawing A Line In The Sand
Five AAC teams ranked among the Top 16 teams nationally in rush defense last season. Louisville (1), Rutgers (4), Cincinnati (6), Memphis (12) and UCF (16).
In addition, the conference ranked No. 2 overall in passing yards per games (259) - trailing only the Pac-12 (270).
The American Athletic Conference was one of three FBS conferences that had two 12-win teams last season (Louisville and UCF).
The Big Ten and the SEC also had two teams with at least a dozen victories.
With the addition of East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa this season, ‘The American’ will be comprised of 11 members: UCF, Cincinnati, UConn, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, USF, SMU, Temple, Tulane and Tulsa in 2014-15. Navy joins as a 12th football member in 2015.
Beginning in 2015, the West Division will consist of Houston, Memphis, Navy, SMU, Tulane and Tulsa. The East Division will include UCF, Cincinnati, UConn, East Carolina, USF and Temple.
Eight Is Enough
‘The American’ will add an eighth on-field official, who will be positioned behind the quarterback, for all of its conference games in 2014 for a one-season trial. The eighth official will also be used in all of Navy's games in which game officials are assigned by the AAC. The conference's head football coaches recommended implementation primarily to enhance student-athlete safety.
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
CINCINNATI (Offense – 7/2 Defense – 6/1)
TEAM THEME: HOT TUBS
After dropping 12 of his previous 20 games before jumping to Cincinnati last year, slumping Tommy Tuberville recorded an impressive 9-4 mark in his Bearcats debut, as Cincy has now won at least nine games six times in the last seven years. UC outstatted its opponents by 156 YPG last season behind a stop-unit that was ranked 9th best in the country in total defense. Offensively, senior QB Munchie Legaux continues to rehab from a serious knee injury suffered in the second game of the season last year and could challenge later in the fall but for now Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel looks to start under center. After a late start to the year (9/12), Tubs hits the road for tough trips to Ohio State and Miami Florida.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bearcats will play all six home games this season at Paul Brown Stadium as Nippert Stadium undergoes renovation.
CONNECTICUT (Offense – *7/1 Defense – 6/2)
TEAM THEME: RISE UP. TOGETHER.
Despite winning their final three games after a 0-9 start, the Huskies did not retain interim HC T.J. Weist, who replaced Paul Pasqualoni in late-September. Instead, UConn brought in Notre Dame DC Bob Diaco amidst glowing praise to try to turn the program around. Diaco won the 2012 Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach as he helped the Irish reach the BCS Championship game against Alabama. He welcomes back three QB’s that saw starting time in 2013, including Casey Cochran who went 3-1 as a starter last season, tossing 11 TD for 1,293 yards as a freshman. The problem is Diaco will need to replace four senior starters from the offensive line. Senior TB Lyle McCombs, the 4th leading rusher in UConn history, and 1000-yard receiver Geremy Davis, also return. It’s time the Huskies make the climb.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Notre Dame was 20-5 with Diaco as an assistant head coach.
EAST CAROLINA (Offense – *6/3 Defense – 4/2)
TEAM THEME: THIS IS OUR STATE
We predicted Ruffin McNeill’s breakout season on these pages last year and the Pirates didn't disappoint, delivering a 10-win campaign with a Beef ’O’ Brady’s Bowl victory over Ohio U. Shane Carden returns for his senior season at QB after a phenomenal year in Greenville, throwing for 4,132 yards and 33 TD’s, not to mention rushing for 10 more. His No. 1 target, Justin Hardy, is back as well. There are plenty of holes for McNeill to fill, however, especially in the defensive secondary. After clubbing both North Carolina and NC State last season, the Pirates will have the opportunity to lay claim to ‘top dog’ status in the state this year. We think not.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: McNeill is 24-7 SU and 19-7-1 ATS vs. losing teams, and 4-14 SU and ATS vs. winning teams.
HOUSTON (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 9/4)
TEAM THEME: A CAN OF O’KORN
After facing the toughest schedule in program history last season (foes combined for 94 wins), the Cougars move into a new 45,000 seat state-of-the-art facility, Houston Football Stadium. The good news is the 2013 leader in nearly every major stat category returns in 2014. The roster sports 56 upperclassmen and 58 underclassmen, including SO QB John O’Korn who took over starting duties in Game Four last year. Though the Cougars were the 2nd worst team in the land in 4th down conversion percentage (.235), that number should improve as O’Korn matures. And talk about explosive, 32 of Houston's 65 scoring drives last season came in under two minutes.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since 2006, the Cougars own the top spot in college football as the nation’s offensive yards leader (53,780… 1,458 more than Oregon).
MEMPHIS (Offense – *9/3 Defense – 8/3)
TEAM THEME: TIGER JUICE
After making great strides in 2012 under HC Justin Fuente, the Tigers took a minor step back in their first year in the AAC. The good news, though, is that QB Paxton Lynch returns to Memphis after a strong freshman season where he threw for over 2,000 yards, along with top rusher Brandon Hayes (860 YR) and Lynch’s top four pass catchers from a year ago. The Tigers played seven teams that went bowling last season, losing to six of them, but the margin of defeat was just under 8 PPG. Non-conference road games in 2014 include UCLA and Ole Miss… all of which should prep the Tigers nicely for a second go-round in the AAC.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 2014 Tigers roster features 273 returning starts.
PLAY ON: vs. Houston (10/11) - *Key as a dog
SMU (Offense – 6/3 Defense – 6/3)
TEAM THEME: JUNE AWAKENING
Thanks to ranking dead last in the nation in net punting (31.3), June Jones’ run & shoot offense shot itself in the foot last season, thanks primarily to poor field position. As a result, a 4-year bowl skein was snapped. Nonetheless, the love affair continues as Jones received a contract extension. Gone this year is star QB Garrett Gilbert and 1-year OC Hal Mumme, who resigned to assume a head coaching job with a lower level program. While the offense is basically being rebuilt with a plethora of sophomores and juniors, the defensive front is loaded with experience. A challenging schedule awaits with the Ponies who tackle bowl teams in five of their first six games.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: June Jones is 38-15 SU and 29-19-1 ATS, including 15-2 ATS as a dog, in seasons after his team failed to go bowling the previous year.
TEMPLE (Offense – *5/1 Defense – 8/2)
TEAM THEME: BEFORE AND AFTER
It was really a tale of two seasons in Matt Rhule’s first year at the helm in Philadelphia. After trailing in 78% of the first six games, the Owls led or were tied in 85% of the final six contests, despite finishing the season at 2-10. The change basically coincided with Rhule’s decision to insert freshman P.J. Walker into the lineup at QB, and Walker responded with 20 TD passes and over 2,000 yards through the air in his seven starts. Unfortunately, only one starter returns on the O-line. The defense will be led by LB Tyler Matakevich, who topped the country in solo tackles last season with 8.8 stops per game.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Owls are one of the youngest teams in the nation with only 8 seniors on the roster.
TULANE (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 6/2)
TEAM THEME: MOVING ON UP
The Green Wave continues to make quantum conference leaps, moving from the C-USA to the AAC this season. HC Curtis Johnson moved up five wins from his first season to his second at Tulane, taking the Wave to the New Orleans Bowl. An experienced mentor, CJ spent 10 seasons coaching WR’s at the U in Miami, a group that included Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Santana Moss. He also spent six years with the New Orleans Saints. Tulane was an extremely fortuitous team in 2013 with only the Houston Cougars gaining more turnovers than the Green Wave (+35). Behind a squad filled with 206 returning starts, anything less than a return to the bowls would be disappointing.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Curtis Johnson is 10-1 ATS in games versus an opponent off a win.
TULSA (Offense – 5/3 Defense – 10/4)
TEAM THEME: MISSION POSSIBLE
The exact opposite scenario from the 2013 season greets HC Bill Blankenship as he enters 2014. Instead of an experienced offensive unit with plenty of skill position returnees – coupled with a very green stop unit – he now heads into the year looking for a new QB, someone to consistently lead the ground game and a couple of good-hands people to catch the football. On the flip side, the defense should be strong after losing just one starter. Blankenship won 19 games in his first two seasons with the Golden Hurricane, but reality set in last year and he must now adjust to a new conference. It’s a ‘mission’ he’s anxious to start – and we’re betting he succeeds.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last three times Tulsa finished with a losing record they bounced back to go 10-3, 9-4 and 8-5 (25-11-1 ATS combined).
UCF (Offense – 6/2 Defense – 9/3)
TEAM THEME: KNGHTS IN SHINING ARMOR The losses are quite heavy on offense for the inaugural AAC champs who, thanks to four come from behind wins in the fourth quarter last season, finished with their highest ranking in school history (No. 10 in the AP Coaches Poll) following a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. NFL 1st-round QB Blake Bortles is gone, along with top RB Storm Johnson and three All-conference offensive linemen. On the other side of the ball, the nation’s 17th ranked scoring defense (21.3 PPG) returns almost completely intact, bringing back nine starters and plenty of experienced backups as 26 of the 29 players that saw action on defense in two or more games last season return. Meanwhile, HC George O’Leary will be looking to take the Knights to their 5th bowl game in six years.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Knights are 26-11 ‘In The Stats’ the last three seasons.
USF (Offense – *10/5 Defense – 5/1)
TEAM THEME: TAG, YOU’RE IT
The first season in Tampa for Willie Taggart was an absolute disaster – SB Nation’s Bill Connelly put it rather succinctly: “Only brief bouts of competence in two games in October prevented a winless season.” Since the disappointing campaign apparently was unstoppable, Taggart was smart enough to realize what he needed to do: give his inexperienced but promising players as much time on the field as possible. Then, he somehow went out and had the best recruiting haul in the AAC. Obviously, things can go nowhere but up, as the Bulls had five games where the offensive unit could not punch it over the goal line. Taggart will be on a short leash and needs to produce now.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Taggart is 19-3-1 ATS in away games.
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