2017 AAC Preview
June 5, 2017
By Marc Lawrence
ACC · Big Ten
2017 AMERICAN ATHLETIC PREVIEW
Coach Me Up
Entering its fourth year of existence, the American Athletic Conference remains the top Group of 5 League heading into the 2017 football season.
While the loop has struggled in bowl games, going 6-14 SU and 7-13 ATS, it has become a breeding ground for up-and-coming head coaches.
Tulsa’s Phillip Montgomery, SMU’s Chad Morris, and Memphis’ Mike Norvell are three promising young coaches on the rise, and we didn’t even mention Tulane’s Willie Fritz. Meanwhile, the 23 wins by Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo over Power Five or BCS Conference foes is the most of all Group of Five schools.
The AAC has five new coaches for 2017: Cincinnati's Luke Fickell, Connecticut’s Randy Edsall, Houston's Major Applewhite, Temple's Geoff Collins, and USF’s Charlie Strong.
And rest assured, East Carolina’s Scottie Montgomery is fully aware that the Pirates have missed out on bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2004-05. Beware of the AAC. Its coaches take a back seat to no one.
-- Average attendance at American Athletic Conference home stadiums was 31,611, clearly No. 1 for Group of Five conferences, and right on the heels of 2015 when it averaged 31,842 in 2015, after an average of 21,193 in 2014. USF was up 41% in 2016 with a 10-2 record and a home game vs. Florida State. On the flip side, Temple fell 38% without facing Notre Dame. Other than BYU, East Carolina (44.113) had the largest average attendance outside the Power Five.
-- Danger ahead: since the AAC formation in 2014 the conference has struggled mightily in non-conference games following a SUATS loss, going just 4-26-1 ATS. And if they are not taking at least 7 points in these games they fall off the face of the earth, going 0-13-1 ATS. Gulp.
Note: The numbers following each team name represents 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 – *6/3, Defense – 6/3, 42 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: BEING FICKELL
A 3-1 start last season turned into a 1-7 disastrous finish and an absolute P.R. nightmare when head coach Timmy Tuberville went off on a disgruntled fan in front of cameras. As a result of the implosion, the Bearcats brought in longtime Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell to right the program and polish its image. Fickell also served as the Buckeyes’ interim coach in 2011 following the Jim Tressel fallout while guiding OSU to its first losing season since 1988. The good news is Fickell has defensive DNA in his blood and the strength of this Bearcats team appears to be its defense. Behind an experienced Power 5 coaching staff, cool hand Luke looks right at home in Cincinnati.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Fickell was 1-5 ATS in games following a win as a head coach with Ohio State.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. UCF (10/27)
CONNECTICUT (Offense – *7/3, Defense –5/3, 57 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: OLD DOGS...NEW TRICKS
Like a stray dog returning home, former head coach Randy Edsall is back at UConn. With the Bob Diaco experiment officially history, Edsall returns to Connecticut for a second tour, this time trying to ignite an offense that was virtually non-existent in three seasons under Diaco. The 20 touchdowns they scored was lowest tally of any team in the nation in 2016. Edsall turns to former Auburn OC Rhett Lashlee – a Gus Malzahn protégé – and Villanova DC Billy Crocker for his new coordinators. The good news is five OL with starting experience are back. And remember: Huskies’ sophomores made a total of 127 starts in 2015, the most in the nation. Those young pups are now seniors.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskies scored a total of nine first-quarter points (three field goals in two games) last season.
PLAY ON: vs. UCF (11/11)
EAST CAROLINA (Offense – 6/3, Defense – 7/3, 53 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: WHERE’S THE BOUNTY?
Year One under head coach Scottie Montgomery was expected to be productive. After all, 51 upper classmen dotted the Pirates’ roster, including star WR Zay Jones and transfer QB Phillip Nelson. Neither disappointed with Jones leading the nation in receiving while Nelson, a protégé of quarterback specialist coach Terry Shea, finished 7th in completion percentage (67.9). Through it all the offense improved 53 YPG, but the defense – horse-collared with injuries – slipped 51 YPG. It didn’t help that ECU was also the worst team in the nation in turnovers gained (8) last season. The question is with Jones and Nelson gone, what can they to improve on last year’s three wins?
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Pirates are 2-16 SU and 0-18 ATS versus conference foes with a winning record since 2010.
TEMPLE (Offense - 5/3, Defense – 4/1, 42 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: #GREAT HIRE
When Florida DC Geoff Collins replaced Matt Rhule as the Owls coach this season, he almost immediately began using social media hashtags to show his footprint on the program. The one that has gotten most of the attention from the players is #the STANDARD, as they quickly learned that the standard expected from every player has been raised even higher this year. After fighting thru a 2-10 seaosn in 2013, Temple concluded the final two years of the Rhule regime with a pair of 10-win seasons. But because 50% of the starts made for the Owls last season were by seniors, Collins realizes everone must step up in 2017. The ranks are thin but the spirit is high.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: New Temple coach Collins is the only coach to be a Broyles award nominee – the nation’s best assistant coach - at three schools.
UCF (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 4/3, 43 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: COOLNESS AT ITS BEST
After taking over a program that failed to win a game in 2015 and leading them to a bowl game, the big question is what does Scott Frost do for an encore? He was 24-2 as a quarterback at Nebraska. As a DC at Northern Iowa the Panthers went from 7-4 to 12-1. And while an assistant at Oregon, the Ducks went 79-15. So yes, the man knows how to win. It’s also no coincidence that the UCF freshmen made the 2nd most starts in the nation in 2015. After coming up big as sophomores last season, they are now juniors. With added improvement in store this year behind a powerful front seven, the question has been answered.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: UCF was the No. 2 team in the nation in red zone defense in 2016.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. East Carolina (10/14) - *KEY
USF (Offense – *7/3, Defense – 9/4, 49 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: STRONG ARMED
One of 11 teams to win 11 games last season, USF set nearly 40 team records in 2016, including total yards (6,650), rushing yards (3,714), touchdowns (77), and scoring (569) in its best season ever. JR QB Quinton Flowers was named AAC Offensive POY while leading a school-record 10 players named to the all-conference team. While those are some mighty big shoes to fill, six of those players - including Flowers - return in 2017. Among the missing, though, is head coach Willie Taggart who moves on to Oregon. Enter controversial Charlie Strong, whose first task will be to rebuild a defense that actually regressed over 100 YPG last season. Just the way he likes it.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: USF was the No. 1 team in the nation in 4th down conversion percentage last season.
HOUSTON (Offense – *6/3, Defense – 8/2, 37 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: APPLE SEEDS
It’s been said that Major Applewhite likes big challenges. In succeeding Tom Herman as the Cougars’ new head coach he has taken on a gargantuan task. On the heels of its best two-season effort (22 wins) in school history, Applewhite inherits two terrifically talented recruiting classes left behind by Herman, including 2016 Defensive Freshmen All-American of the Year, DT Ed Oliver, the most decorated recruit in Cougar history. Dynamo QB Greg Ward Jr. is gone, creating a big hole behind center. The hope is Texas A&M transfer QB Kyle Allen can live up to his blue-chip recruit hype. If new DC Mark D’Onofrio (Miami and Temple) can continue to plug holes, gargantuan just may turn to tiny.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Former Utah OC and Mississippi State QB coach Brian Johnson is Houston new offensive coordinator.
MEMPHIS (Offense – *9/4, Defense – 8/3, 43 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: FUENTE, WHO?
When Memphis won 8 games in Mike Norvell’s first year after replacing Justin Fuente in 2015, he set the bar high. Real high, considering it was the most wins by a first-year coach in school history. He was also the first coach to lead the Tigers to a bowl game in his first season, plus the first rookie head coach at Memphis to defeat a ranked team since 1975. Now, after 27 wins in three seasons, and with a boatload of starters returning, the upside for this fledgling program has never been higher. A quick glance of the schedule confirms that Memphis could be favored in as many as 10 games this campaign. Beware of the Tiger.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Memphis is 12-0 ATS as an underdog in regular season road finales.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Houston (10/19)
NAVY (Offense - 4/2, Defense – 7/1, 47 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: NIUMATALOLO SPELLS SUCCESS
We could write a book about the Navy program every year, but due to space limitations, we’ll go with the Cliff Notes version. Ready? Since Ken Niumatalolo became head coach Navy in 2008, the well-disciplined Middies have never finished lower than 2nd in penalties per game. They also know how to win, going 144-92 in Coach N’s 19 seasons on the Navy sidelines. Last year they saw 102 games missed by key starters or contributors due to injury – and the Midshipmen still won 9 games! You can do that when you’re the No. 1 team in the land in 3rd down conversion percentage, and when you’ve got the horses to topple your first AP Top 10 team since 1984. And beware: Navy will enter the 2017 season on a three-game losing streak. It is Navy’s longest losing streak since 2014. Navy won 26 of their next 31 games after the previous three-game losing streak. Forewarned is forearmed.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Navy played nine FBS teams in 2016 that finished with eight or more wins (tied with North Carolina for the most in the country).
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Houston (11/24)
SMU (Offense - *9/4, Defense – 5/3, 40 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: GROWING UP LIGHTNING FAST
The Mustangs continued their upward ascent last season under head coach Chad Morris. Noteworthy in the Ponies’ annual improvement run last season was its first win over a Top 15 team since 1986. Morris’ non-stop triple option attack is loaded with returning starters, including exciting SO QB Ben Hicks and last year’s top eight targets, along with four-star LSU transfer Trey Quinn, who starred during spring camp. Defensively, depth and attrition became issues down the stretch in 2016. Five starters from that unit are gone, but no less than 16 contributors are back. Like we said last year, if the defense can hold the fort, the Mustangs should be ordering up bowl shirts by season’s end.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Freshmen have started a total of 101 games for the Mustangs last two seasons.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Houston (10/7)
TULANE (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 7/2, 49 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: HITTING THE RESET BUTTON
Perhaps no other coach in college football hits a groove like Willie Fritz does when it comes to his second-year with a program. According to Bill Connelly of SBNation.com, in his second year at Blinn College his team won the NJCAA title. In his second year at Central Missouri, the Mules went from 5-6 to 8-3. In his second year at Sam Houston State, the Bearkats went from 6-5 to 14-1. And in his second year at Georgia Southern, the Eagles secured their first bowl bid. Better yet, because Fritz played a ton of underclassmen last year, that youth turns to experience this year. Sure, they were the worst team in the nation in team passing, and 3rd down conversion percentage, last season. But rest assured, Willie is right where he wants to be this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Head coach Willie Fritz is 14-0 SU and 11-1 ATS versus .333 or less opponents.
PLAY ON: vs. Houston (11/18)
TULSA (Offense – 7/4, Defense – 6/2, 49 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: CATEGORY 5 WARNING
Tulsa’s high octane offense hit on all cylinders under head coach Phillip Montgomery - remember that name – when it became the first team in FBS history to have a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers, and two 1,000-yard WRs in the same season. Even more satisfying for Montgomery, though, was the fact that the Hurricane defense actually improved over 100 YPG over the previous season. Throughout it all, an offense going full-speed for 60 minutes continued to percolate with its second straight Category 5 effort under Monty when its 527 YPG effort topped the 507 YPG posted in his first year with Tulsa. And oh yeah, Tulsa has scored 30-plus points in each of its last 11 games. Yikes.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Tulsa is 29-7 SU and 28-8 ATS in conference games in which it scores 30 or more points.
PLAY ON: vs. Navy (9/30)
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