2018 AAC Preview
June 11, 2018
By Marc Lawrence
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2018 AMERICAN ATHLETIC PREVIEW
Entering its fifth year of existence, the American Athletic Conference remains the top Group of 5 League heading into the 2018 football season.
While the loop has struggled in bowl games, going 10-17 SU and 11-16 ATS, it has become a breeding ground for up-and-coming head coaches including the likes of Memphis’ Mike Norvell, Temple’s Geoff Collins, Tulane’s Willie Fritz and Tulsa’s Phillip Montgomery.
Meanwhile, the 24 wins by Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo over Power Five or BCS Conference foes is the most of all Group of Five schools.
Two head coaches make their AAC debut in 2018, including SMU’s Sonny Dykes and UCF’s Josh Heupel – who makes his debut as a head coach at the FBS level.
Expect one or two of the aforementioned coaches to move on to a Power Five team in the near future.
-- Danger ahead: since the AAC formation in 2014 the conference has struggled mightily in non-conference games following a SUATS loss, going just 9-29-1 ATS. And if they are visitors in these games they fall off the face of the earth, going 1-12 SUATS. Gulp.
-- Since the formation of the conference in 2014, the best role for AAC teams has been on the road when coming off a win and facing a foe coming off a loss. It’s where teams in the conference stand 40-23 SU and 41-21-1 ATS overall, including 32-11-1 ATS if they scored 35 or more points in their last game.
-- Average attendance at American Athletic Conference home stadiums was 28,669, clearly No. 1 for Group of Five conferences. The problem, however, is it represented a decline of -2,942 fans per game over the 2016 season, the largest fall-off of all FBS conferences.
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 - *5/2 , Defense - 7/3, 43 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: COOL HAND LUKE
When Luke Fickell came to Cincinnati from Ohio State, he was brought on board to stop the bleeding. Former UC head coach Tommy Tuberville was dismissed not only after a public outburst against a fan but also after the Bearcats had slid gradually from back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2011-12 to just four wins in 2016. Tasked with rebuilding the program, Fickell immediately went to work compiling the best 2-year recruiting class in the Group of 5. The offense he inherited last season was thinned by graduation but QB Hayden Moore returns for his senior season, along with top RB Gerrid Doaks and WR Kahil Lewis. If Fickell’s defensive DNA rubs off (a former DC with the Buckeyes), the free fall should come to a cool halt this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Fickell is 1-5 SU and 0-6 ATS as a single-digit favorite as a head coach with Ohio State and Cincinnati.
PLAY ON: at SMU (10/27)
CONNECTICUT (Offense - 7/4, Defense - 2/1, 39 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: OLD DOGS AND MORE YOUTH
When head coach Randy Edsall left the Huskies program after the 2010 season, he served five years as Maryland’s head coach and one season in the Detroit Lions’ front office. He then returned to Storrs to revive a suffocating program that went 24-49 after he left. The good news is a stagnant offense improved 9 points and nearly 100 YPG last year. The bad news is a treacherous defense declined 10 points and over 100 YPG. Worse, they were pushed around the field while managing to outgain only one foe, Cincinnati, in the final game of the campaign. New OC John Dunn, a Chicago Bears assistant and former OC with Edsall at Maryland, steps in. That didn’t work out well then, and we doubt it will again.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskies have been outyarded in 14 of their last 15 games.
PLAY ON: vs. Cincinnati (9/29)
EAST CAROLINA (Offense - 5/3, Defense - 7/3, 41 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: BLACKWELL THE MAGICIAN
From Bill Connelly of SB Nation: When you fire a good coach in the hopes of getting a great one, you end up burning your house to the ground. And it’s never good when you were the worst team in the land in Scoring Defense and Tackles for a Loss. With last year’s disaster, ECU has gone 6-18 since Montgomery took over and hasn’t had two years this bad since going 3-20 under John Thompson in 2003-04. The good news is all of the freshmen and sophomores who got lit up last year are now sophomores and juniors. And Montgomery brought in highly regarded defensive coordinator David Blackwell. In his last three years, Blackwell’s teams never allowed more than 20 points per game (15 PPG last year).
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Pirates are 2-20 SU and 0-22 ATS versus conference foes with a winning record since 2010.
PLAY ON: vs. Houston (10/13)
HOUSTON (Offense - *6/4, Defense - 6/2, 43 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: CHARACTER RISK
One of four teams that did not start a senior last season, the Cougars return a total of 58 juniors and seniors. However, the controversial hire of Kendall Briles, son of disgraced head coach Art Briles and former OC at Baylor and Florida Atlantic (last year) is questionable, at best. It was Briles who asked a potential recruit, “Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor and they love football players.” Nonetheless, sophomore head coach Major Applewhite needs to address a defense that regressed 102 YPG behind 1st-year DC Mark Donofrio last season. Future NFL DT Ed Oliver, the best defensive player in the conference, needs to stand and deliver. If so, Applewhite figures to benefit.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Applewhite is 29-10 SU as a head coach and an assistant with the Houston Cougars.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. USF (10/27)
MEMPHIS (Offense - 7/4, Defense - 8/2, 34 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: BURNERS ON
Memphis underclassmen started 41.6% of the team’s starts last season, meaning HC Mike Norvell brings back a highly experienced pack of Tigers. That’s good news considering major losses on the offense (QB Riley Ferguson, 4-year starting OL Gabe Kuhn, home run hitting WR Anthony Miller, and not to mention OC Darrell Dickey). Miller had 17 games of 100-plus receiving yards. Together they were a major reason that only 18% of the Tigers’ snaps came on third down last season (5th best in the nation). The good news is 4 starters (with 75 career starts) return on the OL. With Norvell averaging 9 wins and 42 PPG per season with Memphis, look for the aforementioned youngsters to carry the torch.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Memphis is 33-9 SU in it last 42 regular season games.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Houston (11/23)
NAVY (Offense - *4 /2, Defense - 5/2, 43 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE
How satisfying was Navy’s 7-win season last year? Mighty, when you consider the Middies played five teams that ended the season with 10 or more wins. In addition, they faced six of the top-20 rushing offenses in 2017 and held all of them, except Air Force, below their average. Plus, they also faced three of the top-16 passing offenses and held each of them under their average. The offensive surge was supplied by quarterbacks 1-and-1-A, namely Zach Abey and Malcom Perry, who were on the field as a tandem throughout the season. Abey rushed for 1,413 yards in 2017. In addition, RB/QB Malcom Perry rushed for 1,182 yards (646 as a QB). They’ll need to overcome the loss of 21 seniors from the two-deep depth charts, though.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Navy is 70-5 SU under Niumatalolo when entering the 4th quarter with the lead.
PLAY ON: vs. Army (12/8)
SMU (Offense - *6/3, Defense - 8/2, 45 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: WILD HORSES
After improving each and every year from the 1-win squad he inherited in 2015 to a 7-win bowler last season, Chad Morris has moved on to Arkansas. Instead, former Louisiana Tech and Cal head coach Sonny Dykes takes over. The son of Spike Dykes, the second winningest coach in Texas Tech history, Sonny was weaned under Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and as a result has ‘air raid’ in his DNA. His first move was to bring in OC Rhett Lashlee, former Auburn offensive coordinator under Gus Malzahn. With seasoned spread QB Ben Hicks, they inherit a signal caller with 6,499 passing yards and 52 TDs under his belt. Three RBs that rushed for over 2,100 yards last season are also back. This offense could be outrageous.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Freshmen have started a total of 101 games for the Mustangs the last two seasons.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Houston (11/3)
TEMPLE (Offense - *6/2, Defense - 6/2, 41 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: YES, HE WAS A #GREAT HIRE
It took a while but the Owls proved the hire of HC Geoff Collins to replace Matt Rhule was genius. After being out-gained in each of their first five games last season, Temple went on to out-gain each of its remaining eight foes as they lost the stats -134 YPG in their first five games in September, but won them by an average of 83 YPG the rest of the season. That’s a whopping 217 net YPG differential. And Collins had inherited a team that lost 50% of its starts to graduated seniors, to boot. He immediately implored the kids to his “#The STANDARD”, as they quickly learned that the standard expected from every player has been raised even higher last year. We can’t wait to see what’s in store this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Collins is the only coach to be a Broyles award nominee – for the nation’s best assistant coach – at three schools.
PLAY ON: at Connecticut (11/24) - *KEY
TULANE (Offense - *9/4, Defense - 6/2, 52 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: THE CLIMB
The Green Wave’s slow but steady climb back to respectability (read: bowl game) under Willie Fritz fell frustratingly close last season when a bitter 41-38 season-ending loss at SMU denied Tulane what would have been its second bowl bid in 15 years. Nonetheless, Fritz welcomes back a bevy (36) of suddenly proficient sophomores and juniors – not to mention an awesome recruiting class led by no less than 18 three-and-four-star recruits. “We’ve gotten better every year we’ve been here,” confirmed Fritz. A deeply experienced offense features a rushing unit that ranked No. 20 in the nation last year, one that has rushed for 100-plus yards in 27 straight games. It’s time for the Wave to break on through to the other side.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Head coach Willie Fritz is 16-1 SU and 13-2 ATS versus .333 or less opponents.
PLAY ON: vs. SMU (10/20) - *KEY
TULSA (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 7/2, 47 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: 10 UP AND 10 DOWN
We were as wrong as the day is long on our call about the Hurricane last season. Following a 10-win effort in 2016, Tulsa appeared ready to take the next big step with an offense that improved every season under Phil Montgomery. So what happened in its 10-loss season last year? Well for openers, it’s NEVER a good thing when both your offense and defense each slip over 100 YPG. Ravaged by injuries and a lack of experience, 14 starters played their first career game last season (9 freshmen). As a result, 5 bitter one-possession losses occurred. Unfortunately, the big bag of wind will face bowlers in all six of their away games in 2018. Nonetheless, a rebound appears in order.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Tulsa is 30-8 SU and 29-9 ATS in conference games in which it scores 30 or more points.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Connecticut (11/3)
UCF (Offense - *6/3, Defense - 6/1, 40 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: UC FAST
Speed kills. And with former coach Scott Frost headed back to Nebraska, new head coach Josh Heupel realizes that in order to fill some mighty big shoes he will need to rely on an asset that he has an abundance of – speed. The top six blazing-fast rushers from last season lead the way. “We go five deep with RBs that can all take it to the house at anytime. These guys are going to be something special,” boasts QB McKenzie Milton. New coaches mean new schemes, but you wouldn’t know it as this power scheme fits the Knights like a glove. Coming off an historic record-setting season last year, the Knights know all eyes will be trained upon them in 2018.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: UCF was the No. 2 team in the nation in red zone defense in 2017.
PLAY AGAINST: at Memphis (10/13)
USF (Offense - 6/3, Defense - 5/1, 47 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: NOT SO STRONG
To say that Charlie Strong’s squad was hit hard by significant losses is an understatement. Gone is 3-year starting QB Quinton Flowers, owner of 42 school records, along with the top three rushers from 2017. Ouch. On the other side of the ball, the Bulls say goodbye to LB Auggie Sanchez, who made 50 straight starts and led USF in tackles each of the last three seasons. In addition, three of four starters on the DL are also gone, along with a pair of all-conference DBs. At least, for the first time since the 2011 season, the entire primary coaching staff returns. Nonetheless, we’re Strong believers and while this team will be down a notch or two, expect them to be bowling by season’s end.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: USF is riding a school-record 20 straight appearances in the Top 25.
PLAY ON: vs. UCF (11/23)
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