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But is the hype around Tom Herman and the Cougars overblown?
Here’s a complete breakdown of the American Athletic Conference.
What a dream season it was for Tom Herman in his first year as head man at Houston, as the Cougars got to 13-1, earned the Group of 5 Bowl bid, then beat Florida State and finished No. 8. This season, Houston only returns 11 starters and is No. 112 in my experience rankings. Last season, Houston ranked No. 87 but still went 13-1 and won the American. Houston does have to face Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis all on the road, but this team is capable of handling that, and it will be everyone’s clear-cut favorite to win the American this year. I have them getting back to the American’s title game.
Normally, when a team loses its four-year starting quarterback — who was the strength of the team — and has just eight returning starters (second fewest in country). you would mark it down for a large drop in the standings. However, service academies usually reload. I think the Midshipmen’s offense will be better than expected, and the defense could be close to last season’s group, with seven returning starters. Navy gets key games versus Houston and Memphis at home, and this team could end up the surprise winner of the American West, if they take care of business at home — where they are 19-3 over the past four seasons.
Of the top four teams in the American West, Houston, Navy and Tulsa each draw just one team from the East’s top three, but Memphis faces all three — Cincinnati, Temple and USF — giving the Tigers the toughest schedule in the division among the contenders. Memphis drops to just 13 returning starters this season, loses a first-round draft pick at quarterback and, of course, loses its former head coach, Justin Fuente, to Virginia Tech. Last year, the Tigers were +72.6 yards per game in American play, which was second best. They do only lose 18 lettermen overall and have a top-five offense and defense in my American rankings.
Tulsa was -74.9 yards per game in Conference USA play (fourth worst) and while 3-5, the Golden Hurricane’s three American Athletic Conference wins were against teams that were 2-22 in conference play and their five losses were by 17 points per game. They do benefit from bowl practices, have 14 returning starters and are under Philip Montgomery’s second year of coaching. I’m not ready to put Tulsa in a contender’s role yet, as it has to face Houston, Memphis and Navy all on the road. Still, this team has a shot at getting back to a bowl and having a winning season, as it has one of the American’s top offenses.
Last season, SMU was very competitive early versus teams but wore down late. This season, the Mustangs have 16 returning starters, better depth and should be able to hang on late in some of those. I see the defense improving by at least a touchdown in the points per game category, and the offense should be even more potent, topping last season’s 27.8 points per game. This is a dangerous team, but the American schedule is brutal, as the Mustangs face four of the league’s top teams at home, meaning most of the winnable games are on the road. Coach Chad Morris stepped into a rebuilding situation last season, and he has this team pointed in the right direction.
I think Tulane’s defense is going to be better than most expect, but this is a tough situation for coach Willie Fritz, who likes to run a spread-option offense and does not inherit option personnel like he did at Georgia Southern. Tulane was -95.9 yards per game in American play last season (third worst) and faces three of the league’s powers at home, meaning most of its winnable games are on the road. I think Fritz will have this team rolling in a short period of time, but this looks like a rebuilding year.
Last year, Cincinnati was the preseason favorite to win the American but went just 4-4. The Bearcats only return five starters on offense and lose their top six receivers, but I like their talent and schedule this season. In addition, my key indicators are all pointing up. Cincinnati was -19 in turnovers last season (should be much better in 2016) and a league-best +167.4 yards per game in league play. They also rate a Stock Market Indicator of +2.0. Cincinnati is 26-5 at home the past five years. The Bearcats will see most of the key conference opponents at home this season and will face just one team on the road that had a winning record last season.
Things appeared status quo for South Florida last season, as after 2-10 and 4-8 seasons, the Bulls stood just 1-3 at one point last season. But the Bulls rallied and won their last four regular season games and just missed out on the American East title. Their +59.9 yard per game in American play was fifth best. This season, they have 14 returning starters — including quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and wide receiver Rodney Adams, who are three of the American’s premiere stars — and a top-notch defense. All seven of their position rankings rate in the top four of the league. Despite facing Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis on the road, this team is capable of getting to its first American title game.
There are some factors pointing down for Temple this year, as the Owls are a -6.0 in my Stock Market Indicator. They were +3 net upsets. Temple goes from the most experienced team in the league — and No. 9 in FBS — down to No. 66 FBS, with just 12 returning starters. The Owls are still a clear-cut contender in the East, as they might have the best defense in the American; they avoid playing Houston out of the West; they get both Cincinnati and South Florida at home; and their four American road games are against teams that were a combined 10-22 in conference play last season.
There are some factors pointing down for Connecticut. The Huskies were -26.8 yards per game in American play last season. They rate a Stock Market Indicator of -3.5. And they were +3 net upsets last season. However, this team is by far coach Bob Diaco’s best, and it benefits from the bowl practices earned last season. The Huskies’ 16 returning starters are second most in the league. Connecticut does draw Houston and Navy out of the West, but it has my No. 2-rated defense in the league and has a great shot at getting back to a bowl again.
I was very surprised when the Pirates let Ruffin McNeill go at the end of last season. He lost quarterback Kurt Benkert prior to the season, and East Carolina struggled at the position. The Pirates had three net close losses and -3 net upsets, and they just missed out on a bowl. Despite their 3-5 American record, they were +26.5 yards per game in American play. This season, they have just 11 returning starters and are No. 107 in my experience ratings. With the coaching change, some of those returning starters might lose their jobs, so the Pirates could end up with fewer than 11 returning starters. A win at home over Connecticut on Oct. 29 would move East Carolina up the standings.
UCF was 22-3 in league play from 2012 to 2014, but then everything that could go wrong did go wrong last season in an amazing plummet to 0-8 in conference. Naturally, all of my key indicators are pointing up. The Knights were -20 in turnovers last year. They rate an amazing Stock Market Indicator of +10.5. And they were -4 net upsets. They have 17 returning starters this season, (most in the American). And my computer is calling for UCF’s offense to double its point production over that of last season and for the defense to allow at least a one less touchdown per game. Those are some major improvements, but the Knights did have a lot of ground to make up, as last season UCF was -221.4 yards per game in league play, 117 yards per game worse than the No. 11 team. New Knights coach Scott Frost steps into a great situation, and this team will be much more competitive. Continue Reading by Clicking Here
by Phil Steele, ESPN
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