The automatic bid is gone, as are Rutgers and Louisville to the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference, respectively. But that will not stop the American Athletic Conference from showcasing some big-time games and displaying some high-powered offenses in 2014.
Teams from the former Big East conference are out to prove something in nonconference play, and that starts when Fiesta Bowl champs Central Florida travel to Ireland to face Penn State and new coach James Franklin. UCF enters 2014 without star quarterback Blake Bortles, who went No. 3 in the NFL draft.
Newcomer East Carolina brings a star quarterback – Shane Carden – to the conference after winning 10 games in their final year in Conference USA.
Connecticut and Cincinnati are the longest-standing members of the conference. The Huskies enter 2014 with former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in charge. What do the Bearcats have in headline-grabber Gunner Kiel at quarterback?
Temple and South Florida both struggled with new coaches in 2013, but have reasons to be excited moving forward.
QB Shane Carden, ECU – We saw what Blake Bortles and Garrett Gilbert did as first-year AAC quarterbacks, and Carden will be right there with them. Carden is expected to surpass 10,000 career passing yards this year after posting a stellar 4,139 yards and 30 touchdowns last season.
LB Tyler Matakevich, Temple – The definition of a tackling machine. Only a junior, Matakevich made 99 solo tackles and 137 overall for Temple last year. Matakevich is the American’s Luke Kuechly, and a year of starting experience only makes him more dangerous.
QB Neal Burcham, SMU – There’s just something about June Jones and quarterbacks. SMU runs the spread offense, and Jones will give Burcham his best chance to follow in Gilbert’s footsteps in Dallas.
COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Bill Blankenship, Tulsa – While the AAC has many coaches who are relatively secure heading into 2014, not everyone is safe. Blankenship had two good years to start with Tulsa, but 2013 was a disappointment at 3-9. Blankenship is a Tulsa grad, but the Golden Hurricanes may have to consider a leadership change if the win-loss record does not bounce back.
South Florida – Willie Taggart’s first year as head coach was not pretty, nor was it expected to be. Quarterback Mike White is a talent, and now he has a better offensive line and real weapons in receivers Andre Davis and Sean Price.
MUST-SEE CONFERENCE GAME
Central Florida at East Carolina, Dec. 4 – Commissioner Mike Aresco himself has already compared ECU’s AAC entrance to that of UCF’s. This game could decide the conference, and it pits the best quarterback in the league against the defending Fiesta Bowl champions.
MUST-SEE NON-CONFERENCE GAME
Penn State vs Central Florida, Aug. 30 – Because of NCAA sanctions, this matchup in Ireland must serve as Penn State’s bowl game. There is bad blood in this rematch after UCF’s 34-31 win at State College last year. All eyes will be on the debut of new Penn State coach James Franklin.
WR Quinton Flowers, South Florida – Taggart brought in the highest-rated recruiting class in the AAC, according to Scout.com. Flowers was one of two four-star recruits signed on LOI day, and should bolster a strong passing attack.
Memory Mall (Central Florida) – With great weather and an enrollment of more than 51,000, you are bound to have a good time, as Memory Mall (on the UCF campus) is packed with young fans. Who knows? Maybe Blake Bortles and his girlfriend will stop by during the Jacksonville Jaguars’ bye week.
Temple Goes Bowling - Sometimes a quarterback makes all the difference, and P.J. Walker showed flashes last season of a dynamic future as the leader of the Owls. He gives head coach Matt Rhule a start on a strong second season, and could help Temple surprise foes such as Penn State, Vanderbilt and UCF
1. QB Shane Carden, ECU
2. WR Deontay Greenberry, Houston
3. QB John O’Korn, Houston
4. WR Justin Hardy, ECU
5. RB William Stanback, UCF
1. Shane Carden, ECU
2. P.J. Walker, Temple
3. John O’Korn, Houston
4. Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
5. Casey Cochran, UConn
TOP SKILL-POSITION PLAYERS
1. WR Deontay Greenberry, Houston
2. WR Justin Hardy, ECU
3. RB Brandon Hayes, Memphis
4. WR Andre Davis, USF
5. RB Ralph David Abernathy, Cincinnati
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYERS
1. LB Tyler Matakevich, Temple
2. S Clayton Geathers, UCF
3. LB Terrance Plummer, UCF
4. DL Martin Ifedi, Memphis
5. CB Jacoby Glenn, UCF
BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL
1. QB Justin Holman, UCF
2. QB Neal Burcham, SMU
3. DE Demetrius Hill, USF
4. RB Breon Allen, ECU
5. WR Justyn Shackleford, Tulane
1. QB Neal Burcham, SMU
2. RB William Stanback, UCF
3. TE Sean Price, USF
4. LB Jeff Luc, Cincinnati
5. QB Mike White, USF
BEST HEAD COACH
1. George O’Leary, UCF
2. Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati
3. June Jones, SMU
4. Ruffin McNeill, ECU
5. Tony Levine, Houston
TOP CONFERENCE GAMES
1. UCF at ECU, Dec. 4
2. Houston at SMU, Nov. 28
3. UCF at USF, Nov. 28
4. Houston at Cincinnati, Dec. 6
5. Tulane at Tulsa, Aug. 28
TOP NON-CONFERENCE GAMES
1. Penn State vs. UCF in Ireland, Aug. 30
2. ECU @ South Carolina, Sept. 6
3. UCF @ Missouri, Sept. 13
4. Temple @ Penn State, Nov. 15
5. Cincinnati @ Ohio State, Sept. 27
2014 RECRUITING CLASS RANKINGS
1. South Florida
3. Central Florida
5. Southern Methodist