Top Ten American Athletic Questions

Top Ten American Athletic Questions. Who's the leader? Will UCF fall? Will ECU reload?

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Who’s this year’s American frontrunner?
From the league that produced tri-champs, Memphis, Cincinnati and UCF, in 2014, anything less than a wide-open race would be unexpected. With the addition of Navy, the American is now divided into divisions, the East and the West. The East favorites will be the Bearcats and the Knights, with their matchup staged at Cincy’s Nippert Stadium. Out West, the Tigers and Houston rate an early edge, though the Midshipmen can’t be overlooked. The point? The participants in the first-ever American title game might not be decided until the final weekend of the regular season.

Is UCF set to tumble after losing so many key players to graduation and the NFL Draft?
The upcoming season shapes up as an interesting one for the Knights. There’ve been hints that George O’Leary is nearing retirement, and the two-deep will be littered with first-time starters and contributors. While the backfield will be a year older, the top four receivers must be replaced. And the defense, a staple in Orlando for years, is without five of last season’s six starters. Yeah, UCF still has the talent to remain in the discussion, but it’s poised to slide south for a second straight year.

Will QB Gunner Kiel take the next step and become one of the nation’s most prolific passers?
Now that Kiel’s long-awaited college debut went better than expected, the Bearcats are counting on the Notre Dame transfer to keep growing. He threw for a conference-high 31 touchdowns, despite missing some snaps to injury. Kiel should be even better prepared to carve up opposing defenses now that he’s got a full season of experience in the vault. And since last year’s top seven receivers were juniors, the quarterback will also benefit from chemistry and familiarity with his targets.

Can new head coach Tom Herman guide Houston closer to its potential as a program?
Herman was one of the poster children of the American’s significant upgrade on the sidelines this offseason. Like Chad Morris at SMU, Herman chose a job tailor-made for success. But unlike Morris, Herman inherits enough talent to compete for the top of the league right away. And it’s going to help to have a quarterback, Greg Ward Jr., with ample experience behind center. While there’s plenty for Herman to accomplish between now and the opener, the cupboard isn’t bare in Space City.

Can East Carolina survive without QB Shane Carden, WR Justin Hardy and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley?
Survive, sure. But thriving will be easier said than done now that the heart of the attack has left Greenville. Carden and Hardy were all-time Pirates, and Riley was the young orchestrator of the Air Raid before leaving for Oklahoma. Adding to the challenge, leading rusher Breon Allen and 1,000-yard receiver Cam Worthy are gone as well. The new era of East Carolina football could begin with sophomore QB Kurt Benkert taking snaps, and a bunch of skill guys fighting for reps.

Was Memphis a one-year wonder?
The best news for the Tigers is that head coach Justin Fuente wasn’t poached, despite improbably winning 10 games, the Miami Beach Bowl and a share of the American title. The offense should be in good shape now that QB Paxton Lynch enters his third year and RB Doroland Dorceus is expected back from injury. However, the underrated D must regroup without the support of coordinator Barry Odom, who’s returned home to Mizzou, or graduating all-stars Martin Ifedi, Tank Jakes and Bobby McCain.

Can Navy compete for a league title in its American debut?
It promises to be an interesting transition for the Academy, which has been playing as an Independent since 1879. The Midshipmen have been remarkably consistent, winning at least eight games in 11 of the last 12 seasons, so they’ll be ready for whatever the American throws in their direction. QB Keenan Reynolds returns for his senior season, which ensures that the trademark triple-option is in good hands. Conference affiliation means Navy might someday appear in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

How long before the SMU offense benefits from having Chad Morris as the head coach?
Great hire. Patience, though, will need to be exercised on the Hilltop. Morris is a perfect fit for the Mustangs, from his Texas roots to his offensive ingenuity. But it’ll be a while before the talent in Dallas matches the expectations in Dallas. The Mustangs were an abomination in 2014, norming 11 points per game. So, this season will be entirely about learning the personnel, shifting attitudes and installing new systems on both sides of the ball.

Can Willie Taggart stop South Florida’s slide and save his job?
It wasn’t that long ago that USF looked like a land of opportunity for coaches. Yet, the Bulls have finished below .500 four straight years, the last two under Taggart’s watch. The young coach still has a high ceiling. But he might no be able to realize it in Tampa if South Florida doesn’t begin turning the corner. Taggart has treated his staff like an Etch-A-Sketch this offseason in an effort to ignite an offense that’s produced just 33 touchdowns during his tenure.

How much better will UConn be in Bob Diaco’s second season at the school?
It’s cliché, but the Huskies can’t possibly be any worse than a year ago, when they ended a dismal 2-10 campaign by becoming SMU’s only 2014 victim. Still, Diaco is sticking to the blueprint that he brought with him from South Bend, even if a few of the architects have changed. He’s reshuffled his offensive staff, with a desire to run the ball with more attitude. Progress will be measured in the trenches, where UConn was abused last fall.


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