1. Memphis Tigers (2014: 10-3, 7-1)Paxton Lynch returns for the Tigers to lead the AAC's top offense from 2014 and the offense I think will again be tops in the AAC. Justin Fuente will have to fight off the lost of rising star Barry Odom, Memphis' defensive coordinator last year, and need Galen Scott to assemble a unit that can be ready to play. Scott has to replace eight starters on defense and it will be especially hard to replace co-AAC Defensive Player of the Year Tank Jakes, but if the offense continues to roll, it might mask the defensive losses. The defensive side of the ball has a lot of speed though and that could allow for the defense to not take such a hit early. I'm sold on Lynch and his ability to will Memphis to the AAC crown this year. Montana State is a warm-up for their matchup against Kansas the week after.
This week: vs. Missouri State on Sat. at 6 p.m. CT
2. Cincinnati Bearcats (2014: 9-4, 7-1)Gunner Kiel returns at quarterback for the Bearcats and he's coming off a season with 31 touchdowns and all seven of his top receivers return. Kiel started all 13 games last season, but was banged up with rib and back injuries throughout the year. Keeping him upright will be on the offensive line and running backs Mike Boone (650 yards and 9 TDs) and Hosey Williams (missed 2014) to take the load off Kiel. Tuberville has to like where his offense is headed in 2015. The defense is another story. Tuberville said he thinks there were 15 players on last year's team that could play college football, but this year he said 25 all could play major college football. That's depth that the Bearcats desperately need. Linebacker Jeff Luc is gone, but safety Zach Edwards (121 tackles) returns to help Steve Clinkscale (1st season as DC) hopefully change Cincy's woes on defense. The AAC favorites aren't my favorite, but Kiel will battle Lynch for the AAC Offensive Player of the Year in my book as well as the inaugural conference championship game.
This week: vs. Alabama A&M on Sat. at 6 p.m. CT.
3. UCF Knights (2014: 9-4, 7-1)UCF is banking that Justin Hollman can make even more strides after passing for close to 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Hollman must cut out some of the 14 interceptions he had last season. Hillman will be key to an offense that has solid playmakers in Jordan Akins and Tre-Quan Smith to look to. The Knights are replacing their top four receivers, but are seeing just as many replacements on defense with losing Clayton Greathers, Terrance Plummer, and Troy Gray to name a few. Errol Clarke will be the man that UCF looks to make the calls and be productive. UCF has recruited relatively well and with Hollman taking another step forward, UCF should be right there to compete for the AAC title again.
This week: vs. FIU on Thurs. at 5 p.m. CT
4. Navy (2014: 8-5)When your quarterback ranks No. 1 among all NCAA quarterbacks in history with 64 career rushing touchdowns and still has a year to go, you’re in good shape. Keenan Reynolds returns for his senior year and has a 21-11 record as a starter. Three key playmakers are back with Chris Swain (693 yards), DeBrandon Sanders (8 yards per rush in his career) and Jamir Tillman leading as the top targets. The defensive side though lost a few key playmakers, but the triple option offense should mask that. Navy has been one of the most consistent teams in college football and has already some experience playing against some AAC foes. The problem for the AAC is adjusting to preparing against the triple option, which I think will have another great year in year 1 of their AAC membership.
This week: vs. Colgate on Sat. at 11 a.m. CT
5. Temple Owls (2014: 6-6, 4-4)AAC dark horse Temple is coming off a 6-6 season, but with 17 returning starters, there’s even more buzz than usual. P.J. Walker is back at quarterback, but must find consistency after throwing too many ill-advised passes last season at times. Temple also faltered down the stretch against some of the AAC’s elite. I’m not ready to put them in the conference title talk yet until Walker proves he can cut down on mistakes. The Owls defensively were one of the most aggressive teams in the country, forcing 30 turnovers last year. If they can replicate that, it should be another strong unit.
This week: vs. Penn State on Sat. at 2:30 p.m. CT
6. Houston Cougars (2014: 8-5, 5-3)Tom Herman has a national championship ring to flash at Houston now in his first season as head coach after coming over following his run at offensive coordinator at Ohio State. Greg Ward and Adam Schulz were listed as the starters on UH’s depth chart recently. That should be solved after their first game, but Ward did lead the Cougars to a bowl game last season with help from Kenneth Farrow, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Cougars defense shouldn’t see many changes as it’s a versatile, confusing look that brings pressure from all over. The secondary will be a strength while the defensive line will have to find new contributors with only one starter back. It’ll come down to quarterback play in my mind, but I don’t think Herman will have an issue getting their guy ready to roll right off the bat.
This week: vs. Tennessee Tech on Sat. at 7 p.m. CT
7. East Carolina Pirates (2014: 8-5, 5-3)The Pirates have already seen their season start out rough by losing starter Kurk Benkert to injury just a week after being named starter. Now it’s up to Blake Kemp to come in and start. The junior college transfer will have a lot on his plate to replace Shane Carden, but it’s not just the quarterback position that has seen changes. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is replaced by Dave Nichol and Justin Hardy, one of the best receivers last year in the country, will be replaced by Isaiah Jones, but with Hardy’s productivity, the Pirates better find a few other names to step up. ECU’s top 25 run defense will need some help losing Maurice Falls and Brandon Williams, but Zeek Bigger will be the key to the defense as one of the top playmakers.
This week: vs. Towson on Sat. at 5 p.m. CT
8. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (2014: 2-10, 2-6)Dane Evans is one of the talented quarterbacks in the conference, but he hasn’t had much help and also didn’t help himself at times last year. Evans threw 23 touchdowns, but also 17 interceptions. Tulsa has to get a running game going to help take the load off Evans, but another year should help him. The defense struggled mightily last year and gave up close to 40 points per game. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on them to compete, but new head coach Philip Montgomery has a solid offensive scheme, which could help a little bit, but I don’t think Tulsa progresses much.
This week: vs. Florida Atlantic on Sat. at 2:30 p.m. CT
9. SMU Mustangs (2014: 1-11, 1-7)The Mustangs have renewed energy with Chad Morris heading into his first season as head coach. Dual threat quarterback Matt Davis made some major strides as a passer in the spring, but will it translate to a game? SMU fans will get their first look on Friday against Baylor. What SMU needs to find out most of all is will their offensive line be as improved as the staff has been saying. It was a major issue for the team last year and will determine how many steps forward the team takes in Morris’ first season. Defensively, the team is actually better suited for a 4-2-5 attacking defense with the players recruited. Zach Wood and a talented, but unproven defensive line is the defense’s strongest unit. They have a tough test this week, but it’s about progress from last year and I suspect you’ll see some from Morris’ group.
This week: vs. Baylor on Fri. at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN
10. South Florida Bulls (2014: 4-8, 3-5)Willie Taggart has recruited well at USF, but really hasn’t had much to show for it. This year, with Quentin Flowers returning at quarterback, USF has a shot to bring back more experience with him and sophomore running back Marlon Mack on offense. Mack rushed for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s the key to bringing Flowers along slowly, who’s still raw as a passer. There’s some talent out there for the Bulls, but they have to bring it together. There’s also talent at defensive back for the Bulls with Jamie Byrd leading the way from his “Husky” position. With an easy opener, the Bulls should be able to work on coming together as a team and finding an identity.
This week: vs. Florida A&M on Sat. at 6 p.m. CT
11. Tulane Green Wave (2014: 3-9, 2-6)A lot of people are high on the Green Wave going into this year, but I’m not as much. Regression is a bad sign and Tulane did just that in Curtis Johnson’s fourth season. Tanner Lee has some talent, but had a 12-14 TD-INT ratio last year. That has to improve for starters. The defense has some replacements to make in the secondary, but the linebacking group should be strong. Not sure though if it’s enough to improve that much this year.
This week: vs. Duke on Thurs. at 8:30 p.m. CT on CBS Sports Net
12. Connecticut Huskies (2014: 2-10, 1-7)Connecticut is trying to bounce back from a 2-10 season and ending their season with a home loss to SMU. Bob Diaco has to step up now and put together a team that can make some steps this year. Chandler Whitmer is replaced at quarterback by Bryant Shirreffs. UConn has struggled to find consistent quarterback play and that will be the key to getting them out of the cellar. To lose to SMU last year at home, that makes UConn the bottom feeder to start this year. Ariel Newsome will have something to say about them staying there. The explosive sophomore could be the key to UConn getting it going on offense.
This week: vs. Villanova on Thurs. at 6:30 pm on ESPN3