2016 American Conference football preview

Amid ongoing Big 12 expansion talks, the AAC looks to build on a strong 2015 and strengthen its brand as the premier Group of Five conference.

Offseason headlines

Big 12 expansion

And. Here. We. Go. The Big 12 will meet with every AAC school except Tulsa and Navy. So if expansion happens, an AAC team will very likely be involved. 

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco isn’t oblivious to the expansion talk. But he's also not that concerned about expansion, even if it poaches some of his conference’s teams.

“I cannot stand here this morning and ignore the recent Big 12 news regarding realignment. Although I do want to address it at the outset, I’m not going to dwell on it,” Aresco said at AAC media days in August. “I think we’ve set a tone that we are going to approach this in a workmanlike fashion. We’re not going to be morose. We’re not going to be acting like woe is me. Just the opposite of that. This just means there is work to be done.”

Aresco did not name any possible replacements for current members who leave for the Big 12, but his preference is to maintain a 12-member league. 

Houston

The Cougars are the prohibitive favorites to win the AAC and represent the Group of Five in the New Year’s Six again. With an undefeated season, they may even crack the College Football Playoff.

Electric quarterback Greg Ward Jr., one of two FBS players to pass for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000, returns to lead the Cougars’ offense. Houston’s only loss of 2015 (at Connecticut) came when he sat out with an injury. Since taking over as the starter midway through 2014, Ward is 19-2.

Tom Herman isn’t allowing his team to dwell on last year’s success. He banned Peach Bowl champions gear at team facilities and gave players shirts that read, “What are you this year?” He’s putting his team through “the hardest training camp in college football,” he told CBSSports.

Even with another year of good depth in the conference, anyone other than Houston winning would be a huge surprise. The Cougars open with third-ranked Oklahoma, a tough game but also a great chance to prove they are worthy of the hype. They also play Louisville in November.

Coaching changes

Memphis, East CarolinaCentral Florida and Tulane hired new head coaches last winter. The Tigers won 9 games and a Power Five team took their coach. The latter three teams won 8 games combined and fired their coaches after the season.

Former Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is Memphis’ new boss. He is the nation’s youngest head coach and replaces Justin Fuente, who left to be the head coach at Virginia Tech.

New ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery spent the last two seasons as Duke’s offensive coordinator and takes over after the surprising firing of Ruffin McNeill. The Pirates went 42-34 during McNeill’s tenure, but their record slipped to 5-7 in 2015.

Willie Fritz will bring the triple-option to Tulane, which fired Curtis Johnson after back-to-back 3-win seasons. Fritz was the head coach at Georgia Southern from 2014-15 and won the Sun Belt in his first season, which was also GSU’s first in the FBS.

Finally, former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost is the new head coach at UCF. He replaces George O’Leary, who stepped down after eight straight losses to open last year. The Knights won the AAC in 2013 and 2014, but went 0-12 in 2015. 

Predicted standings: East Division

USA Today Sports

South Florida Bulls

Head coach: Willie Taggart (fourth season)

2015 record: 8-5 (6-2 AAC)

Postseason: Miami Beach Bowl (L 45-35 vs. Western Kentucky)

Key additions (if a transfer, previous school in parenthesis): WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling (N.C. State), WR Darnell Salomon, LB Cecil Cherry (Texas), S Craig Watts

Key losses: TE Sean Price, OG Thor Jozwiak, DE Eric Lee, DB Jamie Byrd

Starters returning: 14 (seven offense, seven defense)

2016 outlook: Taggart is looking to build off 2015’s 6-win improvement, and he has plenty of talent returning. Dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers totaled 32 touchdowns, running back Marlon Mack led the conference in rushing and Rodney Adams set a school record with 822 receiving yards. There’s impressive depth behind them all. Backup running backs Darius Tice and D'Ernest Johnson combined for 767 yards in 2015. Valdes-Scantling (6-foot-4) provides a big target on the boundary and Salomon is a four-star freshman.

A much-improved defense also helped the Bulls make their big jump. Defensive coordinator Tom Allen brought in an aggressive 4-2-5 scheme, but he left to take the same job at Indiana. USF promoted linebackers coach Ray Woodie to replace Allen, and he will run the same scheme. All-AAC linebackers Auggie Sanchez and Nigel Harris should be the defense’s top tacklers, with Cherry getting playing time as well. Nate Godwin , a 10-game starter at safety, will replace Byrd at the “husky” hybrid linebacker/safety position, but first-team all-conference corner Deatrick Nichols is the secondary’s best player.

Bottom line: As long as USF’s defense doesn’t regress without Allen, the Bulls look like Houston’s top challenger and have a shot at double-digit wins.

Temple Owls

Head coach: Matt Rhule (fourth season)

2015 record: 10-4 (7-1 AAC, won AAC East Division)

Postseason: Boca Raton Bowl (L 32-17 vs. Toledo)

Weeks ranked: seven (highest ranking: 20, AP)

Key additions: WR Isaiah Wright, DE Karamo Dioubate, S Keyvone Bruton

Key losses: WR Robby Anderson, MLB Tyler Matakevich, DT Matt Ioannidis, DL Nate D. Smith, CB Tavon Young, FS Alex Wells

Starters returning: 12 (six offense, six defense)

2016 outlook: The loss of four first-team all-AAC players will make replicating last season difficult. Matakevich, the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, joined Young and Ioannidis as NFL draft picks. Smith and Wells were first-team all-AAC.

The Owls still have talent on defense and the unit should be strong again. The pass-rush duo of Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike returns and adds Dioubate, a four-star freshman. Senior Jarred Alwan, last year’s second-leading tackler, should assume Matakevich’s role at middle linebacker. Safety Sean Chandler is entering his third year as a starter and is the secondary’s top returning player.

Offensively, Temple returns running back Jahad Thomas, who ran for 17 touchdowns and led the AAC with 276 carries. Ventell Bryant (579 yards as a freshman in 2015, second on team) should be the top target for quarterback P.J. Walker.

Bottom line: Temple’s best chance at winning 10 games again is relying its defense and running game, but if the Owls want to keep up with good offensive teams, they need more consistency from Walker and the passing game.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Head coach: Tommy Tuberville (fourth season)

2015 record: 7-6 (4-4 AAC)

Postseason: Hawai’i Bowl (L 42-7 vs. San Diego State)

Key additions: RB Gerrid Doaks, WR Avery Peterson (LSU), WR Jamil Kamara (Virginia), WR Devin Gray (JUCO), LB Joel Dublanko

Key losses: RB Hosey Williams, WR Shaq Washington, WR Chris Moore, WR MeKale McKay, OT Parker Ehinger, DE Silverberry Mouhon

Starters returning: 13 (five offense, eight defense)

2016 outlook: As Charlie Kelly from It’s Always Sunny would say, "Wild Card!" That’s what Cincinnati looks like entering 2016: a talented team that made a bunch of changes after an extremely streaky 2015 season.

New offensive coordinator Zac Taylor will transition Cincinnati from the Air Raid to more of a pro-style attack. Hayden Moore won the quarterback job over Gunner Kiel, who started 23 games since 2014. Cincinnati’s top seven receivers all departed, but Moore won’t be throwing to all freshmen. Peterson and Kamara (a former Army All-American) should assume starting spots. Tight end DJ Dowdy's role will increase in the new system. Elsewhere, the offense has continuity. Running backs Mike Boone and Tion Green each ran for 700 yards last year. Ehinger is in the NFL, but all-AAC interior linemen Deyshawn Bond and Ryan Leahy return.

The defense has more experience than last season, but with that comes an expectation for better play after two rough seasons. A dreadful pass rush (13 total sacks) and run defense lost Mouhon, the team’s 2015 sack leader. Senior linebacker Eric Wilson and senior safety Zach Edwards have started every year of their careers, but they need smarter and more consistent play around them.

Bottom line: If all the changes work, Cincinnati has as good a chance as anyone to win the East. If not, the Bearcats could hover around .500 again.

Connecticut Huskies

Head coach: Bob Diaco (third season)

2015 record: 6-7 (4-4 AAC)

Postseason: St. Petersburg Bowl (L 16-10 vs. Marshall)

Key additions: RB Nate Hopkins, WR Quayvon Skanes, LB E.J. Levenberry (Florida State)

Key losses: DE Kenton Adeyemi, DT Julian Campenni, S Andrew Adams

Starters returning: 16 (10 offense, six defense)

2016 outlook: Even with its tough defense, UConn winning six games with the AAC’s second-worst offense is a small miracle.

Everyone important on offense returns, but that same group was responsible for putting up only 17.2 points per game. Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs was a reliable game manager, but didn’t make many big plays. UConn has a reliable receiver in Noel Thomas, but featuring running back Arkeel Newsome is the best way to improve the offensive output.

The defense looks strong again, especially the secondary. Cornerback Jamar Summers led the AAC with eight interceptions in 2015. Safety Obi Melifonwu is a entering his fourth year as a starter and Diaco said he is the best safety he’s coached. Opposite Summers is Jhavon Williams, also an all-conference caliber corner.

All-AAC selection Junior Joseph is the top returning tackler, but Levenberry may emerge as the Huskies’ best linebacker. The former four-star was a steady reserve on the Seminoles’ 2013 national championship team. The defensive line replaces two starters, but tackle Folorunso Fatukasi is one of the AAC’s premier interior pass-rushers.

Bottom line: Diaco has UConn football trending up for the first time in a while, but another year of conservative offense would prevent the Huskies from improving on last season’s record.

East Carolina Pirates

Head coach: Scottie Montgomery (first season)

2015 record: 5-7 (3-5 AAC)

Key additions: QB Philip Nelson (Rutgers), QB Gardner Minshew (JUCO), RB Derrell Scott (Tennessee), RB Jeffrey Coprich (Cal), OT Branden Pena (JUCO)

Key losses: QB Blake Kemp, RB Chris Hairston, TE Bryce Williams, DE Terrell Stanley, LB Zeek Bigger, LB Montese Overton

Starters returning: 11 (five offense, six defense)

2016 outlook: ECU fired a good coach in search of a better one. Ruffin McNeill averaged nearly nine wins per season from 2012-14, but ECU fired him after one down year and brought in Montgomery.

The Pirates experience lots of turnover, especially in the backfield and at linebacker. Nelson is the likely starter at quarterback, with Minshew as his backup. Nelson started 16 games for Minnesota from 2012-13 and transferred to Rutgers in early 2014, but was dismissed in May 2014. He hasn’t played in a game since 2013. Whoever the quarterback is, he will have a steady target in 2015 AAC receptions leader Isaiah Jones. The running back rotation should consist of Anthony Scott, Shawn Furlow, Coprich and Derrell Scott (a former top-150 recruit). 

The defense has to replace two all-conference linebackers in Bigger and Overton, leaving Jordan Williams as the team’s top returning tackler. He will be one of the inside linebackers in ECU’s 3-4 defense. The secondary looks like the defense’s best unit – it returns rangy safety Travon Simmons and the cornerback tandem of DaShaun Amos and Corey Seargent

Bottom line: A bowl game is within reach, but ECU will need a couple years to be the championship contender that athletic director Jeff Compher envisioned when he hired Montgomery.

Central Florida Knights

Head coach: Scott Frost (first season)

2015 record: 0-12 (0-8 AAC)

Key additions: RB Adrian Killins Jr., WR Dredrick Snelson, OG Aaron Dowdell, OG Jordan Johnson, OT Christian Beard (JUCO), DE Josh Odigie (JUCO)

Key losses: LB Domenic Spencer

Starters returning: 17 (10 offense, seven defense)

2016 outlook: It’s impossible to get worse than 0-12, right? The Knights can only go up under Frost, who brings his up-tempo spread offense that he named “UCFast.” UCF has a few good returning players, but any bright spots from 2015 were drowned out by poor play in all areas.

Quarterback Justin Holman’s play dipped in 2015, but he’s a dual-threat option who fits Frost’s offense. The Knights had the nation’s worst rushing attack: 2.8 yards per carry 980 total yards. Senior Dontravious Wilson should get the most carries, but sophomores C.J. Jones and Taj McGowan will get looks, as should speedy freshman Killins. Dowdell and Johnson were highly coveted recruits and should push for snaps if returning linemen don’t improve. Snelson, another highly touted freshman, should get plenty of snaps next to Tristan Payton and reigning AAC Rookie of the Year Tre'Quan Smith.

The defense returns a lot of experience, but it allowed 37.7 points per game in 2015. Defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman, inside linebacker Chequan Burkett and safety Kyle Gibson should be some of the unit’s better players.

Bottom line: Even though a tough first year likely awaits UCF, the Knights fast-paced offense should be fun to watch.

Predicted standings: West Division

USA TODAY

Houston Cougars

Head coach: Tom Herman (second season)

2015 record: 13-1 (7-1 AAC, won AAC championship. Final AP poll ranking: 8)

Postseason: Peach Bowl (W 38-24 vs. Florida State)

Weeks ranked: 10 (highest ranking: 8, AP)

Key additions: RB Duke Catalon (Texas), WR Ra'Shaad Samples (Oklahoma State), WR Courtney Lark, WR/TE Chris Johnson (Baylor), OT Na'Ty Rodgers (JUCO), DL Ed Oliver

Key losses: RB Kenneth Farrow, WR Demarcus Ayers, ILB Elandon Roberts, CB William Jackson III, SS Adrian McDonald, FS Trevon Stewart

Starters returning: 11 (six offense, five defense)

2016 outlook: It’s Houston’s league to lose in 2016. Even with some losses at the skill positions and in the secondary, the Cougars still have the league’s most talented roster, led by Ward, a sleeper Heisman candidate.

Catalon, a former four-star recruit, will assume the lead back role in place of Farrow. Samples, also a one-time four-star, will take over Ayers’ role in the slot. Samples and top returning receiver Chance Allen, a former Oregon Duck, should be two of Ward’s primary targets. The offensive line will break in three new starters with Rogers, who started his career at South Carolina, taking over at right tackle.

The biggest defensive loss is Roberts, the AAC’s leading tackler, but Houston returns all its other important front seven pieces. There’s still depth at linebacker with Steven Taylor (AAC-best 10 sacks) and Tyus Bowser. Oliver was the first five-star recruit to sign with a non-Power Five school and is a lock to play immediately. The secondary loses three starters, most notably first-round draft pick Jackson. The lone returning starter is corner Brandon Wilson, who played offense, defense and special teams last season.

Bottom line: Anyone other than Houston winning the AAC would be a shock. Beat Oklahoma, and going undefeated is definitely possible.

Memphis Tigers

Head coach: Mike Norvell (first season)

2015 record: 9-4 (5-3 AAC)

Postseason: Birmingham Bowl (L 31-10 vs. Auburn)

Weeks ranked: seven (highest ranking: 13, CFP)

Key additions: QB Riley Ferguson (JUCO), OG Lio Lafaele (JUCO), OLB Shaun Rupert (Missouri), S Jonathan Cook (JUCO)

Key losses: QB Paxton Lynch, RB Jarvis Cooper, WR Mose Frazier, TE Alan Cross, LB Leonard Pegues, LB Wynton McManis, FS Reggis Ball

Starters returning: 13 (six offense, seven defense)

2016 outlook: Norvell has to replace a first-round quarterback and take over for a coach who turned the Tigers’ into winners. Ferguson, a former Tennessee Volunteer, is likely to replace Lynch. A committee approach at running back is possible again, with Doroland Dorceus getting most of the work. Frazier led the team in receiving yards, but the next three receivers behind him all returned. The offensive line returns four starters, three of whom have been starting since they were freshman.

Most of the Memphis’ problems in 2015 came on defense. They returned only three starters from a stout 2014 defense and gave up 27.3 points per game. The 2016 group has more experience, most notably a secondary that has three senior starters. The free safety spot vacated by Ball should go to Cook, who started his career at Alabama. Defensive end Christian Johnson and hybrid linebacker/end Jackson Dillon should be the primary pass rushers.

Bottom line: Memphis probably won't be consistently ranked again in 2016, but if Ferguson plays well right away and the defense looks more like 2014, the Tigers should have another strong year.

Navy Midshipmen

Head coach: Ken Niumatalolo (ninth season)

2015 record: 11-2 (7-1 AAC. Final AP ranking: 18)

Postseason: Military Bowl (W 44-28 vs. Pittsburgh)

Weeks ranked: six (highest ranking: 15, CFP)

Key additions: OG Tobe Okafor, DT Joe Goff, OLB Tanner Matthews

Key losses: QB Keenan Reynolds, FB Chris Swain, slot back Quentin Ezell, slot back DeBrandon Sanders, OT Joey Gaston, OG E.K. Binns, DL Will Anthony, S Lorentez Barbour

Starters returning: eight (one offense, seven defense)

2016 outlook: The Midshipmen have been hit with lots of personnel losses before and still had good seasons, thanks to the efficiency of the triple option. But they haven’t had to replace anyone like Reynolds, who set an FBS record for career rushing touchdowns and finished fifth in the Heisman voting. 

Tago Smith will be the quarterback, with Toneo Gulley and Dishan Romine as the likely slot backs and Shawn White as the fullback. The four combined for 792 yards on 8.3 yards per carry as backups in 2015. They will run behind an offensive line that lost two all-AAC players in Binns and Gaston. The lone returning starter is receiver Jamir Tillman, who averaged 20.6 yards per catch and grabbed five touchdowns.

Niumatalolo called more blitzes in 2015, resulting in a 14-sack increase and Navy’s lowest opponent points per game mark (21.8) since 2009. The defense loses its sack leader (Anthony) and top tackler (Barbour), but returns most of its other key contributors. Linebackers Micah Thomas and Daniel Gonzales should be the strength of the defense.

Bottom line: Navy has proven to be a steady winner every year under Niumatalolo. Winning eight or nine games is realistic, but that feels like the ceiling in the first year after Reynolds.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Head coach: Philip Montgomery (second season)

2015 record: 6-7 (3-5 AAC)

Postseason: Independence Bowl (L 55-52 vs. Virginia Tech) 

Key additions: RB Raymond Taylor (Oklahoma State), OT Rowdy Frederick, ILB Robert Revels

Key losses: RB Zack Langer, WR Keyarris Garrett, DT Derrick Luetjen, S Michael Mudoh

Starters returning: 14 (seven offense, seven defense)

2016 outlook: Montgomery’s fast-paced “Hurrycane” offense that put up 37.2 points and 507 yards per game should be strong again, but a defense that surrendered a conference-worst 537 yards per game has to improve.

Quarterback Dane Evans running back D’Angelo Brewer, receiver Keevan Lucas and receiver Josh Atkinson return and should be the primary offensive pieces. Tulsa loses Garrett, who led the nation in receiving yards in 2015. Lucas, 2014’s AAC receiving touchdowns leader, is healthy after missing much of last season. Center Chandler Miller and right guard Willie Wright started 12 games as redshirt freshmen last year.

Tulsa will replace Mudoh, a three-time all-conference safety who led the team in tackles in 2015. But the next top four tacklers return, including all-AAC honorable mention linebacker Trent Martin, corner Kerwin Thomas (12 pass breakups) and safety Jeremy Brady (bowl game MVP).

Bottom line: Tulsa should reach bowl eligibility again, but it won’t win more than six or seven games until its defense improves dramatically.

SMU Mustangs

Head coach: Chad Morris (second season)

2015 record: 2-10 (1-7 AAC)

Key additions: RB Aphonso Thomas, TE Corey Rau, OL Kadarius Smith, DT Ken McLaurin, DL Demerick Gary, CB Eric Sutton, CB Christian Davis, S Mikial Onu 

Key losses: C Taylor Lasecki, DT Zach Wood, MLB Jonathan Yenga, CB David Johnson

Starters returning: 16 (nine offense, seven defense)

2016 outlook: Every important skill position player returns for a team that nearly tripled its points per game from 2014 to 2015 (11.1 to 27.8). With another year of experience and a little more depth, the young offense should be more consistent - In 2015, it had too many games where it had a high-scoring first half, then fell apart in the second.

Quarterback Matt Davis will have the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his career. Xavier Jones, whose 10 rushing touchdowns in 2015 were a school record for a freshman, should lead the team in carries. At receiver, there’s more depth behind freshman All-American Courtland Sutton now that Alex Honey and James Proche can play after redshirting last season. Receivers other than Sutton struggled to get open at times last year, but the group has talent and room to develop. 

SMU can only go up on defense after a rough 2015. The Mustangs signed a defensive-heavy class with talent that should push for snaps right away. McLaurin, Gary, Sutton, Davis and Onu are among the most likely to help immediately, but any freshman who impresses in camp should see early playing time.

Bottom line: If nothing else, SMU’s offense will be a lot of fun to watch. But the infusion of young talent on defense should result in some improvement.

Tulane Green Wave

Head coach: Willie Fritz (first season)

2015 record: 3-9 (1-7 AAC)

Key additions: QB Darius Bradwell, QB Johnathan Brantley

Key losses: QB Tanner Lee, WR Teddy Veal, DL Royce LaFrance, S Darion Monroe

Starters returning: 13 (five offense, eight defense)

2016 outlook: Fritz has turned doormat programs into winners at every level of college football. Now he’s tasked with making Tulane a winner. 

Fritz coached the nation’s top rushing offense at Georgia Southern in 2015 (4,719 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, 54 TD). Fritz’s scheme is proven, but it’s nothing similar to Tulane’s offense in 2015. Redshirt freshman Glen Cuiellette won the quarterback job over true freshman Bradwell, but Fritz said both will play in the opener. Both are rushing threats and fit the offense well, unlike Lee, a dropback passer who’s now at Nebraska. Tulane also returns its top two running backs, Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie, who combined for 956 yards and 5.1 yards per carry.

Tulane’s best returning talent is on defense, led by defensive tackle Tanzel Smart and outside linebacker Nico Marley. Each was a first-team all-conference player in 2015. Four-year starter Monroe is the secondary’s biggest loss. Returning cornerback Parry Nickerson was all-conference in 2014 as a redshirt freshman, but his play slipped in 2015. He’s a skilled cover corner who needs to find his 2014 form.

Bottom line: Tulane has some underrated pieces on defense, but with the inexperience at quarterback and the transition from pro-style to triple option, Fritz’s offense won’t reach top form for another year or two.

Nonconference games to watch

Sept. 3: Houston vs. Oklahoma (at NRG Stadium in Houston)

Sept. 17: Temple at Penn State

Sept. 24: Florida State at South Florida

Nov. 5: BYU at Cincinnati

Nov. 5: Notre Dame vs. Navy (in Jacksonville, Fla.)

Projected all-conference team:

Offense:

QB: Greg Ward Jr., Houston

RB: Marlon Mack, USF

RB: Jahad Thomas, Temple

WR: Isaiah Jones, ECU

WR: Courtland Sutton, SMU

WR: Keevan Lucas, Tulsa

TE: D.J. Dowdy, Cincinnati

OT: Dion Dawkins, Temple

OT: Kofi Amichia, USF

OG: Chris Taylor, Tulane

OG: Ryan Leahy, Cincinnati

C: Will Noble, Houston

K: Jake Elliot, Memphis

All-purpose: Rodney Adams, USF

Defense:

DE: Ed Oliver, Houston

DE: Praise Martin-Oguike, Temple

DT: Tanzel Smart, Tulane

DT: Folorunso Fatukasi, Connecticut

LB: Steven Taylor, Houston

LB: E.J. Levenberry, Connecticut

LB: Auggie Sanchez, USF

LB: Nico Marley, Tulane

CB: Jamar Summers, Connecticut

CB: Deatrick Nichols, USF

S: Sean Chandler, Temple

S: Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut

P: Caleb Houston, UCF

Other predictions

Conference Champion: Houston

Offensive player of the year: Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston

Defensive player of the year: Jamar Summers, CB, Connecticut

Freshman of the year: Ed Oliver, DL, Houston

Highest-impact transfer: Riley Ferguson, QB, Memphis


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