AAC (Formerly Big East) Preview
IT'S NOT THE BIG EAST ANY MORE...BUT LOUISVILLE STILL CARRIES BIG HOPES FOR AAC
The American Athletic Conference begins play this season as a hybrid of what used to be the Big East linked to the biggest cities from Conference USA. Rutgers is only here for a quick drink, before dragging the New York TV market to the Big 10. You already read about Pittsburgh and Syracuse leaving the fold in our ACC Preview.
It's weird to see a college conference built in such haphazard fashion. Inside a box from Connecticut through Philadelphia across the north to Cincinnati, and then down to Dallas and Houston in Texas, and then back East to the population centers in Central and South Florida...you get a group of mid-major programs who want believe to believe they're bigger than they are.
Should you think of this as a major conference? We're debating whether you should even think of most of the ACC as a major conference any more! Here in the AAC, the best can hang tough with anybody over 60 minutes. Louisville stunned Florida in the Sugar Bowl last year. But, much of that was SEC arrogance running into a motivated buzz saw. Below Louisville, there's not much to hang your hat on.
Let's run the numbers. Remember that all returning starter information comes from the respected Athlon publication. Check out JIM HURLEY'S big display ad on page 173!
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (formerly Big East)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 9 on defense
Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater
Head Coach: Charlie Strong
It's a media tradition to give a high preseason ranking to any non-power program that has a good chance of running the table against a weak schedule. Louisville is nowhere near as good as the Preseason rankings are suggesting. That would be clear if they had to play in the SEC or Big 12. They couldn't even run the table in the Big East last year when they were getting similar respect. Syracuse drummed them badly in the Carrier Dome. Connecticut shocked them in overtime two weeks later. The Cards also had nail-biter wins over Rutgers, Cincinnati, and South Florida. That's top 10?! They will very likely be best in the AAC by a good bit. And, QB Bridgewater will make some very exciting plays.
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
Quarterback: Munchie Legeaux
Head Coach: Tommy Tuberville (new)
It's hard to know whether Tuberville is an upgrade at head coach or not. His predecessor had strengths and weaknesses (which he took to Tennessee). Tuberville had highs and lows in his limited time at Texas Tech. There's a lot to like here in terms of contending in the conference. But, this is still the team that needed a miracle finish to beat Duke in a bowl. They have good tests early against Purdue and Illinois, two weaker sides from the Big 10. The Bearcats don't get Louisville until the season finale in December...which the conference hopes is a de-facto championship game.
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
Quarterback: Gary Nova
Head Coach: Kyle Floyd
The Scarlet Knights may have trouble finding motivation as a lame duck team. And, they fizzled late last year after a solid start. They would lose to Kent State, Pitt, and Louisville to finish the regular season, before looking helpless offensively against Virginia Tech in their bowl. The defense lost a lot of experience. It tells you a lot about how bad the rest of the conference is to have Rutgers projected as #3 out of 10 teams.
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
Quarterback: Blake Bortles
Head Coach: George O'Leary
We have Central Florida higher than Rutgers in our own proprietary numbers, but we're using Athlon's rankings in our previews. Central Florida lost an overtime heart-breaker in the CUSA championship game last year to Tulsa...then routed Ball State in their bowl. We think UCF will have a better offense and defense than Rutgers...as well as a better quarterback and head coach! We'll look to back the Knights in value spots early against Penn State and maybe even South Carolina. And, it wouldn't be a surprise to find NETWORK on them a couple of times in league play as well. It will depend on how the new defenders perform.
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Willie Taggart (new)
A lot of turnover here...as Willie Taggart comes over from Western Kentucky to try to revitalize the program. Quarterback B.J. Daniels was an annual disappointment, but now must be replaced by a QB who probably won't be as good! We have a big drop-off in our own numbers from where Central Florida is to where South Florida is. Maybe Taggart is a miracle worker who will get things done quickly. September tests against Michigan State and Miami-Fla will tell us a lot. For now, we're looking to fade this team...particularly against good defenses.
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 5 on defense
Quarterback: Chandler Whitmer
Head Coach: Paul Pasqualoni
Connecticut has a grinding style that can cover some spreads. The offense only ranked #110 nationally last year, but the team still beat Pittsburgh and Louisville outright. Expect the same sort of results this year. An early home game against Michigan might get interesting if the visitors come in overconfident.
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 4 on defense
Quarterback: David Poland
Head Coach: Tony Levine
One of the under-reported stories in college football last year was the collapse of Houston. Their coach went to Texas A&M and started making headlines. Their long string of big time quarterback play hit a brick wall. The team managed five wins only because the worst teams in Conference USA were so horrible. The Cougars lost at home to Texas State! They lost by 30 to SMU, and 34 to Tulsa. Now a defense that ranked #115 nationally has to rebuild almost from scratch. We won't be believers in this head coach until we see some results.
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
Quarterback: Garrett Gilbert
Head Coach: June Jones
Last year was mostly a disappointment...but then the Mustangs upset Tulsa in their season finale before obliterating unprepared Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. So...the possibility for a big game is always there. Maybe quarterback Gilbert finally got his bearings late last year. We have SMU better than Houston in our own numbers, and we'll consider them seriously as a potential threat amongst these second tier teams.
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 8 on defense
Quarterback: Jacob Karam
Head Coach: Justin Fuente
Memphis spent the first two-thirds of last season continuing their annual doormat status. Then, they took out Tulane, UAB (in a ROUT), and Southern Miss to end the season. That speaks well for young coach Fuente, as well as for the fortitude of the kids in this beleaguered program. We'll monitor September games against Duke, Middle Tennessee, and Arkansas State before making a determination about how to handle league play. You gotta respect kids who don't throw in the towel...even if they're not the most talented kids in the league.
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Matt Rhule (new)
The Owls could only manage 2-5 last year in their return from the MAC. And one of those wins was in overtime. Now they're dealing with a coaching change and a lot of personnel turnover. A lot of question marks right off the bat...and then the team has to open at Notre Dame! Their schedule isn't doing the players any favors (there's also a trip to Idaho!). We're going to assume the worst until we see what the on-field product looks like. The good news is that the lower half is so weak...a good coach can lift his team several spots if he knows what he's doing.
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Back tomorrow in the NOTEBOOK to talk pennant race baseball. We'll preview Cincinnati/LA Dodgers Thursday, then St. Louis/Atlanta on Friday. Saturday and Sunday bring our final college football conference previews as we look at the Pac 12 North and South.
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