As college football nears its Sept. 3 kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2015 season, conference by conference. While some conferences may be more nationally relevant than others, every league has intriguing teams and players to watch. So far, we've covered the Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA and MAC. Today, we continue with 10 things to know about the American Athletic Conference.
* * *
1. The American Athletic Conference has undergone a strange identity switch. Whereas before, as the Big East, it was regarded as the weak link among the BCS conferences, the new AAC is now the best of the Group of Five leagues. It's a poor trade-off, of course: The AAC would much rather have a seat at the power conference table. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to like here. The AAC is essentially Conference USA version 2.0, but this is an intriguing collection of teams that should become increasingly competitive over the next few years thanks to an influx of promising coaches. Successful coaches are bound to leave for bigger things, but the AAC could quickly become a great breeding ground for younger head coaches on the rise.
2. The AAC features more than just new coaches. It also welcomes a 12th team -- and thus two divisions and a conference championship game -- as Navy completes the most recent phase of conference realignment by joining a conference for the first time ever. Navy is a good fit for the AAC and can be a contender immediately. While Navy's inclusion in the new West Division feels geographically wrong, like Missouri in the SEC East, the Midshipmen rely heavily on recruiting the state of Texas, meaning their inclusion in a division with Houston and SMU makes some sense. Ken Niumatalolo has taken the Midshipmen bowling in six of seven years since replacing Paul Johnson, including an 8-5 record with a Poinsettia Bowl win last year. Navy isn't guaranteed success this year, with just 10 starters returning as it rebuilds its offensive line. Still, Keenan Reynolds is back at quarterback, with his 64 career rushing touchdowns in this option attack, and few teams have been as consistently competitive as Navy over the last decade, which is a remarkable feat. There are a lot of solid teams in this conference who all have holes, so Navy may be in as good of a position as anyone.
3. Two of the new coaching faces belong to SMU and Tulsa, who had similar ideas to try to pull themselves out of their malaise: Hire acclaimed offensive coordinators with deep ties to the state of Texas. Both SMU's Chad Morris and Tulsa's Philip Montgomery were outstanding hires, but rebuilding will take more than a year. Morris comes to the Mustangs from Clemson, but he's a Texas A&M graduate with deep experience as a Texas high school head coach -- and a long list of recruiting connections. There's a lot of competition for the talent, but SMU is seated in the heart of one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country, making Morris a good fit for this rebuilding project after SMU tanked last year, with Junes Jones stepping down two games into a 1-11 season in which the Mustangs scored 11.1 points per game. SMU will improve this year, but Morris has a lot of work to do, so right now the main focus should be to steadily increase the win total while making gains on the recruiting trail.. Montgomery was the right-hand man of Art Briles at Baylor, and he comes to a Tulsa program that has achieved a solid level of success despite being the smallest school at the FBS level. The Golden Hurricane has won 10 games four of the last eight seasons, including an 11-3 record in 2012. But it's had a 5-19 record the last two years, making for a rough transition to a new conference. Montgomery's offense will put up points; the problem is trying to fix a defense that ranked last nationally in yards per play allowed. That's unlikely to happen instantly, but the good news for Tulsa is there are recent precedents for the program being a contender.
4. The quick fix among new coaches in the AAC will be Tom Herman at Houston. Tony Levine went 8-5 each of the last two years, and while last year's results didn't meet expectations, there's plenty of work with here. Houston has a new stadium and sits in the middle of prime recruiting territory, which Herman is already taking advantage of. The former Ohio State offensive coordinator inherits a roster capable of competing for the AAC title, with the running back tandem of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson and a promising quarterback in junior Greg Ward, although Ward still has to beat out Utah transfer Adam Schulz to retain the job. Herman had perhaps the best possible mentor in Urban Meyer, and while this is his first head coaching job, he was one of the best hires of the offseason. This is a marriage that should work, in a coaching position that can be one of the best Group of Five jobs.
5. All the momentum Tulane had dried up in a hurry. The Green Wave hadn't been to a bowl game since 2010, when Curtis Johnson suddenly revived the program, improving from 2-10 to 7-6 and the New Orleans Bowl over his first two seasons. Last year turned into a disaster in a brand-new stadium, with a 3-9 record in which the only redeeming factor was a win over Houston. Tulane did have the misfortune of playing neither SMU nor Tulsa, which won't happen again given that they're now in the same division. There is some hope: 16 starters return, with sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee bound to take care of the football better in his second year as the starter, and the defense has potential led by sophomore cornerback Parry Nickerson and linebacker Nico Marley. This will be a deeper, more experienced team in 2015 that can compete for a bowl bid, but it's still a step or two behind the top half of the division.
* * *
Top 10 Players
1. Gunner Kiel, QB, Cincinnati
2. Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
3. William Jackson, CB, Houston
4. Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple
5. Kyle Friend, C, Temple
6. Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis
7. Keevan Lucas, WR, Tulsa
8. Zeek Bigger, LB, East Carolina
9. Parker Ehinger, OT, Cincinnati
10. Thomas Niles, DE, UCF
* * *
6. UConn and South Florida are multiple steps behind the top half of the East Division. Last year was really ugly for both, and after his success at Western Kentucky, it's been surprising to see Willie Taggart struggle so much at South Florida. Upon joining the Big East in 2005, the Bulls made five straight bowl games, even reaching as high as No. 2 in the polls in the bizarre 2007 season. The last four years have been a disaster, though, with a 4-8 record last year as quarterback troubles continued. There are a few pieces to like, most notably sophomore tailback Marlon Mack, but the success of the season could depend on UCLA transfer Asiantii Woulard getting a waiver for immediate eligibility, which seems unlikely. UConn's in worse shape. The Huskies badly botched their last hire with Paul Pasqualoni, and now former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is left to piece together the wreckage. The Huskies lost to both SMU and USF in a 2-10 season last year, with year-long struggles on offense. N.C. State transfer Bryant Shirreffs could provide an upgrade at quarterback, but Diaco still has a lot of work to do to get UConn out of the AAC basement, which means the Huskies better enjoy their made-up rivalry trophy with UCF while they still have it.
7. UCF fans really must have enjoyed all the offseason reminders of the fact that the Knights somehow lost to UConn, which was the only real low moment of a 9-4 season (the other three losses were to Power Five teams). Now, while UCF and East Carolina should take a step back, both have built the foundations to avoid significant drop-offs. UCF's talented defensive front -- led by end Thomas Niles -- can mask the youth in the back seven, while quarterback Justin Holman showed flashes of potential in a solid debut season as starter. There are too many pieces to replace for UCF to be considered the favorite in the conference, but the Knights will be a factor. East Carolina should be too, despite losing the prolific Shane Carden-Justin Hardy combination, as well as offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Reliable receiver Isaiah Jones and an experienced O-line return, meaning the offense should be able to rebuild quickly enough to contend, even if last year's 8-5 season turned out to be a disappointment. With strong support and a solid coach in Ruffin McNeill, ECU is in position to contend in this conference more often than not, even if the offense has to spend some time rebuilding this season.
8. Temple is on the rise under Matt Rhule. The Owls improved from 2-10 to 6-6 in Rhule first two years, and now he returns the makings of a dominant defense. It already was one last year, in fact: Temple allowed just 4.75 yards per play (11th nationally) and 17.5 points per game (fourth), and it returns 10 starters to the unit, led by tackling machine Tyler Matakevich at linebacker and all-conference linemen Praise Martin-Oguike and Matt Ioannidis. The Owls were left out of a bowl last year despite going 6-6, but they should improve enough on offense to get to the postseason with nearly everybody back, especially if quarterback P.J. Walker regains the efficiency of his freshman year.
9. Memphis is really on the rise under Justin Fuente. The only bad news about a significant program turnaround at the Group of Five level is that the coach is bound to leave for a bigger job. Fuente has only one winning season in three years, but if he repeats that, he'll inevitably get called up. Memphis did go to five bowl games in the 2000s, but it has struggled for much of its history and it struggled right before Fuente arrived. Fuente inherited a mess, and after two years of building, he took the Tigers to a 10-3 mark, with a share of the conference title and a Miami Beach Bowl win over BYU. It was one of the best seasons in school history, and now Memphis is attempting to upgrade its facilities and further modernize by actually investing in football. Repeating last season won't necessarily be easy. Seven of the top eight tacklers are gone from a really solid defense, in addition to coordinator Barry Odom, meaning the focus of the team shifts to offense, where eight starters do return, including junior quarterback Paxton Lynch. Lynch completed 62.7 percent for 3,021 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 321 yards and 13 touchdowns, so it's clear that Memphis is in good hands on offense, which could be enough to win the division and get to the first-ever AAC title game.
10. Cincinnati will win the AAC. There are a lot of intriguing teams in this league, but even with attrition up front on defense, Cincinnati has the fewest questions among the contenders this season. The Bearcats should be healthier than they were last year, and their offense could be unstoppable. Former five-star recruit Gunner Kiel finally debuted at quarterback in 2014, and he threw for 3,254 yards and 31 touchdowns. If he continues to develop, he'll reduce his mistakes and make this offense even better. It helps that the entire receiving corps is back, along with sophomore tailback Mike Boone, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry as a freshman. The defense was a mess at times last year, but Cincinnati still finished 7-1 in the conference. With road games at Memphis, BYU, Houston and East Carolina, plus Miami coming to the renovated Nippert Stadium on a Thursday night, there are plenty of tough games on the schedule. But behind Kiel and a terrific receiving corps, this team will put up enough points to win the AAC, and compete for the Group of Five's major bowl bid. Much of the luster has worn off as the conference no longer has power conference status -- Cincinnati and anyone else in the league is dying for a call from the Big 12 -- but this does have the makings of a competitive league.
* * *
1. Cincinnati 10-2 (7-1)
2. UCF 7-5 (5-3)
3. Temple 7-5 (5-3)
4. East Carolina 6-6 (5-3)
5. South Florida 3-9 (2-6)
6. Connecticut 3-9 (1-7)
1. Memphis 8-4 (6-2)
2. Houston 8-4 (6-2)
3. Navy 8-4 (5-3)
4. Tulane 4-8 (3-5)
5. Tulsa 3-9 (2-6)
6. SMU 3-9 (1-7)
Conference Championship: Cincinnati over Memphis