With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We continue with 10 things to know the American Athletic Conference.

2017 conference previews: Sun BeltMAC | ACC | Big 12 | Mountain West | Independents | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Conference USA

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1. Off the field, the American Athletic Conference is fighting a losing branding battle. It resists the notion of a power structure featuring a Power Five and a Group of Five, and it wants to be known as part of a Power Six, like the old Big East was. The American is mostly right to think of itself as above the rest of the Group of Five right now; competitively, it is the strongest of those league. But there's a reason that Navy's Ken Niumatalolo is the conference's only coach that has been at his school longer than three years (excluding UConn's Randy Edsall, who just returned after six years away): Jobs in the Power Five are more appealing, making this into the sport's premier stepping-stone league. So, the American said goodbye to Willie Taggart (Oregon), Tom Herman (Texas) and Matt Rhule (Baylor) last year, and returning coaches like UCF's Scott Frost, Memphis' Mike Norvell, Tulsa's Philip Montgomery and SMU's Chad Morris are bound to be mentioned for bigger jobs soon. Despite the fluid coaching situations in the American, the product the conference puts forth is entertaining, with a few teams capable of making top-25 pushes. It's also the best bet to land its champion in the New Year's Six bowl games.

2. Major Applewhite, Chad Morris, Philip Montgomery, Willie Fritz and Mike Norvell have a combined six years of head coaching experience at their current AAC West schools. Ken Niumatalolo has coached Navy for nine years. Navy is the conference's only team with comfortable stability, as Niumatalolo has been one of the sport's most effective coaches over the past decade, going 77-42. Navy won nine games last year despite returning just one starter on offense, then losing starting QB Tago Smith in the opener. Last year proved that underestimating Navy is foolish, but more offensive attrition combined with a tricky schedule may lead to a small step back. This time, Navy loses four of its top five rushers, headlined by QB Will Worth, and three starting offensive linemen. New QB Zach Abey got some experience last year and Navy's offense will undoubtedly be tough defend, as usual, but repeating 2016's reload will be a difficult task, even if the Midshipmen still are contenders in a tough division.

3. Memphis has put together one of the best runs in school history, with prolific passing attacks leading to 27 wins over the past three seasons. Despite losing coach Justin Fuente and QB Paxton Lynch after 2015, the Tigers still won eight games last year, as the combination of new head coach Mike Norvell and QB Riley Ferguson proved to be potent. With Norvell and Ferguson back, Memphis shows no signs of slowing down and will be a highly entertaining team. Ferguson leads an offense that returns nearly everybody after he threw for 3,698 yards and 32 TDs. That includes top target Anthony Miller (95 catches) and leading rusher Doroland Dorceus. The Tigers' defense needs some work and there's another change on offense, with Darrell Dickey promoted to coordinator to replace Chip Long (now at Notre Dame), but Memphis has both the underrated quarterback and the firepower around him to make a push for the conference title. Keep an eye on the Sept. 16 game at home against UCLA, because a win there would start some major bowl buzz, too.

4. Tulsa may have had a downturn in 2013-14, but it has won double-digit games in five of the past 10 seasons after Philip Montgomery restored the Golden Hurricane to that status with a 10-3 record in 2016. Montgomery built an offense that scored 42.5 points per game last year, and his scheme -- from the Art Briles coaching tree -- is going to continue to produce prolific attacks. However, turnover in the passing game will keep Tulsa from rising to the top of the AAC West. That's not to say there won't be a lot to like here. Even with 1,600-yard rusher James Flanders gone, Tulsa still has 1,400-yard rusher D'Angelo Brewer running behind the conference's best offensive line. Still, Tulsa also loses a pair of thousand-yard receivers and prolific QB Dane Evans, creating a quarterback battle between sophomore Chad President and redshirt freshman Luke Skipper. While the defense did improve last year, it's certainly not a strength. Tulsa will be able to run the ball, but against a schedule that includes nonconference road trips to Oklahoma State and Toledo and a cross-division game at USF, on top of the AAC West slate, this season is likely to more closely resemble Montgomery's debut than his second year.

5. Chad Morris seems destined for a Power Five coaching job. The former Clemson offensive coordinator and longtime state of Texas high school coach has clearly improved SMU significantly; now he just needs to push the Mustangs over the hump. After inheriting a mess from June Jones, Morris went 2-10 in Year 1 and improved to 5-7 in Year 2. Last year's results included a win over Houston, and all seven losses came to teams that played in bowl games. This year's schedule is somewhat lighter -- no USF, one Power Five nonconference game instead of two -- and the Mustangs have a veteran offense ready to take the next step and get to the postseason for the first time since 2012. There's competition at QB as Ben Hicks tries to hold off Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey and Wisconsin transfer D.J. Gillins. But whoever starts at QB will have experienced weapons, headlined by potential first-round pick WR Courtland Sutton, and an experienced line. Beyond standout DE Justin Lawler, there are lingering questions on defense -- SMU gave up 75 to Navy in its most recent game -- but the Mustangs are trending upward. The key this year is defending the home turf, because even though the schedule has advantages, they play TCU, Houston, Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis on the road. Even so, the offense will finally be close to where Morris wants it, giving SMU a chance to be more competitive in the conference.

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All-AAC Team

QB: Quinton Flowers, USF
RB: D'Angelo Brewer, Tulsa
RB: Ryquell Armstead, Temple
WR: Courtland Sutton, SMU
WR: Anthony Miller, Memphis
WR: Linell Bonner, Houston
OL: Chandler Miller, Tulsa
OL: Will Noble, Houston
OL: Evan Plagg, Tulsa
OL: Evan Martin, Navy
OL: Aaron Evans, UCF

DE: Justin Lawler, SMU
DE: Jesse Brubaker, Tulsa
DT: Ed Oliver, Houston
DT: Cortez Broughton, Cincinnati
LB: Shaquem Griffin, UCF
LB: Genard Avery, Memphis
LB: Auggie Sanchez, USF
CB: Deatrick Nichols, USF
CB: Parry Nickerson, Tulane
S: Sean Chandler, Temple
S: Garrett Davis, Houston

K: Matthew Wright, UCF
P: Spencer Smith, Memphis
AP: Tony Pollard, Memphis

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6. Three second-year coaches in the American are coming off losing seasons. Of those, UCF is best positioned for 2017 success. Despite a 6-7 record, Scott Frost's debut at UCF was a big success, as he took over a 0-12 team and ended up bowling. This year is all about getting the offense up to speed, as last year's team was built around an experienced defense. With eight of the top 11 tacklers gone, the Knights do face significant questions defensively, but the hope is that regression there will be balanced out by progress on offense after a broken unit finished 123rd in yards per play. The East is weaker than the West, so if the offense makes the leap that can be expected with more experience in Frost's system, UCF could become a second-place team.

Bowl eligibility is a lot more challenging for East Carolina's Scottie Montgomery and Tulsa's Willie Fritz. East Carolina went 3-9 last year, and while Duke transfer Thomas Sirk offers a potential spark at quarterback -- especially since he formerly played under Montgomery in Durham -- the Pirates lose prolific WR Zay Jones, have significant issues on defense and face a schedule that includes West Virginia, Virginia Tech and BYU out of conference and road trips to Houston and Memphis from the West. Fritz, meanwhile, can be expected to have a much more potent offensive attack in his second year at Tulane -- the Green Wave were 121st in yards per play -- but this wasn't exactly a quick fix. Tulane has won more than four games just once in the past 12 seasons, and it's stuck in a brutally competitive AAC West in which the other coaches who are early in their tenures are a step or two ahead. The gap is wide, and drawing South Florida on top of playing Oklahoma doesn't help.

7. UConn and Cincinnati both fired coaches after seasons in which they each had three games in which they scored zero touchdowns and each won only one conference game (including UConn's 20-9 win over Cincinnati). Both teams played in major bowls somewhat recently, but they were unwatchable last year. Cincinnati is more likely to bounce back quickly that Connecticut. The Tommy Tuberville ended poorly, but it's not like the Bearcats' roster is totally barren for new head coach Luke Fickell. Cincinnati has a solid receiving corps -- with Hayden Moore and Ross Trail battling for the QB job -- and is in decent shape on defense. With a favorable schedule in which they don't play Houston or Memphis, the Bearcats have a good chance to at least increase their win total by two and go bowling again.

While Randy Edsall is the same coach who led UConn to the Fiesta Bowl in 2010, the Huskies haven't had a winning season since he left, and they can't be expected to immediately return to where he left off before he took the Maryland job. The Huskies averaged 14.6 points per game against eight conference opponents last year, and while there's experience returning, lead by RB Arkeel Newsome, this isn't an easy rebuilding job for Edsall and new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who comes in from Auburn. The hope is that a switch to juco transfer David Pindell can at least provide some sort of spark. Even though the defense can be effective, there's too much ground to make up for this season to look significantly different than last year.

8. Unlike Cincinnati and UConn, Temple has a great reason to have a new coach: It's coming off back-to-back 10-4 seasons, including a conference championship last year. Matt Rhule did a phenomenal job, as the Owls even broke into the top 25 each of the past two seasons. Temple has become a much more attractive job -- the past three coaches have all landed Power Five gigs -- making this an appealing first head coaching opportunity for ex-Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. That's not to say there won't be Year 1 hurdles. Temple loses a ton, including seven of its top 10 tacklers, starting QB Phillip Walker and starting RB Jahad Thomas. The offense can build around RB Ryquell Armstead and a stellar receiving corps, but the backbone of this team has been defense. Even with Collins' impressive defensive background, there's too much attrition in the front seven to expect Temple to win a third straight division title. Given this program's history, a third straight bowl trip would still be something to celebrate.

9. South Florida is the consensus favorite to win the American and to earn the Group of Five's major bowl bid. There's no doubt that Charlie Strong is set up to succeed in his USF debut. Strong proved to be the wrong fit at Texas, but he's a great fit for USF, especially given his background as a recruiter in the state of Florida. Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert inherits an explosive offense led by senior QB Quinton Flowers, who rushed for 1,530 yards and 18 TDs and passed for 2,812 yards and 24 TDs in leading the Bulls to an 11-2 record and a top-25 finish. While RB Marlon Adams and WR Rodney Adams are gone, this is an experienced team on both sides of the ball, with what will be an improved defense to support Flowers' heroics. With a laughably easy schedule -- Houston at home; no Memphis or Navy; and a nonconference schedule featuring San Jose State, Stony Brook, Illinois and UMass -- an undefeated regular season is possible, and a double-digit-win season seems assured. The Bulls are going to be a lot of fun, and while that weak schedule will hurt them in any New Year's Six bowl debate if they slip up, they're likely to string together a bunch of dominant wins.

10. Despite USF's obvious strength and favorable path, we're picking a slight upset: Houston will win the American. Houston is capable of beating USF in the regular season, but even if it loses that game, it's not hard to envision a scenario where the Cougars get revenge in the conference title game. Yes, losing Tom Herman is big, and the transition to Major Applewhite (promoted from offensive coordinator) might not go perfectly. After all, last year's highly touted team beat Oklahoma and Louisville but still finished with four losses, capped by a blowout loss to San Diego State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Rumors of Herman's impending exit hovered around the team all season, though, and distractions will certainly be reduced in 2017. Plus, we know this team is loaded with talent, by AAC standards, talent that allowed it to beat both the Sooners and Cardinals by double digits last year. DT Ed Oliver, a five-star recruit, is our No. 1 ranked player nationally, at any position. The QB is likely to be Kyle Allen, a five-star recruit who started 14 games and showed promise at Texas A&M before transferring. He has Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar to throw to, and Houston's run game will improve with a more experienced line and, hopefully, a healthier Duke Catalon. There are holes to fill in the back seven on defense -- not to mention losing coordinator Todd Orlando -- in addition to rebuilding the pass rush around Oliver, but this is a talented team capable of beating both Power Five opponents (Arizona, Texas Tech) and making another run at 10 wins and a major bowl. USF is a worthy choice as champion, but Houston and Memphis are capable of challenging the Bulls. We'll go with the Cougars to do what they were supposed to last year and return to the top.

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Projected Standings


1. South Florida 11-1 (8-1)
2. UCF 7-5 (5-3)
3. Cincinnati 6-6 (3-5)
4. Temple 6-6 (3-5)
5. East Carolina 3-9 (2-6)
6. Connecticut 3-9 (2-6)


1. Houston 10-2 (6-2)
2. Memphis 9-3 (6-2)
3. Navy 7-5 (5-3)
4. Tulsa 6-6 (4-4)
5. SMU 6-6 (3-5)
6. Tulane 4-8 (2-6)

Conference championship: Houston over South Florida

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2017 conference previews: Sun BeltMAC | ACC | Big 12 | Mountain West | Independents | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | American | Conference USA

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Contact Matt at matt.brown5082@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @MattBrownCFB and Facebook.