Welcome to the College Football Preview Series! Over the next few weeks, I will be replacing the Student of the Game (don’t worry it will return) with this preview series. The first several posts will be a breakdown of each conference, breaking down the Power 5 into two posts apiece to cover everything in a manageable size. In each post, I will answer what I deem to be the five most important questions about each conference or division. The preview series will conclude with an individual awards post and a New Year’s Six predictions post. Enjoy and please leave comments!
In the playoff era, admittedly still in its infancy, the American Athletic Conference has asserted itself as the premier Group of Five conference (sorry Mountain West). Despite only having its champion represented in the New Year’s Six bowls once, they have sent several coaches to the Power 5 ranks and last year became the only Group of Five conference to have back-to-back seasons of 3+ teams with 10 or more wins. And yes, I do realize that that completely arbitrary stat ranks right up there with some of ESPN’s best.
How will the new coaches fare in 2017?
Of the 21 FBS teams that are breaking in new coaches this season, five of them play in the American Athletic Conference. South Florida handed the reins to Charlie Strong after Willie Taggart took the Oregon job, but Taggart left Strong plenty of toys in the sandbox. Most people have the Bulls as the favorite to win the AAC and snag a New Year’s Six bid, and I think this is a perfectly reasonable projection. The schedule sets up really nicely for the Bulls and Quinton Flowers is one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the nation.
However, my pick for AAC champion is actually another team breaking in a new coach. Major Applewhite moved his office down the hall this offseason after Tom Herman took over at Texas for Strong. Houston was a trendy NY6 pick last season, and put the Power 5 on notice when they throttled Oklahoma on opening weekend. They would later go on to beat Louisville too, but injuries to star QB Greg Ward and inconsistent offensive play saw them end at a relatively disappointing 9-4.
The other three teams breaking in new coaches are Temple, Cincinnati and UConn. Geoff Collins should end up being a solid coach for the Owls, having spent the last six seasons as a defensive coordinator in the SEC (at Mississippi State and Florida), but I do believe Temple will fail to make its third consecutive AAC title game appearance this season. Luke Fickell seems like the right man for the Cincinnati job considering that he has spent almost his whole adult life in the state of Ohio. His one season as interim head coach at Ohio State wasn’t particularly inspiring, however considering the circumstances he did an admirable job. Randy Edsall returns to Storrs where he led UConn to the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, but this team is in full rebuild so things might get worse before they get better in Edsall’s second tenure. (Side Note: I got absolutely crushed on a UConn message board for my 2015 UConn preview and I promise I don’t hold that against the Huskies as I make my predictions.)
Who will we see patrolling the sidelines in a Power 5 conference in 2018?
I see four main candidates that could end up getting a call to move on to “greener pastures” at the end of this season. Hugh Freeze’s dismissal at Ole Miss and pending NCAA hearing has already opened up a vacancy and a popular name being tossed about is Memphis head coach Mike Norvell. Norvell took over for Justin Fuente last season and did a fine job. This season the Tigers are legitimate AAC contenders and could threaten a NY6 bowl. If that happens, Ole Miss won’t be Norvell’s only suitor, even if they are the most logical choice given Norvell’s recruiting ties to the area.
Another popular name in the Ole Miss coaching search has been Charlie Strong, although I don’t believe he will be leaving USF at the end of the season. Even if the Bulls do go on to win the AAC, many athletic directors will still view the team as something that Willie Taggart built, fair or not, and given how Strong’s tenure at Texas went I think most power programs will want to see more from Strong in Tampa before giving him another chance at a major program.
Philip Montgomery and Chad Morris are two offensive gurus that are also on the radar for certain teams. Montgomery has proven his offensive genius after 7 years at Baylor and leading Tulsa to a 10-win season last year. The only issue with him is the fact that he spent several years coaching under Art Briles, which has become the NCAA equivalent of working for Trump’s press team (sorry I couldn’t resist). Morris has a different problem. His offensive genius is not in doubt, but the wins haven’t followed him since taking over at SMU. He is 7-17 in his two years, but has the Mustangs pointed in the right direction. If he can get them to a bowl game this year, and I think he will, then don’t be surprised if he ends up at one of the Power 5 schools in Texas next season.
The other AAC coach that seems poised for a Power 5 gig sooner rather than later is Scott Frost, or as my NCB contributor friends prefer to call him “National Champion Scott Frost”. Frost won a title as the quarterback of Nebraska under Tom Osborne and hasn’t really stopped winning. He was on Oregon’s staff for both national championship appearances this century, and he took over an 0-12 team in UCF last year and immediately got them to a bowl game. If Nebraska can’t return to prominence soon and Frost continues to win at Central Florida, then the Huskers will be calling Frost home.
Will the AAC continue the streak of 3 or more double digit win teams?
Reading between the lines of the first two sections you can probably figure out that I believe the answer to this question is yes. Houston, Memphis and USF will all win ten or more games this season by my projections, and its honestly a crapshoot for which one will win the conference. If you are looking for a “dark horse”, then Navy is another contender to get there. The Midshipmen trailed off after a 9-2 start last season, but they are always in the mix with Ken Niumatalolo (almost spelled it right without looking) at the helm. I project Navy to go 9-3, with the potential to get 10 wins with a bowl victory. Revenge may also play a factor as Navy is coming off losses to both Air Force and Army.
Which team(s) will take a step forward in 2017?
I don’t want to sound like a broken record but Houston and Memphis are the teams that I see making the most improvement from 2016’s record this season. USF is a team that I believe will take a step forward in the sense that I have them winning the AAC East title for the first time, but from a record standpoint there’s only so much better than 11-2 a team can do.
Another team that isn’t taking a major step from a record standpoint, but will improve significantly in terms of status is SMU. As I mentioned earlier, I believe the Mustangs will make a bowl game this season and if they can keep Chad Morris around for a few more years are really trending in the right direction. Courtland Sutton is an All-American receiver on almost every preseason ballot (even if he is second team on most) and a legitimate Biletnikoff candidate. He is the star of the best receiving corps in the conference and the Mustangs prolific passing attack should make waves and scare any defense they face, including TCU’s. If they can win a bowl game, then seven or eight wins is a possibility, which is impressive considering they are two years removed from 2-10 and three years removed from 1-11.
Will the AAC Champion get the automatic bid to a New Year’s Six Bowl?
I’ve already shot my wad and told you that I think the Houston Cougars will win the American Athletic Conference, but I resisted the urge to go into why before. There are two main reasons why I believe the Coogs will both win the AAC and perform an #HTownTakeover of either the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowl (most likely the Cotton). For starters, Ed Oliver is an absolute man up front. He is a true sophomore and also probably the best defensive lineman in college football. With him anchoring the defense, I believe that Houston will have far and away the best defense in the conference. They were quietly great on defense last year.
The main reason Houston faltered towards the end of the year last season was actually the reason most people hyped them up so much early in the year: the offense. Greg Ward’s dual threat capabilities made Houston’s offense dynamic and difficult to gameplan for, but Ward got hurt against Memphis and was never fully healthy when he did play the rest of the way. This year, Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen is expected to start behind center and while he may not have the running ability that Ward had, he has even more arm talent. With four starters back on the offensive line and weapons to throw to like Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar, Allen very well could flash the potential that once made him the top quarterback recruit in the nation. If so, then 13-0 is absolutely and play and dare I say it…?
Cover Photo Courtesy of John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated