The American Athletic has just three teams left over from 2011 in a conference that was previously known as the Big East. They are Cincinnati, Connecticut and South Florida. The AAC had just 11 teams last year and no conference championship game.
Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF finished in a three-way tie for first place at 7-1 each. While many expected Cincinnati and UCF to be the top two contenders in the conference last year, it was Memphis that stole all of the headlines. The Tigers went from last in the AAC in 2013 at 3-9 overall and 1-7 within the conference to 10-3 and 7-1. It was a remarkable turnaround for Justin Fuente and company.
Entering 2015, the AAC now has 12 teams with the addition of Navy, which enters a conference for the first time in 124 years. That means there will be two divisions split by East and West. Navy will join its strong fan base in Texas along with SMU, Houston, Tulsa, Tulane and Memphis.
Some high-profile assistants from last year join the conference as former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman is now the head coach at Houston, former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is the coach at SMU, and former Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery is the coach at Tulsa.
I’m going to give my predictions on how each division will play out this season. I will also offer a brief team preview for every squad to provide you some insight into my prediction. I’ll also pick my 2015 AAC Championship Game winner at the end.
AAC East Predictions
T-1st: East Carolina (7-5, 6-2 AAC)
There’s no question that the Pirates lose some star power this season. The school’s all-time leading passer in Shane Carden (11,991 yards) and the all-time leading receiver in Justin Hardy (4,541 yards) are gone from last year’s team. Also, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has left for Oklahoma. The Pirates only return 11 starters, which are tied for the third-fewest in the AAC. That being said, their 5-3 record last year was only the second-worst in five years under Ruffin McNeill. They lost two games in the final seconds, including a fluke hail mary to UCF. They were actually 1st in the AAC in yardage differential last year, outgaining teams by 134.3 yards per game. They held a 145-103 edge in first downs in the five losses they suffered last year and easily could have won all five of those games, which were all decided by 10 points or less. The new QB is sophomore Kurt Benkert, and he is actually a bigger threat to run than Carden with a bigger arm as well. ECU avoids the top two teams from the West in Houston and Memphis and gets Cincinnati and Temple at home. The schedule will help this still-talented Pirates team overcome the losses of Carden and Hardy and win the East. They’ll earn the tiebreaker with a victory over Cincinnati on November 28 in the season finale.
T-1st: Cincinnati (9-3, 6-2 AAC)
The Bearcats haven’t been able to keep their quarterback healthy in years. After losing their AAC opener in 2014, they went on to win their last seven and were co-champs with Memphis and UCF. Now they have 13 returning starters, including quarterback Gunner Kiel, who threw for 3,254 yards and 31 touchdowns against 13 interceptions last year. Six of their top nine tacklers return on defense as they should be much-improved on that side of the ball as well. But they only outgained opponents by 72.4 yards per game in conference play last year, which was the fifth-best mark in the AAC. They also draw the toughest schedule from the East as they play both Houston and Memphis from the West. While they may be the most talented team in the East, the Bearcats’ schedule has me picking them to finish only in a tie for first, and to lose the tiebreaker with ECU.
T-3rd: Temple (7-5, 5-3 AAC)
The Owls were one of only four teams last year who were bowl eligible that didn’t get to luxury of going to a bowl game. They will come back determined off a 6-6 season to take it a step further in 2015 and make sure that they make the postseason. I like their chances with a whopping 19 returning starters, making them the most experienced team in the AAC. They probably weren’t as good as their 4-4 AAC record would indicate last year considering they are outgained by 69.5 yards per game in conference play. But now they have the best defense in the AAC with 10 starters back from a unit that only gave up 17.5 points per game last year. QB PJ Walker is good enough to lead the offense to big-time improvements after averaging just 23.1 points per game a season ago. They avoid both Houston and Navy out of the West, but they also draw the top two teams in the East in East Carolina and Cincinnati on the road. Losses in both of those games will keep the Owls from AAC title contention.
T-3rd: UCF (7-5, 5-3 AAC)
George O’Leary just continues to get it done at UCF. The Knights are a tremendous 22-2 in league play over the past three seasons. They were second in the conference in outgaining opponents by 127.9 yards per game last year. While they return the fewest starters (9) in the AAC this year, they certainly aren’t short on talent. They have five first-team All-AAC selections from last year back, including two second-teamers. They do lose their top four receivers and all four defensive backs, so they likely aren’t going to be as strong. They have to travel to play both Temple and Cincinnati, and they draw Houston from the West. While they’ll still be in AAC title contention this year, I don’t expect the Knights to win it in 2015 because of all that they lost this offseason.
T-5th: Connecticut (4-8, 2-6 AAC)
First-year head coach Bob Diaco was in a very tough spot last season. The Huskies had just 12 returning starters and went 2-10, including 1-7 in conference play. Now a more veteran squad with 14 starters and 52 lettermen returning with just 13 lettermen lost, the Huskies should be improved in Diaco’s second season. However, they have a long way to go considering they were outgained by 122.4 yards per game in conference play, which was the second-worst mark in the AAC. They did manage 17.8 yards per point offensively and 12.7 yards per point defensively with a -13 turnover differential, which are signs pointing up. After scoring just 15.5 points per game last year, the offense should be vastly improved. The defense looks solid with eight returning starters from a unit that gave up a respectable 379 yards per game last season. They could avoid the basement of the stacked East division because they host USF on October 17.
T-5th: USF (4-8, 2-6 AAC)
It has been maddening the lack of success that the USF Bulls have had in recent years, because when their players get off the bus, they look like a very good team. They get some of the best recruits in the AAC, but they haven’t been to a bowl since 2010. Willie Taggert went 2-10 in his first season in ’13 and improved to 4-8 last year. Year 3 is when head coaches usually shine with their new programs, and the Bulls could be a sleeper in the AAC as a result. Taggert has produced the top recruiting class in the AAC each of the last two years. But the Bulls return just 11 starters this season. They are loaded at running back with Marlon Mack, and they have one of the best receiving corps in the AAC. Now it’s up to sophomore QB Quinton Flowers to take this offense to the next level after averaging just 17.2 points per game last year. Unfortunately, the Bulls play the top three AAC teams at home, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road. They were only outgained by 63.6 yards per game in AAC play last year, but their schedule has me picking them to finish in a tie for last in the AAC East.
AAC West Predictions
T-1st: Houston (8-4, 5-3 AAC)
The Houston Cougars have won eight games each of the past season seasons and have been to a bowl game seven of the past nine years. This is a great place for young coaches to get started, and the Cougars managed to nab a very good one in former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman. While he’ll be working with just 11 returning starters, there is plenty of talent here. Quarterback Greg Ward, who completed 67.3 percent of his passes last year, returns. As does 1,000-yard rusher Kenneth Farrow. The defense welcomes back seven of the top 11 tacklers from a unit that only gave up 20.6 points per game last season. The Cougars have even suffered five losses over the past two seasons where they were deep in opponent’s territory late but came up short. They get key conference games against Cincinnati, Memphis and Navy at home this year, while facing a soft road slate at Tulsa, Tulane, UCF and UConn. A win at home over Memphis on November 14 will give them the tiebreaker in the West.
T-1st: Memphis (8-4, 5-3 AAC)
Justin Fuente was just 5-11 in conference play in his first two seasons in Memphis. However, Year 3 is when coaches usually make their most improvement, and that was clearly the case for the Tigers last season. They went 10-3 overall and 7-1 within the conference with their only losses to UCLA (by 7), Ole Miss and Houston (by 4). The offense put up 36.2 points per game last season and should be arguably the AAC’s best again in 2015 with eight returning starters, including QB Paxton Lynch (3,031 yards, 22 TD, 9 INT). But the defense won’t be near as good after allowing 19.5 points per game last season. They only return three starters on this side of the ball and lose seven of their top eight tacklers. But they should be stout at the line of scrimmage with one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the AAC. They do draw two of the top teams from the East in Cincinnati and Temple, plus they play Houston on the road, and will ultimately lose that game to lose out on the tiebreaker.
T-3rd: Tulsa (7-5, 4-4 AAC)
The Golden Hurricane had one of the best hires this offseason that went under the radar. They managed to nab Philip Montgomery, who coached quarterbacks in Houston and Baylor the last 12 years. During his seven years at Baylor, he was the co-offensive coordinator the first four years and the offensive coordinator the last three. Montgomery inherits a ton of talent as Tulsa returns 16 starters and 57 lettermen while losing only 17 letter winners. He has a senior QB in Dane Evans and perhaps the best WR tandem in the AAC with Keevan Lucas and Keyarris Garrett. The offense will clearly be among the league’s best, but the key is improving a defense that gave up 39.3 points and 487 yards per game last year. Only six starters return on this side of the ball, but the stop unit cannot possibly be as poor as it was last season. They draw three of the top four teams from the East in ECU, UCF and Cincinnati, so that tough schedule will prevent them from contending for an AAC West title. However, make sure you get a chance to watch this team because it’s going to be a fun brand of football under Montgomery.
T-3rd: Navy (7-5, 4-4 AAC)
The Navy Midshipmen enter a conference after 134 years of being an Independent. They have won at least eight games each of the past three seasons. They will have an advantage because no team in the AAC will get a bye before facing the Midshipmen, and it takes two weeks to fully prepare for the triple-option sometimes. But they return only 10 starters and won four games by a touchdown or less last season. They really didn’t have any great wins last year, either, as they pulled just one upset all season in the 17-16 bowl win over SDSU. The good news is that two-time Independent Offensive Player of the Year, Keenan Reynolds, returns. He has been the best quarterback in school history and will keep the Midshipmen in AAC contention in 2015. The defense returns six starters and five of the top seven tacklers and should be improved. They avoid three of the top four teams from the East while drawing ECU at home and facing both USF and UConn. But they do have to travel to Memphis and Houston, which will likely keep them from winning the West in their first season as a member of the AAC.
5th: Tulane (5-7, 3-5 AAC)
Curtis Johnson led Tulane to its first bowl games since 2002 with a 7-6 campaign in 2013. But the Green Wave took a step back last year, going just 3-9 despite having a respectable 13 returning starters. Johnson may have his best team yet in 2015 with 16 starters and 47 lettermen returning. They had poor offensive (21.7) and defensive (13.6) yards per point last year and lost three games by a touchdown or less. Despite being 2-6 in AAC play, they were only outgained by 43.3 yards per game, which was the sixth-best mark in the league. The offense will be improved with nine starters back from a unit that only put up 16.0 points per game, and the defense should be among the best in the AAC. Unfortunately, the October schedule is very unkind with trips to Temple, Navy and Memphis, as well as home games against UCF and Houston. They could go 0-5 during that stretch, which would put them at 3-5 within the AAC and one win shy of a bowl berth.
6th: SMU (2-10, 1-7 AAC)
The Mustangs were the third team that had a great hire this offseason. They nabbed former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who was born and raised in Texas and was a Lonestar HS coach for 16 years while compiling a 169-38 record. Morris has his hands full in trying to make the Mustangs competitive again off a disastrous 1-11 season that saw them win their season finale against UConn for their lone victory. He does inherit 16 returning starters, but the Mustangs have a lot of ground to make up after getting outgained by 173.8 yards per game in AAC play last year. They were -14 in turnovers and had poor offensive (24.3) and defensive (12.1) yards per point. There’s no doubt that the Mustangs will be more competitive in 2015, but they play TCU and Baylor out of conference, and their only winnable AAC games come at home against Tulane and Tulsa. I’ll call for a 2-10 season overall and a 1-7 mark within the conference.
AAC Championship Game: Houston defeats East Carolina
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