American Athletic Football Predictions
The former Big East will now be known as the AAC in 2013. The Big East went out in style as Louisville won the conference and earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl. There, the Cardinals would upset then-No. 4 Florida 33-23 despite being a 14-point underdog. With 16 returning starters, the Cardinals are the clear-cut favorite to win the AAC in its inaugural season.
Six teams from the Big East will be joining the American Athletic Conference. They are Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Temple, Connecticut and USF. Former Big East rivals Pittsburgh and Syracuse have left for the ACC. There will also be four teams from Conference USA that head to the AAC in 2013. They are UCF, Houston, SMU and Memphis. Let’s see how this conference plays out in 2013.
1. Louisville – The Cardinals had a very young team last year, which is what made it so impressive that they won the Big East and made it to the Sugar Bowl. Their victory over Florida capped off an 11-2 season. Head coach Charlie Strong has decided to come back despite being one of the hottest candidates on the market. Louisville did benefit from winning five games by 5 points or less last season. A big reason for that was Heisman Trophy contender Teddy Bridgewater, who just seemed to will his team to victory each week. Bridgewater is among 16 starters and 53 lettermen who return for the Cardinals this year. That’s why they will be favored in every game in 2013.
2. Cincinnati – The Bearcats lose yet another great head coach. Brian Kelly left in 2009 after winning back-to-back Big East Titles. Butch Jones took over, and after a 4-8 season in 2010, he led Cincinnati to two straight 10-win seasons before leaving for Tennessee last year. Tommy Tuberville gets a fresh start here after falling out of favor at Texas Tech. He’ll be working with 13 starters and 43 lettermen coming back from last year. I believe the Bearcats are the biggest threat to Louisville to win the new AAC. That’s especially the case considering they get a key December 5 home meeting with the Cardinals to close out the season. They also avoid UCF, which I have pegged to finish third in the AAC.
3. UCF – Off a 10-win season in Conference USA, the Knights take a step up in competition as they join the AAC in 2013. While they have just 12 starters and 31 lettermen returning, they certainly have plenty of talent to be competitive in their new conference. The offense should be even stronger with seven starters back from a unit that put up 35.4 points per game last season, including junior QB Blake Bortles (3,059 yards, 25 TD, 7 INT). The defense could take a step back considering it loses 7 of its top 10 tacklers from last year. UCF avoids Cincinnati while facing a pretty easy road schedule that features winnable games against Memphis, Temple and SMU.
4. Connecticut – The Huskies are the surprise team in the AAC in 2013. They were one of only two teams to beat Louisville all season last year. They had four losses by a touchdown or less in 2012 despite outgaining opponents in those four contests by an average of 42 yards per game. UConn finished -14 in turnover differential last year, and that number is sure to come down. The Huskies return 13 starters this year, including eight on offense in what will be a much improved unit. The defense only has five starters back, but this is still one of the better stop units in the league. Road games at Cincinnati and UCF will prevent the Huskies from finishing higher than 4th, but they’ll still get to their first bowl game in the Paul Pasqualoni era in 2013.
5. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights jumped out to a 9-1 start last season and appeared poised to win the Big East. They needed just one victory over their final two games against Pittsburgh or Louisville to secure a BCS Bowl bid, but lost both. In fact, they would go on to fall to Virginia Tech in their bowl game to end the season on a three-game losing streak. Still, a 9-4 campaign has to be considered a success in Kyle Flood’s first year on the job. However, Rutgers returns the fewest starters (10) in the AAC. It benefited from being +10 in turnovers last year while also registering an unsustainable defensive yards per point of 22.0. While they lose 7 of their top 11 tacklers and leading rusher Jawan Jamison, the Scarlet Knights will still find a way to finish in the top half of the AAC.
6. Houston – This seems all too familiar for the Cougars. They finished 5-7 in 2010, which set them up to be the most improved team in the country in 2011 as they finished 13-1. After a 5-7 campaign in 2012, things are looking up for Houston headin ginto 2013. The offense welcomes back eight starters from a unit that put up 32.4 points and 480 total yards per game last season, including QB David Piland. However, leading rusher Charles Sims and top receiver Dewayne Peace have left the program this offseason. The defense only returns five starters and will give up monster numbers once again in 2013. This team will get back to a bowl game, but it will not be one of the most improved teams in the country like it was in 2011.
7. Memphis – The Tigers are the biggest sleeper in the new AAC. They have gone a combined 9-39 over the past four seasons, so expectations are low. First-year head coach Justin Fuente could have lost his team in 2012 after a 1-8 start, but that was not the case. He managed to rally the troops and end the season on a three-game winning streak with blowout victories over Tulane (37-23), UAB (46-9) and Southern Miss (42-24). Now, with 16 starters and 46 lettermen returning, Fuente and company have a ton of momentum headin ginto 2013. The Tigers have winnable home games against SMU and Temple as well as manageable road games at Houston and USF. While I have pegged Memphis with a 5-7 campaign in 2013, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Fuente gets it to its first bowl game since 2008.
8. SMU – June Jones continues to do a remarkable job at SMU. After a 1-11 season in his first year on the job in 2008, Jones has led the Mustangs to four straight bowl games. To put that in perspective, SMU had not been to a bowl game since 1984 when he arrived here. Jones will have his work cut out for him with only 11 starters and 34 lettermen coming back. The Mustangs benefited from being +14 in turnovers last year, and they lose six all-conference players. They do avoid Louisville, which is a huge plus, but this is still one of the least talented teams in the AAC in 2013.
9. South Florida – The Bulls have been one of the most disappointing teams in the country over the past two years. Despite having plenty of talent, they have gone a combined 8-16 the last two seasons. Enter Willie Taggart, who has spent the past three years at Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers lost 20 straight games when he took over, but they went 14-6 over his final 20 games there in one of the best turnarounds you will ever see. The cupboard isn’t bare for Taggart as South Florida returns 13 starters and 43 lettermen. The Bulls will be favored in home games against SMU and Memphis this year, but they will be a dog in every other contest. This looks like a rebuilding year for Taggart and company in his first year on the job.
10. Temple – Al Golden led Temple’s resurgence by getting it to nine wins for the first time since 1979. His job here led to a new opportunity at Miami, which he gladly took. Steve Addazio benefited from Golden’s recruiting when he took over in 2011, guiding the Owls to another 9-win seasons. However, after a 4-7 campaign in 2012, Addazio has bolted for Boston College. He leaves just in time as the talent level of this team is nowhere near the rest of the squads in the new AAC. Matt Rhule, who was an Owls’ assistant from ’06-’11, takes over. He does have 14 starters and 53 lettermen returning, but there are too many question marks on this team to escape the basement of the AAC in 2013. Plus, the Owls are the only team in the conference that doesn’t get to face USF.