In 2013, the Big East changed it’s name to the American Athletic Conference. This conference has gone through some big changes in recent years as Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville have all bolted for the ACC. They also lost Rutgers to the Big Ten this year. Former Conference USA teams in Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF all joined the AAC in 2013. This year, they add in three more Conference USA members in Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina, and in 2015 Navy will be joining this AAC to get to a full 12 teams. Connecticut is the only team that has been a member of the conference since 2004.
The American Athletic went 20-20 in non-conference games last year during the regular season, but just 4-11 against BCS teams. They went 2-3 in the bowls, but they appeared really strong when UCF won the conference and went on to beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights finished in the Top 10, which was the first time that has happened in this conference since 2009. Many have questioned whether the AAC should keep its Automatic Qualifier status, but going 6-3 in BCS bowls the last nine years has quited the critics a bit. Here is how I have the conference playing out in 2014.
American Athletic Predictions
1. Cincinnati (9-3, 7-1 AAC) – The Bearcats outgained opponents by +143.1 yards per game in AAC play last year, which was the second-best mark behind departed Louisville. They capitalized on a very soft schedule last year, and they will have the opportunity to do so again in 2014 as they avoid both UCF and Tulsa. They have 13 returning starters this year and add in Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel, who was the top QB recruit in the country when he came out of high school. They will be favored in all eight of their AAC games this year due to an easy road schedule with games at SMU, Tulane, UConn and Temple. As a result, I have them taking down the conference title in 2014.
2. Houston (9-3, 6-2 AAC) – The Cougars came oh so close to winning the AAC last year as they came up just short in back-to-back losses to both UCF and Louisville. They didn’t have much energy left after those deflating losses, and then fell to Cincinnati at home. This team should be even stronger in 2014 with 17 returning starters and the top offense in the AAC. They held the top five offenses in the AAC last year to 17 points per game below their season average. However, the Cougars did lead the nation in turnover differential (+25), and they aren’t likely to be anywhere near that fortunate again. They were actually outgained by 7.0 yards per game in conference play. I look for Houston to be right in the thick of the title race again, but to come up just short with a 6-2 mark within the conference.
2. Central Florida (7-5, 6-2 AAC) – There’s no question the Knights were extremely fortunate en route to winning the AAC last year. They had six net close wins, going a ridiculous 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Blake Bortles was a big reason for that as he was extremely clutch, but he has moved on after being selected with the No. 3 overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL Draft. Even without Bortles, this team has plenty of talent to compete for a title again. The Knights return 15 starters and lose just 11 lettermen. The defense will be the best in the conference, but the offense figures to take a step back. They do avoid Cincinnati, but they have to play both East Carolina and Houston on the road. A 6-2 mark in the AAC won’t be good enough to win the conference in 2014.
4. Memphis (7-5, 5-3 AAC) – I look for the Tigers to be one of the most improved teams in the country in 2014. They went just 3-9 last year, but were 0-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That includes losses to UCF (17-24) and Louisville (17-24) to prove that they could play with the conference’s elite. Now, they return 17 starters and have one of the best defenses in the AAC. The schedule is also pretty easy as they avoid UCF and East Carolina. Despite not finishing with a winning record in conference play since 2007, I’ll call for the Tigers to go 5-3 in the AAC and to be the surprise team.
5. South Florida (6-6, 4-4 AAC) – It was a tough season for Willie Taggart in his first year on the job at USF in 2013. The Bulls went just 2-10 after going 3-9 in 2012. What is amazing about that is that this team is loaded with athletes and has simply underachieved. I look for Taggart to get much better production in his second year here in 2014. That’s because he welcomes back 15 returning starters and plenty of talent. Mike White gained some valuable experience as a freshman QB, and he should be much better as a sophomore. The defense only gave up 351 yards per game last year and should be solid again, while the offense will be vastly improved with 10 returning starters. They host UCF, Houston and East Carolina and will need to pull off an upset or two there to become bowl eligible because most of their winnable games are on the road.
5. East Carolina (5-7, 4-4 AAC) – The Pirates are coming off their first double-digit win season since 1991. They outgained opponents by 137.9 yards per game in Conference USA play last year, which was the best mark in the league. They now take a step up in competition to the AAC and will suffer a bit as a result. That’s especially the case considering they lose an AAC-most 27 lettermen while returning the fewest starters (9) in the league. The defense will need to be rebuilt as eight of the top 12 tacklers depart. The good news is that QB Shane Carden returns to save the day. He completed 70.5 percent of his passes for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, while also rushing for 10 scores last year. He has each of his top two receivers back as well. Carden will make the Pirates respectable, but they’ll fall just short of bowl eligibility thanks to a brutal non-conference slate that features South Carolina, Virginia Tech and UNC.
7. Tulsa (4-8, 3-5 AAC) – It was only two years ago that Tulsa beat UCF twice en route to winning the Conference USA Title with an 11-3 record. They stumbled to a 3-9 finish last year thanks to a ton of inexperience and injuries with just nine returning starters. They should be an improved team in 2014 with 15 starters back, but they enter a tougher league and have to prepare for six new opponents. They did finish -10 in turnover differential last year and should improve in that department. The defense has 10 starters back and will be much better. I am concerned about the five returning starters on offense and the losses of the top two playmakers in Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas. The Golden Hurricane will also be breaking in a new starting quarterback. I have them pegged for a 3-5 mark in AAC action in 2014.
7. SMU (3-9, 3-5 AAC) – June Jones has only had four losing seasons as a head coach, which is impressive when you consider that dates back to 1999 and he has only been at Hawaii and SMU, which are two tough programs to win at. The last three times he has had a losing record, his teams have come back the next year to make a bowl game. I believe that streak comes to an end this year as SMU simply does not have the talent to get back to bowl eligibility. It has just 12 returning starters and ranks #127 in experience level of all the FBS team. Including non-conference games against Baylor, North Texas, Texas A&M & TCU, the Mustangs easily face the AAC’s toughest schedule this year. They have to play the top three teams in the AAC in Cincinnati, Houston and UCF while unfortunately avoiding both Temple and Tulane. The chips are simply stacked against the Mustangs this year.
9. Tulane (3-9, 2-6 AAC) – I was pretty big on Tulane last year as I called for it to get to a bowl game, and it delivered with a 7-6 record and its first trip to a bowl in 11 years. The Green Wave even lost four games by a combined 12 points. However, they were actually outgained by 40 yards per game last year and benefited from being +11 in turnover differential. They do return 13 starters this year, but take a step up in competition to the AAC. They have to play three BCS teams in Georgia Tech, Duke and Rutgers in non-conference play, which will make it extremely difficult for them to get back to a bowl game. The Green Wave will not catch as many breaks as they did a year ago with the turnovers, and they will finish in a tie for last place in the AAC as a result.
9. Temple (3-9, 2-6 AAC) – The Owls have been going in the wrong direction the last three years, which culminated in a 2-10 campaign in 2013. However, this team wasn’t nearly as bad as their record would indicate as they lost four straight games when either tied or leading going into the fourth quarter, which included a last-second 36-39 loss to conference champ UCF. This was a completely different team once freshman PJ Walker took over at quarterback. He completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,084 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while also rushing for 332 yards and three scores. Walker is among 13 returning starters, though the Owls do only have seven seniors on the roster. He gives them a chance to surprise, but the fact of the matter is that the Owls will be an underdog in six or seven of their AAC games, so I’ll call for a 2-6 campaign within the conference in 2014.
9. UConn (3-9, 2-6 AAC) – You have to give the Huskies a lot of credit for the way they hung in there amidst the firing of their head coach last year. After an 0-9 start, they ended up winning each of their final three games, including a 45-10 triumph over Memphis in the finale to finish 3-5 within the conference. They were No. 6 in the league at -46.1 yards per game in AAC play. They now have a new head coach in Bob Diaco and some momentum heading into 2014. He inherits 13 returning starters and enough talent to be competitive. We’ll find out a lot about this team in the early going with tough non-conference homes games against BYU and Boise State. Unfortunately, the Huskies host both UCF and Cincinnati, which means that most of their winnable games are on the road this year. I have them pegged for a 2-6 mark in AAC play.
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