The Houston Cougars were the kings of the American Athletic in Tom Herman’s first year on the job. They won the conference and were 12-1 to earn the Group of 5 bowl bid. They took advantage and beat Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl for a major upset.

Temple won the East last year and finished with a 10-4 record after losing the AAC Championship Game to Houston and the Boca Raton Bowl to Toledo. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a 10-win season as the Owls took advantage of their experience and had one of the best seasons in school history.

Houston figures to get most of the hype from the West once again this season and is a popular pick to win the AAC. The East is a lot more up for grabs with several contenders in Cincinnati, USF and Temple leading the charge. Here’s how I see the AAC playing out in 2016.

AAC West Predictions

1. Memphis (9-3, 6-2 AAC)

The loss of QB Paxton Lynch to the NFL and head coach Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech automatically has most discounting the Memphis Tigers. But not so fast my friends. The Tigers still have 13 returning starters from last year’s team. They bring back leading rusher Doreland Dorceus, three of their top four receivers, and four starters along the offensive line. They key will be Riley Ferguson at quarterback. The former Tennessee transfer was a JUCO Honorable Mention All-American last year and will fill Lynch’s shoes nicely. The defense will be solid again with seven returning starters. Memphis gets Houston at home, which will likely be the tiebreaker. It also has three winnable road games at Tulane, Navy and SMU. I believe this is the year the Tigers get over the top and win the West.

1. Houston (8-4, 6-2 AAC)

All of the hype is on the Cougars coming into 2016, and for good reason. They beat Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 13-1 in an improbable first season for head coach Tom Herman. However, they had a lot of breaks go their way last year, most notably being +21 in turnover differential. They were +25 in turnovers in 2013 and came back to finish just 8-5 in 2014 with a +8 margin. Herman only has 11 returning starters this year. The key is that he does get back QB Greg Ward, who is easily the most important player on the team. But the defense figures to take a step back with just five returning starters. Houston has tough road games at Cincinnati and Memphis, and a loss to the Tigers in the finale will have the Cougars settling for a tie for first in the West, but losing out on the tiebreaker.

3. Tulsa (7-5, 4-4 AAC)

Philip Montgomery managed to get Tulsa to a bowl game in his first season following a 2-10 disaster in 2014. The Golden Hurricane gave Virginia Tech all it wanted in a 52-55 loss in the Independence Bowl. Now this team has 14 starters back and benefited from the extra bowl practice. Tulsa will boast one of the best offenses in the AAC after putting up 37.2 points and 507 yards per game last season. Dane Evans is back at QB after completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 4,332 yards with 25 touchdowns against only eight interceptions last year. The defense will be way better with seven starters and four of the top five tacklers returning. Tulsa will be favored in three of its four home games against SMU, Tulane and East Carolina. I have it winning all three of those plus one road game to get to 4-4 in the conference and 7-5 overall in 2016.

4. SMU (5-7, 3-5 AAC)

The Mustangs were much more competitive last year in Chad Morris’ first season. They were better than their 2-10 record would indicate, but they wore down late in games due to a lack of depth. This year the depth should be better with 16 returning starters. Matt Davis is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country. He threw for 2,263 yards and 16 touchdowns with seven interceptions last year, while also rushing for 761 yards and 10 scores. He is among nine returning starters on offense in what should be a potent bunch in Year 2 of Morris’ systems. The defense can only be better with seven starters back. Unfortunately, the Mustangs plays Houston, Memphis and USF at home, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road. I still foresee them getting to three wins in conference play and just missing out on a bowl game.

4. Navy (5-7, 3-5 AAC)

Service academies lose a ton of starters every year, so it’s not as concerning when they lack experience as most teams. However, the Midshipmen lose 4-year starting QB Keenan Reynolds to the NFL, and he was the heart and soul of this team. In fact, they return only one offensive starter from last year. Their eight returning starters in all are the second-fewest in the entire country. They play Houston and Memphis at home, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road. The lack of experience has me calling for the Midshipmen to miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

6. Tulane (4-8, 2-6 AAC)

It’s a pretty easy call to put Tulane in last place in the West in 2016. They have a new head coach in Willie Fritz, who steps into a tough situation. The Green Wave are coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons. They were outscored by 16.6 points per game last season. He has just 13 returning starters to work with and will be breaking in the option offense. Unfortunately, the Green Wave do not have the personnel to run the option this year. They were outgained by 95.9 yards per game in AAC play last year. They play Memphis and Temple at home, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road. I have the Green Wave getting two wins in conference play, but could easily see them going 1-7 as well.

AAC East Predictions

1. Cincinnati (9-3, 6-2 AAC)

The Bearcats are coming off a disappointing 7-6 season last year and are prime bounce-back candidates. They were clearly better than their record as they were a league-best +167.4 yards per game in AAC play. The problem was their -19 turnover differential, which isn’t likely to be repeated. Tommy Tuberville has 13 returning starters and perhaps the most talent in the AAC. Gunner Kiel is back at QB after completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns against 11 interceptions during an injury-plagued 2015 campaign. Jamil Kamara (Virginia) and Avery Peterson (LSU) are two talented transfers at receiver who will contribute in a big way right away. The defense should be one of the most improved in the league with eight returning starters. The Bearcats have a schedule that sets them up to win the East. They get Houston, USF and Memphis at home and are 26-5 at home over the past five years. They face just one conference opponent on the road that had a winning record last year.

2. South Florida (8-4, 5-3 AAC)

The South Florida Bulls won seven of their final eight games during the regular season during an impressive 8-5 campaign last year. Willie Taggart has done a tremendous job of turning around this program, and the Bulls should be good again with 14 starters back. They have three of the premier talents in the league on offense in QB Quinton Flowers, RB Marlon Mack and WR Rodney Adams returning. The defense will be great again with seven starters and five of the top six tacklers back. The only problem I foresee is a road schedule that features Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis. I have the Bulls losing all three of those games and winning their remaining five to finish 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the conference.

2. Temple (8-4, 5-3 AAC)

After missing out on a bowl with a 6-6 record in 2014, the motto for the Owls last season was “Leave No Doubt”. That’s precisely what they did during their 10-win campaign. Despite having just 12 returning starters back in 2016, the Owls should be East contenders once again. That’s because they get both USF and Cincinnati, the two teams I have listed ahead of them, at home. But they also have to play Memphis from the West on the road. The offense is in good hands with QB PJ Walker and RB Jahad Thomas (1,262 yards, 17 TD) both returning. The defense figures to take a step back by going from 10 returning starters last year to just six this season. While I do believe Temple will contend, I have it falling one game short of repeating in the East.

4. Connecticut (6-6, 3-5 AAC)

Bob Diaco did a tremendous job of getting the UConn Huskies to a bowl last year with a 6-7 finish. Now he should have his best team yet with 16 returning starters entering Year 3. However, the Huskies were fortunate to finish 4-4 in league play last year as they were actually outgained by 26.8 yards per game in AAC action. They pulled off three upsets, which isn’t likely to happen again. But a non-conference schedule that features Maine, Virginia and Syracuse at home gives them a chance at getting back to another bowl. They play three road games at Houston, USF and Navy that will be tough, and just drawing the Cougars from the West is a bad break. I have them at 6-6 overall and 3-5 in league play this season.

4. East Carolina (4-8, 3-5 AAC)

Ruffin McNeill was dealt a bad hand last year with injuries at the quarterback position. The Pirates finished just 5-7 but had a brutal non-conference schedule with road games at Florida and BYU and actually upsetting Virginia Tech at home. Enter Scottie Montgomery, who was previously the offensive coordinator at Duke the past three seasons. He steps into a bit of a tough situation with just 11 returning starters. The Pirates have another brutal non-conference schedule with South Carolina, VA Tech and NC State on the docket. They do have a pretty easy home schedule in conference play with Navy, UCF, UConn and SMU. They should be able to get three wins there, but that still puts them at just 4-8 overall and 3-5 in the conference.

6. Central Florida (4-8, 2-6 AAC)

It’s amazing to think that a team that went 22-3 in league play from 2012 to ’14 could finish 0-12 last year and 0-8 in AAC action. But that’s how it played out for the Knights, who were -20 in turnover differential in George O’Leary’s final season. UCF had one of the most underrated hires of the offseason by nabbing former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost as its head coach. Frost’s offenses at Oregon average 44.4 points per game, they played in two national title games, and Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy under his watch. Frost actually steps into a pretty good situation as the Knights’ 17 returning starters are the most in the league. Expect them to be much more competitive in 2016. The Knights have winnable home games against Tulane and Tulsa, so I’ll give them two wins there and call for a 4-8 season and 2-6 in conference play. Don’t be surprised if they finish higher than that, either.

AAC Championship Game: Cincinnati Defeats Memphis

More College Football Predictions

Conferences
American Athletic
Independents