The American Athletic Conference was full of surprises in 2016 with Temple besting Navy in the AAC championship game. South Florida was arguably the best team in the conference but despite going 11-2, could not even win the East division by virtue of losing the tie-breaker in the head-to-head with Temple. The Houston Cougars beat Oklahoma and Louisville but could not handle SMU and Memphis in the AAC West.
Temple started 2016 off badly, getting mauled by Army in its opener. The Owls rebounded with their upset of South Florida and then closed the show by allowing just 33 points in their final five games which included pitching two shutouts. Former Nebraska Cornhusker QB Scott Frost did a masterful job getting Central Florida to six wins and a bowl in his first season. UConn, Cincinnati, and East Carolina all went 1-7 in conference last year and will have a lot of work to do to be competitive against the top three this year.
When the smoke had cleared in the West, Navy was the last man standing. The Middies shocked Houston, Memphis and Notre Dame in three of four straight weeks. Navy was outscored by South Florida after B2B wins over the division rivals for its only blemish. Tulsa was an offensive machine but was hurt by turnovers and a suspect defense. Houston and Memphis each had three losses after losing NFL first-round draft choices at QB in 2015. SMU and Tulane had their moments while rebuilding.
The Bulls went 7-1 down the stretch in 2015 to serve notice that they would be a force to reckon with in 2016. They didn’t disappoint. They had Florida State down early before folding in the second half and the previously mentioned 46-30 loss at Temple. HC Willie Taggert jumped ship to Oregon but the Bulls might have upgraded with Charlie Strong who was released from Texas. USF returns 16 including nine on defense and seven on offense including duel threat QB Quinton Flowers (1530 yards, 18 TDs rushing … 2812, 63%, 24-7 passing). USF has an easy schedule and a big shot to go 12-0.
UCF went from a winless 2015 to six wins and a bowl in Scott Frost’s first year as its head coach. The Knight return 13 starters including nine on offense so Frost has material to work with. Last year’s stop unit ranked second in the country in red zone defense which will be hard to replicate here. UCF has a very manageable schedule with its most difficult road games at Cincinnati and at Navy both very winnable. Frost knows how to win and UCF is capable of 8-10 wins this year.
The good news for Temple is that the Owls are off B2B double-digit win seasons and B2B bowls for the first time in school history. The bad news for schools like Temple means that with this type of success, your head coach will be moving on and that’s exactly what happened with Matt Rhule leaving for Baylor. Former Florida and Mississippi State DC Geoff Collins takes over and while he has just 10 returning starters, he does have 44 upper classmen in the fold. Temple has a rugged schedule but should easily get to a third straight bowl.
The Bearcats were loaded last year but collapsed mid-season and quit in the second half, losing their final five games. That cost Tony Tuberville his job and long time Ohio State veteran Luke Fickell gets his second chance. Fickell had the misfortune of taking over Ohio State after Jim Tressel and before Urban Meyer so he basically gets a pass for his 7-7 season with the Buckeyes. The Bearcats are a solid program with good talent. They are also the only team in the ACC East to miss Houston, Tulsa and Memphis. If Cincinnati takes care of its business, the Bearcats should return to a bowl.
Randy Edsall returns for his second stint as HC of the Huskies. Edsall took UConn to five bowls in his first stint (1999-2010) before moving to Maryland where he had no success with the Terps. Edsall will need to resurrect an offense that scored a FBS low 20 touchdowns in 2016. On the bright side, the Huskies have five returning offensive linemen that have started and the team as a whole has a lot of experience.
If there is a surprise team in the AAC, it might very well be East Carolina. The Pirates upset North Carolina State in their second game last year but gave away a game to South Carolina the next week and went 1-8 the rest of the way. The offense gained 400 yards or more in its first 11 games last year but the Pirates were killed by turnovers (-16) and a defense that couldn’t stop anybody. The offense will be potent again and can’t help but take better care of the ball. The defense remains a question mark and the teams achilles heel.
It’s hard to explain the Cougar’s 2016 season. Houston battered Oklahoma in its opener and completely shut down Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in a 36-10 rout of Louisville in mid-November. In between, there were inexplicable losses to Navy and SMU and in the end, the Coogs lost at Memphis and were a no show in the Vegas Bowl getting trounced by San Diego State. Tom Herman took the Texas job and Longhorn legacy Major Applewhite takes over. He’ll have 15 starters back and a QB upgrade in Kyle Allen. The Cougars have an easy non-conference schedule but a tricky conference road slate with South Florida, Temple, and Tulsa all in enemy territory.
The Golden Hurricane has always been a solid program and in fact, have gone bowling in 10 of the last 14 years. Tulsa was an offensive juggernaut scoring 552 points but lose their starting QB, a 1600+ yard rusher, two 1000-yard receivers, and their top four tacklers. These type of losses to skill position players are difficult to replace but Philip Montgomery is known for his high octane offenses so it might just be a question of reloading. The defense will be much improved as Tulsa returns some quality linebackers and secondary people.
The Tiger program just keeps moving along. No Paxton Lynch, no Justin Fuente, no problem. New head coach Mike Norvell stepped right in to win eight games, the most ever by a Memphis first year coach. The Tigers are loaded this year with 15 returning starters, nine on offense including QB Riley Ferguson who threw for 3688 yards and 32 touchdowns last year. Memphis figures to better in its second year under Norvell and can really set themselves up for a possible special year if they can win at UCF and hosting UCLA in early September.
Ken Niumatalolo is an amazing coach that will be called on to possibly do his best job ever in 2017 if the Middies are to defend their AAC West division title. Just four players return from last year’s offense that also played defense with its crazy ball control. Niumatalolo has had some special athletes at QB the past five years with Keenan Reynolds and to a certain extent Will Worth last year. Zach Abey was ineffective taking over for Worth after the latter went down with an injury. Tulsa, Memphis, Temple, and Notre Dame are all on the road. Navy usually plays to above expectations and will need to again this year.
SMU did some nice things in 2016 including beating a Top 15 team for the first time since 1986 when they shocked the Houston Cougars 38-16 as a 23-point dog. The offense is loaded with nine returning starters and a 4* transfer from LSU in Trey Quinn. Chad Morris will have to find some players to play defense after the stop unit allowed a whopping 233 points over the final five games including 75 to Navy in the finale. SMU freshmen have started 101 games the last two year so Morris might finally have the personnel to make a dent and possibly get to a bowl.
Willie Fritz was a great hire and he’ll turn the Green Wave around steadily and in the right way. Tulane played a lot of kids last year and it showed at times but Tulane was competitive vs. Wake, Navy, Memphis, and Houston covering four of the five and losing by the hook to Navy, a team they held to just 21 points, well below their season average. Tulane looks to be a year away from contending for a bowl but Fritz has had phenomenal success in year two of his previous four jobs. Tulane figures to be a live dog and possibly upset some heavyweights along the way.