Friday, July 11, 2014

2014 College Football Preview: American Athletic Conference

In 2014, the conference that was formerly known as the Big East now resembles something more of a Conference USA flair than anything, and in the eyes of the new college football playoff people, that's exactly the weight it will garner when it comes to altering the scope and scale of the 2014 season and ultimate championship. The AAC is no longer part of anything of the scale that it represented under the old BCS system. What's worse is the fact that the league lost their most recognizable championship competitor in Louisville, who bolts for the ACC in 2014. Rutgers is also gone, as they head to the Big 10. All of this leaves UCF as the only legitimate threat to the big boys as things stand now.
No matter what happens, and who joins moving forward, the days of this conference being a national player are basically over with, legitimately. Of course, this conference never really was taken seriously on that stage to begin with, even before it fell apart during realignment.

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Cincinnati
2. UCF
3. East Carolina
4. Houston
5. SMU
6. U Conn
7. USF
8. Tulane
9. Memphis
10. Temple
11. Tulsa

Most Overrated

Most Underrated
East Carolina

Coaches on the Hot Seat
June Jones, SMU
Justin Fuente, Memphis
Bill Blankenship, Tulsa

Best Coach
Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina

Worst Coach
Bill Blankenship, Tulsa

Conference Preview

The following teams are likely to finish with winning records:

Cincinnati Bearcats
Projected 2014 Record: 10-2
Head Coach: Tommy Tuberville (9-4, 2nd Season)

The Bearcats are handing over the QB reins to Gunner Kiel, the once highly touted QB who now leaves much to be seen as he lands at his third school (if you count both Indiana and Notre Dame, 4th if you count his flirtations with LSU). He has not played a major college snap, and UC is counting on him heavily to run this offense. It's a ton to entrust in a guy who is at this point all hype.
The good news for Kiel is that he has two wide outs returning in Shaq Washington and Chris Moore. Moore scored nine times in 2013, but Washington, who led the team in receiving, only caught one TD pass all season. Mekale McKay is the likely new starter, but is a junior. The hope is that the Bearcats can get more scoring production out of this group, who will also have a new starter at TE in sophomore DJ Dowdey.
Three starters return on the line in LT Eric Sefeld, C DeShawn Bond, and RG Parker Ehinger. Bond is just a sophomore. The good news is that the new starters are both seniors (LG Kevin Scchloemer and RT Cory Keebler.
There is bad news/good news at RB, where the top three rushers return from 2013, and Hosey Williams will likely be the primary, but expect more of a committee approach, as the Bearcats lack a sincere number one back that can carry the load.

The Bearcats return both DEs and two LBs from the front seven this fall. Silverberry Mouhon, a junior, will be joined by Terrell Hartsfield, a senior, as returning starting ends. Mouhon is definitely the power guy in this duo, as he finished second on the team with 12.5 TFLs in 2013. Senior Cameron Beard will be joined by junior Brendon Mitchell as the likely new starters at DT.
Nick Temple is the team leader on defense, and led the team with 13.5 TFLs last fall. Jeff Luc will start in the middle. The new starter will be sophomore Eric Wilson, and there will be some need for the others to cover for his youth from time to time.
Three of four starters return in the secondary. Howard Wilder joins Adrian Witty at CB (Both are seniors), while sophomore Zach Edwards returns at FS. The defense will need more production when it comes to takeaways from this group if UC is to contend for the AAC title. SS will likely go to sophomore Mike Tyson.

Special Teams
Both kicking specialists return in 2014 in PK Tony Millano and P John Lloyd. That may not be all good news. Millano was purely terrible in 2013, hitting only 7 of 17 FG attempts. He also missed two PATs last fall.
Lloyd averaged 42.7 yards per punt, saving a largely awful special teams unit from complete collapse.

Opening Game
9/12 Toledo

Final Overview
UC is largely believed to be the favorite by several sources in 2014. Therefore, I have placed them at the top of my projected finish list in the AAC. That being said, it would be easy to knock them off of their perch atop the preseason standings. There are more questions on offense than answers, and the defense, although talented, needs more productivity. If the offense comes through, and the defense finds some answers, UC could very well win this conference, but special teams can kill, and that is the biggest question that UC has coming in.

UCF Knights
Projected 2014 Record: 10-2
Head Coach: George O'Leary (72-56, 11th season)

How do you replace a QB like Blake Bortles and expect to win the conference again? Do the Knights beat a team like Baylor without him? Highly unlikely, but the Knights must move on, and the job likely goes to sophomore Justin Holman, who emerges from spring ball as the likely winner fo the job. Of course, he will have to get through fall camp to hold onto the job. Pete DiNovo, Tyler Harris, and Boise State transfer Nick Patti will be in the chase when camp opens in August.
Storm Johnson is another huge set of cleats to replace on the field at RB. William Stanback is the likely replacement, but it would be nice to see him improve on his 4.2 yard average from 2013. The starting receiving corps returns intact in Rannell Hall, JJ Worton, and Breshard Perriman. Justin Tukes will return to start at TE as well, giving the new QB some stability to work with. Every receiver in this group is a potential game changer.
The line is a big question heading into the season, as three starters must be replaced. Torrian Wilson returns at LG, while Joey Grant will also be back at Center. Chester Brown looks to be the leader at LT, and fellow sophomore Michael Campbell looks to be the leader at RT. A freshman, Aaron Evans, will get a long look and first crack at RG after redshirting last season.

There will be three new starters in the front seven for the Knights this fall. DE Thomas Niles will join DT Demetris Anderson as the returning starts on the line. Senior Jaryl Mamea looks like the new starter at DT, while junior Miles Price has the lead to obtain the starting job that is open at DE. Look for JC transfer Lance McDowell to get into the rotation at DT as well.
Terrence Plummer and Troy Gray are back at LB, with Plummer coming off of an all-conference performance in 2013. Justin McDonald is in the lead for the open LB spot, but Cincinnati transfer Errol Clarke will get snaps in fall camp after coming over from Garden City CC.
The secondary returns intact. Jordan Ozerities and Jacoby Glenn will anchor the corners, while all-conference performer Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander will set up at Safety.

Special Teams
Shawn Moffitt will return at PK after hitting 21 of 23 FGs last fall. Caleb Houston is also back at Punter, and averaged 42.2 yards per kick. This is yet another strength on an already strong football team.

Opening Game
8/30 Penn State at Dublin, Ireland

Final Overview
UCF was one of the best defensive teams in the nation last fall, and a bulk of that unit returns to bolster another run at the conference crown. If the Knights can lock down a QB and RB, the offense can more than do their part, as the receivers are lined up to be one of the more explosive units in the nation. The schedule lends to success, and the Knights do not play Cincinnati. One thing to remember historically about UCF...they are basically an every other year kind of team, normally following great seasons with letdown seasons. Can this be the year that the Knights finally break that chain of events?

East Carolina Pirates
Projected 2014 Record: 9-3
Head Coach: Ruffin McNeill (29-22, 5th season)

The best QB/WR combo in the conference returns to the fold in Shane Carden and Justin Hardy, both seniors, who will both be pro draft picks next spring. When these two hook up on the field, exposions occur, and the yardage piles up. Isaiah Jones also returns at WR, and will likely see many balls come his way as a result of the multiple double teams that Hardy will see. DaQuan Barnes will likely be the new starter at the third receiver slot, while Cam Worthy will likely start at the 4th receiver spot. Both tackles (Ike Harris and Tre Robertson) return up front, as does Center CJ Struyk. The Pirates need to replace both guards, and it looks as if Larry Williams and JT Boyd are in line for those two spots. Breon Allen and Chris Hairston will combine to take over at RB after the departure of Vintavious Cooper.

Only four starters return on a defense that is not exactly ever the strength of any ECU team that values offense above all. Three of those returnees are back in the front seven in DE Terrell Stanley, DE Christian Rose, and LB Zeek Bigger. In the secondary, only CB Detric Allen is the lone returnee. Senior Terry Williams will likely step up at NT in the 3-4 defense, while junior Montese Overton will likely join senior Brandon Williams and senior Maurice Falls as new starters at LB.
The secondary got torched at times last season, and it may be even more of an issue early as three new starters must step up. Josh Hawkins looks like an answer at CB, while Domonique Lennon and Lamar Ivey are expected to step up to start at S.

Special Teams
Warren Harvey returns at PK, but he will have to show major improvement to hang onto the job after hitting just 15 of 25 FG attempts in 2013. Sophomore Worth Gregory looks to have the leg up to be the new Punter heading into fall camp.

Opening Game
8/30 North Carolina Central

Final Overview
ECU brings a new kind of vibe to the AAC after leaving Conference USA only to find themselves knee deep in a conference that highly resembles the one they just left. One thing is for certain, ECU will have the most entertaining offense in the conference. That is their ace in the hole, as it may take some teams in the league time to adjust to getting used to their tempo. It also makes this team a dark horse in this conference. Ruffin McNeill is a master of getting more out of this team than he really should get, and that makes him my favorite coach in this league. The schedule is tough, but not hopeless by any means, with early challenges coming up against Virginia Tech, South Carolina, and North Carolina. They get Cincinnati on the road, but UCF comes to ECU in the season finale. The offense will be great, but the defense must adjust quickly, and special teams must improve for ECU to race to the top of a very winnable conference.

Houston Cougars
Projected 2014 Record: 9-3
Head Coach: Tony Levine (14-12, 3rd season)

Six starters return on offense for the Cougars, including QB Johnny O'Korn, who was a semi-finalist for our QB of the Year award. He passed for 3117 yards as a freshman in 2013, and he is the undisputed leader of this football team heading into the fall. Development will be key as we see how much further he can go.
Deontay Greenberry returns as one of the more dynamic receivers in the college game, and gives O'Korn a reliable target. Daniel Spencer returns for his senior season as the other returning starter at WR. The other two spots are open, and it looks like Demarcus Ayers and Greg Ward, both sophomores, will be stepping into the starting spots as fall camp begins.
Kenneth Farrow will line up as the starter at RB, but it will be more of a committee approach with Ryan Jackson sharing the carries. Combined, both backs put together a fine season, but one you would expect of a single primary back that can carry a team.
The line will be a weak point heading into 2014, as only two starters return in C Bryce Redman and RG Rowdy Harper. A trio of juniors enter the fall trying to fill the openings in LT Alex Cooper, LG Emeka Okafor, and RT Damien Parris.

Defense...yes, defense...will be a strength of this Houston Cougars 2014 edition. Ten players return with starting experience from last season, with seven returning to their roles from a season ago.
Joey Mbu returns at DT, with Trevor Harris joining him on the line at DE. Cameron Malveaux will step up full time at DE, and BJ Singleton will step up at DT. Both are sophomores.
The LB corps returns intact, as Steven Taylor, Derrick Matthews, and Efrem Oliphant all return to reprise their roles in the middle of the unit. Oliphant collected 134 tackles, and Matthews picked up 116.
Both Corners will be new full time starters, as junior William Jackson will join senior Turan Walker as the starters heading into camp. Adrian McDonald will be back at SS, while Trevon Stewart returns at FS.

Special Teams
There will be new starters at both PK and P this season, and both new starters are likely to be juniors in Kyle Bullard (PK) and Dylan Selbert (P).

Opening Game
8/29 UTSA

Final Overview
The Cougars, like ECU, are a major dark horse in the AAC this season. They will likely improve on their 8 wins overall, and should improve over their 5-3 conference marl last season. Houston will rely on a ball hawk defense to create opportunities for their high powered offense, which could alone be a key reason for the Cougars to take this thing.
The development of the line, and the further development of their young QB will be keys on offense, and the development of new starters on special teams will be big question marks as to how good this team can really be. If you are looking for a team to bet on early, this could be your target.

The following teams are unlikely to finish with winning records

SMU Mustangs
Projected 2014 Record: 5-7
Head Coach: June Jones (36-41, 7th season)

The Good
On offense, the Mustangs return three starters on the line, and two of their four starters at WR in Der'rick Thompson and Darius Joseph.
On defense, they return the defensive line returns intact, and two of four starters are back at LB in Stephon Sanders and Jonathon Yenga.

The Bad
Neal Burcham started two games last fall, and largely struggled running the offense. The playbook will have to be limited for him to hold the starting job, a prospect of which there is no guarantee. Kevin Pope is the starter heading into camp, but was playing LB last fall. The receivers are largely unproven, and that could add to the troubles expected on offense.
On defense, three of four starters in the secondary will be new, with only Hayden Greenbauer returning at S.
Both starters at PK and P are brand new.
The schedule lends for an absolutely awful start, and the only beatable team for SMU could be a game at North Texas, and even that is not a lock.
If SMU ends with five wins yet again, June Jones could be heading out the door, as he barely survived last season. The natives in Dallas are getting restless.

UConn Huskies
Projected 2014 Record: 5-7
Head Coach: Bob Diaco (1st Season)

The Good
The receiving corps returns intact, and it is the strength of the offense overall. Geremy Davis and Deshonn Foxx will be starting at WR once more, while Sean McQuillan is back at TE. Lyle McCombs is also back at RB, and should produce more, but everyone is high on freshman Arkeel Newsome as well.
Ten starters return on a defense that has always been the anchor of the team as a unit. Only junior Graham Stewart comes on as a new starter at LB, and he plenty of experience around him. Stewart is a Florida transfer.
Diaco has enough talent on hand to improve in the win column by two in his first season, but he is largely unproven.

The Bad
Despite Casey Cochrane sitting on top of the QB depth chart, there is still no clear cut number one guy to lead the offense onto the field. There could sill be a three way battle raging heading into the opener.
The offensive line won't be much of a help early, unless four new starters can gel right away. Only C Alex Maeas returns as a starter.
The defense is solid, but needs more production overall. This unit gave up 30 or more points seven times in 2014, but really started coming together over the final three games, as the Huskies gave up only 48 points in those games. That's a starting point.
Both kickers will be brand new this fall.

Memphis Tigers
Projected 2014 Record: 5-7
Head Coach: Justin Fuente (7-17, 3rd season)

The Good
Paxton Lynch largely struggled in 2013, but Fuente believes in him, and many feel that he will progress this season. He had better, because Fuente's future likely rests with him.
Brandon Hayes returns at RB after being granted an extra season of eligibility, and his abilities largely could be responsible for some heat coming off of the QB position.
Sam Craft and Tevin Jones both return at WR, and Alan Cross is back at TE, leaving Memphis with one lone new returning receiver in Kelwone Moore. The experience at WR and TE will also aid in Lynch's transition and development.
On defense, six starters return in the front seven. Martin Ifedi and Terry Redden will be the focus of the front at DE and DT respectively. Senior Tank Janks is the lone new starter in the front seven at LB.
Charles Harris is the anchor at LB, and Ryan Coleman picks up the garbage nicely.
CB should be a strength in the secondary with both Andrew Gaines and Bobby McCain returning to start.
Sophomore Jake Elliott was a real find, hitting 16 of 18 FGs last fall.

The Bad
Lynch could go belly up, and regress rather than progress, and that would kill the Tigers out of the gate.
While tackle is a strength on the line with Taylor Fallin and Al Bond returning, the entire middle of the line needs rebuilding.
While CB is a strength on defense, Safety is a weakness, as both starters are new in Fritz Etienne and Reggis Ball.
Punter is a question mark heading into camp, as the Tigers enter camp with a freshman likely to handle the job in Spencer Smith.

Temple Owls
Projected 2014 Record: 4-8
Head Coach: Matt Rhule (2-10, 2nd season)

The Good
You have to start by realizing that the Owls have potential to double their win total in 2014 from two to four. Matt Rhule is slowly building a decent program, but it's always been pissing against the wind in Philadelphia with a largely apathetic fan base that gets dwarfed by the pro sports scene.
PJ Walker returns at QB, and he had a real breakout season last fall, and with more support, he could turn a total corner this fall. The good news is he is just a sophomore, and has so much more development and likely improvement ahead of him.
Kenneth Harper and Zaire Williams both return at RB, but it sure would be nice if one of them steps up to be the power back that the offense needs.
Tyler Matekevich is the best LB that nobody has seen play, and is a lock for the NFL shortly, maybe even in 2015. He is joined by Stephaun Marshall and Nate D. Smith to give the Owls a full set of returning starters in the middle of the defense.

The Bad
Despite Walker coming off of a strong freshman campaign at QB, he will be largely tossing the ball to inexperienced receivers, as only Jalan Fitzpatrick returns as a starter. There will be a new second receiver, as well as a new starting TE.
Only one starter returns on the offensive line in Center Kyle Friend, a junior. There could be a freshman and a sophomore getting their first starts in the opener at Vanderbilt.
The D line also only boasts one returning starter in DT Matt Ioannidis. There could be three starters that are all sophomores.
The secondary also lacks starting experience, as only CB Tavon Young is back as a starter.
The kickers will be all new as well.

USF Bulls
Projected 2014 Record: 2-10
Head Coach: Willie Taggert (2-10, 2nd season)

The Good
Building traditionally starts with line, and that's the strength of this football team right now as four starters return from an offensive unit that was largely inept last fall, especially late, when the Bulls failed to score more than 21 points ten times.
Mike White is back as a sophomore at QB, and he should show signs of improvement. Steven Bench will push from his number two spot in the fall, giving the Bulls a pair of credible options at the trigger.
Andre Davis is back at WR, and Sean Price is back at TE to give the bulls experienced targets to help the QBs improve.
Defensively, the Bulls do return two of three starters in Reshard Cliett and Nigel Harris.
Senior PK Marvin Kloss is back, and as good as he was at times, he could get better this fall. Mattias Ciabatti is back at Punter, but it would be nice to see him improve on his average of 40.2 yards per punt.

The Bad
The run game was just awful last fall, and there will be a new starter at both RB and FB. That's a tough start.
The defense was largely hit and miss last fall, and there are holes everywhere. Only DE Elkino Watson returns on the line at DE.
Nate Goodwin is the only returning starter in the secondary at FS.
There are way more questions than answers on the defensive side of the football.
Willie Taggert turned Western Kentucky from a doormat to a competitor, but he has an overall losing record for his career, and has never coached at a high level until now. This may be beyond his ability to rebuild this train wreck.

Tulane Green Wave
Projected 2014 Record: 1-11
Head Coach: Curtis Johnson (9-16, 3rd season)

The Good
There isn't much to tout here. The offensive line returns three starters, so there's that on offense.
The secondary has three returning starters in Lorenzo Ross at CB, and Darien Monroe and Sam Scofield at Safety.
Nico Marley is a nice piece at OLB, but is very much undersized.

The Bad
The Wave hands the QB job to a redshirt freshman, which is normally a very bad thing. Tanner Lee gets the nod.
The running game is also being fully rebuilt, as Orleans Darkwa has departed.
With Ryan Grant gone at WR, it's time for someone to step up at WR, but there isn't anyone with Grant's talent level hanging out here.
Only two starters return in the front seven in DE Royce LaFrance and Marley.
The schedule is difficult, and I pick Tulane as an upset victim against SE Louisiana.
This is a horrible way to follow up the 2013 New Orleans Bowl bid.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Projected 2014 Record: 1-11
Head Coach: Bill Blankenship (22-17, 4th season)

The Good
TE Tyler Wilson is one of the few bright spots on this offense heading into 2014.
The line has three starters back in LT Garrett Stafford, C Dylan Foxworth, and RT Davis Walton.
Defensive line is a spot to build on for the defense, as three starters return in DE Derrick Alexander, and DTs Jesse Burbaker and Derrick Luetjen.
The secondary is solid with three returnees there as well in CBs Dwight Dobbins and Will Barrow, and S Michael Mudoh.
Both kickers return in PK Carlos Salazar and P Dalton Parks.

The Bad
The skill positions on offense are all on rebuild right now. There will be three sophomores starting in QB Dane Evans, RB James Flanders, and WR Keevan Lucas.
The LB corps is also on full rebuild mode with no starters returning, and two freshman figuring into the starting plans in CJ Gooden and Craig Sults.
Bill Blankenship had only ever been a high school head coach before landing the job as head man at Tulsa. It shows. Every season, Tulsa has slid further under Blankenship, and the heat is severely on in 2014.

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