Monday, January 16, 2017

A Farewell to 2016: American Athletic Conference

The season that was in 2016 for the AAC was not exactly the way it was supposed to have been. Houston was largely the predominant favorite entering the season, but somehow found a way to lose three time in conference play, and the Cougars were not really a factor. In the end, Matt Rhule, in what would be his last season in Philadelphia, found a way to beat Navy for the AAC crown, and Navy found a way to get to that title game out of the west. Let's take a look at the season that was for each team in the AAC...

Temple Owls
10-4 (7-1)

Season Schedule
Lost to Army 28-13
Beat Stony Brook 38-0
Lost to Penn State 34-27
Beat Charlotte 48-20
Beat SMU 45-20
Lost to Memphis 34-27
Beat UCF 26-25
Beat USF 46-30
Beat Cincinnati 34-13
Beat U Conn 21-0
Beat Tulane 31-0
Beat East Carolina 37-10
Beat Navy 34-10 (AAC Title Game)
Lost to Wake Forest 34-26 (Military Bowl)

What Went Right: Starting with team stats, the Owls scored fairly well in 2016, averaging 32.4 points per game on offense. Phillip Walker was not perfect at QB, but did enough to drive the offense forward, passing for 235.4 yards per game, while tossing 22 TDs. He did also toss 13 picks, and failed to complete 60% of his passes, but what he did was enough to move the needle.
The run game failed to produce a 1000 yard rusher, but as a team, the Owls did rush for 176.14 yards per game on the season, with Jahad Thomas rushing for 953 yards and 13 scores, while Ryquell Armstead rushed for 919 yards and another 14 scores. The run game, in effect, was strong enough in 2016 to carry the load when needed.
Ventell Bryant and Keith Kirkwood were favorite targets in the passing game for Walker, and combined for 96 receptions on the season.
Defensively, Haason Ridick was an All-Bilo Defensive Lineman of the Year finalist, finishing with 22 TFLs, while Praise Martin-Oguike finished with another 10. In all, the Owls were very effective up front in producing strong pressure, and the defense as a whole held opponents to just 18.4 points per game,and just 215 1st downs.
The kicking game was strong for Temple as well, as Aaron Boumerhi and Austin Jones combined to hit 25/29 FG attempts on the season, making Temple one of the best kicking units in college football.

What Went Wrong: A 3-3 start did not help matters out, but the Owls rolled out to a 7 game win streak on the way to the AAC title, nullifying that bad early start. Walker, while solid most of the time, had his issues with the 13 picks thrown, as the defense only picked opposing QBs 12 times during the season. Two of Walkers picks were returned for scores. The punting game also was not always solid, as Alex Starzyk avergaed just 38.96 yards per punt on the season. Of course, Rhule's departure from Temple before the bowl game likely played into the loss to Wake Forest, who was just 6-6 heading into the bowl game. That was a game that Temple should have won.

2017 Look Ahead: Geoff Collins was hired away from his DC gig at Florida to replace Rhule, but can he have the same impact as a first time head coach here that Rhule had? That is a serious question. Walker and Thomas are gone from the backfield, and so Collins' first order of business will be finding new go to pieces for his offense. The top 4 receivers return, so that could be helpful.
Finding new ways to pressure opposing offenses will be an issue as well, as the top 6 of 7 leaders in TFLs are moving on. In short, I expect a step back for Temple in the first year under Collins until he can find replacements for these losses.

2017 Non Conference Slate: 9/2 at Notre Dame, 9/9 Villanova, 9/16 U Mass. 10/21 at Army

USF Bulls
11-2 (7-1)

Season Schedule
Beat Towson 56-20
Beat Northern Illiois 48-17
Beat Syracuse 45-20
Lost to Florida State 55-35
Beat Cincinnati 45-20
Beat East Carolina 38-22
Beat U Conn 42-27
Lost to Temple 46-30
Beat Navy 52-45
Beat Memphis 49-42
Beat SMU 35-27
Beat UCF 48-31
Beat South Carolina 46-39 (Birmingham Bowl)

What Went Right
The Bulls scored 43.8 points per game while racking up 300 1st downs. There were few better backfield combos in the nation than Quinton Flowers at QB, and Marlon Mack at RB. Flowers passed for 2814 yards and 24 TD passes, while he also rushed for 1530 yards and another 18 TDs. He also only tossed 7 picks on the season. Mack rushed for 1187 yards and 15 TDs on the season, all while only averaging 14.5 carries per game. Mack averaged 6.82 yards per carry, while Flowers averaged 7.73. D'Ernest Johnson also added 8 rushing TDs of his own. Rodney Adams was a stand out in the receiving game, having led the Bulls with 67 receptions for 822 yards and 5 scores.
As a team, the Bulls intercepted 15 passes on the year, and LB Augie Sanchez recorded 117 tackles from his LB position. Deatrick Nichols broke up 7 passes on the season as well.

What Went Wrong
Not a lot went wrong for the Bulls in 2016, but the defense was hardly what one would call stellar. The Bulls have up 326 1st downs on the season, and gave up 31.6 points per game, a number that went up in their two losses as the Bulls gave up 50.5 points per game in those two contests (losses to Florida State and Temple). The Bulls allowed 6266 yards of offense, and 3712 yards through the air, and did not have one defender finish with double digit TFLs or sacks. The Bulls also gave up over 52% of 4th down conversions defensively, and teams scored 85% of the time in the red zone against them.

2017 Look Ahead: With Willie Taggart having moved on to Oregon, the Bulls turn to Charlie Strong, which was a home run hire. Strong will likely concentrate first on fixing the defense, and finding a suitable replacement for Mack on offense, as he has declared for the NFL draft. Flowers will be back at QB, giving the Bulls one of the best weapons in college football to deploy next season. With Flowers back at QB, there is no reason to expect the Bulls to not make a run at the AAC title in 2017.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 8/26 at San Jose State, 9/2 Stony Brook, 9/16 Illinois, 10/14 U Mass

UCF Knights
6-7 (4-4)

Season Schedule
Beat South Carolina State 38-0
Lost to Michigan 51-14
Lost to Maryland 30-24
Beat FIU 53-14
Beat East Carolina 47-29
Lost to Temple 26-25
Beat U Conn 24-16
Lost to Houston 31-24
Beat Tulane 37-6
Beat Cincinnati 24-3
Lost to Tulsa 35-20
Lost to USF 48-31
Lost to Arkansas State 31-13 (Cure Bowl)

What Went Right: There was an immediate turnaround and impact in the first season under Scott Frost, as he took the Knights from the basement of the AAC to a bowl in one season. UCF improved immensely on offense, averaging 28.8 points per game while still trying to find an identity for a unit that was almost non-existent the year before. Freshman QB McKenzie Milton showed flashes at times, passing for 1983 yards in 10 games with 10 TDs. He will only get better working with Frost. Tre'Quon Smith seemed to arrive as a receiver, catching 57 passes for 853 yards and 5 scores. The that combo should progress together in spring ball and show better signs next season.
Defensively, the Knights were solid for the most part, allowing just a shade over 24 points per game for the season. The Knights gave up only 28.9% on 3rd down conversions, a number that should generate some pride.
Shaquem Griffin was one of the best defenders in the nation, generating 20 TFLs, while Errol Clarke, Mark Rucker, and Tony Guerad all combined for 34 more TFLs on the season, giving the Knights one of the best front seven units in the nation. Griffin also finished with 11.5 sacks on the season, and broke up 15 passes. Senior DJ Killings added to the pass pressure, having broken up 11 passes on the year.
Matthew Wright was not perfect on FGs, but did manage to connect on 17/22 on the season. Caleb Houston averaged just over 42 yards per punt.

What Went Wrong: UCF was unable to generate any rusher to go over 500 yards this season, and failed to identify that one or two rushers that could make a difference moving forward. Jawon Hamilton ran for 495 yards as a freshman to lead the team, but that is not near enough. Frost gave out a ton of carries to too many different backs, so he needs to identify someone to carry the unit in spring football.
The Knights also need to find other receivers to become solid targets for their young QB in Milton. With only Smith showing the way, Milton will need more receivers to step up for his continued growth in the passing game.
The Knights will need a bit more discipline on the field as well, as they committed over 7 penalties per game this season, which was a sign of a young football team.
There should be some noted concern over the 3 game losing streak that the Knights finished on as well, as they lost all 3 games by double digit points, losing by an average of 16.67 points per game. The Knights can simply not fal back into those old habits at this stage.

2017 Look Ahead: The Knights were a very young football team in 2016, so it is imperative that the development continues, as these guys are still learning. Still, a jump to 6 wins was not expected. Two things will be on hand in the spring, and those items are creating development, and creating some depth. The Knights also have go to develop a solid run game.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 FIU, 9/16 Georgia Tech, 9/23 at Maryland, 9/30 Maine

Cincinnati Bearcats 
4-8 (1-7)

Season Schedule
Beat UT-Martin 28-7
Beat Purdue 38-20
Lost to Houston 40-16
Beat Miami (Ohio) 27-20
Lost to USF 45-20
Lost to  U Conn 20-9
Beat East Carolina 31-19
Lost to Temple 34-13
Lost to BYU 20-3
Lost to UCF 24-3
Lost to Memphis 34-7
Lost to Tulsa 40-37

What Went Right: Not much. The offense fell of the radar, averaging just 19.3 points per game, and most of those points were score din the first half of the season. After week 6 of their season, the Bearcats scored over 20 points just once, in their season finale loss to Tulsa.
Devin Gray and Kahlil Lewis did show some bright spots at WR on offense, as they combined to catch 106 passes for 1465 yards and 10 scores, so they are a starting point for what did go right. Nate Cole added 57 more receptions for 518 yards and 4 more scores.
Defensively, there were some bright spots here and there as well. Mike Tyson picked off 5 passes, and the Bearcats as a whole picked off 17 balls on the season. LB Eric Wilson collected 129 tackles on the year, and Kevin Mouhon recorded 9.5 TFLs, which led the team. Sam Geraci did just manage to average 40 yards per punt, which helped the defense from completely imploding due to poor field position.

What Went Wrong: The passing game, formerly a strength, went into the dumpster this season. Gunner Kiel fell into the dog house early, only to emerge because of injuries, and Hayden Moore's development went south in a hurry. He only managed to pass for 1744 yards and 11 TDs to 7 picks, and completed just 57% of his passes in an injury riddled season. Kiel was not much better, passing for just 804 yards, while Ross Trail, who was a freshman, tossed 6 picks to just one TD pass. Tion Green rushed for 743 yards, which was not great on any scale, but what was worse was that the leading two rushing scoring leaders combined for all of 4 TDs, and the Bearcats averaged just 118 yards rushing per game as a team.
The Bearcats gave up 55 more 1st downs than they earned, were out rushed by over 800 yards, and tossed 15 team INTs. Teams rushed for 17 TDs against the Bearcats, while they rushed for just 8. UC gave up almost 48% of 3rd downs against, gave up over 61% on 4th down conversions, and were just generally flat, which led to the eventual resignation of Tommy Tuberville, a coach who I still see as one of the most overrated college football coaches in history.

2017 Look Ahead: There will be a general Buckeye flair on the staff in 2017, as Luke Fickell comes on as the new head coach at Cincinnati. He is bringing some Buckeye staffers with him, so expect a general uptick in mood around campus next fall. Fickell has got to fix this offense in 2017, and Hayden Moore still has promise. The defense is not far from being betterm but they need more support and scoring from wht turned into an abysmal offense in 2016. There is no reason to think that Fickell can't at least get UC back into a bowl game next season.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 8/31 Austin Peay, 9/9 at Michigan, 9/16 at Miami (Ohio), 9/30 at Marshall

East Carolina Pirates
3-9 (1-7)

Season Schedule
Beat Western Carolina 52-7
Beat NC State 33-30
Lost to South Carolina 20-15
Lost to Virginia Tech 54-17
Lost to UCF 47-29
Lost to USF 38-22
Lost to Cincinnati 31-19
Beat U Conn 41-3
Lost to Tulsa 45-24
Lost to SMU 55-31
Lost to Navy 66-31
Lost to Temple 37-10

What Went Right: Despite this being one of the worst seasons in recent memory for the Pirates, they could still manage to score at times, averaging just over 27 points per game, and they managed 31 more 1st downs than their opponents did during the season. The Pirates also managed over 4000 yards passing once again.
Minnesota transfer Phillip Nelson had a decent run at QB, passing for 2621 yards and 16 scores, against just 8 picks, but played in only 10 games. He completed 67.9% of his passes on the season, and he may very well have been the main bright spot on offense.
James Summers converted from receiver to RB, and led the team with 162 carries for 869 yards. Had he been handed more carries, he likely would have broken 1000 yards for the season.
Zay Jones was huge in the receiving game, finishing as an All-Bilo Receiver of the Year finalist. Jones caught 158 passes for 1746 yards and 8 scores. Jones averaged 145.5 yards per game.
Davis Plowman could have been worse at PK, hitting 17/23 FG attempts on the season, and Worth Gregory averaged over 42 yards per punt.
What Went Wrong: The defense imploded. The Pirates gave up 36.1 points per game, and gave up 30 or more points 10 times in 2016. They gave up 2742 yards rushing and 34 TDs on the ground. The defense gave up 5433 yards total offense, and that was the cause of the wreck of a season that they suffered through.
Nobody recorded double digit TFLs, and pass defense was lacking in passes defended or INTs. Sacks were barely registered on the season.
You can basically blame the destruction of the season, which saw the Pirates lose 9 of 10 to close out the season.
Scottie Montgomery was not high on my list of hires for the 2016 season, and he has plenty to prove after the roof caved in this season.

2017 Look Ahead: There are more problems ahead for Montgomery. Nelson and Jones, one of the best pass/combo duos in the nation in 2016, are both gone, leaving huge holes in the offense. The defense needs a complete overhaul if ECU is to at least have half a chance at getting back to .500.  It looks as if the Pirates could be in for another long haul in 2017.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: James Madison (9/2), at West Virginia (9/9), Virginia Tech (9/16), BYU (10/21)

U Conn Huskies
3-9 (1-7)

2016 Schedule
Beat Maine 24-21
Lost to Navy 28-24
Beat Virginia 13-10
Lost to Syracuse 31-24
Lost to Houston 42-14
Beat Cincinnati 20-9
Lost to USF 42-27
Lost to UCF 24-16
Lost to East Carolina 41-3
Lost to Temple 21-0
Lost to Boston College 30-0
Lost to Tulane 38-13

What Went Right: The first half of the season was not all bad, as the Huskies looked at least semi-stable with a 3-3 record. Of course, the wins were against a not so murderers row of Maine, Virignia, and Syracuse, so you have to to take that into account.
Senior Noel Thomas was a bright spot on an otherwise horrible offense, as he managed to catch 100 passes for 1179 yards.
Senior Punter Justin Wain averaged over 41 yards per punt, giving the Huskies at least half of a kicking game during a season where not much went right at all.
Luke Carrezola was a bright spot on defense, finishing with 11.5 TFLs, and Obi Melifonwu finished with 118 tackles, 73 of which were solo jobs. He averaged 9.83 tackles per game, and also led the team with 4 INTs. Jamar Summers also managed to finish with 7 pass breakups.

What Went Wrong: The second half of the season was a complete derailing of the train. The Huskies finished 0-6 from the midpoint on, and gave up 30 or more points in four of those losses. To make matters worse, the Huskies scored over 20 points just once during that period, and on the season, the offense averaged just 14.8 points per game, making the Huskies one of the worst offenses in the nation. For the season, U Conn scored over 20 points just 4 times in 12 games, and never scored 30 or more points all season.
The QBs tossed just 8 TD passes all season, and were picked 11 times, including 2 that were brought all the way back for scores, and the leading rusher was Arkeel Newsome, who finished with just 59.58 yards per game. Even worse, he led the team in rushing TDs with just 5. The Huskies rushed for just 11 TDs all season long, or less than one per game.
Other than Thomas in the receiving game, no other receiver caught more than 25 passes for the season. and only 3 receivers caught 20 or more passes.
The Huskies could usually always count on a solid defense, even if the offense was a mess. That was not the case in 2016, as the Huskies allowed over 28 points per game, and gave up 28 points or more 7 times. They finished with just 54 TFLs as a team, and finished with just 17 sacks. The Huskies gave up 37 sacks by comparison.
In short, the season went so poorly, that the administration finally acknowledged a mistake in hiring Bob Diaco as head coach, and fired him at the end of the year.

2017 Look Ahead: The Huskies went back to the past to get to the future by rehiring Randy Edsell, the architect of the best period of U Conn football history. The only problem there is that Edsell was a colossal failure after bolting for Maryland, and never even physically addressed his players when he left. Classy.
In my opinion, moving back to get Edsell was a step in the wrong direction, especially in a conference of up and coming coaches, and Edsell is not that. His best season at U Conn was an 8 game season that won a title in a very weak Big East Conference, and that team got hammered by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, a game that was one of the worst attended Fiesta Bowls in the history of the game.
Edsell has brought in Rhett Lashlee to run the offense, which is intriguing, but not stellar. Lashlee has to completely build an offense, as there was nothing left to build from. It's like starting over.
The defense has to be rebuilt, and regain their confidence of old. There is little swagger left, so this program is in need of a complete transfusion of energy.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: Holy Cross (8/31), at Virginia (9/16), Missouri (10/28), Boston College (11/18)

Navy Midshipmen
9-5 (7-1)

2016 Schedule
Beat Fordham 52-16
Beat U Conn 28-24
Beat Tulane 21-14
Lost to Air Force 28-14
Beat Houston 46-40
Beat Memphis 42-28
Lost to USF 52-45
Beat Notre Dame 28-27
Beat Tulsa 42-40
Beat East Carolina 66-31
Beat SMU 75-31
Lost to Temple 34-10
Lost to Army 21-17
Lost to Louisiana Tech 48-45 (Armed Forces Bowl)

What Went Right: Winning 5 of their first 6 games on the season was a very nice way to get going, and a win over Houston was included in that mix, which eventually helped the Middies take the AAC West.
The Navy offensive machine continued to operate at high efficiency for most of the season,scoring 28 or more points 10 times. including 7 games of scoring 40 or more. When all ws said and done, Navy averaged 37.9 points per game.
Tago Smith was supposed to be the new starting QB, replacing the legend that was Keenan Reynolds, but was injured in the first game, and was lost for the season. What worked about that was that Navy did not go off the rails, as Will Worth was a very nice discovery. He passed for 1397 yards and 8 scores, and rushed for a team leading 1198 yards and 25 TDs. Worth turned into the leader that Navy needed until he, too, went down to an injury.
As a team, Navy averaged over 310 yards rushing per game, and 4 other players other than Worth managed to rush for 400 yards or more, and the Middies rushed for 61 TDs on the season.

What Went Wrong: Navy faltered in the second half of the season, finishing just 4-4. The defense was not good, and that was one of the issues, as Navy allowed over 31 points per game. They gave up exactly 31 pojts per game in their five losses. Navy gave up 307 first downs on the year, allowed 2519 rushing yards, and gave up another 3557 yards passing. Navy gave up 52 offensive TDs on the season as well.
Depth at QB eventually did manage to become a problem, as once Worth went down, former 3rd stringer Zack Abey came in and managed to be a liability in the passing game, tossing only one TD pass to 4 picks. He also only managed to complete 57.1% of his pass attempts. He averaged 76.8 yards rushing per game, which was a 20 yard drop from Worth.
Navy only generated 20 sacks all season, and had only one player reach double figures in TFLs. That was not getting the job done to slow anyone down. Other than Tyris Wooten, who finished with 10 passes defended, nobody else registered more than 5.

2017 Look Ahead: Niumatololo was sought after once again, and came close to taking the Cal job at one point, but will return as head coach of the Middies. That is one key to success right there.
Worth is gone at QB, as is Smith, unless Smith gets a medical redshirt. That leaves Abey as the prime guy at QB, and that may not be the best thing. We will see how far he is able to develop oncespring ball is done. Still, losing Worth is a huge hole, as was evident after Worth went down.
Four of the top five rushers in all are gone heading into the season, as are 3 of the top 4 receivers.
Defensively, the unit was on the younger side, so look for improvements there. It can't get a lot worse.
Navy did manage to beat Notre Dame in 2016, but lost to both Air Force and Army, which is a trend that cannot continue moving forward.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: at FAU (9/2), Air Force (10/7), at Notre Dame (11/18), Army at Philadelphia (12/8)

Tulsa Golden Hurricane
10-3 (6-2)

2016 Schedule
Beat San Jose State 45-10
Lost to Ohio State 48-3
Beat North Carolina A&T 58-21
Beat Fresno State 48-41
Beat SMU 43-40
Lost to Houston 38-31
Beat Tulane 50-27
Beat Memphis 59-30
Beat East Carolina 45-24
Lost to Navy 42-40
Beat UCF 35-20
Beat Cincinnati 40-37
Beat Central Michigan 55-10 (Miami Beach Bowl)

What Went Right: Offense, offense, and more offense. Tulsa averaged 42.5 points per game in 2016, scoring less than 40 points in a game just 4 times all season. Even in their 3 losses, Tulsa averaged 24.7 points per game, but of course the Ohio State game looms large in that picture when Tulsa was held to just 3 points.
Dane Evans was once again a star at QB, passing for 32 TDs to just 12 picks on the year. He managed to pass for 3348 yards despite just missing the 60% completion mark. He averaged 257 yards passing per game, running the offense like a machine.
Tulsa managed a profound run game as well, finishing with two rushers who went over 1000 yards in James Flanders and D'Angelo Brewer. They combined for 3064 yards and 25 TDs on the season, and a shade over 244 yards rushing per game.
Keevan Lucas, Josh Atkinson, and Justin Hobbs all finished with 50 or more receptions on the season as well, and Lucas and Hobbs both went over 1000 yards receiving, giving Tulsa one of their best offensive seasons in school history.
Defense showed signs of improvement, and although the unit got better, there is still work to do. We cannot forget that Jesse Brubaker and Matt Linscott finished with a combined 24.5 TFLs on the season, which was a building block moving forward.
Trent Martin finished with 100 tackles, while Jordan Mitchell broke up 9 passes during the season. Tulsa managed to outperform opponents in passes defended, QB hurries, forced fumbles, and blocked kicks/punts.

What Went Wrong: Tulsa allowed 42.7 points per game in their 3 losses, so when they were outclassed, it was by a good amount, as those 3 losses came by 19 points on average. As I said, defense is still a work in progress, as Tulsa allowed 29.8 points per game. They allowed 2292 yards rushing and 28 TDs, while also allowing 3252 yards passing on the season. The good news is that the pass defense started to show signs of shoring up, giving up 16 TDs to 10 picks, which is a decent number.
In AAC play, Tulsa was just 9 points away from winning the west in 2016, with a 7 point loss to Houston, and a 2 point loss to Navy. In conference, Tulsa is much closer to running the show than they were a year ago.

2017 Look Ahead: Phillip Montgomery will be back as coach, but he loses star QB Dane Evans, leaving Ryan Rubley as the heir apparent. Flanders is also gone in the run game, as are Lucas and Hobbs in the receiving game. Those are big shoes to fill.
Linscott is gone on defense, as are 3 of the top tacklers on defense. It would not surprise me to see Tulsa to slide back a peg or two, but Montgomery always was able to reload quickly when he was the OC at Baylor, so he should get it done at Tulsa as well.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 at Oklahoma State, 9/9 UL-Lafayette, 9/16 at Toledo, 9/23 New Mexico

Memphis Tigers
8-5 (5-3)

2016 Schedule
Beat SE Missouri State 35-17
Beat Kansas 43-7
Beat Bowling Green 77-3
Lost to Ole Miss 48-28
Beat Temple 34-27
Beat Tulane 24-14
Lost to Navy 42-28
Lost to Tulsa 59-30
Beat SMU 51-7
Lost to USF 49-42
Beat Cincinnati 34-7
Beat Houston 48-44
Lost to Western Kentucky 51-31 (Boca Raton Bowl)

What Went Right: The Tigers really did not miss much of a beat after losing Paxton Lynch to the NFL last season, as Riley Ferguson stepped right in and ran the offense without much of a flaw. Ferguson was one of my best QBs in the nation in 2016 passing for 3698 yards and 32 TDs on a 63.2% completion ratio. He averaged 285 yards passing per game, and drove the Tigers back to an 8 win season.
Memphis rushed for 159.31 yards per game with a committee approach that seems to be all the rage these days. Doroland Dorceus, Patrick Taylor, and Darrell Henderson all combined for 309 carries on the season for 1838 yards and 16 TDs.
Anthony Miller really stood out in the receiving game as well, catching 95 passes for 1494 yards and 14 TDs, giving Ferguson a true go to receiver in the passing game.
LB Genard Avery became a building block on defense, as the LB finished with 11.5 TFLs on the season. He also led the team with 5 sacks.
Arthur Maulet was a huge play maker in the secondary as well, defending 13 passes on the year. He also forced 2 fumbles. In all, the Tigers returned 3 INTs for scores in 2016.
PK Jake Elliott had a big leg in the PK game, hitting 21/26 FGs. Spencer Smith nailed it in the punting game as well, averaging just over 45 yards per punt.
Memphis also managed to beat Houston and Temple in conference play, which was a serious confidence booster.

What Went Wrong: The defense, once again, as a whole, failed to get the job, done. The Tigers gave up over 28 points per game, and they gave up 49.8 points per game in their five losses, including a 20 point loss to Western Kentucky in their bowl game.
In their first 3 games, Memphis allowed just 9 points per game, after that, however, the wheels came off the wagon when it counted in big games. For Memphis to show improvements and compete in the West, the defense must be shored up to keep up with what is really a very proficient offense.
Memphis also finished the season just 2-2, failing to close out in a loss to USF, and getting hammered in the bowl loss.

2017 Look Ahead: Most of the primary play makers on offense and on defense return. The Tigers just have to fix that leaky defense, and beat someone when it counts. BEating Houston was great, but it was in the middle of the Tom Herman leaving period, and Houston was lost in the midst of distractions. The losses were by double digits in 4 of 5 of those games, and that was a real issue that must be shored up. Mike Norvell is not as good a coach as Justin Fuente was, bu winning 8 games per year is always solid at a program like Memphis. If the defense can get patched up, there are enough players coming back to make a run at the west title in the AAC, but there are questions that drag them back a bit.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 UL-Monroe, 9/16 UCLA, 9/23 Southern Illinois, 11/18 at Georgia State

Houston Cougars
9-4 (5-3)

2016 Schedule
Beat Oklahoma 33-23
Beat Lamar 42-0
Beat Cincinnati 40-16
Beat Texas State 64-3
Beat U Conn 42-14
Lost to Navy 46-40
Beat Tulsa 48-41
Lost to SMU 38-16
Beat UCF 31-24
Beat Tulane 30-18
Beat Louisville 36-10
Lost to Memphis 48-44
Lost to San Diego State 34-10 (Las Vegas Bowl)

What Went Right: The Cougars rolled to a 5-0 start, and there were early national championship aspirations before the Navy game came along and crushed all of those dreams. Greg Ward, Jr. was playing like a Heisman caliber player for a time, even though injuries once again got in the way at times. Beating Oklahoma in the opener proved to be huge for the Cougars, as after a sluggish start, the Sooners ended the year as one of the strongest and hottest teams in the nation. Ward passed for 3557 yards and 22 TDs, and rushed for another 10 on the season. Linell Bonner caught 98-1118-3, Chance Allen went for 56-815-6, and Steven Dunbar went for 53-692-5.
Defensively, the Cougars held their opponents to just 23.5 points per game and 213 1st downs, both solid numbers. Teams only averaged 2.91 yards per carry, and opposing offenses averaged just 4.8 yards per play. The offense also averaged just over 33 minutes of possession time per game.
On defense, freshman Ed Oliver proved to be the real deal, as he finished with 22.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 66 tackles, and 9 pass breakups. He also added 7 QB hurries, and forced 3 fumbles. Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, both seniors, added a 17 total combined sacks.
Ty Cummings had a big senior season at PK, hitting 16/20 FGs, while freshman punter Dane Roy averaged just over 40 yards per punt.

What Went Wrong: The Tom Herman to Texas rumors started early in the season, and became a major distraction, as the Cougars lost 4 games they likely never should have lost, specifically a 22 point loss to abysmal SMU in conference play. For a team that was being talked about as a final 4 contender, they tanked after week 5, finishing the season just 4-4. Greg Ward looked great in some ways, but he tossed 13 INTs on the season against just 22 passing TDs, which is not a good look. Houston went from being a national darling at one point to not even competing for their conference title, and the crash was swift and decisive.
Herman did leave before the Las Vegas Bowl, and the Cougars switched interim coaches twice before Major Applewhite took over. The team was flat out of the gate in Las Vegas, and they never woke up. A promising season ended with a dull thud.

Look Ahead to 2017: Major Applewhite is now the full time head coach, and he will have a bit of work to do. He has to replace Ward at QB, has to somehow make Duke Catalon into something resembling a prime time back, and has to develop some help in the secondary on defense. There is plenty of returning talent on defense, so that is a plus. The non con schedule is not very challenging, so a hot start is a must, and the Cougars cannot lose games they are supposed to win. At least they won't have the Herman rumors to deal with anymore.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 at UTSA, 9/9 at Arizona, 9/16 Rice, 9/23 Texas Tech

SMU Mustangs
5-7 (3-5)

2016 Schedule
Beat North Texas 34-21
Lost to Baylor 40-13
Beat Liberty 29-14
Lost to TCU 33-3
Lost to Temple 45-20
Lost to Tulsa 43-40
Beat Houston 38-16
Beat Tulane 35-31
Lost to Memphis 51-7
Beat East Carolina 55-31
Lost to USF 35-27
Lost to Navy 75-31

What Went Right: Chad Morris finally got the Mustangs playing to some potential in 2016, although you may not see it in the finished product. The Mustangs were one win away from a bowl game, something that may have seemed impossible a couple of short years ago.
Scoring was up at 27.7 points per game, and freshman Ben Hicks showed flashes at times at QB, passing for 2930 yards and 19 scores. Braeden West, a sophomore, rushed for 1036 yards and 6 scores, while sophomore Ke'Mon Freeman rushed for another 651 yards and 4 scores. The top 5 receivers were all underclassmen, and they performed well.
Justin Lawler, a junior, finished with 15 TFLs on defense, with 6 of those going for sacks. Horace Richardson and Darrion Millines combined for 11 picks on the season, and Richardson broke up 8 passes. Jordan Wyatt, a sophomore, broke up 7 passes.
Josh Williams showed promise at PK, hitting 17/22 FG attempts.
There are definitely indications that the dark clouds around this program are breaking up.

What Went Wrong: The Mustangs were young, and that created issues in some places. Hicks threw 15 INTs in his freshman season, a number that would have to drop big for the Mustangs to win more games in 2017. The defense, while finding some nice pieces, still gave up 36.3 points per game, another number that will have to shrink. The punting game was not great, nor was the return game. The defense as a whole gave up 5436 yards on the season, and that cannot continue. The Mustangs also allowed teams to score on 89.36% of their red zone opportunities.

2017 Look Ahead: SMU was young, and so many young players picked up huge experience this fall. Looking ahead, that should pay dividends, and SMU should be able to avoid 3 game losing streaks mid year, and they should finish stronger than losing 3 of 4, the last of which (Navy) being what kept them from bowling. Look for SMU to possibly make a bowl trip next season, and maybe compete for a West Division title in 2018.

2017 Non Conference Opponents: 9/2 Stephen F Austin, 9/9 North Texas, 9/16 at TCU, 9/23 Arkansas State

Tulane Green Wave
4-8 (1-7)

2016 Schedule
Lost to Wake Forest 7-3
Beat Southern 66-31
Lost to Navy 21-14
Beat UL-Lafayette 41-39
Beat U Mass 31-24
Lost to Memphis 24-14
Lost to Tulsa 50-27
Lost to SMU 35-31
Lost to UCF 37-6
Lost to Houston 30-18
Lost to Temple 31-0
Beat U Conn 38-13

What Went Right: Nobody ever promised anyone a rose garden when Willie Fritz came to New Orleans to coach this team in 2016, at least not right away. Fritz is a solid coach, and winning 4 games total this season was actually a strong start for his tenure at Tulane. One solid note was the win over U Conn, which broke a 14 game AAC losing streak for the Green Wave.
The defense holding opponents to 27 points per game this season, to me, was a win. The Green Wave defensive unit really showed some life at times, and is a building block for future success. Tulane turned to the run this season, and did so in style, rushing for 228 yards per game. This will be the success model moving forward for Tulane, as to win, they feel they must run, and they can now do that.
Tanzel Smart (18.5), Nico Marley (14), and Ade Aruna (10) all finished in double figures in TFLs, and Tulane finished with 87 as a team. Tulane also finished with 29 sacks as a team, meaning that they cannot be pushed around anymore. Donnie Lewis also defended 9 passes on the season. The defensive side of special teams looked good as well with 3 blocked kicks.

What Went Wrong: There is virtually no passing game to be seen, as Glen Cuillette barely managed to pass for 1309 yards and 10 TDs to 8 picks in 12 games. That will not work in the AAC long term, and must be fixed. There must also be improvements in the return game on offense, and the PK game is in shambles right now. Tulane scored just 24.1 points per game, and racked up just 208 1st downs. The Green Wave was also putrid on 3rd downs, converting just 28% on the season.

2017 Look Ahead: I really do not expect a miracle next fall from Tulane. Fritz found the cupboard basically empty, and he has a ton of building to do before the program can take a turn. Winning 4 games and breaking the losing streak in AAC play was a start, but there is a long road ahead.

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Grambling, 9/16 at Oklahoma, 9/23 Army, TBA FIU

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