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Archived: 2018 AAC College Football Preview

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East Outlook

The American claimed a national title according to some last season as Central Florida completed a perfect 13-0 campaign, the only program in the nation to do so completing the run with a win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. The AAC has produced the top Group of Five squad twice in the last three years and should remain the top threat outside the power five again in 2018.

The East will again start with UCF but Temple and South Florida are viable threats that will challenge in the East race. An undefeated team in the division is again a possibility and there appears to be a massive chasm between the top three and the bottom three in this division. Here is an early look at the six AAC East squads.

Central Florida: Scott Frost delivered an incredible season for the Knights but he will be on the sidelines in Lincoln this season with another former Big XII quarterback taking over in Orlando this season. Josh Heupel led Oklahoma to a national title on the field and he has honed his coaching skills at his alma mater and more recently at Missouri to make the leap to his first head coaching job. He inherits the top quarterback in the conference to ease the transition with McKenzie Milton posting huge numbers last season but there were significant personnel losses on both sides of the ball for the Knights in the offseason. The schedule has a few challenging spots as a repeat perfect season is unlikely but this will still be a team that can post a double-digit win count and shouldn’t be ruled out as a top Group of Five threat. The West draw adds two formidable AAC games to the schedule and two of the toughest tests of the conference season will be on the road. Non-conference tests vs. North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Florida Atlantic will determine whether or not UCF can stay in the national spotlight.

Temple: Temple has a team capable of knocking off anyone in the AAC as one of the better defenses in the conference should be even better in the second season behind Geoff Collins. The Owls rallied to win seven games last season including a bowl game but five of six road games in 2018 will be challenging tests. Frank Nutile was a productive quarterback that sparked the offense taking over midseason last year and another solid bowl season should be ahead in Philadelphia. Temple has a good chance to make a bit of noise with a pair of manageable power five non-conference games and they will have a bye week ahead of a huge run of games in November that will decide the fate of the division, with the Owls playing UCF, Houston, and USF in succession.

South Florida: Getting 10 wins in a first season at a new program is a great accomplishment but South Florida was favored in 11 of 12 games last season and expectations of a perfect season were there, ultimately outshined by the in-state neighbors to the northeast. Charlie Strong had a lot to work with last season and his job will be more challenging this season with the loss of top rusher and passer Quinton Flowers. Add several major departures on defense and other big contributors graduating from the offense and the Bulls aren’t likely to match the production of the past two seasons. The schedule is reasonable however and another 10-win season is very possible. The draw from the West is relatively favorable and the Bulls get to host UCF in the season finale after a wildly entertaining contest between those teams for the division title last season. South Florida might not be as good as last season but that doesn’t mean a decline in record is likely.

Cincinnati: It was expected that Cincinnati would perennially be in the conversation as one of the top Group of Five threats after four straight seasons of at least nine wins earlier this decade. The Bearcats are coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons however as Luke Fickell was unable to deliver positive returns in first season with the program. Cincinnati should have the pieces in place to improve defensively this season and the schedule overall is easier than last season’s slate pulling a pair of MAC teams while also getting two of the lesser teams from the West division. The offensive line looks like an area of weakness for this group which could trickle down to the rest of the offense even with veteran playmakers returning in key positions. Returning to the glory days of a decade ago isn’t likely for the Bearcats this season but this should be a borderline bowl team that can show slight improvement.

Connecticut: Randy Edsall went 3-9 in his return to Connecticut after coaching five mediocre seasons at Maryland. The Huskies did upset two AAC foes last season but closed the season with five straight defeats. Another poor finish in the AAC East looks likely with a daunting set of home games in conference play but Connecticut will get to play two of the lesser West teams to help the cause. Add a pair of winnable non-conference games and Connecticut has a chance to show mild improvement this season. The defense was gutted however with very little experience back in action but the offense did make a big leap from the 2016 numbers last season. This will be a team that will welcome shootouts unlike during the Bob Diaco years as the Huskies will at least be a more interesting team to watch even if a bowl bid is not realistic this season.

East Carolina: The decision to fire Ruffin McNeill after the 2015 season was mostly panned and it looks even worse at this point after a pair of 3-9 seasons for East Carolina. Scottie Montgomery will face some heat this season with improvement expected but the schedule is quite challenging with two ACC squads on the schedule in September and the first five AAC games on the schedule coming against arguably the best five teams in the conference. Drawing Memphis and Houston from the West is less than ideal and the division road games are all very difficult. Realistically another 3-9 season looks likely considering this was a defense that allowed 45 points per game and 542 yards per game last season and will now need to break in a new quarterback.

West Outlook

The American was led by East champion Central Florida last season with a historic season but the West had quality performers as well. The AAC has produced the top Group of Five squad twice in the last three years and should remain the top threat outside the power five again in 2018.

The West division offers a deeper group of six teams than the East with five of six teams winning at least five games last season and all six teams with realistic bowl hopes this season. This could be a tight multi-team race with the division again capable of producing four bowl teams as it did in 2017. Here is an early look at the AAC West ahead of the 2018 season.

Memphis: Memphis went 7-1 to win the West last season before giving UCF a great test in the title game but the Tigers lost its offensive stars from last season with Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller now in the NFL. Memphis won 10 games last season despite awful defensive numbers but Mike Norvell is back for his third season after getting some attention from major programs. Perhaps the biggest game of the AAC West season will be a second week game at Navy for Memphis as a win there will put the Tigers in the driver’s seat for the division title. Memphis should be favored to win three of four non-conference games and another 10-win campaign is very possible with a run at a perfect season not out of the question with both UCF and Houston visiting the Liberty Bowl and the biggest non-conference hurdle being against a beatable Missouri team in October. Replacing a prolific quarterback means things could go the other direction as well but 15 starters are back as this should remain a quality team.

Navy: The Midshipmen were in the AAC title game two years ago and Navy has a chance to get back in the picture after the program’s worst season since 2011. Ken Niumatalolo is 84-48 in 10 seasons at Navy and while a 6-6 regular season that featured a second straight loss to rival Army was a disappointment, a 49-7 bowl blowout over an ACC team was a great way to finish the season. Navy plays 13 regular season game with an opener at Hawai’i as it will be a grueling slate that features eight games away from home. Zack Abey is back in action after rushing for over 1,400 yards last season and Navy was a solid defensive team last year that soundly out-gained its competition despite the even record. Navy has most of the toughest conference games at home other than a trip to UCF but ultimately the travel will wear on this team as a few upset defeats could occur along the way. Navy won’t run the table but if Memphis comes back to the pack the Midshipmen will be right there in the West mix.

Houston: Houston has fallen in win count in back-to-back seasons and while there were mixed results in Major Applewhite’s first season with the Cougars the potential was there with several strong performances and mostly close losses other than an upset loss at Tulsa.  A pair of tough non-conference games will give Houston a chance to get back on the national map in September and D’Eriq King led the Cougars to productive results after taking over at quarterback. Houston lost five times as a favorite last season as the Cougars proved to be overvalued based on the success of the previous two seasons and this year more grounded expectations could make Houston a threat to surprise. There is top end talent on the defense and a bit more consistency can be expected in a year two of a major coaching change. Houston has to play on the road vs. the top two division threats and draws two of the top three teams from the East as the schedule hardly will be ideal for a rise to the division title.

Tulsa: After Tulsa won 10 games with some good fortune in 2016 the results reversed course last year with a 2-10 mark for the Golden Hurricane despite statistics more indicative of a close to .500 club. Tulsa lost six games by 10 or fewer points and really struggled to stop the run allowing 5.9 yards per rush and 265 rushing yards per game. This year’s team is a great bounce-back candidate as one of the AAC’s most experienced teams with proven performers on both sides of the ball. The schedule is difficult with Tulsa likely to be a hefty underdog in all six road games but there are winnable home games ahead and one upset could swing the Hurricane into being a bowl candidate. The passing game had a huge drop off last season but Philip Montgomery should be able to get his offense back closer to the strong scoring numbers of 2015 and 2016.

SMU: Chad Morris showed improvement in all three seasons at SMU and it was enough to get him hired at Arkansas, leaving the program in shambles ahead of an embarrassing Frisco Bowl performance. Sonny Dykes led the team in that bowl game and while it was a scramble for the coaching staff the extra time with the players can’t hurt heading into the 2018 transition. Last year’s team caught some breaks with three very narrow conference wins to only finish 4-4 in league play and the non-conference schedule brings two impossible tests in September. Four of six home games in Dallas will be difficult as the best opportunities for wins could come on the road. Ultimately a decline in win count looks nearly certain in year one for Dykes at SMU even with one of the better returning quarterbacks and good experience back on defense.

Tulane: Willie Fritz has a Tulane team that will be capable of a few upsets this season. The Wave shocked Houston last season and came close in a few other AAC games with narrow losses vs. bowl teams South Florida and SMU. The option attack has required a transition but having a returning quarterback helps even if Dontrell Hillard now needs to be replaced in the backfield. Tulane has just three road wins in two years under Fritz and they will need to find a way to win on the road to have a chance at improving on last season’s 5-7 record. Drawing only one of the East powers helps the cause but the top two West threats take up two of the home dates in American play as the Wave look likely to fall just short of a bowl bid yet again.

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