Born from the ashes of the Big East and fortified by a raid on Conference USA (and failed bids to go bicoastal with the Mountain West’s Boise State and San Diego State), the American Athletic Conference first rose up in 2013 in the final year that it retained automatic-qualifying status under the old BCS system. UCF claimed the final auto-bid to a major bowl game and a win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl in its first year in the league, bridging the gap between the BCS and College Football Playoff eras.
Though they failed to claim the Access Bowl bid in the first year of the CFP system, the AAC rebounded to separate itself from the rest of its Group of Five brethren in 2015. Three of its teams finished the year with 10 or more victories, and eight of its schools reached bowl eligibility. Houston, Temple, and Navy all finished in the final CFP top 25, and the Cougars and Midshipmen ranked eighth and 18th respectively in the final post-bowl AP and coaches polls. Beyond the big three, three other teams finished with winning records and could themselves threaten for conference honors this year.
The churn of coaching staffs and short-term college athletes means that the competition will be even tighter this year, though it will take a Herculean effort for any of the other mid-major leagues to surpass the AAC this season. With wins over top-ten Power Five competition in two of the last three postseasons, and
So let’s dive in and assess the AAC pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
6. UCF — Last year was surreal in Orlando, as one of the most consistent mid-major programs of the past decade stumbled through a winless 2015 campaign in which longtime head coach George O’Leary resigned before November. Enter Scott Frost, the Oregon offensive coordinator, who will hope to capitalize on the talent on the roster to engineer a quick turnaround. No other team returns more experience on its squad in the AAC than the Knights, and Frost will try to get more consistency out of Justin Holman and a young group of backs and receivers. Losses along the defensive line and of starting middle linebacker Domenic Spencer could hurt; then again, Central Florida was in the bottom 15 nationally on defense and could benefit from an infusion of new talent in key roles. Six wins isn’t inconceivable, even with a trip to Michigan on the schedule, but it is more likely that UCF will fall just short of the postseason in Frost’s first year as a head coach before storming to contention with a group of juniors and seniors in 2017.
5. East Carolina — Ruffin McNeill took the Pirates to four bowl games in six years, but a 5-7 season in 201 was enough for the school to dismiss him from the post and appoint Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery to head coach. East Carolina dropped four of its last five games last season, and with less returning talent than anyone in the AAC East it will be that much harder to steady the ship this season. Former Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson transferred to Greenville for one final season of college ball, mitigating the loss of Blake Kemp, but the offensive line returns only two starters and there was a lot of attrition at the skill positions as well. The non-conference slate is Power Five run of NC State, South Carolina, and Virginia Tech, providing the Pirates with a high-risk/high-reward possibility in terms of the national picture if they can coalesce as a team quicklyi. By the end of September we will know whether ECU has any chance of returning to a bowl game in 2016.
4. UConn — Connecticut showed definite improvement in Bob Diaco’s second season, winning four more games than in 2014 and qualifying for the program’s first bowl appearance since playing in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl. The only loss from last year’s offense was right guard Tyler Samra, and otherwise the entire unit returns intact. The defense will need to rejigger itself somewhat after deeper attrition, but most of the losses were in the front seven and Diaco can count on the return of three-quarters of his top-20 passing defense. They were often fighting a field-position battle, however, with the punt and kickoff defense betrayed by a return game that generated little yardage of its own. The Huskies take on three ACC tests, with Virginia and Syracuse coming to Storrs in September and UConn traveling to Boston College in late November. If they can win at least one of these tests against ACC middleweights, the Huskies would set themselves up for a good shot at a second straight bowl berth.
3. Cincinnati — The Bearcats regressed in 2015, with quarterback Gunner Kiel suffering two injuries that knocked him out for much of the season. Kiel returns for his senior season, and if he can stay healthy Cincinnati has a chance of challenging Temple and USF for the division crown. He’ll be throwing to a whole new group of receivers, and the offensive line must replace both tackles as well, but Kiel has the talent when upright to paper over those issues. Defense, traditionally Tommy Tuberville’s area of expertise, betrayed the Bearcats in 2015 as they allowed 30 or more points in eight of their 13 games. Most of the returning talent on defense constitutes Cincy’s better players from last year, and Tuberville and his staff will hope that experience can help lower those defensive stats. Their only Power Five contest is a trip to take on Purdue, hardly the strongest of statements, though they also have a home game against independent BYU in early November. Bowl eligibility should be no problem, but anything beyond that depends on the efficacy of the rebuilding effort.
2. Temple — The defending AAC East champions rattled off 10 wins in 2015, but getting to that benchmark will be much tougher this season as they deal with the loss of high-profile players on both sides of the ball. Quarterback P.J. Walker and tailback Jahad Thomas are both back for their senior seasons, but three of the five starters on the offensive line are now gone along with top receiver Robby Anderson. The defense must try to replace linebacker Tyler Matakevich, several starters on the line, and another couple in the secondary. A much easier schedule than last season includes a trip to Happy Valley to face Penn State in mid-September, but not many other non-conference challenges stand out for the Owls. Temple also avoids both Houston and Navy in cross-division scheduling, and if anything their strength of schedule could be a boon for their record while dragging down their overall chances at rising very far in the polls. October 21 against South Florida will be a make-or-break game for Matt Rhule’s squad.
1. South Florida — A switch flipped in Tampa last year, as the Bulls finished the year on a 7-2 run to remove Willie Taggart from the hot seat and reach bowl eligibility for the first time since Skip Holtz’s first season in 2010. South Florida now looks to improve upon that record and challenge for the AAC East in a year where no clear contender exists. Most of the skill players return on offense, but the offensive line loses three starters from last season’s turnaround and returns only one other player with any substantive experience. The defensive line also lost a lot of depth, though plenty of returning experience in the secondary will be able to cover for some early deficiencies. USF faces Northern Illinois, Syracuse, and Florida State out of conference, and if the Bulls can walk away from September with at least one Power Five statement win and a 3-1 record they will be a threat not just to take the division but also contend for the Access Bowl slot. At the very least another bowl appearance should be in the cards for a talented South Florida team benefitting from coaching stability.
6. SMU — More than a quarter century after receiving the death penalty from the NCAA, Southern Methodist remains one of the hardest places in college football to build a consistent winner. Despite its location in the talent-rich Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, SMU has fallen back from what looked like the progress of four straight bowl games under June Jones. Chad Morris returns for his second season of leadership to take on the AAC with a veteran team, hoping that experience can bolster the the numbers especially for a defense that ranked among the worst in college football in 2015. Matt Davis can both pass and run the football, while the top eight receivers return from last year on offense. The biggest losses are four-year starting center Taylor Lasecki and three-year starting right tackle Kris Weeks. The Mustangs play both Baylor and TCU in September, making 2-2 the putative ceiling for this group entering conference play. Bowl eligibility is at least one year off for Morris’ squad.
5. Tulsa — The Golden Hurricane went bowling in 2015 in Philip Montgomery’s first season at the helm, and they return plenty of talent on both sides of the ball to try to return to the postseason in 2016. It has been an interesting adjustment period for Tulsa, which won four division titles and two conference championships in nine years as a member of C-USA but which has a 5-11 record in two years of AAC league play. Dane Evans returns for his senior season, though the quarterback loses two of his three favorite targets. Where Tulsa sputtered in 2015 was not in terms of offensive production but rather in allowing opponents to regularly outscore them in shootouts, as the held just two opponents under 30 points during last season. San Jose State and Ohio State can both exploit that defense in the opening two games, and if Tulsa can’t right the ship from there it could be a season of regression in Oklahoma.
4. Tulane — The last time Tulane put together back-to-back winning seasons was under Tommy Bowden in 1997 and the undefeated campaign of 1998, and since then the Green Wave have gone to two bowl games and through four head coaches. Now the task falls to Willie Fritz, he of the option magic at Georgia Southern, to try to restore some greatness in New Orleans. The eight returning starters on each side of the ball, though, mask a depth deficiency that plagues this roster, and it could be a couple of years before Fritz can get the Green Wave back on track in a tough division. The team should be better on defense than on offense, and if Tulane can keep games close it could threaten to reach bowl eligibility. Their opener at Wake Forest is an opportunity to make a statement against one of the weaker Power Five schools, and the rest of their non-conference slate is manageable. That said, getting to six victories might be too much to ask from a team that won six games combined over the last two years of the Curtis Johnson era.
3. Memphis — After winning 19 games over the past two seasons, it will be interesting to see how the Tigers adjust to life after Justin Fuente. The coach’s departure to Virginia Tech coincides with the departure of starting quarterback Paxton Lynch to the NFL, leaving Memphis in something of a rebuilding position on offense. Riley Ferguson looks like the likeliest candidate to replace Lynch in Mike Norvell’s system, while the running game hopes to find more consistency despite a line that lost All-AAC first team left tackle Taylor Fallin along with another 58 combined starts among the graduates. The defense brings back solid depth along its line, but must replace several linebackers as well as free safety Reggis Ball. They also bring back Jake Elliott, one of the best kickers in the country. The biggest test out of conference is an October 1 date with Ole Miss in Oxford, and the Tigers should arrive undefeated for that showdown. If the offensive replacements can get up to speed quickly, Memphis could be in the hunt for the division, but they should at least be bowling for a third straight year.
2. Navy — The Midshipmen have built up their reputation for consistent performance on the gridiron almost entirely on the strength of their option running game. Without a solid offensive line, the option goes nowhere… and this year no team begins the year with less experience on its offensive line than Navy, which lost all five of its starters from last season and brings back just three upperclassmen with limited experience. Four-year starter Keenan Reynolds is gone at quarterback, and thus Navy will turn to Tago Smith or one of its sophomores to replace the school legend. The defensive strength is in its linebacker depth, but the secondary will need to retool after several key departures. The one thing working against the service academy is that so much of its non-conference schedule is out of its control; beyond its traditional games with Army and Air Force, the Middies always play Notre Dame. This year it should make for a difficult schedule that will be all the more difficult with the rebuilding effort, though Navy will rely on its fundaments to move forward.
1. Houston — The Cougars find themselves in the position of trying to figure out how to sustain and build upon a statement victory against a powerhouse opponent in a major bowl. Tom Herman’s second year coaching the team leaves little room for growth save a perfect season. And even while Houston brings back less experience than any team in the AAC except Navy, Herman’s recruiting efforts have set the Cougars up for a season with even more room for improvement. While they lose four players with starting experience, they return four more who have been starters in the past and merely need to come together as a unit to excel in the league. As long as the line is serviceable, there should be no dropoff from dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr. The defense loses some key players from the secondary, but will likely continue to play a high-risk game that results in plenty of turnovers — the Cougars have nabbed at least 30 takeaways in each of the past five seasons. A home opener against Oklahoma will test the team early, but they remain the standard bearer for the AAC.