American Athletic


#67 Navy Midshipmen





HEAD COACH: Ken Niumatalolo, 68-37 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ivin Jasper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dale Pehrson

Previewing Navy’s Offense for 2016

Navy begins life after Keenan Reynolds, the record-setting quarterback and four-year starter. Reynolds graduated as the most prolific option quarterback in college football history, having set the FBS record for touchdowns scored. Senior Tago Smith patiently bided his time as the backup the past two seasons and is prepared to take the reins of Navy’s patented triple-option offense. As a sophomore, Smith started two games in place of the injured Reynolds and performed well. 

Dynamic wide receiver Jamir Tillman is the lone returning starter on offense. The 6'4", 212-pounder, who had 49 receptions for 983 yards as a sophomore and junior, runs great routes and has excellent hands. 

Senior slotback Dishan Romine had a breakout season in 2015, ranking third on the team with 378 rushing yards. The speedster averaged 10.5 yards per carry. Shawn White takes over the all-important fullback position, which has always set the tone in the triple-option. White, remarkably agile and athletic for a 255-pounder, has only 28 career carries and must prove he can handle the pounding that comes with being the featured runner.

Left guard Adam West and right tackle Robert Lindsey are the most experienced members of a rebuilt offensive line. Lindsey started four games while West started one in 2015. 


Previewing Navy’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Inside linebackers Daniel Gonzales and Micah Thomas lead a list of six returning starters from Navy’s strongest defense of the current triple-option era. Under the direction of first-year coordinator Dale Pehrson, the Midshipmen ranked 26th in scoring defense and 40th in total defense with 21.8 points and 364.9 total yards allowed per game.
Pehrson implemented a more aggressive philosophy that produced 15 fumble recoveries, most in the nation.   

Thomas was second on the squad with 73 tackles while Gonzales was fourth with 65 despite missing two games due to injury. All four starting linebackers return, with Josiah Powell and D.J. Palmore manning the outside spots. 

Navy graduated two outstanding defensive linemen in nose guard Bernie Sarra and left end Will Anthony. Sarra was a brick wall who could take on double-teams and hold the point of attack. Anthony lived in opposing backfields in totaling 22.5 tackles for a loss his last two seasons. Patrick Forrestal (6'4", 305) certainly has the size to man the middle but must prove he has the strength and stamina to be stout against the run. Amos Mason, the returning starter at right end, showed playmaking ability with five tackles for a loss, four pass breakups and three quarterback hurries in 2015. 

Free safety Daiquan Thomasson assumes the leadership role in the secondary. He started the final nine games of the season and secured the game-clinching interception against Army. This unit suffered a setback in July when cornerback Brendon Clements was dismissed from the team.

Previewing Navy’s Specialists for 2016

Alex Barta was impressive in his first season as the starting punter with a 41.6-yard average. Navy lost a solid two-year placekicker when Austin Grebe graduated. D.J. Grant-Johnson, who boasts a strong leg, seized the job during spring practice. Romine developed into a dangerous kickoff return threat, averaging 27.3 yards on 24 attempts. Coach Ken Niumatalolo made special teams a particular emphasis during spring.  

Final Analysis  

Navy took the American Athletic Conference by storm in its inaugural season as a member. The Midshipmen won’t sneak up on anybody in 2016, having earned the respect of all opponents while sharing the West Division crown with Houston. Navy has posted winning seasons capped by bowl berths in 12 of the last 13 years, and there is no reason to believe the Mids won’t reach that standard again. An Oct. 1 showdown with Air Force in Colorado Springs will go a long way toward determining whether Navy captures the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the 11th time since 2003.



#62 Temple Owls



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Matt Rhule, 18-20 (3 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Glenn Thomas | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Snow

After one of the best years in school history, the Owls are set for another successful season under coach Matt Rhule. Stars P.J. Walker and Jahad Thomas should carry the load offensively again in Philadelphia, but the defense has a few big names to replace. In the best Group of 5 conference in the country, Temple will have a tough road ahead of them. October will be for all the marbles in the AAC East as they face South Florida and Cincinnati back-to-back games.

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Previewing Temple’s Offense

P.J. Walker is entering his fourth season as the starting quarterback. His numbers were much better last year compared with 2014, when the line had issues protecting him. He already owns program records for completions (601), TD passes (52) and wins (18) and will soon also be first in attempts (he needs 72 more) and yards (121 needed).

Senior Jahad Thomas made first-team all-conference after rushing for 1,262 yards and 17 touchdowns. Still, he might get pushed by Ryquell Armstead, who was hampered by a foot injury in the second half of the season. Coach Matt Rhule might direct new offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas to run the ball even more by utilizing several guys, and he has the line to do it. Left tackle Dion Dawkins is a big-timer, and with the exception of left guard, there’s plenty of experience along the front.

Ventell Bryant is the only receiver out of last year’s top six who’s back. He came on strong at the end of 2015. Two others who are being counted on, Adonis Jennings and Keith Kirkwood, are transfers from Pittsburgh and Hawaii, respectively. Tight end Kip Patton, a basketball player in high school, is a red-zone threat.

Previewing Temple’s Defense

You don’t replace someone as decorated as Tyler Matakevich, an All-America linebacker who became the face of the program. But the Owls have three linebackers who’ve been starters in Avery Williams, Stephaun Marshall and Jarred Alwan. Williams and Marshall wear single-digit jersey numbers as two of the nine designated toughest players, as voted on by their teammates. Ditto corner Sean Chandler, who might be Temple’s best talent on this side of the ball.

Depth at safety could be a concern. Yet there appears to be no shortage of capable bodies up front, where seniors Praise Martin-Oguike, Haason Reddick and Averee Robinson should head the rotation. Athletic strong safety Delvon Randall was the only true freshman to play on the defense a year ago.

Previewing Temple’s Specialists

Austin Jones set the school record for field goals made (23-for-28) and points by a kicker (113). He actually had the same stats as Jake Elliott of Memphis, who was the unanimous all-conference selection. One-time walk-on Alex Starzyk improved his punting average by four yards, to 42.4, last season. He just needs to be more consistent. The Owls ran one kickoff back for a touchdown and also blocked a nation-leading five punts, one of which resulted in a score. They also blocked two placements, one of which was returned for two points.

Final Analysis

The Owls have gone from two wins to six to 10 in Rhule’s three seasons. Last year they beat Penn State for the first time since 1941. They were 7–0 and leading Notre Dame late before slumping to a 3–4 finish.

So there’s a lot still out there for them to accomplish, like a conference title and a bowl win, maybe even in a New Year’s bowl game. Which explains why their offseason theme was, appropriately enough, “Unfinished Business.”

Despite some key departures, particularly by three pro prospects on defense, plenty of difference-making pieces remain in place. But they have to find some new leadership, having lost 19 seniors as compared to five the previous year.

The schedule looks highly manageable, with most of their tougher AAC matchups being played in Philly. Which means they should be well positioned to at least make a strong defense of their division title. Another double-digit win total might not even be asking too much. Now all the Owls have to do is deal with some lofty expectations for a change. 


#94 East Carolina Pirates



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Scottie Montgomery, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tony Petersen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kenwick Thompson

Despite a run of three straight bowl appearances from 2012-14,  fired Ruffin McNeill at the end of last season. Former Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery takes over and inherits a Pirates teams with considerable experience. The offense (4 returning starters) will be a work in progress, so a return to the postseason could rely on the defense and a strong showing in play because of schedule that features NC State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech.

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Previewing East Carolina’s Offense for 2016

First-year coach Scottie Montgomery wants a better balance between running and passing. If he gets it, East Carolina could reverse last year’s disappointing 5–7 finish under Ruffin McNeill. As always, the Pirates seem to have a treasure chest of skilled receivers, and they’ve got a couple of great Scotts — Anthony and Derrell — in the backfield. Former Minnesota and Rutgers quarterback Philip Nelson is the apparent starter at quarterback following Kurt Benkert’s transfer. Benkert, who was slated to start in 2015 before a knee injury ended his season, transferred out of the program in late April. Nelson started 16 games for Minnesota in 2012-13. 

Likewise, Tennessee transfer Derrell Scott could be the powerful, inside-the-tackles runner Montgomery hopes to build a more physical ECU style around. Anthony Scott made a statement with a 50-yard scamper on the first play of Montgomery’s first ECU scrimmage in the spring. His speed and that of a mega-talented receiving corps should keep things more exciting in Greenville this fall as the Pirates hope to go to their fourth bowl in five seasons. All-conference Isaiah “Zay” Jones and his whopping 98 catches are back, as are two other regulars and some more guys anxious to get their hands on the pigskin, such as spring standout Terrell Green. 

All-conference guard J.T. Boyd and 6'8", 341-pound tackle Brandon Smith return, as does center Christian Matau, who makes everyone better. The Pirates rushed for 50-plus yards per game more when he started last year.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing East Carolina’s Defense for 2016

New defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson has tweaked the Pirates’ 3-4 and counts on a more aggressive approach. East Carolina can pull that off thanks to what may be the American Athletic Conference’s best cornerback tandem in senior DaShaun Amos and sophomore Corey Seargent. The deep and experienced secondary also boasts returning safeties Terrell Richardson and Travon Simmons.

On the line, seniors Fred Presley and Demetri McGill are proven commodities — Presley an athletic end and McGill a run-stopper of some note. The linebackers are capable, too, particularly inside with Jordan Williams and Joe Carter, who is returning after missing all of last year with a knee injury. It will also be hard to keep Ray Tillman on the bench. Outside, Joe Allely is a returning starter on the weak side, and 6'5" Yiannis Bowden looked like the next big thing all spring after moving over to the strong side.


Previewing East Carolina’s Specialists for 2016

Davis Plowman hit 10-of-12 field goal attempts, with a career-long 45-yarder. Worth Gregory was fifth in the conference with his 43.0-yard punting average. Quay Johnson was fourth in the league with a 9.0 average on punt returns and 10th at 20.1 on kickoff returns. Wide receivers Trevon Brown and Davon Grayson will also work in the return game. Montgomery isn’t afraid to use more starters on special teams, either. In fact, count on it.

Final Analysis 
The Pirates have been to eight bowls in the last 10 years, and Montgomery inherits a program with 75 percent of its lettermen returning. Graduation left some holes, but there’s talent on the roster and a new system in place that stresses fundamentals and physicality. There are veterans up front on both sides of the ball to make the Pirates a more bruising bunch, and Montgomery & Co. saw progress in discipline, trying to reduce ECU’s 68.8 yards per game in penalties from a year ago. What everyone learned this spring was that despite that pass-happy offense Montgomery oversaw at Duke, the new coach wants a balanced attack in his first head coaching job. If Nelson proves capable, though, and with that crew of receivers, count on the footballs flying again at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.


#117 Tulane Green Wave



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Willie Fritz, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Ruse | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jack Curtis

Willie Fritz takes over at after leading Georgia Southern the past two seasons. The Green Wave will look to adopt Fritz' run-oriented offensive philosophy, especially given the overall lack of experience on that side of the ball. The defense returns seven starters, but that's from a unit that gave up more than 36 points per game last season.  

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Previewing Tulane’s Offense for 2016

First, the good news. Coach Willie Fritz fielded the nation’s No. 1 rushing team in both of his seasons at Georgia Southern, and he inherited a deep, talented group of running backs when he arrived at Tulane in December. Junior Dontrell Hilliard is capable of a 1,000-yard season if he gets enough carries. Big-play specialist Sherman Badie, the physical Lazedrick Thompson and Josh Rounds are capable of making an impact as well.

The question is what the Green Wave will do at every other position. Two-year starting quarterback Tanner Lee transferred to Nebraska because he did not think he would be a good fit for Fritz’ system, which would have required him to run often. Untested sophomore Glen Cuiellette competed with true freshman early enrollee Darius Bradwell in the spring, but both of them struggled mightily as passers.

Tulane is thin at wide receiver. Teddy Veal (48 receptions) transferred to Louisiana Tech and Devon Breaux (25) gave up football to concentrate on track and field. Sophomore Terren Encalade, converted tight end Trey Scott and former walk-on Larry Dace were the top targets in the spring.

The most important man on Fritz’ staff may be offensive line coach Alex Atkins. He needs to coax better play from a unit that was abysmal throughout former coach Curtis Johnson’s tenure. Atkins will rely heavily on guard Chris Taylor, a third-year starter who has been inconsistent, and center Junior Diaz, who became a starter late last year.

Previewing Tulane’s Defense for 2016 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The starting point is higher on defense, particularly up front, where Tulane held Navy’s triple-option attack to its lowest rushing total of 2015. Senior Tanzel Smart made 62 tackles with 15 for a loss — both astronomical totals for an interior lineman — on his way to first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors. Raw but talented end Ade Aruna learned on the job a year ago and should be much improved. Tackles Sean Wilson and Eldrick Washington give the Green Wave depth in the middle.

Senior linebacker Nico Marley, another first-team All-AAC selection, has 232 career tackles despite being listed generously at 5'10", 208 pounds. Fritz has embraced his unconventional style, saying Marley has a knack for making plays. The coaches also like the effort of senior Eric Thomas.

Pass defense was a trouble spot last year and could be again with the graduation of four-year starting safety Darion Monroe. Jarrod Franklin moved to safety from nickel back in the spring. Cornerback Parry Nickerson struggled as a sophomore after a tremendous redshirt freshman season (six interceptions, 12 passes defensed). The return of safety Leonard Davis from a yearlong suspension could help.


Previewing Tulane’s Specialists for 2016

The Green Wave could improve their win total just by eliminating the kicking debacles that have plagued them of late. Sophomore punter Zachary Block will look to improve his 37.9-yard average. Placekicker Andrew DiRocco bounced back from a rough freshman year to make 9-of-10 field goals, but his range is only about 40 yards. Improving the return game is a priority. Tulane ranked 115th in kickoff returns with a long of 36 and had no punt return of more than 15 yards.

Final Analysis 

Fritz has won right away everywhere he has coached but faces his biggest challenge. The defense has potential, but Tulane has no experience at quarterback, no proven production on the offensive line and a questionable receiving corps. Look for a ground-based approach that tries to take advantage of the talented running backs while the quarterbacks make plays with their feet rather than their arms. At least the non-conference schedule is favorable, with Wake Forest and Massachusetts replacing Duke and Georgia Tech.


#101 SMU Mustangs



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Chad Morris, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Craddock | DEF. COORDINATOR: Van Malone

The Chad Morris era at did not get off to the quick start many were hoping for. The Mustangs endured an eight-game losing streak and finished their 2015 campaign with just one more victory (2) than they had in '14. There's still plenty of reason for optimism, however, as SMU's offense in particular could take a big step forward this season with experienced playmakers returning.

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Previewing SMU’s Offense for 2016 

Chad Morris’ power spread depends on the running game to be successful. The Mustangs showed marked improvement last year with the addition of freshman backs Xavier Jones and Braeden West. That said, quarterback Matt Davis led the team in rushing again. Jones ran for 634 yards and 10 TDs, the most in school history by a freshman, and West provided 468 yards from scrimmage. 

But for SMU to resemble Morris’ old Clemson offenses, or at least compete with the top teams in the American Athletic Conference, the Mustangs are in dire need of stronger play up front. After all, what’s a power spread without power?

Davis is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback whose biggest weakness is trying to do too much. In his first season under Morris, he made smarter decisions, which resulted in a lower interception rate. 

The offense improved with 6'4" receiver Courtland Sutton providing the deep threat and highlight-reel catches. Sutton, who had 49 receptions for 862 yards and nine TDs in his first season, often drew double coverage. But the Mustangs couldn’t exploit the advantage, as no other wideout had more than 25 catches. 

To keep moving the chains and reduce the pressure on Davis, the Ponies need to convert short-yardage plays. The line was often overmatched and pushed back in those situations. With constant shuffling up front, pass protection was jeopardized and fourth-and-short was a gamble.

Consistency on the line is vital. Senior Chauncey Briggs should be better with a year of experience in the new system. 

Previewing SMU’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Lack of depth took its toll on the defense last year with injuries forcing many young players to be thrown in the fire. The secondary was so thin that seldom-used receivers Deion Sanders Jr. and Cedric Lancaster switched to cornerback for depth.

Morris says that four of the five incoming defensive linemen could play this fall. Twins Delontae and Michael Scott are among the young players who have flashed strong potential. Zelt Minor is running out of time to make the big impact expected of him. But there are plenty of openings up front with the departures of Zach Wood, Andrew McCleneghen, Cameron Smith and Robert Seals. Ends Justin Lawler and Jarvis Pruitt, along with nose tackle Mason Gentry, have the most experience.

The Mustangs have some strong young linebackers to replace departing starters Caleb Tuiasosopo and Jonathan Yenga. As a redshirt freshman, Kyran Mitchell worked his way into the starting lineup but suffered a season-ending injury in the eighth game, finishing with 40 tackles. And R.C. Cox took over the Star hybrid linebacker spot. 

Jordan Wyatt played both safety positions as a redshirt freshman last year, and William Jeanlys started at cornerback. A.J. Justice (safety) and Jesse Montgomery (cornerback) are expected to compete for starting positions. Horace Richardson has the most talent and experience at cornerback.

Previewing SMU’s Specialists for 2016 

Braeden West established himself as the key kickoff return man, averaging 23.5 yards with an 80-yard score. Expect speedy receiver James Proche to be added to the mix. He’s dangerous in the open field. Josh Williams could handle both punting and kicking duties.

Final Analysis 

SMU could be a force offensively with the potential to be among the top 25 units nationally if holes are filled up front. The young Mustangs played their best against their toughest opponents last year, staying with Baylor and TCU until the fourth quarter. But their confidence eroded en route to a 2–10 season. SMU could actually compete for a bowl game if the defense surpasses expectations, but that is one big “if” for a team that ranked 119th in total defense in 2015.


#100 UCF Knights



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Scott Frost, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Troy Walters | DEF. COORDINATOR: Erik Chinander

A winless season, including a loss to FCS member Furman, signaled the end of the George O' Leary era at UCF. Oregon offensive whiz Scott Frost takes over the reigns of a program that is just three seasons removed from winning the Fiesta Bowl and was a conference champion in 2014. Frost may be just what the Knights need to get back to the top of the , but it may take some time.

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Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2016

Change is in the air at UCF with the arrival of head coach Scott Frost, the former Oregon offensive coordinator who is bringing the Ducks’ prolific offense down to Florida. The days of George O’Leary’s pro-style, ball-control offense are over. Now it’s a fast-paced, no-huddle spread. Frost inherits a team that was winless last season, but he’s not devoid of talent with experienced players at virtually every offensive position. Injuries were a key reason for the struggles of 2015, not the least of them quarterback Justin Holman’s broken finger that limited him for much of the year.

Holman, a senior who helped lead the Knights to the 2014 conference title, appears to be adapting well to the new scheme, and he does have skilled athletes around him. Sophomore wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith is a star in the making after a rookie season in which he led the team in both receptions (52) and receiving yards (724). There’s promising youth at running back, notably sophomore Taj McGowan, plus a pair of incoming recruits who possess elite speed.

Tight ends could be a bigger focal point in the passing game, and there’s no shortage of experience there with Jordan Akins and Jordan Franks both making the transition from wide receiver.

The biggest question is whether the offensive line — an underperforming unit last year — can adapt to the new style.

Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The changes are nearly as dramatic on defense with UCF moving to a 3-4 scheme coordinated by Erik Chinander, who came with Frost from Oregon and also spent time with Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles. Chinander has experience to work with in the secondary, which should be the strength of the team as seniors could very well start at all four of the back-end positions. Safety Drico Johnson is a steady presence as the team’s leading returning tackler.

The front seven has more questions. Defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman is a solid player, having led the team in sacks last season, but he needs help, which is why defensive line was such a big focus in recruiting with three junior college additions. 

The 3-4 alignment may turn out to be a net positive for the existing talent base, since UCF does have a bit more depth at linebacker. Junior outside linebacker Chequan Burkett is the leader of the group and is an all-conference candidate.

Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2016

Through all the woes of last season, the kicking game was reliable, and everybody is back. Caleb Houston posted the second-best punting mark in school history with a 44.2-yard average, while kicker Matthew Wright was dependable in his freshman debut, making 13-of-17 field goals and every one of his extra-point attempts. Tristan Payton was explosive as a kick returner, but don’t be surprised if true freshman speedsters Adrian Killins, Jaquarius Bargnare and Jawon Hamilton also get a look there this fall.

Final Analysis

UCF averaged 9.4 victories from 2010-14, won the Fiesta Bowl in 2013 and was coming off back-to-back conference championships, which is why last year’s 0–12 season came as such a shock. Despite the record, there was always a sense UCF wasn’t a typical winless team; youth, injuries and coaching turmoil — O’Leary resigned midway through the season — all contributed to the downfall. Frost has tools at his disposal — an experienced quarterback in Holman capable of running his offense, some young playmakers in Smith and Payton and veterans on defense — but the question is how quickly he can put the pieces together to build the Knights back into a winner. Three to four wins would be a solid starting point, though bowl eligibility isn’t out of the question if a few breaks go their way.


#37 South Florida Bulls



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Willie Taggart, 14-23 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Darren Hiller, T.J. Weist | DEF. COORDINATOR: Raymond Woodie

After being one of the hottest teams in November last season, coach Willie Taggart lost to his alma mater (WKU) in the Miami Beach Bowl. But that should just be a blimp in the momentum that is in Tampa right now. Expectations are the highest they’ve been in recent memory for the Bulls, and with running back Marlon Mack and quarterback Quinton Flowers returning, it will be a must-watch fall for USF. 

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Previewing South Florida’s Offense

Junior running back Marlon Mack, who has 2,422 career rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons, is South Florida’s best player and a legitimate All-America candidate.

Mack was a huge reason why the Bulls went 8–5 in 2015, snapping a streak of four consecutive losing seasons. But junior quarterback Quinton Flowers was the biggest impetus for the turnaround. Flowers was dynamic in his first season as full-time starter, accumulating 3,287 total yards and 34 touchdowns, including 991 yards rushing. He was known for spectacular playmaking skill but defined by his ability to avoid mistakes. “Quinton gave us an identity,” coach Willie Taggart says. “We think he has some room to improve, but what he did was really impressive.”

And now he has a capable backup in sophomore Asiantii Woulard, a UCLA transfer who was a four-star recruit in high school.

Flowers has a proliferation of targets at wide receiver, including senior Rodney Adams, who set the school’s single-season receiving yards record, and junior Marquez Valdes-Scantling, a 6'3" transfer from NC State who caught everyone’s attention with startling plays during spring drills.

The offensive line was a major strength in 2015 and had the same lineup for all 13 games. But now it must be retooled with the replacement of three starters.

Previewing South Florida’s Defense

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Bulls received bad news in the offseason when defensive coordinator Tom Allen, architect of the 4-2-5 alignment that transformed the unit into an aggressive, ball-hawking strength, left for the same position at Indiana.

But Raymond Woodie, the linebackers coach who was promoted, says the Bulls will keep the 4-2-5 and hopefully build upon its success, which included lofty national rankings in tackles for a loss (13th), interceptions (14th) and turnovers gained (24th).

The defensive leaders are junior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who had 117 tackles, and senior weak-side linebacker Nigel Harris, a constant threat to make a splash play.

The secondary matured and features mix-and-match options such as junior cornerback Deatrick Nichols (a first-team all-conference performer), junior free safety Devin Abraham and sophomore cornerback Ronnie Hoggins.

Woodie says the defensive line will utilize its depth while keeping players fresh. Run-stuffing should be a strength with junior Deadrin Senat and sophomore Kevin Bronson leading the way at defensive tackle.

Previewing South Florida’s Specialists

Taggart wants even more consistency from placekicker Emilio Nadelman, who made nine straight attempts to finish the regular season. After three seasons with Mattias Ciabatti, an expert at placing punts inside the 20-yard line, the Bulls will turn to sophomore Brent Gordon. Adams, despite limited opportunities on kickoffs, and junior Tajee Fullwood, ultra-dependable on punts, are among the nation’s top return men.

Final Analysis

The Bulls made a huge leap last season, making their first bowl appearance since 2010. Now they return 14 starters, including exciting options at the skill positions, and that has prompted caution from Taggart. “We are a target,” the coach says. “People are going to circle us on their schedule, and we will get everyone’s best shot. But that’s what we want. We want to be a team that people look to and expect big things from. I have to keep reminding our guys, ‘We really haven’t done anything yet.’ ”

USF could very well become one of the nation’s most dangerous teams. But here’s the key: The Bulls were well-versed in handling adversity. Can they handle prosperity? If so, they have conference title potential.

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#15 Houston Cougars



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Tom Herman, 13-1 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Major Applewhite | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Orlando, Craig Naivar

After a 13-1 record and a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Florida State last season, Houston is aiming even higher in coach Tom Herman’s second year. The Cougars are projected to be college football’s top Group of 5 program once again in 2016, and a schedule that features games against Louisville and Oklahoma provide opportunities for marquee wins. Dynamic quarterback Greg Ward leads the way on offense, and two transfers – running back Duke Catalon and receiver Ra’Shaad Samples – bolster the skill positions. Five starters return on defense, but the secondary is a concern after the departure of three key performers. 

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Previewing Houston’s Offense 

Greg Ward Jr. had a breakout season, and Houston will need more of the same to repeat the success of coach Tom Herman’s rookie season. Ward joined Clemson’s Deshaun Watson as the nation’s only quarterbacks to throw for at least 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards last season. He could emerge as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, but Herman says his quarterback needs to improve his leadership in the huddle and overall command of the offense.

The unknown is in the backfield, where Houston must replace Kenneth Farrow, one of the most productive backs in school history. Duke Catalon, a transfer from the University of Texas who sat out last season, enters the fall atop the depth chart. He’s already received high praise from Herman, who puts Catalon behind only Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott among backs he’s coached for his combination of speed, power and physicality in the open field. Incoming freshman Mulbah Car is expected to see immediate playing time.

At wide receiver, the unexpected early departure of Demarcus Ayers to the NFL Draft leaves a sizable hole. Chance Allen (56 receptions for 752 yards) is the top returner, and Oklahoma State transfer Ra’Shaad Samples is the leading candidate to replace Ayers in the slot. A ballyhooed group of incoming receivers — led by Courtney Lark and Marquez Stevenson — will be counted on to make big contributions.

Na’Ty Rodgers, a top-10 junior college recruit, takes over at left tackle while Josh Jones and Alex Fontana, a late signee from New Mexico Military Institute, will battle for the right tackle job in fall camp. Houston received some bad news in April when Colton Freeman, who started 11 games at center and guard, was forced to retire due to a neck injury.

Previewing Houston’s Defense

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Losses were heavy in the offseason with the graduation of four defensive backs, including standout William Jackson III and leading tackler Elandon Roberts, who was considered the heart of the defense. Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart combined for 26 interceptions the past three seasons, and their leadership and production will be difficult to replace. Herman does believe this year’s group may be slightly more athletic. Brandon Wilson was the only player in the nation to score multiple TDs on offense, defense and special teams.

Outside linebacker Steven Taylor, who had 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss, returns for one more year. Tyus Bowser has shown flashes from his hybrid pass-rush position but needs to put together a full season.

The defensive line returns Cameron Malveaux, B.J. Singleton and Nick Thurman, but all eyes will be on Ed Oliver, a top-10 national recruit who picked Houston over LSU and Texas.

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was reportedly courted by Wisconsin in the offseason but received a pay raise to remain with the Cougars.

Previewing Houston’s Specialists

Wilson is a home run threat on kickoff returns after averaging 26.6 yards and scoring two TDs last season. Unless another option emerges in the fall, Herman plans to experiment with backup quarterback Kyle Postma at punter. Houston does not attempt many field goals, and that doesn’t figure to change. Ty Cummings takes over after connecting on 8-of-8 in a shared role last season.

Final Analysis 

What can Houston do for an encore after going 13–1 in Herman’s first season? We’ll know how good the Cougars are after their top-20 matchup against Oklahoma in the opener. A win would propel Houston into the early discussion for the College Football Playoff. Any chance hinges on the secondary coming together quickly and the offense not skipping a beat. 


(Credit to /Stephen Pinchback for the top photo of Tom Herman)

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