American Athletic



#55 UCF Knights



American Athletic PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: George O'Leary, 72-56 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Charlie Taaffe | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Summers

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 55 UCF.

Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2014:

UCF brings back plenty of weapons on offense from a 12–1 Fiesta Bowl champion squad that averaged nearly 34.6 points per game. One major problem: The Knights will be without the director of that offense. Quarterback Blake Bortles opted to declare for the NFL Draft, leaving a major hole under center and only inexperienced options to replace him. Sophomore Justin Holman, Bortles’ primary backup last season, is the most likely candidate to step in to the starting role. His top challenger will be Boise State transfer Nick Patti, who was granted a waiver to play for the Knights immediately. Holman came out of the spring as the narrow leader over redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo and true freshman Tyler Harris, but Patti has one year of college experience and will push for the job.

With the question mark at quarterback, the biggest issue will be finding a way to get the ball into the hands of the Knights’ playmakers. UCF brings back five receivers, including team leaders Rannell Hall (57 receptions, 886 yards), J.J. Worton (47-721), Breshad Perriman (39-811) and Josh Reese. UAB transfer Jackie Williams adds another solid option out of the slot. Sophomore running back Will Stanback has the size, speed and natural instincts to be an NFL prospect, and he’ll be counted on to replace Storm Johnson as the Knights’ feature back after rushing for 443 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman.

UCF also must replace three starters on the offensive line and will rely on some untested options at tackle.

Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2014: 

The Knights’ inexperienced defense used smoke and mirrors to finish 17th in the country in scoring defense last season, allowing just 21.3 points per game. It will be a much stronger unit this season.

UCF returns eight starters and will add two major junior college recruits to the mix in defensive tackle Lance McDowdell and linebacker Errol Clarke. With Freshman All-American Jacoby Glenn back as the top cover corner and senior leader Terrance Plummer still patrolling the middle of the defense at Mike linebacker, UCF brings back its two top defenders.

The Knights are experienced on the back end with senior safeties Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander. Sophomore Shaquill Griffin is slotted as the nickel back but will be pushed by an influx of top-end defensive back recruits, including four-star Kyle Gibson and former Alabama commit Chris Williams.

UCF will be bigger, more experienced and more athletic than last season, when it smothered opponents and limited big plays. The Knights allowed 122.5 rushing yards per game, 16th-best in the nation. The biggest concern will be the pass rush; UCF had just 29 sacks last season. The Knights need ends Thomas Niles, Luke Adams and Deion Green to be more effective getting to the quarterback.

Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2014:

UCF returns the most consistent kicker it has had in recent seasons in senior Shawn Moffitt, who connected on 21-of-23 field goals last season and all 49 extra-point attempts. Punter Caleb Houston also is back after averaging 42.2 yards on 41 punts. The Knights could be more dynamic in the return game. Williams was a threat at UAB, averaging 9.6 yards on 29 punt returns with a touchdown. Worton has been an all-conference returner, and incoming freshman Mike Rogers could also factor.

Final Analysis 

UCF will have a tough task replicating its 2013 success without Bortles, but they have the talent in place to put together another strong season. The Knights will rely on a stingy defense to keep them in every game and a pro-style offense that takes few risks but has playmakers at running back and wide receiver. If UCF finds an answer at quarterback, it should once again be a strong contender in the American.


#50 East Carolina Pirates



American Athletic PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Ruffin McNeill, 29-22 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lincoln Riley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rick Smith

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 50 East Carolina.

Previewing East Carolina’s Offense for 2014:

It’s full speed ahead for the Pirates as they sail into the American Athletic Conference with what should be another offensive juggernaut. East Carolina was ranked second in Conference USA in total offense (468.2 ypg) and was eighth in the land with 40.2 points scored per game.

The 2013 Conference USA MVP (and long-shot 2014 Heisman hopeful), quarterback Shane Carden is back for his senior year, and he has already piled up a treasure chest of big numbers — 318.4 yards passing per game, a 70.5 completion percentage and 33 touchdowns,  and that was just last year. His favorite target, talented Justin Hardy, is back after setting ECU records with 114 catches and 1,284 yards, and he is the first Pirate ever with back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

Diminutive 5'8" senior Breon Allen was second on the team with 311 yards rushing, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. The little back will shoulder a bigger load this fall, with a lot of help from junior Chris Hairston.

The biggest concern is the offensive line. Big junior Tre Robertson, all 6'5", 310 pounds of him, is back at right tackle, and the Pirates hope to have promising Ike Harris on the left side after his shoulder completely heals from a February car accident. Redshirt freshman guard Larry Williams can also help.

Previewing East Carolina’s Defense for 2014:

The Pirates had a defensive renaissance under first-year coordinator Rick Smith, who presided over C-USA’s top run defense. Now Smith must replace eight starters in his 3-4 defense while he faces a more daunting schedule.

Chrishon Rose returns up front, although Rose is moving from nose tackle to end. Terrell Stanley, a potential all-conference end, missed spring as a result of the same car crash that sidelined Harris and will miss the 2014 season. Quick-footed nose tackle Terry Williams can be a force.

Keep an eye on athletic outside linebacker Montese Overton.The key, though, is inside linebacker Zeek Bigger, who was forced into the lineup by injuries and responded well. Already the signal-caller, Bigger will have a bigger role as a team leader alongside Brandon Williams in the middle.

Only boundary corner Detric Allen is back in the secondary, but there are some good pieces to rebuild around, including former walk-on Josh Hawkins, who had a spectacular offseason. Senior Lamar Ivey seems to have found a home at free safety, too.

Previewing East Carolina’s Specialists for 2014:

Hardy and his 11.2-yard punt return average are back to anchor some experienced specialty units. Warren Harvey slumped by his high standards, hitting just 15-of-25 field-goal attempts, but he was money inside of 30 yards (10-of-11) and hit 61 of his whopping 63 PAT attempts. Weight-room wonder Worth Gregory, a transfer from Alabama, looks like the heir apparent at punter.

Final Analysis

Coach Ruffin McNeill has a good thing going at his alma mater, where the Pirates have had the wind at their backs since he arrived, sailing to three bowl appearances in four years. They capped a meaty 10-win season with a 37–20 victory over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, and now they’re off to the American Athletic Conference — home to many of the Pirates’ old C-USA rivals.

East Carolina already got a big offseason win, hanging on to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who was pursued for the same job at some bigger programs. With the swashbuckling Carden at quarterback and the NFL-ready Hardy on the other end of his passes, the Pirates are primed for another big season. That is, if the defense rebounds from heavy losses and a rebuilding offensive line can come together to give Carden time.


#43 Cincinnati Bearcats



American Athletic PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Tommy Tuberville, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eddie Gran | DEF. COORDINATOR: Hank Hughes, Robert Prunty

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 43 Cincinnati.

Previewing Cincinnati's Offense for 2014:

Gunner Kiel was rated the nation’s No. 1 quarterback prospect while in high school, and the Notre Dame transfer is expected to be the Cincinnati starter this season.

Kiel sat out 2013 as a transfer and has three years of eligibility remaining. Scouts like Kiel’s big arm, precision and mobility. He shows a nice touch on the deep ball but needs to improve while throwing on the run. Kiel will be challenged in camp by junior college transfer Jarred Evans. Former starting quarterback Munchie Legaux returns for a fifth season after tearing knee ligaments in 2013, and anything he contributes would be a bonus.
UC returns its top three rushers in seniors Hosey Williams and Ralph David Abernathy IV and junior Tion Green. Abernathy is too small (5'7", 161) to be an every-down back, so he also worked at slot receiver in the spring.

Shaq Washington, a senior who had a team-high 78 receptions last season, headlines what should be a strong corps of wide receivers. Junior Chris Moore is among several returning wideouts, and highly regarded junior college transfer Casey Gladney enters the mix.

Left tackle Eric Lefeld was a unanimous first-team All-AAC choice last year. Center Deyshawn Bond and Parker Ehinger also are returning starters, with Ehinger moving from right tackle to right guard.

Previewing Cincinnati's Defense for 2014:

The Bearcats finished No. 9 nationally in total defense (315.6 ypg), but head coach Tommy Tuberville did not retain defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. Tuberville wanted to upgrade recruiting and hire coaches with more regional connections, so he tapped former Connecticut coordinator Hank Hughes to run the defense. Hughes will retain the 4-3 front that UC played last year.

Linebackers Nick Temple and Jeff Luc, defensive end Silverberry Mouhon (9.5 sacks), safety Zach Edwards and cornerback Howard Wilder are among key returnees. Mouhon became a real force last year. His brother, true freshman linebacker Kevin Mouhon, is the Bearcats’ highest-rated 2014 recruit.

Linebacker is again a strength, with Northwestern transfer Eric Wilson joining Temple and Luc in the starting lineup. Luc, who began his career at Florida State, shifts inside to middle linebacker.

Gone are defensive tackle Jordan Stepp, linebacker Greg Blair and cornerback Deven Drane, who each earned all-league honors in ’13.

Tuberville favors speed over size, and he says the Bearcats have more speed this year. UC compiled good defensive stats against relatively mild AAC opposition, but the speed issue was a problem in blowout losses to Illinois and North Carolina.

Previewing Cincinnati's Specialists for 2014:

Special teams were a disaster in 2013. Veteran placekicker Tony Miliano slumped to 7-for-17 on field goals after hitting 34-of-47 in his first two seasons. UC ranked No. 121 nationally in net punting (33.0), had a long kickoff return of only 38 yards and a long punt return of only 35 yards. The punt return team allowed a TD in the Belk Bowl. There is a new special teams coach, however, with former grad assistant Marc Nudelberg.

Final Analysis 

Much depends on the development of Kiel at quarterback. Kiel has the physical tools and has been a commanding presence at practice, but the test will be how he handles inevitable on-field adversity. UC started slowly last year (3–2) as the players adjusted to Tuberville and his staff. The coaches are entrenched now, but the lack of quarterback experience is an issue.

The non-league schedule includes trips to Ohio State and Miami (Fla.), but the Bearcats should contend for another upper-echelon finish in the AAC. With talent at the skill positions and improved speed on defense, a fourth consecutive bowl game seems reasonable.