The American Athletic Conference has seen its share of changes recently, but this league should have more stability entering 2015. There’s a solid 12-team lineup in place with the addition of Navy, and the American Athletic Conference will have a title game in December at the home site of the divisional champion with the best record in league contests.
The winner of this league also has a good chance to claim the Group of 5 spot among college football’s biggest games.
Cincinnati and Houston are Athlon’s picks to win the divisions and meet in the American Athletic Conference title game. Here are a few storylines to watch in 2015, followed by Athlon’s full predictions.
5 Key Questions That Will Shape the AAC in 2015
Behind explosive and productive offenses, Cincinnati and Memphis are two of the league’s top contenders in 2015. But winning the conference championship for both programs will largely depend on the development of defense. Cincinnati allowed 27.2 points per game last season and gave up 33 plays of 30 yards or more. Coach Tommy Tuberville handed play-calling duties to Steve Clinkscale, and the new coordinator inherits five returning starters and question marks about the front seven. At Memphis, coach Justin Fuente lost rising star Barry Odom at coordinator and only return only three starters from a unit that held opponents to just 19.5 points per game in 2014. The development of defenses at Memphis and Cincinnati will have a huge impact on the battle to win the American Athletic Conference.
2. New Coaches, Big Impact
The American Athletic Conference welcomes three new coaches in its West Division for 2015. While none of the three are proven as a head coach in the collegiate ranks, all three programs received high marks for their offseason hire. Tom Herman comes to Houston after coordinating Ohio State’s offense, and the Cougars are Athlon’s pick to win the West Division in 2015. Chad Morris takes over at SMU after a stint as Clemson’s offensive coordinator. The Mustangs went 1-11 last year and should show big improvement in Morris’ debut. Tulsa hired Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, and the Texas native’s background on offense should pay dividends for the Golden Hurricane in 2015.
3. East Carolina Reloads on Offense
The Pirates were one of the top storylines at the start of 2014, as quarterback Shane Carden guided the program to wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina. But East Carolina lost four out of its last six games, and coach Ruffin McNeill’s team enters 2015 with question marks on offense. Carden and record-setting receiver Justin Hardy have expired their eligibility, and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley now calls the plays at Oklahoma. Sophomore Kurt Benkert has the difficult task of replacing Carden, but the Pirates have a solid offensive line and deep receiving corps to ease his transition into the lineup. With a schedule featuring matchups against Florida, Virginia Tech, BYU and a crossover game against Navy, East Carolina will be challenged to match last year’s 8-5 mark.
4. Navy Joins the American Athletic Conference
Navy leaves the Independent ranks to join the American Athletic Conference in 2015. The Midshipmen should be one of the top contenders for the league crown this year, as quarterback Keenan Reynolds returns after accounting for 29 scores in 2014. Under coach Ken Niumatalolo’s direction, Navy has won at least eight games in six out of the last seven years. While the Midshipmen have to travel to Memphis and Houston, Niumatalolo’s team misses Cincinnati, UCF and Temple from the East in crossover play. Navy’s style of play will be a challenge for the rest of the league. The Midshipmen also have the element of surprise in their conference debut.
5. Changes at South Florida
Is 2015 a make-or-break year for Taggart at South Florida? Taggart was a good hire after guiding Western Kentucky to 14 victories in his final two seasons (2011-12). But in two years, the Bulls are just 6-18 under Taggart’s watch, and the third-year coach made a handful of changes this offseason in an effort to spark the program. South Florida has a new up-tempo, spread offense, as well as a new defensive play-caller in Tom Allen. Taggart has recruited well, but the pressure is building to produce a winner. Will the Bulls take a step forward? Or will the quarterback and offensive line concerns be too much to overcome?
American Athletic Conference 2015 Team Previews
Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2015 National College Football Preview Magazine, which features in-depth analysis and previews for all 128 teams, predictions, rankings and features to prepare for the upcoming year.
American Athletic Conference Predictions for 2015
American Athletic 2015 Superlatives and Season Predictions
Coach of the Year
Coach on Hot Seat
Top Coordinator Hire
Key Position to Watch
Hardest to Evaluate
Coach on the Rise
Ranking the American Athletic Coaches for 2015
1. Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati
2. Justin Fuente, Memphis
3. George O'Leary, UCF
4. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
5. Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina
Ranking the American Athletic Quarterbacks for 2015
1. Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
2. Keenan Reynolds, Navy
3. Paxton Lynch, Memphis
4. Greg Ward, Houston
5. Justin Holman, UCF
Ranking the American Athletic Running Backs for 2015
1. Marlon Mack, USF
2. Kenneth Farrow, Houston
3. William Stanback, UCF
4. Sherman Badie, Tulane
5. Mike Boone, Cincinnati
The American Athletic's Top 5 Players on the Rise for 2015
1. Greg Ward, QB, Houston
2. Tre'Quan Smith, WR, UCF
3. Matt Davis, QB, SMU
4. Parry Nickerson, CB, Tulane
5. Noel Thomas, WR, UConn
The Top 5 Non-Conference Games for 2015
1. Cincinnati at BYU - Oct. 17
2. Houston at Louisville - Sept. 12
3. Navy vs. Army (Philadelphia) - Dec. 12
4. Navy at Notre Dame - Oct. 10
5. Ole Miss at Memphis - Oct. 12
Key Coordinator Hires for 2015
1. Todd Orlando, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Houston
2. Bill Young, Defensive Coordinator, Tulsa
3. Tom Allen, Defensive Coordinator, USF
4. Brent Key, Offensive Coordinator, UCF
5. Van Malone, Defensive Coordinator, SMU
Top Incoming Freshmen (from 247Sports)
1. Tristan Payton, WR, UCF
2. Chad President, QB, Tulsa
3. Tyreik Gray, RB, Houston
4. T.J. Simmons, RB, Temple
5. Kareem Ali Jr., DB, Temple
6. Ross Trail, QB, Cincinnati
7. Rashard Causey, DB, UCF
8. James Proche, WR, SMU
9. Khalid McGee, DB, USF
10. Luke Hiers, OL, UCF