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American Athletic Conference 2016 Football Predictions

Complete preview of the American Athletic Conference for 2016.

The American Athletic Conference was college football’s top Group of 5 league in 2015 and retains that spot once again in 2016. Eight teams from this conference earned bowl eligibility last season and a similar total should be expected this fall. Additionally, the bottom of the league should improve with new coaches at UCF (Scott Frost) and Tulane (Willie Fritz).

 

Houston capped a standout debut by coach Tom Herman with a 13-1 record and a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl last year. The Cougars begin 2016 right where they ended 2015 – at the top of the American Athletic Conference and the No. 1 team from the Group of 5 ranks. Quarterback Greg Ward leads a dynamic offense, while the defense owns the best front seven in the conference. Houston also opens 2016 with a marquee opponent (Oklahoma) at a neutral site (NRG Stadium). The matchup against the Sooners is a huge opportunity for the Cougars to make a statement in Week 1. Navy, Memphis and Tulsa should be bowl teams from the West Division, while improvement is expected at SMU in Chad Morris’ second year.

 

While Houston is a clear favorite in the West Division, the top of the East features a tight battle between USF and Temple. The Owls won the East last year, but the Bulls are Athlon’s pick to win the league crown in 2016. Additionally, there’s intrigue at Cincinnati with one of the AAC’s top offenses, while UConn is making steady improvement under coach Bob Diaco.  

 

Five Key Questions That Will Shape the AAC in 2016

 

1. Houston’s Playoff Hopes

Making the College Football Playoff as a team from the Group of 5 ranks won’t be easy. However, Houston enters 2016 with legitimate playoff hopes after a 13-1 record and an impressive win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl last year. Preseason polls don’t factor into the committee’s rankings, but it certainly doesn’t hurt Houston to be ranked anywhere in the 10-20 range this offseason, and the Cougars have two huge opportunities – Oklahoma and Louisville – to earn marquee wins. Even if Houston wins both of those games, an undefeated record is no guarantee. The Cougars play at Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis in conference play. Additionally, Tom Herman’s team has a few personnel concerns to address. The secondary loses three starters, including standout cornerback William Jackson III, and the offense has a few voids to fill at the skill positions. Transfer Duke Catalon should step into the starting role at running back, with Oklahoma State transfer Ra’Shaad Samples sliding into the receiving corps to replace Demarcus Ayers. Even with a few question marks to address, Houston will have a chance to win all 12 of its regular season games with Herman leading the way, along with another dynamic year out of quarterback Greg Ward.

 

Related: Ranking All 128 Teams for 2016

 

2. Temple vs. USF in the East Division

USF dominated Temple in the head-to-head matchup (44-23) last season, but the Bulls fell one game short of winning the East. Despite missing out on the division crown, USF showed marked improvement in coach Willie Taggart’s third season and the program is clearly trending up entering 2016. Even though Temple loses its share of key players – including standout linebacker Tyler Matakevich – the division race will be tight once again. USF has the division’s best overall collection of talent, along with two standouts returning on offense in quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack. The biggest question mark for Taggart has to be the rebuilding effort on both lines of scrimmage, and the schedule in conference play isn’t kind to the Bulls with road trips to Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis. The Owls suffered key losses at each level on defense, but coach Matt Rhule’s team is set on offense with the return of quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas. USF is Athlon’s pick to win the East Division, but not much separates the Bulls and Owls in the projected final standings for 2016.

 

3. Will Cincinnati Rebound After a Disappointing 2015 Season?

Cincinnati was widely considered the favorite in the East Division last preseason and arguably the top team in the league. However, the Bearcats slipped to 7-6 overall and recorded just a 4-4 mark in league play. The seven-win season snapped a streak of four consecutive years with at least nine wins. While the defense ranked near the bottom of league in points allowed and total defense, Cincinnati’s biggest problem in 2015 was its minus-19 turnover margin. Considering the Bearcats lost three league games by eight points or less, small improvement in the turnover department could result in a jump of at least two wins in 2016. The defense returns seven starters and should show some improvement this fall. However, Cincinnati’s hopes of winning the East rest with an offense that averaged 33.8 points a game in 2015 and returns two proven quarterbacks in Gunner Kiel and Hayden Moore.

 

Related: Ranking the American Athletic Conference Coaches for 2016

 

4. Navy, Tulsa and UConn…Three Sleepers to Watch?

South Florida, Temple and Houston are picked by most to be the top three teams in the American Athletic Conference for 2016. But what happens if any team out of that trio takes an unexpected step back? Keep an eye on three teams: Navy, Tulsa and UConn. The Midshipmen have to find a replacement for quarterback Keenan Reynolds, but coach Ken Niumatalolo’s team won’t suffer too much in the win column. Expect Navy to reload on offense behind new quarterback Tago Smith, while the defense could pick up some of the slack with six returning starters. Tulsa has a favorable crossover schedule against the East Division (East Carolina, UCF and Cincinnati) and returns six starters from one of the league’s top offenses. Quarterback Dane Evans headlines the Golden Hurricane attack for coach Philip Montgomery, and the return of Keevan Lucas from injury should alleviate the loss of Keyarris Garrett at receiver. However, for Tulsa to take a step forward in the West Division, the defense has to improve. The Golden Hurricane surrendered 39.8 points a game last year and gave up nearly 300 passing yards a game. UConn took a step forward in coach Bob Diaco’s second season, guiding the Huskies to a six wins and a bowl trip. Diaco’s team should be even better in 2016, as six starters return from a defense that led the AAC in fewest points allowed, while the offense returns nearly intact and can only improve after averaging only 17.2 points a game last season.

 

Follow the Athlon Sports' college football team on Twitter: @AthlonSports@JasmineLWatkins@AthlonSteven, AthlonMarkR@AthlonMitch@BradenGall@DavidFox615@RichMcVey

 

5. How the New Coaches Perform?

The American Athletic Conference already had a solid collection of head coaches in place, but this group got deeper over the offseason with the hires of Scott Frost (UCF), Mike Norvell (Memphis), Scottie Montgomery (East Carolina) and Willie Fritz (Tulane). Fritz is one of the top overall hires for the 2016 cycle and provides a boost for a program that has only five winning seasons since 1988. Frost comes to UCF after seven years at Oregon, including the last three as the program’s offensive coordinator. The Knights have more talent in the program than last season’s 0-12 record would suggest, and Frost’s up-tempo, no-huddle attack on offense should utilize more of UCF’s skill talent and help quarterback Justin Holman regain his 2014 form. Justin Fuente guided Memphis to 19 wins from 2014-15 and brought significant improvement to a program that was among the nation’s worst under Larry Porter. Fuente set the bar high, but the Tigers won’t slip too far under Norvell. Finding a replacement for quarterback Paxton Lynch is priority No. 1 for Norvell, but there’s enough talent to push for another winning mark in 2016. Montgomery has learned from one of the best in Duke’s David Cutcliffe and inherits a team that just missed on a bowl appearance in 2015 with four losses by seven points or less. The Pirates need to find stability at quarterback, but Montgomery has a deep group of skill players at his disposal and six returning starters on defense. All four coaches could have some tough moments in year one, but the future looks bright for Montgomery, Norvell, Fritz and Frost.

 

American Athletic Conference 2016 Team Previews
East Division
 

National

Rank:

54 77 94 37 52 100
West Division
 

National

Rank:

15 83 67 101 117 84

Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2016 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 2016

         
East Division
Rank Team   Projected AAC Record Projected Overall Record
1

South Florida

(No. 37)

6-2 9-4
Read the full, in-depth preview of South Florida for 2016.
2

Temple

(No. 52)

5-3 8-4
Read the full, in-depth preview of Temple for 2016.
3

Cincinnati

(No. 54)

5-3 8-4
Read the full, in-depth preview of Cincinnati for 2016.
4

UConn

(No. 77)

4-4 6-6
Read the full, in-depth preview of UConn for 2016.
5

East Carolina

(No. 94)

3-5 4-8
Read the full, in-depth preview of East Carolina for 2016.
6

UCF

(No. 100)

1-7 3-9
Read the full, in-depth preview of UCF for 2016.
         
West Division
Rank Team   Projected AAC Record Projected Overall Record
1

Houston

(No. 15)

8-0 11-2
Read the full, in-depth preview of Houston for 2016.
2

Navy

(No. 67)

6-2 8-4
Read the full, in-depth preview of Navy for 2016.
3

Memphis

(No. 83)

4-4 7-5
Read the full, in-depth preview of Memphis for 2016.
4

Tulsa

(No. 84)

4-4 7-5
Read the full, in-depth preview of Tulsa for 2016.
5

SMU

(No. 101)

2-6 4-8
Read the full, in-depth preview of SMU for 2016.
6

Tulane

(No. 117)

0-8 2-10
Read the full, in-depth preview of Tulane for 2016.
         
American Athletic Conference Championship
Houston over South Florida 

 

American Athletic 2016 Superlatives and Season Predictions
 

Steven

Lassan

Mitch

Light

Mark

Ross

David

Fox

Braden

Gall

  @AthlonSteven @AthlonMitch @AthlonMarkR @DavidFox615 @BradenGall
Offensive POY

Greg Ward

QB, Houston

Greg Ward

QB, Houston

Greg Ward

QB, Houston

Greg Ward

QB, Houston

Greg Ward

QB, Houston

Defensive POY

Jamar Summers

CB, UConn

Jamar Summers

CB, UConn

Steven Taylor

LB, Houston

Steven Taylor

LB, Houston

Jamar Summers

CB, UConn

Coach of the Year

Tom Herman

Houston

Tom Herman

Houston

Tom Herman

Houston

Tom Herman

Houston

Tom Herman

Houston

Top Freshman

Ed Oliver

DL, Houston

Ed Oliver

DL, Houston

Ed Oliver

DL, Houston

Ed Oliver

DL, Houston

Ed Oliver

DL, Houston

Top Newcomer

Duke Catalon

RB, Houston

Ra'Shaad Samples

WR, Houston

Duke Catalon

RB, Houston

Riley Ferguson

QB, Memphis

Riley Ferguson

QB, Memphis

Sleeper Team Cincinnati Tulsa Cincinnati Tulsa Temple
Top Coordinator Hire

Doug Ruse

OC, Tulane

Kenwick Thompson

DC, ECU

Zac Taylor

OC, Cincinnati

Tony Petersen

OC, ECU

Chris Ball

DC, Memphis

Key Position to Watch Houston DBs Houston DBs Houston DBs Houston DBs USF DL
Hardest to Evaluate Memphis Memphis Memphis Navy Memphis
Coach on the Rise

Willie Fritz

Tulane

Willie Fritz

Tulane

Willie Fritz

Tulane

Todd Orlando

DC, Houston

Willie Fritz

Tulane

Must-See Game

Houston vs.

Oklahoma

Houston vs. 

Oklahoma

Houston vs.

Oklahoma

Houston at

Cincinnati

Houston vs. 

Oklahoma

Breakout Player

Dontrell Hilliard

RB, Tulane

Duke Catalon

RB, Houston

Arkeel Newsome

RB, UConn

Duke Catalon

RB, Houston

E.J. Levenberry

LB, UConn

Comeback Player

Keevan Lucas

WR, Tulsa

Philip Nelson

QB, ECU

Justin Holman

QB, UCF

Justin Holman

QB, UCF

Keevan Lucas

WR, Tulsa

 

Ranking the American Athletic Conference's Coaches for 2016

 

1. Tom Herman, Houston

2. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

3. Willie Fritz, Tulane

4. Willie Taggart, South Florida

5. Matt Rhule, Temple

 

Click here to view the full AAC Coach Rankings for 2016

 

Grading the American Athletic Conference's New Coach Hires

 

1. Willie Fritz, Tulane (A+)

2. Mike Norvell, Memphis (A)

3. Scott Frost, UCF (B+)

4. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina (B-)

 

Click here to read the full New Coach Grades and Rankings for 2016

 

Ranking the AAC's Top Five QBs for 2016

 

1. Greg Ward, Houston

2. Quinton Flowers, USF

3. Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati

4. Dane Evans, Tulsa

5. P.J. Walker, Temple

 

Five Players on the Rise for 2016

 

1. Duke Catalon, RB, Houston

2. Bruce Hector, DL, South Florida

3. Dontrell Hilliard, RB, Tulane

4. Yiannis Bowden, LB, East Carolina

5. Tago Smith, QB, Navy

 

American Athletic Conference's Top Five Non-Conference Games

 

1. Houston vs. Oklahoma (Houston, Sept. 3)

2. Louisville at Houston (Nov. 17)

3. Florida State at South Florida (Sept. 24)

4. Temple at Penn State (Sept. 17)

5. Navy vs. Army (Baltimore, Dec. 10)

 

Six Key Coordinator Hires for 2016

 

1. Doug Ruse, Offensive Coordinator, Tulane

2. Kenwick Thompson, Defensive Coordinator, East Carolina

3. Zac Taylor, Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati

4. Jack Curtis, Defensive Coordinator, Tulane

5. Glenn Thomas, Offensive Coordinator, Temple

6. Raymond Woodie, Defensive Coordinator, South Florida

 

Top Incoming Freshmen (from 247Sports)

 

1. Ed Oliver, DL, Houston

2. Karamo Dioubate, DL, Temple

3. Courtney Lark, WR, Houston

4. Darnell Salomon, WR, USF

5. Craig Watts, DB, USF

6. Dredrick Snelson, WR, UCF

7. D'Eriq King, QB, Houston

8. Aaron Dowdell, OL, UCF

9. Jordan Carmouche, LB, SMU

10. John Tate, DL, Memphis

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