After a few years of instability and changes, the American Athletic Conference seems to be on solid footing entering the 2014 season. Although the league has been bumped from the power conference designation, the American Athletic Conference still boasts a handful of top-50 programs and teams like Cincinnati, Houston, East Carolina and UCF are each capable of winning their way into a spot in one of college football’s top bowl games in 2014.
The race to win the American Athletic Conference is a wide-open battle in 2014. Four teams – Cincinnati, UCF, East Carolina and Houston – all received consideration for the No. 1 spot in Athlon’s prediction meeting.
Cincinnati is Athlon’s favorite to win the league, as the Bearcats have won at least eight games in seven out of the last eight seasons. Tommy Tuberville made a few changes to his defensive staff in the offseason, and with seven starters back, this should be one of the American Athletic Conference’s top defenses. The offense is guided by Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel at quarterback, the skill positions are loaded with the return of running back Ralph David Abernathy IV and receiver Chris Moore. Three starters headline an offensive line that should be the best in the conference.
A huge reason to like Cincinnati as the preseason favorite is the schedule. The Bearcats host East Carolina and Houston and won’t have to play UCF this year.
The Knights will take a small step back without quarterback Blake Bortles, two all-conference linemen and running back Storm Johnson, but George O’Leary’s team is still loaded with enough talent to win the league. With eight starters back, expect UCF’s defense to improve in 2014. One potential pitfall: UCF went 7-1 in one-score games last season – a number not easy to repeat.
East Carolina makes the switch from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference and is picked No. 2 in the league behind Cincinnati. The Pirates are explosive on offense, but the defense returns only four starters. Quarterback Shane Carden threw for over 4,000 yards last season, and he will have the services of Justin Hardy (114 catches, 1,284 yards in 2013) at receiver. The Dec. 4 date at home against UCF could decide which team finishes higher in the conference standings.
Houston went 5-7 in Tony Levine’s debut in 2012, but the Cougars made a nice rebound to 8-5 and held their own against Louisville, UCF and Cincinnati. The departure of offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to TCU was a big loss, but new play-caller Travis Bush should provide an easy transition. Quarterback John O’Korn needs to play better against the league’s top teams, and he should have plenty of help from a deep receiving corps, including potential All-American Deontay Greenberry. The Cougars had a +25 turnover margin last season, which won’t be easy to repeat. However, there’s plenty of talent returning to expect a run at the conference title.
South Florida should be the most improved team in the American Athletic Conference in 2014. The Bulls are a team on the rise under the direction of Willie Taggart and inked the league’s No. 1 recruiting class. Sophomore quarterback Mike White showed promise in limited action last year, and South Florida as a team played better down the stretch. Look for the Bulls to take a step forward in 2014.
First-year coach Bob Diaco inherits a UConn team that won its final three games in 2013. The Huskies have a promising quarterback in Casey Cochran, and five starters return from a defense that should develop under Diaco’s watch. UConn has talent, but how much of a difference will the new coaching staff make in 2014? The biggest concern is an offensive line that returns only one starter.
SMU and Memphis are two teams with sleeper potential in 2014. The Mustangs need to replace quarterback Garrett Gilbert, but Neal Burcham and Matt Davis are intriguing options. And as usual under June Jones, there is talent at the skill positions. A brutal schedule awaits SMU, and there’s very little margin for error to get to a bowl.
Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014
American vs. ACC
Miami Beach Bowl:
American vs. BYU
American vs. SEC
Armed Forces Bowl:
American vs. Army/Big 12
American vs. ACC
Memphis is making steady progress under Justin Fuente, and the Tigers could surprise in 2014. Quarterback Paxton Lynch needs to take a step forward for Memphis to reach the postseason, but the defense will be among the best in the league.
Tulane is coming off a bowl appearance in Curtis Johnson’s second season, but the Green Wave will have trouble repeating last year’s seven wins. The schedule is tougher, and Tulane needs to find a quarterback, replace standout receiver Ryan Grant and nose guard tackle Chris Davenport. Johnson has the program on the right track, but Tulane may have to take a step back to take a step forward in 2015.
Temple and Tulsa are projected to be the No. 10 and No. 11 teams in the American Athletic Conference. However, both teams should be better than they were in 2013. The Owls have a rising star at quarterback in P.J. Walker and had several close losses last year. If Temple can address its defense and give Walker time to throw, the Owls should easily exceed the three-win projection.
Tulsa will have to rely on its defense to exceed last year’s three-win mark. The Golden Hurricane lost running back Trey Watts, and quarterback Dane Evans struggled last season.