The American Athletic Conference has experienced several changes over the last few years. Of course, the biggest is a name change. The Big East is only a basketball conference, with the football schools rebranded under the American Athletic Conference label.
Outside of the name, the biggest change has been the programs in the conference. Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh departed the old Big East for the ACC, West Virginia left for the Big 12, and Rutgers is headed for the Big Ten.
UCF, Houston, Memphis, SMU, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa joined the American Athletic Conference from Conference USA, while Temple rejoined the league after a short stint in the MAC. Navy is set to join the conference in 2015.
Despite the upheaval and uncertainty surrounding the league in previous years, the conference seems to be on stable ground entering 2014. Sure, this league isn’t going to challenge the SEC, Pac-12 or ACC for overall strength. However, the American Athletic shouldn’t have to worry about any defections for the foreseeable future.
Turning the page to 2014, it’s anyone’s guess which team should start No. 1 in preseason polls. UCF lost quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson to the NFL, but the Knights still return a lot of talent next season. Cincinnati, East Carolina and Houston should also get consideration for the top spot.
Very Early American Athletic Conference Predictions for 2014
Key Returnees: RB Ralph David Abernathy IV, RB Hosey Williams, WR Shaq Washington, WR Chris Moore, WR Mekale McKay, LT Eric Lefeld, C Deyshawn Bond, RT Parker Ehinger, DE Silverberry Mouhon, DE Brad Harrah, LB Jeff Luc, LB Nick Temple, CB Howard Wilder, S Zach Edwards, S Adrian Witty
Key Losses: QB Brendon Kay, WR Anthony McClung, LG Austen Bujnoch, RG Sam Longo, DT Jordan Stepp, DT Adam Dempsey, LB Greg Blair, CB Deven Drane, S Arryn Chenault
Good luck picking the No. 1 team in the American Athletic Conference next season. Cincinnati, UCF, Houston and East Carolina can each make a strong case to be selected as the preseason favorite. It’s early, so this pick can change. However, let’s give a slight edge to the Bearcats at No. 1. Quarterback Brendon Kay must be replaced, but former top recruit Gunner Kiel is ready to step into the starting lineup. If Kiel is as good as advertised, Cincinnati’s offense will have few weaknesses. The defense is a concern for coach Tommy Tuberville, especially at defensive tackle where Jordan Stepp, Marques Aiken and Adam Dempsey depart. Linebacker Greg Blair and two other starters in the secondary will be missed. In 18 years as a head coach, Tuberville has just four losing seasons. That consistency, combined with Cincinnati’s recent success (seven years of at least eight wins since 2006), and it’s not unreasonable to expect the Bearcats to win the American Athletic title in 2014.
Key Returnees: RB William Stanback, WR Rannell Hall, WR J.J. Worton, WR Breshad Perriman, LT Torrian Wilson, C Joey Grant, DE Thomas Niles, DE Deion Green, LB Terrance Plummer, LB Justin McDonald, LB Troy Gray, CB Jacoby Glenn, CB Jordan Ozerities, SS Clayton Geathers, FS Brandon Alexander
Key Losses: QB Blake Bortles, RB Storm Johnson, WR Jeff Godfrey, LG Jordan McCray, RG Justin McCray, RT Chris Martin, DT E.J. Dunston, LB Sean Maag
Repeating as the American Athletic Conference champion will be a challenge for UCF. However, it’s certainly not impossible. Losing quarterback Blake Bortles to the NFL is a huge blow for the Knights. And Bortles isn’t the only one coach George O’Leary has to replace on offense. Running back Storm Johnson also decided to leave early for the NFL Draft, while three all-conference linemen expired their eligibility. UCF may not be as explosive on offense in 2014, but the defense returns nearly everyone and should help to pickup the slack. There’s plenty of talent for O’Leary to rebuild around. But how quickly can UCF find a quarterback?
3. East Carolina
Key Returnees: QB Shane Carden, WR Justin Hardy, WR Isaiah Jones, LT Ike Harris, C C.J. Struyk, RT Tre Robertson, DE Terrell Stanley, NT Chrishon Rose, LB Zeek Bigger, LB Brandon Williams, LB Montese Overton, LB Jeremy Grove, CB Josh Hawkins, CB Detric Allen
Key Losses: RB Vintavious Cooper, WR Lance Ray, WR Reese Wiggins, LG Jordan Davis, RG Will Simmons, DE Lee Pegues, LB Derrell Johnson, LB Kyle Tudor, CB Adonis Armstrong, S Damon Magazu, S Chip Thompson
Behind a prolific passing offense, the Pirates should be one of the frontrunners to win the American Athletic Conference in 2014. Quarterback Shane Carden has thrown 56 touchdowns over the last two years and returns top targets Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones in 2014. The biggest concern on offense will be a line that needs to replace first-team Conference USA lineman Will Simmons and left guard Jordan Davis. The defense has shown improvement under coach Ruffin McNeill, finishing sixth in Conference USA in total defense (368.8 ypg). This unit must replace three second-team All-Conference USA selections next year in end Lee Pegues, linebacker Derrell Johnson and safety Damon Magazu. Linebackers Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton and defensive end Terrell Stanley will lead the rebuilding effort on defense next season. Stepping into the American Athletic is a slight increase in competition, but McNeill has one of the top returning all-around teams in the conference in 2014.
Key Returnees: QB John O’Korn, QB Greg Ward, RB Kenneth Farrow, RB Ryan Jackson, WR Deontay Greenberry, WR Daniel Spencer, WR Markeith Ambles, C Bryce Redman, RT Rowdy Harper, DE Trevor Harris, DE Tyus Bowser, DE Eric Braswell, DT Joey Mbu, DT Tomme Mark, LB Efrem Oliphant, LB Derrick Mathews, LB Steven Taylor, CB William Jackson, S Trevon Stewart, S Adrian McDonald
Key Losses: WR Xavier Maxwell, LT De’Anthony Sims, LG Ty Cloud, RG Kevin Forsch, CB Zach McMillian, CB Thomas Bates, P Richie Leone
Tony Levine’s debut at Houston did not go so well (5-7), but the Cougars rebounded with an 8-5 mark in 2013. Both sides of the ball contributed to the three-game improvement in the win column. Freshman quarterback John O’Korn was outstanding in his first year on campus (28 TDs, 10 INTs), and receiver Deontay Greenberry could be an All-American in 2014. A big concern for offensive coordinator Travis Bush next season will be the offensive line, which has to replace three starters. The defense allowed 415.8 yards per game but forced a whopping 43 turnovers. Can the Cougars repeat that formula again next season?
Key Returnees: QB Nick Montana, QB Devin Powell, FB/RB Rob Kelley, WR Justyn Shackleford, WR Xavier Rush, LT Arturo Uzdavinis, LG Nathan Shienle, RT Sean Donnelly, DE Tyler Gilbert, DE Royce LaFrance, LB Nico Marley, LB Jarrod Franklin, CB Lorenzo Doss, S Darion Monroe, S Sam Scofield
Key Losses: RB Orleans Darkwa, WR Ryan Grant, C Zach Morgan, RG Rio Mares, DT Julius Warmsley, DT Chris Davenport, LB Zach Davis, LB Dominique Robertson, DB Derrick Strozier, CB Jordan Sullen, K Cairo Santos
Tulane was one of the biggest surprises in college football last season. The Green Wave went 2-10 in 2012, but improved their win total by five games in Curtis Johnson’s second year, finishing 7-6 with a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl. Tulane had some good luck on its side in 2013, as it was outgained by an average of 49.5 yards per game in conference play and was +11 in turnover margin. Developing the offense will be a priority for Johnson in spring practice. Devin Powell and Nick Montana will battle for the starting quarterback spot, but the offense will miss running back Orleans Darkwa and receiver Ryan Grant. The defense led C-USA in fewest yards allowed per play (4.8) and returns largely intact next year. Tackles Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport, along with defensive backs Derrick Strozier and Jordan Sullen will be missed. However, the secondary remains a strength with Lorenzo Doss returning at cornerback, while Royce LaFrance and Tyler Gilbert return at end. Sophomore Nico Marley leads the linebacking corps after recording 67 stops in 2013. Tulane is also set to open its new on-campus stadium next year, which should help the Green Wave have a better home-field environment.
Key Returnees: QB P.J. Walker, RB Kenneth Harper, RB Zaire Williams, WR Robby Anderson, C Kyle Friend, RT Zach Hooks, DE Matt Ioannidis, DT Hershey Walton, LB Tyler Matakevich, LB Nate D. Smith, LB Sharif Finch, CB Tavon Young, CB Anthony Robey, SS Jihaad Pretlow
Key Losses: WR Ryan Alderman, LT Cody Booth, LG Jeff Whittingham, LB Blaze Caponegro, CB Zamel Johnson, FS Abdul Smith
Matt Rhule’s first season resulted in a 2-10 mark, but there are a few reasons to be optimistic in 2014. The Owls lost each of their last four games by 10 points or less, including a three-point defeat to conference champion UCF. A key to the late-season surge was freshman quarterback P.J. Walker (20 TDs, 8 INTs). Walker’s development should be aided by a solid supporting cast next year, which includes two 500-yard rushers and favorite receiver Ryan Anderson (44 receptions). While the offense should have no trouble scoring points, the defense needs to make significant progress. Temple has ranked last in the conference in total defense in each of the last two years and allowed 6.4 yards per play in 2013. There’s not a ton of departing talent on defense, but this unit needs to show major progress before this team can make a bowl. Improvement should expected in the win column for Rhule’s second year.
7. South Florida
Key Returnees: QB Mike White, RB Willie Davis, WR Andre Davis, TE Sean Price, TE Mike McFarland, LT Darrell Williams, LG Brynjar Gudmundsson, C Austin Reiter, RT Quinterrius Eatmon, DT Elkino Watson,DT Todd Chandler, LB Reshard Cliett, LB Nigel Harris, CB Johnny Ward, CB Kenneth Durden, S Nate Godwin, K Marvin Kloss
Key Losses: RB Marcus Shaw, DE Aaron Lynch, DE Tevin Mims, DT Luke Sager, LB DeDe Lattimore, CB Fidel Montgomery, S Mark Joyce
If history is an indication of what’s to come in Willie Taggart’s second year, the Bulls could be one of the most-improved teams in the American Athletic Conference. At Western Kentucky, Taggart went 2-10 in his first season and rebounded to 7-5 the following year. Sophomore quarterback Mike White and receiver Andre Davis are the biggest reasons for optimism on offense for Taggart. The defense ranked No. 3 in the American Athletic Conference in fewest yards allowed per game. However, generating a pass rush and stopping the run were problems, and both areas are a concern with the departure of end Aaron Lynch and standout linebacker DeDe Lattimore. Taggart is bringing in the conference’s top recruiting class, which should help to fill some of the needs on this roster.
Key Returnees: QB Neal Burcham, RB Traylon Shead, RB Prescott Line, WR Der’rikk Thompson, WR Darius Joseph, LT Chauncey Briggs, C Taylor Lasecki, RG Ben Hughes, RT Kris Weeks, DE Zach Wood, DE Beau Barnes, DE Zelt Minor, LB Stephon Sanders, LB Jonathan Yenga, S Hayden Greenbauer, S Shakiel Randolph
Key Losses: QB Garrett Gilbert, WR Jeremy Johnson, WR Keenan Holman, LG Ben Gottschalk, LB Randall Joyner, LB Kevin Pope, CB Kenneth Acker, CB Chris Parks, SS Jay Scott
For the first time since 2008, SMU missed out on a bowl last year. For June Jones to get the Mustangs back to the postseason, he needs to find a replacement for quarterback Garrett Gilbert. Neal Burcham served as Gilbert’s backup in 2013, but Connor Preston, Kolney Cassel or an incoming freshman could push for time. Regardless of who wins the starting job, the quarterback will be surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Running back Traylon Shead needs to stay healthy, but Der’rikk Thompson and Darius Joseph will be one of the American Athletic Conference’s top duos at receiver. The Mustangs allowed 33.3 points a game last year and must replace standouts Randall Joyner (LB) and Kenneth Acker (CB). If Jones can develop a quarterback, SMU should have a good shot to return to the postseason in 2014.
Key Returnees: QB Paxton Lynch, RB Brandon Hayes, RB Doroland Dorceus, WR Joe Craig, WR Sam Craft, WR Tevin Jones, WR Keiwone Malone, LT Taylor Fallin, RG Al Bond, RT Nykiren Wellington, DE Martin Ifedi, DE Ricky Hunter, DE/LB Jackson Dillon, NT Terry Redden, LB Charles Harris, LB Tank Jakes, LB Ryan Coleman, CB Andrew Gaines, CB Bobby McCain, CB Bakari Hollier, SS Reggis Ball
Key Losses: OG/C Chris Schuetz, LB Anthony Brown, FS Lonnie Ballentine, SS Anthony Watson, P Tom Hornsey
Despite winning just seven games through his first two years at Memphis, Justin Fuente has this program trending in the right direction. The Tigers won only one conference game (USF) but lost to Louisville and UCF by a touchdown. In order for Memphis to exceed its 2013 win total, it needs to find some answers on offense (311.5 ypg). Quarterback Paxton Lynch had his share of ups and downs in his first year as the starter and should be better with another offseason to work with Fuente in 2014. The rushing attack received a boost when running back Brandon Hayes was granted an extra year of eligibility for 2014. Finding a new go-to back will be a priority for Fuente, but the receiving corps and offensive line should be two potential strengths for the offense. Memphis allowed only 24.6 points a game in 2013. Most of the core returns next year, including standout end Martin Ifedi. If Lynch takes a big step in his development, the Tigers have the talent on defense to approach five wins next season.
Key Returnees: QB Casey Cochran, QB Tim Boyle, RB Lyle McCombs, WR Geremy Davis, WR Deshon Foxx, WR Shakim Phillips, C Alex Mateas, DE Angelo Pruitt, DT Julian Campenni, LB Jefferson Ashiru, CB Byron Jones, S Obi Melifonwu, S Ty-Meer Brown
Key Losses: LT Jimmy Bennett, OG Steve Greene, OG Tyler Bullock, DE Jesse Joseph, DE Tim Willman, DT Shamar Stephen, LB Yawin Smallwood, CB Taylor Mack
UConn started 2013 0-9 but found momentum late in the year. Behind interim coach T.J. Weist, the Huskies won their final three games, including a 45-10 victory over Memphis in the season finale. New coach Bob Diaco was a solid hire and brings much-needed energy into the program. But UConn has a few holes on that roster that will take some time to fix through recruiting. Sophomore quarterbacks Casey Cochran and Tim Boyle are promising and will battle for the starting spot in spring practice. The offensive line was porous (41 sacks) and three starters depart. Considering the lack of success by the line, losing three starters isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Due to the struggles in the win column over the last few years, the defense has been overlooked. UConn ranked sixth in the conference in yards allowed last season, but this unit ranked No. 1 in the Big East in 2012. Diaco’s specialty is on defense, and he will have his work cut out for him in the spring, as linebacker Yawin Smallwood and tackle Shamar Stephen are big losses.
Key Returnees: QB Dane Evans, WR Keevan Lucas, WR Thomas Roberson, WR Keyarris Garrett, LT Garrett Stafford, LG Jake Alexander, C Dylan Foxworth, DE Brentom Todd, DE Derrick Alexander, DT Derrick Luetjen, LB Mitchell Osborne, LB Donnell Hawkins, Bandit Michael Mudoh, CB Darnell Walker Jr., FS Will Barrow
Key Losses: QB Cody Green, RB Trey Watts, RB Ja’Terian Douglas, WR Jordan James, RG Gabe Moyer, RT Stetson Burnett, LB Shawn Jackson
After winning 29 games from 2010-12, the Golden Hurricane experienced their worst season in 2013 since a 1-11 mark in 2002. Problems on both sides of the ball contributed to the regression for Tulsa, starting on offense with quarterbacks Cody Green and Dane Evans. Green missed time due to injury, but he completed only 55.5 percent of his throws and tossed eight picks when he was on the field. Evans wasn’t much better, completing only 43.1 percent of his throws and tossing 10 picks to four touchdowns. In order for Tulsa to get back to a bowl, Evans, Joseph Calcagni or Ryan Rubley has to settle the quarterback spot. And making matters even tougher for the offense is the departure of running back Trey Watts (171.4 all-purpose yards per game). The Golden Hurricane ranked 11th in Conference USA in total defense and allowed 33.9 points per game. While the final tally on defense wasn’t pretty, nearly everyone from the two-deep returns for 2014. Moving to the American Athletic Conference means a tougher schedule is on tap, and non-conference games against Colorado State, FAU and Oklahoma won’t leave much room for error. How high Tulsa can climb in the rankings largely depends on whether or not this team can find a quarterback.